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

1996 Pazz & Jop: Don’t Believe the Gripe

Let’s see now. Hem, haw. It was the worst year for music since, er…1995.

Guess that won’t do, will it? Well, how about — gripe, mumble — it was the worst year for guitar bands since… That’s a peg, I suppose. Since when, though? Make it 1990. It was in 1990, according to a widely cited Billboard article, that for the first time in the post-Beatle era not a single “rock” album hit No. 1, although due to the failure of vaginas to remind Billboard of Jimi’s axe, appropriately arranged efforts by Bonnie Raitt and Sinéad O’Connor failed to qualify. Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the groundbreaking rappers M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice enjoyed their long, silly No. 1 runs. And soon an unknown band from Seattle would usher in a new boom cycle for both the music business and electric guitars. Which brings us to the 1996 bust. Which was real. Right?

Right. The 1996 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll extends the 1995 trend in which the disruptive mix-and-match sampling techniques originally naturalized by hip hop made more waves than the guitar-powered aftershocks of grunge. And this aesthetic development had a commercial correlative. As the Times was so shocked to report, 1996 was indeed the year in which new rock product by such designated sure shots as R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Hootie & the Blowfish failed to attract consumers in the vast numbers the industry had projected, or wished, inspiring much millenarian blather in its retail sector. Of course, as anyone who read Billboard was aware, retail was showing signs of pie-eyed overexpansion and overdue shakeout even during the boom. Moreover, the headlined downturn wasn’t in revenues per se, which continued to rise slightly, but in the steep growth curve of recent years, an unnatural trajectory many attribute to recycled CD catalogue. And anyway, plenty of voters would argue that what’s bad for the music business is good for music. Still, I take the slumplet seriously, not just because I suspect that the diminished seed money it portends is a bad thing, but because after working all my life to get respect for popular music, I believe popularity is a good thing. Decades of Iron Butterflys, Osmonds, Journeys, and Celine Dions have yet to spoil my delight in the risk and mess it entails.

Pazz & Jop generally takes a healthy interest in sales, honoring hits of quality more often than not, and although Johnny Huston huffs that the widely acclaimed winner of our 23rd or 24th poll isn’t “the King of America,” merely “the 100th-highest-selling album artist of the year,” the going-on-platinum sales of Beck’s Odelay put it in the black even by today’s advance-bloated standards. Nevertheless, we believe we’re onto something that abides after profits have turned to fertilizer: truth and beauty, justice and pleasure, Art, the Mattering. Few of us are disquieted by the far scanter sales of the 1995 winner, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, or the drastically lower 1993 numbers of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and we’re kind of proud that Hole’s now-platinum Live Through This had barely reached gold when the ballots went out in 1994. So whether or not Polly Harvey’s music is ever taken up by the so-called mass audience, we believe it will be remembered as intensely as that of her superstar stablemates in U2, who are also admired by a good chunk of the electorate (and will still be after their designated sure shot, hopefully entitled Pop, fails to save Strawberries from Chapter 11 in 1997). And we know from experience that the poll is an excellent if hardly foolproof indicator of potential fan appeal.

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Yet if some sort of sea change toward soundscape feels like what’s happening, when I got all right-brained and examined the numbers, what they presaged for guitar bands began to seem pretty complicated. To start with, definition is tricky. We clearly can’t limit the concept to “alternative” when artists like Guns N’ Roses and Richard Thompson live off it. [File Under Prince] has to count even if Guy and Tony Toni Toné and the once seminal guitarist Curtis Mayfield do not; latter-day honky-tonkers like Dwight Yoakam and Jimmie Dale Gilmore qualify even if Rick Rubin–era Johnny Cash is as folk as Ani DiFranco and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Amy Rigby counts the way Bonnie Raitt does, and so does Iris DeMent, by just a hair this time; austere Gillian Welch does not. And folkie-with-a-sampler Beck, resented in some quarters for putting new juice in a white fanboy form, obviously presents a big problem. But if I’m wrong to rule that Odelay and Mellow Gold aren’t guitar-band albums, for reasons I’ll explain later, that has no effect on my conclusion, which is that Gibson and Fender needn’t downsize quite yet.

In this decade, the worst poll year for guitar bands was the aforementioned 1990, which was also a good one for rappers somewhat more durable than Hammer and Ice — the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 18th that year and 87th this, and Digital Underground, whose best-remembered contribution to the hip hop weal will probably end up Tupac Shakur, two crews now victimized as much by their audience’s appetite for fad and progress as by any dropoff in their own abilities. But ironically, as the saying goes, 1990’s 19 sets of axemen — sole women: the Kims Gordon and Deal on bass, Georgia Hubley on drums — were led by a triumphant Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Ragged Glory inspired our cover line: “Guitars: Live and Memorex.” Subsequently, guitar bands have charted a high of 27 finishers, in 1992, and a low of 23, in all three Pazz & Jops since 1994, which was also the year of Green Day and Soundgarden and a top five that went Hole-Pavement-R.E.M.-Nirvana-Young. And the numbers remain stable when you focus on futures. Narrowing the definitions to favor classic garage-band configurations, filtering out the varied likes of Rigby, the Mavericks, and the eternal Alanis Morissette, you find that seven previously uncharted guitar units made our top 40 in ’94, nine in ’95, and eight in ’96.

This bean-count bears out what ought to be obvious: not only won’t the dominant musical sound of the second half of the 20th century disappear overnight, but that magic twanger is likely to enjoy a maturity so active it will seem oppressive to the prophets of electronica, already impatient for a historical moment that’s sure to take a form they can’t predict. The gender barrier is permanently breached; for the nonce, it’s much higher in techno. And partly as a result, although the simple pressure of history (including technological change) is the biggest factor, the guitar band’s aural profile will continue to expand and evolve, just as the horn section’s did between Sousa and Ellington, and just as guitars themselves have since 1955, when Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and not so many others turned Chicago blues into pop, through the ’60s, when guitars actually took over, through metal and punk and more metal and grunge and, whatcha wanna bet, more metal after that. And through plenty of other stuff, too.

But a closer look at the beans reveals that the electronicats aren’t just whistling “Born Slippy.” For starters, there’s funny stuff going on with Pazz & Jop’s rookies. Anomalously in an era when baby bands hone their skills with indie farm teams before going national, most of 1995’s scored with debut albums, as the irrepressible biz-wise opportunists of Foo Fighters, Garbage, and Elastica concocted professional pop from the grunge aesthetic/moment and Uncle Tupelo bifurcated into down-to-earth Wilco and miasmic Son Volt. Maybe the opportunists are career artists, as they say over in A&R. But the careers in question seem pathologically dependent on catchy singles, a malady almost as fatal (you die of the cutes, humming uncontrollably, Day-Glo puke, it’s awful) as the dread Alternian texturitis (for those who desire a dignified death). And in 1996, with our singles chart sporting a fresh crop of alternanovelties, Eels and Primitive Radio Gods where once Filter and the Presidents of the U.S.A. stood, all but two of our album newcomers reversed the pattern of the previous years by squeezing in on the low end, 24-29-34-35-38. This suggests some combination of diminished critical interest and attenuated talent pool. Whatever you think of Robert Schneider’s weirdo brainchildren, you have to admit that Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control lack the ambitious sweep of the opportunists. Don’t you?

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So then. Perhaps it’s time to ac-cent-tchu-ate the progressive. Having debuted at No. 2 in 1995, the bummed-out mixmaster Tricky wasted no time placing a still bleaker follow-up and his Nearly God guest-victim project in the top 20. Easier on the soul and meatier for the right side of the brain was Endtroducing…DJ Shadow, U.S.-released mid-November by a young Californian so out of step Stateside that he had to go to London to get a rep, which finished all the way up at fourth after barely creasing premature competing polls. With Goldie polishing his Metalheadz and L. T. J Bukem shunted over to a P&J compilation chart I hope isn’t embryonic forever, these two artists represented the legible edge of soundscape in 1996. Tricky was felt and phantasmagoric, Shadow in control of the kind of macrostructures rarely noticed by the voters, who end up depending as much on songs as Alanis and Gwen — a pop predilection that is the secret of their oracular powers. Whether Tricky and Shadow have a growth curve in them remains to be determined. But simply by taking electronica to a recognizable formal conclusion, they gave lots of nonspecialists the touch of strange they craved while preparing them for further developments.

And after that there’s, well, there’s Stereolab seventh and Everything but the Girl 12th. These finishes thrilled my advisers, and I was gratified if hardly surprised by the forward motion they signified. I just wish I was convinced it wasn’t lateral motion. Early proponents of the alternaesthetic in which texture fills in for tune, EBTG have been around longer than, I don’t know, Screaming Trees, and Ben Watt’s drum ’n’ bass doesn’t enliven Tracy Thorn’s sad croon any more decisively than his protoloungecore used to. So it isn’t that history has caught up with them, it’s that they’ve finally found their retro-with-a-twist niche, and could they have cocktail onions with that? As for the blithe Marxists of Stereolab, I’m down with their newfound knack for splitting the difference between class war and Wrigley commercial, but weightwise it turns them into Fountains of Wayne with a chick singer and longer songs. Once again no future, except perhaps in its synthy wink at the triviality it embraces with such post-Fordist savoir-faire, a fun quality few of us would call — and though I hate to put it this way, what else can I say? — revolutionary. P.S.: Something similar goes for their culture-bending sisters in Cibo Matto, who signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood.

It’s not my (primary) purpose to make fun of an honorable record I don’t happen to care for and a likable one that wears its limitations on its insert. I’m just trying get a grip on the latest death-of-rock rumor, which I’ll call the fifth — 1959 (“the day the music died”), 1968 (nobody believes me now, but it was the talk of the town; Esquire assigned a story, then axed me when I came up with the wrong answer), 1977–79 (disco), 1990 (see above), and 1996. This is a conservative count, of course— every year, every month, artistic malcontents broadcast obituaries for whatever genre isn’t ringing their chimes or providing the wealth and fame they know to be their due. So at this late date I trust my skepticism is understandable. It could actually be, as is oft conjectured, that mindless pop pap — not the Cardigans, but poor Gwen Stefani — has already replaced dire pseudoalternative bellyaching in the hearts and minds of the 18–24s the biz dotes on. But that isn’t what we care about. If Nirvanamania was a fluke, well, who expected anything better after Kurt died? Having survived Journey and Michael Bolton (on the same label, yet never seen on the same stage at the same time!), we can certainly survive No Doubt, and even Celine Dion. The question is what music will get us through — if any.

As it happens, I haven’t been much of a “rock” guy myself of late. Looking over a decade’s worth of top 10s, I find that, up till this year, only in 1994, with grunge rampant and hip hop and Afropop losing savor, did more than half my faves qualify; usually the figure has been three or four. Although this year’s six-by-just-a-hair — Rigby, Fluffy, Sleater-Kinney, DeMent, Los Lobos, Nirvana — all got to me immediately, the basic guitar-band format has become so familiar that even the ones I end up enjoying (Girls Against Boys, Sebadoh, the glorious Imperial Teen) can take forever to show me their tricks. Since I disdain the marginal differentiations fanzines are created for, demanding nothing less than true sonic distinction — which often just means astutely produced tune-and-voice combos like Sebadoh’s or Fluffy’s, but sometimes inheres in interplay like Imperial Teen’s, and when the right lyric grabs me by the earlobe I come back for more — you’d think stuff would sink in faster. But for me as for most people, diminished expectations do turn into self-fulfilling prophecies over time. And it’s that formal satiety — often combined with the nervous compulsion to maturity that afflicts not-so-recent college grads as their liaisons turn into relationships and their jobs evolve willy-nilly into careers — that leaves smart young-adult rock and rollers hungry for new. Thing is, this is as true of artists as of fans. Sometimes they’re merely worried about their continued marketability. But they didn’t become musicians to get bored.

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With that in mind, ask yourself how many of P&J’s 23 rock acts seem comfortable with the accepted parameters of the form. Musicmeisters R.E.M. and tastemeister Joe Henry working New South neotraditionalism; guitarmeister Richard Thompson on his half-acoustic little double-CD and songmeisters Wilco claiming every parameter they can think of on theirs; reformed country phenom Steve Earle and unretiring grande dame Patti Smith; Sheryl Crow cognizing aural dissonance; Rigby and DeMent with bigger fish to fry; and grunge patriarchs Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, whose big-rock moves are the most conventional pieces of music in this year’s top 40. And while quite a few of these artists mean to break molds (with virtuosity, passion, whatever), the list of those who already have only starts with [File Under Prince]: Sleater-Kinney storming the castle like Nirvana before them; Sebadoh and Imperial Teen playing Marco Polo in the moat; Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control throwing poop on their toy songs; arena-ska Sublime and rap-metal Rage Against the Machine; Jon Spencer avant-travestying da blooze; popmeisters Pulp reigning over a United Kingdom in which dance beats come as naturally as wanking; and the magisterial old cross-culturalists of Los Lobos sampling rhythms and styles live as well as sounds and atmospheres DAT. Obviously these groupings array themselves on a continuum, not in polarity, with the daring of individual transgressions subject to dispute. But to me they make clear that as it generated the inevitable epigones and deracinations, Nirvanamania opened things up even further than outside forces would have opened them up anyway.

And then there are the artists for whom a received form is a shot in the arm, mother’s milk, life itself. Distinguishing between emergent culture, the shock-of-the-new malcontents crave, and residual culture, the old-fashioned staples they resent, Raymond Williams pointed out that the residual is often antihegemonic, affirming values the arbiters up top have cost-cut to pieces. This mechanism is regularly activated when the disenfranchised seize their expressive destiny, as in the P&J counterpart to all the women who took over Billboard’s charts in 1996: the three lesbians and one housewife who staged two of the most startling rushes in P&J history — third-place Sleater-Kinney and eighth-place Amy Rigby, who handicapped to come in around 20th and 35th on their tiny labels. Compared to Nirvana’s, Sleater-Kinney’s moldbreaking seems midcontinuum, their less disruptive chops knocking down everything in the music’s path on the strength of a resolve whose steadiness never diminishes its intensity; while all Rigby wanted from her producer was articulate settings for her naturalistic lyrics and tunes, which is all he provided. People who just don’t get these records attend to the instrumentation and say what’s the big deal. But rather than political correctness or some such canard, what propelled them so high was reliable usages imbued with new needs — an urge to grow up without blowing up, an urge to hold fast without getting stuck to the floor. And each of these was conveyed by the one musical element no inanimate device has yet generated: the human voice.

Voices are almost as personal in the reception as the production, and on both ends too many alt types so detest Michael Bolton that they’ve learned to do without what are narrowly designated strong ones. Voice is why Iris DeMent improved her 1994 showing on a robust album cynics found preachy, and because it’s so personal, it’s also why devotees love Cassandra Wilson’s midnight drift and I don’t. The poll honors a few great voices — [File Under Prince] again, and having wearied of poor Eddie Vedder, some would now add Mark Lanegan — plus, as always, a great many canny singers. But it’s our two dark horses who make me wonder whether pipes could be making a comeback with a constituency deeply suspicious of their penchant for corn. Corin Tucker’s power contralto (underpinned by Carrie Brownstein’s power screech) is why so many skeptics quickly get Sleater-Kinney, and as a guy who kept playing Rigby’s record well after he could sing along with the year’s sharpest lyrics, I can attest that it isn’t her words that carry the music, but how warmly they quaver around proper pitch.

What strikes me about Rigby and Sleater-Kinney is that they resist the trend in which four of the five top albums (counting Los Lobos’s Tchad Blake connection) are sample-dependent: the most purportedly direct musical-emotional expression up against self-consciously recombinant bricolage. I wish I wasn’t obliged to point out that such alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive: Shadow topped my list, Rigby ran a strong second. And the finest thing I can say about our sweeping winner is that he doesn’t think anything excludes anything. I don’t count Beck as guitar-band, even though he fronts one on stage and plays the appropriate instruments in the studio, for the simple reason that he wants out the way [File Under Prince] wants in. His legal ID says folkie, but he manifests no more and no less fealty to that niche than to alt-rock, hip hop, or avant-garde — or, let us not forget, biz.

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Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight — as critics’ polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the ’90s) hadn’t been equalled since the ’80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck’s written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold — not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness [of] the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don’t know what to make of them — I infer that, like myself, many of the winner’s more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning — it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother’s milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.

Yet because I respect Beck, enjoy Beck, and like Beck, I have little doubt that he’s humane enough to rectify this absence. I know the prophets among us think his samples are far too jokey and catch-as-catch-can, a rockist insult to the whole-universe soundfields they can hear with their body’s ear in the latest techno subsubgenre, and they’re onto something — hearing, seeing, feeling Spring Heel Jack spin in October was a trip I hope to repeat. But the predictive power of the utopian folderol rock and roll has been fending off since the ’60s is so risible by now that I refuse to waste space on the argument. Extreme states of consciousness are for extremists, and one reason popularity is such a good thing is all the mad visions and overpowering emotions ordinary music lovers get to put to ordinary use. I hope Tricky and Shadow’s growth curve leads us all the way up the mountain, where wizards unknown await. But most of those you read about in the funny papers are apprentices at best.

I began 1996 with dire predictions about the future of music, and I take exception to (or maybe just don’t get) much of this year’s top 40 — e.g., the pleasantly pleasureless Gillian Welch; the politely literary Joe Henry; the archly boho Cibo Matto; Maxwell expiring of Afrocentric texturitis in that midway spot on the poll reserved in past years for such dance/r&b as Lisa Stansfield, Seal, En Vogue, Tony Toni Toné, and (here’s a clue) D’Angelo; the Roots proving that good intentions aren’t enough even if you throw in a human beatbox; and, saints preserve us, future Sleater-Kinney tourmate Jon Spencer. But many of these are what I call Neithers rather than Duds, and it could have been a lot worse. The deadly Tortoise foundered in a 41–50 that went Lovett–Dr. Octagon–Reed-Chesnutt-Germano–Girls Against Boys-Tortoise-Metallica-Cardigans-Fluffy (!). Aimee Mann was 74th, Dirty Three 87th; there were only two votes for Grant Lee Buffalo. The winner in the sadly unenthusiastic singles balloting was at least a dance ditty as dumb and wondrous as “Macarena” itself. And with the inability of the biz to repackage its history in perpetuity causing as much financial distress as Pearl Jam’s refusal to make videos, at least the uncanonical surprise winner of our reissues ballot is a galactic titan. Thank heavens for Sun Ra — he could have been Esquivel.

I was encouraged too by the return of political complaint — Iris DeMent and Zach de la Rocha, Lauryn Hill and Corin Tucker — and note once again that the quality and effectiveness of the ideas matter less than the felt need to express them. This is Art, folks. One would like it to have social consequences and is certain that one way or another it will, but Art is where those consequences begin. That’s why, in the end, I find I don’t much care whether the biz booms or busts. If it booms we get some kind of ’60s-style mass mess, with crazies and communicators expanding and compromising their reinvested emotions and their glimpses of the next world; if it busts a narrower subculture addresses the same issues in much the same way Amerindie did in the ’80s. There’s worthy music down both forks — a futurism that isn’t suckered by folderol counterbalanced against an eagerness to reconstitute traditions it would be dumb to throw out with the bongwater. Not what I dream, not what you dream, but what is? For a holding action in what could have been a dismal time, it will definitely keep me hanging on.

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Top 10 Albums of 1996

1. Beck: Odelay (DGC)

2. Fugees: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (Chainsaw)

4. DJ Shadow: Endtroducing…DJ Shadow (Mo Wax/FFRR)

5. Los Lobos: Colossal Head (Warner Bros.)

6. Steve Earle: I Feel Alright (Warner Bros.)

7. Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra)

8. Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch)

9. Tricky: Pre-Millennium Tension (Island)

10. Pulp: Different Class (Island)

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Top 10 Singles of 1996

1. Quad City DJs: “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” (Atlantic/Big Beat)

2. (Tie) Beck: “Where It’s At” (DGC)
Smashing Pumpkins: “1979” (Elektra)

4. (Tie) Oasis: “Wonderwall” (Epic)
Pulp: “Common People” (Island)

6. Busta Rhymes: “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” (Elektra)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Setting Sun” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Beck: “Devils Haircut” (DGC)
Blackstreet: “No Diggity” (Interscope)
Primitive Radio Gods: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (Ergo/Columbia)

—From the February 25, 1997, 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

1992 Pazz & Jop: Between Rock and a Hard Place

Back in November, nobody knew who would win the 19th or 20th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. By January, everybody did — everybody but me. “It’s not good enough, Joe,” I protested earnestly to Crown Poobah Joe Levy, and of that I felt certain. The kvelling about Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… — the first winning album ever named after how long the band shopped for a contract, but not the first to begin with the numeral 3 — started the moment it was released last March. Pumped by a cover that looked as if Dwayne and Freddie had hustled a spinoff from A Different World, I home-taped it, confident that sooner or later one of those juicy titles — “Raining Revolution,” “Blues Happy,” “Dawn of the Dreads” — would grab my mind-ass continuum. But a boring thing happened on the way to the pleasure dome. First, Levy-the-editor found himself unable to land a review — one, two, three fine writers eagerly signed on, then came up dry. And having run the record through my head a dozen times, so did I. Not horrible by any means. Interesting. But too often the beats shambled and the raps meandered, and though I certainly enjoyed “People Everyday” ’s gangsta dis, the rhymes vagued out as well — or, worse still, preached. So I declared the album a Consumer Guide Dud forthwith.

P.S. — Then I moved my car. And one night in May, something relaxed and mysterious punctuated the new jack schwing thwocking out of my Blaupunkt. It was Arrested Development! On “urban” radio! “Tennessee,” great song, how did I miss it? Well, it was the 14th cut on a 57-minute album, and I don’t even know which “Tennessee” I heard — the commercial 12-inch featured four mixes, a subsequent promo three more. But right, I blew it — should have named “Tennessee” a Choice Cut and split. Goofy, deeply downcast, aglow with tragic hope, Pazz & Jop’s overwhelming number-one single is an adamantly spiritual but humbly unpreachy meditation on black pain that stands as a far more startling radio novelty than the number-three “Jump.” If I prefer “Jump,” that’s because popcraft is sacred and “Jump” is an act of God — and because “Tennessee” does meander, even if it seems miraculous as a sunshower after too much slick dance music or hardcore rap.

I’m trying to be nice here. It’s churlish to put down a progressively conceived popular and critical favorite that sounds good on the radio. And compared with Elvis Costello’s Imperial Boredom, the only other Pazz & Jop winner I wished had stood in bed, 3 Years… is a funfest. But those three aborted critical paeans stick in my mind, as do all the wan-to-belittling poll comments, not to mention the interested parties who professed themselves as delighted with its electoral prospects as they had been with Our President’s. “Do you ever listen to it?” I’d ask. Somewhat sheepishly, every one allowed as how he or she didn’t. And this unenthusiasm is reflected in our results. The support for 3 Years… just about duplicated that of our 1989 winner, which was not only a soft-edged rap debut, but a soft-edged rap debut beginning with the numeral 3: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising got 1050 points from 255 voters, 3 Years… 1050 from 253. De La Soul, however, attracted only 89 voters, Arrested Development 97, so that Arrested Development averaged only 10.8 points per supporter, the lowest ever for a winner; in recent years Nirvana got 12.7, Neil Young 12.3, De La Soul 11.8. Clearly, a lot of people voted for this album because they felt they should, not necessarily as a racial or genre token but simply to reward the band for taking on the thankless burden of rap reform. Tonya Pendleton of The Philadelphia Tribune sums up the feeling: “A welcome relief from the excesses of gangster rap — it’s moving, intelligent music that you can groove to.”

Ah yes, gangster rap. It was a terrible year for gangster rap, whatever that means anymore — street, hardcore, I don’t know. The defamation of Ice-T’s dead-eyed metal sendup Body Count (which finished a hard-earned 31st despite cop-out and antimusicality charges) was only one symptom of a dilemma wracking the rap community, whatever that means anymore — constituency, market, I don’t know. Rap is undergoing a crisis of authenticity that makes Philly teen dreams, Hollywood hippies, punk versus new wave, and who’s got the funk look like style wars. Hooked on sexism, blamed for the violence they prophesied, threatened musically by formal quandaries and brute property rights, the talking heads of black CNN found themselves between rock and a hard place. Over in the middle distance was the white crossover audience for four of the five 1992 rap albums to sell a million: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Wreckx-N-Effect, House of Pain, and triple-platinum Kris Kross. And in their face was the spiritual source of the music, the fast-changing core audience of fucked-over young black males, making an unreasonable demand it was hard for any rapper to gainsay: that rap be for them.

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Inside the rap world — where artists as diverse as EPMD, Black Sheep, Da Lench Mob, M.C. Brains, and Too Short went gold with barely a pop ripple or critical notice — there were two acceptable responses to this ghettocentric demand, both of which courted up-and-coming hards by rejecting the prevailing orthodoxy of jagged, densely explosive, Bomb Squad mixes. Progressives favored the jazzy swing of Gang Starr (Brooklyn, old jack, 43rd) and the Pharcyde (California, crazee, tied for 100th), while a new neotraditionalist faction stuck to the straight-up funk of 105th-place EPMD (who also produced 106th-place Redman and the trippier 78th-place Das EFX), with the so-called soul grooves of 49th-place Pete Rock & CL Smooth splitting the difference. These artists are also diverse — anyone who believes rap is monolithic has never listened to two decent albums back to back — but while none are gangstas, only Gang Starr and Rock & Smooth try any positive messages; the EPMD crew in particular is in de facto rebellion against the calls to self-improvement that trip so readily from the self-appointed race men of the old and new schools, and also against what rappers loosely refer to as “critics,” which means anyone who puts them down. What else can you expect when entertainers barely out of high school become point men in the struggle against a system of oppression that defeated Malcolm and Martin? But it also reminds me of the ’70s, when waves of metal bands led a young, angry, male, working-class audience into its own unreconstructed market niche.

As with metal, I understand in theory and can’t connect in practice — of the 10 albums just cited, only the Pharcyde’s gets me going for more than a cut or two. The same goes for the electorate, where our sizable little contingent of rap specialists — which would be larger if we’d managed to get out the vote in our precinct at the hip hop nationalist Source, where a ghettocentric response to the crisis has long been in full effect — gave the above-named most of what support they received. Raised on college radio, rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream has its own program — the alternative rap of Arrested Development, Basehead (10th place), and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (19th).

Arrested Development pursues this program consciously, aggressively. AD headman Speech has attacked the sexism of Cube, Quik, and N.W.A in “20th Century African,” a column he cowrites for his parents’ community newspaper in Milwaukee, and was happy to tell an interviewer: “There are a lot of people who look up to rappers, and I want people to be aware that sometimes what artists are saying isn’t always right.” Talking revolution soon-come rather than violence now — “So this government needs to be overthrown/Brothers wit their A.K.’s and their 9mms/Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/Save those rounds for a revolution” — Speech typifies the rarely acknowledged class divisions of a music that seems doomed to romanticize the street even when that’s where it comes from; he’s the kind of young progressive whose parents own a small newspaper. Yet unlike Basehead and the Disposable Heroes, Arrested Development at least squeezed into The Source’s five-page spread of 1993 “Noizemakers” (though they didn’t make any of the 45 EFX-and-Rock-dominated year-end top fives the mag printed). Their Afrocentric rhetoric, and off in the middle distance their multicultural pop reach, should keep them in some kind of contact with the hip hop community. But it would be easier to believe that Speech is strong enough to negotiate the tricky internal politics any grander reform scheme will require if his music packed more firepower.

As for Basehead and the Disposable Heroes — and my own alternative rappers of choice, Philadelphia’s street-leftist Goats (five mentions) — they’d better settle for college radio. And that’s sad — sad for the hip hop community, but also sad for rock critics. To an extent the almost complete absence of non-alternative rap in our top 40 is a statistical blip, but I’m struck nevertheless by the bare 40th-place finish of Ice Cube’s The Predator, which stormed Billboard’s pop charts at number one and went platinum in January. (I’ll take this opportunity to run down 41-50 — Ministry, Klaatu doing business as XTC, Gang Starr, Skeletons, Suzanne Vega, Sade, jazz champ Randy Weston, Lemonheads, Pete Rock, and pomo diva Annie Lennox — and mention that when I totted up the record-breaking pile of 54 late ballots for my own amusement, I didn’t find an Ice Cube in the bunch. In an expanded 307-voter poll, Cube comes in 49th, Gang Starr 55th, Pete Rock 56th. Tori Amos and the Roches also fall off, while Annie Lennox leapfrogs ecstatically to 32nd.) With nothing more epochal than Arrested Development on the horizon, it bodes ill that the Prophet Cube is losing his crit cred, that Ice-T blinked, that Public Enemy’s avowed nonalbum got only one mention, that the nearest thing to another Cypress Hill coming out of left field was AD itself. It means the critics — and the demanding if faddish consumers they don’t so much speak for as provide a clue to — are rejecting rap’s core audience in much the same way the core audience is rejecting them. And though I hate to say it, I can hear why.

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Rap is far too juicy to dry up and go away, and it contributed a respectable quota of albums to this year’s Dean’s List. So of course I recommend Eric B. and Yo Yo and FU-Schnickens and BDP, Kris Kross too. I just won’t claim that any of them was as momentous as PE and Ice-T and Cypress Hill in 1991 — or as the Goats and the Disposable Heroes in 1992. Whether because the sampler has lost its power to surprise, as the easily bored Ann Marlowe believes, or because the copyright wars have squelched creativity, as I’ll argue until there’s a revolution in capitalist concepts of intellectual property, or just because the wrong artists sat out the year, rap felt a little tired. Moreover, the canard that the alternative pretenders lacked beats is hip hop chauvinism of no relevance to the omniverous listener. For me the musical failure is Arrested Development’s rootsy post-Daisy Age, which softens established rap parameters, not the pulse of the Goats and the Disposables, who meld hip hop usages into a longer, steadier rock groove (not so different from the swing and straight-up funk strategies, after all), or the wiggy indeterminacy of the private joke on rap that is Michael Ivey’s Basehead. Supposedly, critics flock to alternative rap because they can relate to its corny “liberal” lyrics, and no doubt some do. Me, I don’t think the lyrics are as clichéd as they’re made out to be, and I go to these records for music first.

Like the listenability test I threw at AD, music-first is one of those criteria that seems so incontrovertibly self-evident it becomes necessary to point out that it’s not. Even the most enjoyable records don’t suit all occasions, difficult and painful ones can reward your labor tenfold when you’re motivated, and sometimes the keenest artistic pleasure is conceptual, which can mean anything from overall structure to formal frisson to the historical or political or ethical or just plain mental excitement of hearing a stranger choose the right moment to do the right thing — assume the right stance, forge the right synthesis, make the right statement. As you stop looking to music for the meaning of life you discover that music per se endures much better than moments do, and so, although the concept album per se is associated with old fartdom, it’s the excitable young who tend to overlook the messy details of what’s actually in the bytes that underlie somebody’s cool move. But that’s neither reason to deny their concepts nor proof that it’s impossible to share them from a distance.

For me, PJ Harvey’s Dry is a prime example. By yoking rock-not-pop late-’60s virtuosity to postpunk neoprimitivism and staking a strong-not-macho female claim on the rockist pose, it’s conceptually powerful two ways, and the music-lover in me would add that the sheer sound is arresting no matter what it means. Unfortunately, I see scant evidence of the profound poet or witchy prankster some also perceive in Polly Jean Harvey, which bothers me more because too often the sound isn’t shaped into fully realized songs (a pop demand, I know — sue me, I want it all). And while I admire her womanism and root for the uprising it spearheads, it’s not my dream come true. So I ended up with Dry midway down my A list. But I’m not surprised that it came in fourth, nor that only one voter was so smitten that he or she (he, actually; Dry’s 23 per cent female support was barely higher than women’s 17 per cent share of the electorate) gave it even 20 points. With something to give now and plenty of promise for later, this is the kind of record that always inspires broad-based critical favor. The cult item was Pavement’s second-place Slanted and Enchanted, which averaged almost 15 points per mention — and which to my ears not only packs the conceptual punch Joe Levy describes but stands up to heavy rotation.

That’s the idea, of course — concept that “works,” to use the subjective critical shorthand of artistic gatekeepers everywhere. To my ears, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… doesn’t work, and neither does a rap album I somehow forgot to mention, the Beastie Boys’ fifth-place Check Your Head. Great concept — arty posthardcore band turned world-class rappers address their whiteskin marginality by picking up their instruments again. Problem is, the execution is halfway there at best, and since they’re into New Orleans funk rather than fast garage-rock, it matters — the pleasure and meaning of that style isn’t an idea, it’s the physical reality of the cross-rhythms. But as I know because I’ve asked around, many fans so enjoy the Beasties’ “spirit of playing (and playing with) the grooves” that they listen to Check Your Head all the time. And whatever the limits of the listenability test, I guess I believe the voters also literally enjoy all the other failed concepts to march to the head of the class this year.

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Not counting Lindsey Buckingham (and believe me, we were tempted), these failures were all top-20: Los Lobos’s Kiko (sixth, third including the more middle-American late vote), Tom Waits’s Bone Machine (ninth and seventh), K. D. Lang’s Ingénue (12th), Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss (16th), and maybe Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town (18th, though raw critical loyalty certainly helped this ponderous, well-crafted disappointment, a shorter and by most accounts lighter piece of work than its more songful corelease Human Touch, which finished way down at 80). Tastes — and judgments — differ. Others would add or substitute R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (third) or Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew (13th), albums I say “work” despite their seriousness, or perhaps Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World (11th) — maybe even, such is progress, Sonic Youth’s Dirty (eighth). But with Arrested Development setting the tone, few would deny that 1992 was lousy with serious works of art, and not many would declare themselves improved in wisdom by all of them.

More than R.E.M. or Cherry (both high B plusses) or Williams or Sonic Youth (both in my top 10), all my designated failures progressed, took chances, and so forth with their music, the better to frame their words. But their words don’t justify the effort, or the notice. K. D. Lang casts herself as a cabaret singer and reminds us why cabaret singers dig Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim — hell, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. When Lou Reed writes about Andy Warhol, I listen; when he writes about death, I try to listen, really I do, but soon my thoughts turn to Michael Stipe, to Michael Hurley, to what’s in the fridge. Set on balancing their Hispanic identity and their American prerogatives at a higher level of expressive fluency, Los Lobos prove their command of folk/rock sonics with lovely settings like “Wake Up Dolores” and “Arizona Skies” and their subjection to folk-rock corn with portentous titles like “That Train Don’t Stop Here” and “Angels With Dirty Faces.” And on Bone Machine Waits is an ace arranger under the thumb of a four-flushing singer-songwriter. When he’s got the cards — “Goin’ Out West” ’s petty delusions, “All Stripped Down” ’s final judgment, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” ’s parting shot — the Weillian bite of the junkshop music cuts through his plug-ugly vocal shtick and his fondness for literary subjects like hangings and unsolved murders. But he’s always been a beatnik manqué who got away with shit because it impressed pop pygmies, and he always will be.

These are the kind of records rock critics are always accused of falling for — the kind of records Sting makes, you know? But not since 1987 (U2, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Robbie Robertson, and the indefatigable Waits, not to mention Tunnel of Love and Skylarking, which worked) have we put up with so much bigthink. Voters noticed the trend, and their explanations make sense: AIDS, the economy, George Herbert Walker Bush. But what I mostly see is people getting older — young adults fending off intimations of mortality by rejecting the evanescent jollies of stance and synthesis for something more substantial, more verbal, more middlebrow. And if AIDS and the economy obviously fed their sense of rampaging limits, I think it’s possible Nirvana had something to do with it too.

In the wake of Nevermind, critics braced themselves for an “alternative” onslaught of unknown dimensions, and if you like you can find one here. Hard-touring perennial also-rans Soul Asylum sold out and broke out; the Jayhawks relocated their Gram Parsons memorial to a major and soared. Play With Toys started out on Berkeley’s Emigré, the Disposable Heroes as San Francisco’s Beatnigs. Rykodisc’s three charting albums put it in a league with every major except WEA, and three archetypally impecunious indies also made their mark — TeenBeat with Sassy pinups Unrest, who actually would have risen to 30 if late ballots had counted; Bar/None with transplanted Kansan Freedy Johnston, who would have gone all the way to 19 if his Midwestern backers had mailed early; and Matador with shockeroo runner-up Pavement, whose disjointly tuneful, perversely unreadable noise/sound collage would have been our biggest indie album since X’s Wild Gift even if the stragglers had pushed it down to fourth where it belonged. On the other hand, Amerindie product disappeared from the singles chart and didn’t even dominate EPs. Seattle’s only album finisher got most of its points in 1991 and inspired the kind of opprobrium usually reserved for Madonna — Pearl Jam was the grunge band scoffers warned us about. And though 1992’s indie albums aren’t as folky as last year’s, Rykodisc gave us one old-timer, one dead person, and one 46-year-old new Dylan, while Freedy Johnston’s uncannily self-assured piece of singer-songwriter neotraditionalism achieves a, well, maturity that most of the conceptualizers on the chart would be lucky to imagine.

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Yeah yeah yeah — maturity, what a drag. But like the man said, it’s only castles burning. And now, in the wake of Lollapalooza and techno and accrued professional responsibility and Nirvana’s dream-come-true-and-then-what and the shift of boomer power from biz to gov (and, oh right, more birthdays than one could once conceive), rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream is wondering what’s next while various collegiate-on-down cults — fanzine separatists, ravers, trancers, riot grrrls, overly self-conscious pop postironists, maybe even alternative rappers, all sniping and crowing and splitting off and dropping out and climbing back in again — are cordoning off whatever turf their immediate elders will cede them and claiming they’re owed more. This dispute defines itself above all in terms of meaning it — of trying to say something even if it makes you middlebrow, because in the face of death and deprivation, irony don’t cut it — and Pavement sets up on its cusp. ’Tudewise they stand between Sonic Youth, clearly old-guard as of this verbally direct, musically achieved, inexplicably unexciting release, and Unrest, who get over on more stance and less music than any finisher in Pazz & Jop history. Since Unrest don’t lack IQ, they may follow in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and add music gradually, but for now the reaction against their smart-ass pomo irony — not theirs specifically, they’re not that important, but the whole structure of feeling that culminates inWayne’s World, Achtung Baby, and, er, Malcolm X Park — generates high-concept new sincerity as surely as any underemployment epidemic or killer virus.

We’ve seen this split before, of course — middlebrow concept versus pomo irony is a new one, but the poll often pits meaning against pleasure, which usually reduces to albums versus singles. So it’s fitting that another trend to spark comment was the concept album’s obverse, the novelty record — an analysis that reflects the healthy awareness that a good laugh can help you cope every bit as much a profound insight. Still, even though our singles chart featured two songs about butts and two more about jumping around, I’m not sure I buy the theory that 1992 was a big novelty year, especially if we honor Greil Marcus’s strict definition and insist that they be funny — “Jump” and “Jump Around” are delightful (especially “Jump”), “Rump Shaker” and “Baby Got Back” bodacious (especially “Rump Shaker”), but only the KLF’s delicious Tammy Wynette tribute/exploitation “Justified and Ancient” makes me guffaw. Anyway, in the broader sense rap is always a novelty on pop radio, and all that makes this year different is that out of its identity crisis it’s produced more Pazz & Jop chart singles than ever — six of the top seven and 10 of the top 19, including entries from Source faves Das EFX and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. What cheers me most about the singles chart is that that’s what it is. Of the 28 songs in our jam-packed top 25, only eight are from any of this year’s top 40 albums — and just as impressive in an era when MTV and such have replaced radio as a song machine, only three are also on our video list. Although this could also prove a blip, it’s the way things ought to be.

I wish they could be that way for me, but working with your ears is time-consuming. So shortly after discovering “Tennessee” on my Blaupunkt, I bought a newer car with a removable entertainment console, and while this upgrade enriched my music life, it rendered my singles experience more arbitrary than ever. As for albums, well, after you try fending mortality off with meaning for a while you discover why they invented irony, and also why they banned pleasure — men and women who deny themselves Madonna on what are at bottom niggling moral grounds bewilder me. I want it all — meaning and irony and pleasure, in the concept and in the bytes. So I pick and choose — Pavement not Unrest, Freedy Johnston not David Hildalgo, Eric B. not Pete Rock, Wayne’s World not Achtung Baby. Those who know my quiddities may snort at the jewel that crowns my list, although in fact I enjoyed less contemporary Afropop than at any time since the stuff found its U.S. market niche. Nevertheless, the one 1992 release I could always count on for wisdom and fun and pure musical gratification was South African poet-singer Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Resistance Is Defence (87th). Resistance Is Defence is alternative rap at its best. I wonder what Mbuli could do with a sampler.

Get on college radio? If we’re lucky. As you know, Pazz & Jop wasn’t the only place where rock critics’ votes counted this year. The U.S. has a new president, and I’m for him, albeit less passionately than some think meet. But though culture responds as much to image, mood, zeitgeist as to the economic realities not many claim Bill Clinton will change much, I’m not the kind of corny liberal (or convoluted radical) who’s persuaded the musical playing field is about to undergo drastic change. I’m not even certain that the year’s happiest development, an upsurge in self-determined women that I trust will continue until such time as the fascists win, is totally momentous — not with women generating almost half my top 10 but less than a tenth of what follows. Sometimes it’s salutory to make a point of music’s ultimate dependence on substructure, but with all the kvelling going on I feel more inclined this year to insist on its relative independence — even to agree that sometimes it leads the way. So I’ll just pray that rap gets through its identity crisis, that public housing is erected where those castles used to be, and that my mind and ass remain a continuum long enough for me to get my sustenance from whatever happens next — and what happens after that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1992

1. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… (Chrysalis)

2. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.)

4. PJ Harvey: Dry (Indigo)

5. Beastie Boys: Check Your Head (Capitol)

6. Los Lobos: Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros.)

7. Sugar: Copper Blue (Rykodisc)

8. Sonic Youth: Dirty (DGC)

9. Tom Waits: Bone Machine (Island)

10. Basehead: Play With Toys (Imago)

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Top 10 Singles of 1992

1. Arrested Development: “Tennessee” (Chrysalis)

2. House of Pain: “Jump Around” (Tommy Boy)

3. Kris Kross: “Jump” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

4. En Vogue: “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” (EastWest)

5. (Tie) Arrested Development: “People Everyday” (Chrysalis)
Cypress Hill: “How I Could Just Kill a Man”/”The Phuncky Feel One” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

7. Sir Mix-a-Lot: “Baby Got Back” (Def American)

8. U2: “One” (Island)

9. The KLF: “Justified and Ancient” (Arista)

10. Sophie B. Hawkins: “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” (Columbia)

—From the March 2, 1993, issue

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1987

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

2. Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (Columbia)

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

4. U2: The Joshua Tree (Island)

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

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

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

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

9. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen)

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1987

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

2. Suzanne Vega: “Luka” (A&M)

3. Los Lobos: “La Bamba” (Slash)

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

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

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

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

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

—From the March 1, 1988, issue

 

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

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1984 Pazz & Jop: The Rise of the Corporate Single

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1984

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

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

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

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

5. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (Capitol)

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

7. The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (Sire)

8. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (SST)

9. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor)

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1984

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

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

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

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

5. Van Halen: “Jump” (Warner Bros.)

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

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

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

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

— From the February 19, 1985, issue

 

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

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Los Lobos

Los Lobos don’t seem much like a New Year’s Eve type of band: These L.A. roots-rock veterans are all about long-haul quality, not short-burst excitement. That said, if it’s music (as opposed to a moment) you’re after tonight, you won’t do better than one of the band’s two City Winery gigs. Their most recent album, last year’s Tin Can Trust, sports some extra funk in its trunk.

Sat., Dec. 31, 7:30 & 11 p.m., 2011

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Los Lobos

Los Lobos recorded Ritchie Valens’s music for the 1987 movie La Bamba, performed at the White House for Obama at a “Fiesta Latina” earlier this year, and tonight they ring in 2010. Not bad for a group that once cheekily called themselves “just another band from East L.A.” The group’s latest album is a collection of Disney songs, so don’t expect much of those tonight (you’ll be lucky to get “Auld Lang Syne”). Nonetheless, from “Will the Wolf Survive?” to “La Pistola y Corazon,” Los Lobos have enough uplifting and emotional hits to ring in the New Year right.

Thu., Dec. 31, 11 p.m., 2009

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MexiCali Icons Take It Easy But Charm Ya All the Same

Will the wolves survive? And thrive? Their 10th studio album in a powerful 22-year run finds Los Lobos treading water, albeit with the artful grace of an aquatic ballet. Rather than charm and/or stun as they’ve done in their most winning and/or ingenious past moments, they use The Town and the City to lay back into their by-now-organic grooves, eventually, after enough spins, seducing the listener into the desert-heat ambience of their mature MexiCali-roots-meets-prog-rock style. But such seemingly signature songs as “The Road to Gila Bend” and “Two Dogs and a Bone” lack the zest and sparkle necessary to leave their mark, while “Free Up” needs to be a bit more wild and free to spark the irresistible sing’n’sway-along allure it strives for. Then again, the way “Little Things” approaches the stately grandeur of the Band—complete with David Hidalgo channeling the crackling vocal emotionality of Rick Danko—reminds you how both border-crossing bands remain peerless in the art of creating definitive American rock music.

Los Lobos play Irving Plaza Thursday, September 28 at 8 p.m., $30, irvingplaza.com.

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Sounds of Known Origin

Long before the Latin Playboys were imaginable, Los Lobos rode into the rock mainstream on a myth. They were “just another band from East L.A.,” the title of their self-released debut LP proclaimed in 1978, and five years later their coming-out EP on Slash boasted an equally definitive title: ” . . . And a Time To Dance.” Although L.A. had its Chicano punks— in Los Illegals, the Plugz, Alice Bag, even Black Flag— that wasn’t Los Lobos’ style of cred. They were pure ‘hood— a band for dancing, a Saturday-night band, a club band like it used to be.

They could be exciting live, too— it was a vibrant Irving Plaza gig, with postpunk aesthetes doggedly shaking their asses in the rear, that unlocked the EP’s uptempo r&b for me. But there was too much ethnic stereotyping in this myth. Though Los Lobos’ backgrounds were unimpeachably working-class (sons of a trucker, a mechanic, a punch-press operator, a department-store cashier), they weren’t just a simple little dance band from L.A. CA. They were aesthetes themselves. Finding that the FM rock they dug didn’t work in their teen groups, they hit upon the far from obvious idea of taking up the traditional instruments that sold cheaper than Strats in local pawnshops; by the late ’70s they were playing more colleges than clubs. Instead of eclectic, that gargantuan rock cliché, call this approach absorbent, curious, loving, with parallels in a Mexican folk culture that delights in the found commercial. But don’t be surprised when its inventors prove less than dedicated to making people dance, evolving into a slightly stolid rock band complete with graver songwriting, duller beats, and an earnest attempt to parlay “La Bamba” ‘s eternal Saturday night into an album of Mexican acoustica. Because David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and Louie Pérez can all sing, play, and write, they were never less than a good rock band. But by 1990’s The Neighborhood they were in a rut, and you could see it live. At the Bottom Line in 1992, where the highlight was Ritchie Valens’s “Let’s Go” rather than anything from Kiko, the drunk demanding encores to my left could have been cheering the Doors at the Fillmore East, Wishbone Ash at the Palladium, Tom Petty at the Beacon.

By Kiko, supposedly, Los Lobos were out of their rut. Although The Neighborhood was actually longer on guitarróns, bajo-sextos, and such, new producer Mitchell Froom, aided materially by wizard engineer Tchad Blake, transmuted the band’s folkier textures into a kind of amniotic sound-surf, sustaining their rock noises and rhythms in swells of modest accordion, rippling guitar arpeggio, whiskey-breathed brass, and articulated percussion. Yet though it’s true that Kiko never got as mawkish as The Neighborhood‘s disabled-child homily “Little John of God”— “He comes to see us from up above/To touch our hearts with special [get it?] love”— let’s just say that their Bottom Line show was all too well-suited to a band that devoted one title apiece to big fat train, rain, angel, and dream tropes. The true breakout came in 1994, midway through a four-year hiatus from touring, when the band— for two decades a unit comprising the three above-named plus bassist Conrad Lozano, with saxophonist Steve Berlin enlisting in 1983— spun off Hidalgo and Pérez’s Latin Playboys.

Los Lobos were pure ‘hood, all right. In fact, they enjoyed the barrio so much— Pérez once cut short a conversation with journalist John Morthland so he could get to a PTA meeting— that they jettisoned the club-band myth and got off the road. Like good aesthetes they devoted themselves instead to three soundtracks, a children’s record, some tribute tracks, and a two-CD retrospective that once again dubbed them, yeah sure, Just Another Band From East L.A. And along with Froom and Blake, Hidalgo and Pérez constructed an album that began where Kiko left off— an album that patterned sounds of unknown origin into syncopated trap and conga grooves, an album that flowed and reprised and modulated its guitar distortions and murky vocal mixes, an album that morphed song forms toward the overheard, an album that made atmosphere and structure the main things you listened for, an album that avoided grand themes and never rocked out. Those for whom Los Lobos were the great brown hope of straight rock, including resident bluesman Rosas, distrusted its impressionistic-surrealistic vagaries. But though Latin Playboys and its new five-years-later follow-up Dose are arty for sure, maybe even genteel in their calculatedly unkempt way, they demonstrate that now and then arty can be like its fraternal twin pretentious— a precondition of something genuinely difficult and beautiful.

In an era littered with nondescript soundscapes, both albums share less with Kiko (although not 1996’s Colossal Head) than with the few landmark scenic ones— Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow, even Arto Lindsay’s Mundo Civilizado. But unlike technophile Tricky, who quickly 86’d songs altogether, rock and rollers Hidalgo and Pérez couldn’t stay away. That’s why Dose seems more a collection of tracks than a living entity like Latin Playboys, but it’s also why both Playboys records are something new in the world. Making something of the preposterous musique concrète notion that sounds reflect the life of the people more truly than elitist notes, they evoke everyday street culture with bicycle bells, bird tweets, vrooms and honks and revs and rumbles, argument and byplay and revelry and casual chitchat, and, most important, the garbled layering that inflects all sounds as they are usually heard, including the musical sounds that still dominate the Playboys’ mix. But out of this quiet clamor, both natural outgrowth and blessed relief, emerge little melodies that seem deeply familiar even to a non-Chicano— cultural, tipico, imprinted in memory and collective subconscious. Crucially, the scale is small, the style of display plain. These guys have always favored buttoned-up flannel shirts over show suits, and for this project they keep their Spanish-romantic attraction to grand metaphors under control. Where the juxtapositions of rock en español are garish, these are subtle whether they’re sudden or graduated, subsumed in a whole that isn’t any more seamless than an old pair of pants, or any more motley either— as complex and convincing a representation of the folk music gestalt as Harry Smith’s.

With its Hidalgo-Pérez train song and its Rosas rain song, its tropical-style salsa and its Santana-style jam, Colossal Head had a comparable sound and feel while remaining a Los Lobos album. Though Lobos’ 1996 Mercury Lounge show only took off halfway through, when Hidalgo picked up his accordion, it jacked the crowd into an elation with more head in it than the automatic ecstasy I’d encountered at the Bottom Line. And at the Guinness Fleadh last June, they lit up a soccer stadium, tempos faster and interactions edgier from salsa to polka to hard boogie. The implicit disruptions of the mid ’90s seemed resolved at a higher level of commitment. And then came not only Dose but Rosas’s Soul Disguise and something called Houndog (not to mention Los Lobos’ deep-mixed, steady-rolling This Time, due in July).

Hidalgo— whose countless instruments, grainy tenor, and pungent guitar make him the group’s supertalent— acknowledges no limits; I haven’t even mentioned Los Super Seven, where he and Rosas join Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, and guess how many others in predictable pursuit of the heritage the Playboys juice up so obliquely. Houndog was cut in the home studio of a self-described Canned Heat and John Mayall veteran named Mike Halby who doesn’t show up on any of either’s numerous records— and whose idea of blues singing is a despondent simulation of a John Lee Hooker 45 at 33. Concerned that I’d missed the point, I made sure to catch them at South by Southwest, where Halby proved a smug Jerry Garcia look-alike and Hidalgo proved too kind a friend. But the next night Rosas, with his sunglasses after dark and his all-Chicano guitar-accordion-bass-keybs-drums band, proved a hipster motherfucker. I’d slotted his first solo album, where the nine songs outnumbered all he’d put on Los Lobos’ ’90s catalogue, as sour roots, rocker’s revenge. But from Ike Turner’s “You Got To Lose” to a “That Train Don’t Stop Here” that got a no-holds-barred Hammond B-3 solo out of his brother Rudy, Rosas propelled the r&b macho he’s never gotten tired of into a realm that, minus a tenor, wasn’t much less vibrant than Los Lobos at Irving Plaza back in the day.

Not that I suddenly love Soul Disguise. But shored up by Los Lobos’ old club-band myth, it’s been revealed to me the way the EP continues to be to this day— and The Neighborhood never will be. For just this reason I was worried as well as excited when told the Playboys would tour behind Dose. Happy to accept the Playboys as an aural hologram, I wasn’t terribly eager to look Mitchell Froom in the horn-rims— his studio pallor might ruin the street effect forever. So I’m relieved to report that their show at Tramps was a messy triumph. Froom ensconced behind his soundbanks and Tchad Blake wrestling with his bass didn’t add any presence to what the diminutive, scholarly-looking Pérez and the large, intensely congenial Hidalgo took to the stage. But the studio guys’ geekiness was part of the fun, like the Christmas lights and paper roses and Japanese lanterns, like feyly feh opener Lisa Germano wielding her violin, like the drummer topping off the second encore with a half-church, half-carnival organ tunelet. It’s reasonable to accuse the records of forced casualness, but these folks hadn’t practiced enough to fake it.

Which is hardly to say they hadn’t practiced at all— decades of stagecraft obviously underlay this translation. As with Dose, there were a few aimless moments, notably the poésie concrète of “Tormenta Boulevard,” and the dynamics certainly weren’t as delicate as on the record. But the Playboys weren’t too proud to play loud sometimes, which in this context was close enough to rocking out, and they weren’t so set on product promotion that they overplayed the newer material. One couplet from Dose rang out loud without excessive amplification: “Don’t go figure, it’s not about hip/You won’t get it, it’s a Latin trip.” But it was a repeated line from “Crayon Sun” that defined them and the night: “This is what I am.”