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

Mirah

Peaceful, subtle and everlasting—that’s the kind of music singer/songwriter Mirah has been creating since the late 1990s. This year, she put out Changing Light with some help from a roster of consummate artists like Mary Timony, and members of Deerhoof and tUnE-yArDs for musical reinforcement. Brazen, sonorous and melodically fresh is the music, but Mirah is a lyricist to the core, planting lines like, “You showed me how the water works, it pushes its way through the dirt. It finds the rocks and grinds them soft, it makes them move. The forces old have made me built to withstand what you do. See this rolling stone without a home slipping out from under you.” If that doesn’t demonstrate suffering as an instrument for gaining a new outlook, it’s at least a damn good line—one of many Mirah has crafted with her graceful touch.

Wed., May 21, 7:30 p.m., 2014

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

tUnE-yArDs Uses Her Lungs

“I feel angry that people don’t use the format of pop music for more,” says Merrill Garbus more than halfway through an hour-long chat in the offices of her management. She’s sweet, congenial, and thoughtful, but unafraid to voice a concern. She doesn’t blink when asked pointed questions about the final song on her excellent new album Nikki Nack. It’s called “Manchild” and is built around two chants: “Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no,” and “I mean it, don’t beat up on my body.”

It almost didn’t make it onto the record.

“It does seem so fucking simple, but students are raping girls on college campuses, just things that we can’t believe are still happening. What comes across as like a radical agenda…the radical agenda that girls on college campuses should be protected from rape?”

This doesn’t escalate like it may read on the page—Garbus famously prefers to ask questions rather than give answers, and she delights in the conversation itself. Even more than her unpredictable grooves, lyrical twists and hidden melodies, the most obvious incredible thing about listening to a tUnE-yArDs record is her big, free voice. When she makes a mid-song exclamation like “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand” or “Oh my god, I use my lungs/ Soft and loud, any way feels good,” it feels like the liberation of self-realization. It’s a perfect soundtrack for someone who just realized they’re allowed to feel how they feel, dress how they dress, yell what they long to yell. And not just to get it get out of their system, but over and over, in protest and then celebration, after conquering their obstacles.

“I was one of those adults that really needed to hear that I didn’t need to say yes all the time. I was lying a lot to myself without even thinking about it,” Garbus admits. “I don’t put on music in the background to create a mood, and I really struggle with using songs to sell shit. I’m just really glad I’m not only allowed to say these things and that I have a record label that is really supportive of whatever I want to say, but also people are like, ‘Oh yeah, I really needed a song that just said that.'”

“For me it’s something about the words, the syntax and stories that make me feel giddy and tuned in,” gushes Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin, of Garbus and tUnE-Yards. “She has a presence and leadership that feels entirely authentic without being intimidating.”

The plainspoken way Garbus raises hard questions in her tunes has a lot in common with the subject in many of her videos: children.

“tUnE-Yards began when I was a nanny, witnessing a two-year old learning language and learning about the world,” Garbus says. “That kid really inspired me to do a whole lot. Part of that was the discovery element, like we don’t know everything and we’re not supposed to, and it’s OK that we don’t. There is as much depth to what a child asks as there is to adult questions. Children have way more insight about ‘what’s the issue?'”

But there are very few white performers who have ever approached the subject of race with Garbus’ delicacy and willingness to be wrong.

“What does it mean to be an American musician and have people tell me, ‘Wow, she really sounds black?’ I guess a lot of it is me working through uncomfortable shit that people have said to me,” says Garbus. “People will ask the question, ‘Where does your voice come from?’ As if I consciously said, ‘I really want to sound like Nina Simone and Yoko Ono.’ It trips me out really; I used to be a soft-spoken, grew-up-in-Connecticut, suburban public schooler, and now I’m a weirdly loud singer.”

Nikki Nack‘s “Real Thing” is a rebuke to her own success: “Just what is the real thing/ Don’t call me the real thing/ The curse of the real thing.” She didn’t ask for the burden of authenticity, which gets even more complicated when her command of Mbuti pygmy-style singing on the two-minute a capella “Rocking Chair” sounds, well, a lot like the real thing.

“That’s funny, because I didn’t think about it for ‘Rocking Chair.’ But I think those sounds are in my head now,” she says, before ululating a few bars of Mbuti-style singing. “I don’t think I think about it consciously anymore, which is maybe creepy. I think I used to talk with more shame about absorbing other people’s music and the more I actually read about the history, the more it’s like, ‘fuck, people have been doing that for centuries, like trade what affects the entire musical tradition and now we hold certain traditions sacred and we try to compartmentalize them.”

“But also ‘Real Thing’ doesn’t just have to mean that. What else could that mean, and what else could I be but just Merrill Garbus who grew up in Connecticut?”

***

Garbus, 34, went to Smith College where she fell hard for Kid A and made extensive use of the library’s musical archives. Her mom was a piano teacher (“I would have hissy fits and start crying because I didn’t want to practice. Now it’s ironic because I practice my ass off.”) and a cousin of Jean Ritchie, a luminary in Applachian folk music. She’s named after the late Country Song and Dance Society music director Phil Merrill. She would make fake commercials and radio shows with her sister.

“There’s some deep spiritual sense of comfort for me that was really clear from a young age that it was not an option to have music in my life. We went to a folk music and dance camp with my mom, a camp for adults. As small children we were wandering around these beautiful woods listening to beautiful viola da gamba ensembles and doing renaissance dance, English country dance, square dancing, country dancing.”

With all that buildup it’s no surprise Garbus considered the first tUnE-yArDs album the breakout from “30 years of musical quietness.”

“It was mostly because I had that new tool, in that Woody Guthrie way: ‘This is a fucking powerful ukulele right here!'” she laughs. “From my parents there’s a curiosity about music that has followed me my whole life. And from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger what music could be in a social context, that was also not lost on me.”

“She’s a good egg,” says Annie Clark of St. Vincent, with whom tUnE-yArDs has toured. “She’s not afraid to be political when people in the mainstream are being covertly political about poverty or the plight of the third world.”

Another fan is Yoko Ono, whose 2013 album Take Me to the Land of Hell features two collaborations with Garbus. “tUnE-yArDs is the coolest of them all,” says Ono via email. “Their delivery of songs is so unique and creative, nobody can forget it once you hear their performance.”

On collaborating with Ono, Garbus recalls with wonder, “They had a studio with a bunch of instruments in it; it felt a little bit like Willy Wonka’s music factory. There’s just pan pipes and every percussion instrument ever,” says Garbus. “She’s old, so she’s only there for what she needs to be there for. We tried to iron out as many kinks as we could before she was there. She and Sean [Lennon] and Yuka Honda, they’ve all been extremely generous.”

“She isn’t going to just work with anybody,” says Lyrics Born of Oakland rappers Latyrx, whose 2013 reunion The Second Album features two rap productions by Garbus. “She was like, ‘Well, can we meet first?’ She really wanted to make sure that we actually vibed, personally and artistically. She’s a very pro-art, pro-artist, just very salt-of-the-earth person. She would come to our shows afterward and refuse to be put on the guest list. She would pay.”

***

In 2005, Merrill worked as an acting instructor at the Appel Farm summer camp for the arts. “We loved working with her. She’s so smart, she’s so interesting. At this point if we had a big celebration for every time someone recognized her for the brilliant artist that she is, we’d have to quit our jobs,” says camp director Jennie Quinn.

“Like many people who love her music and love her as a person, I have a lot of respect for her,” says Adam Weiner of critically-acclaimed retro-rockers Low Cut Connie, whose upcoming single “Little Queen of New Orleans” features Garbus. “But it’s been deepened by seeing what she’s put into this over the years, seeing the years she lived in a freezing basement in Montreal with no heat for $150 a month when she made Bird-Brains, seeing her go from that to where she is now.”

Along with tUnE-yArDs bassist/co-captain Nate Brenner and early Sister Suvi bandmate Patrick Gregoire (now of Islands fame), she first met Weiner at Appel Farm. “She’s not super young,” he says. “She didn’t get where she is without a lot of hard work and just being brilliant. I think people know that, but not how many years she paid her dues, and was really like, pounding her head against a brick wall before this happened.”

***

Nate Brenner, 31, grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, also with a pianist dad and after absorbing Ron Carter, George Clinton and—”I don’t know if I should say this”—Phish in high school, graduated from Oberlin with a degree in jazz performance. Like his bandmate, his musical pedigree was encouraged by a pianist dad who brought him to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and he first met Garbus at Appel Farm.

“She wasn’t quite in a great place there, not doing music or theater but more like the babysitter,” Brenner recalls. “For me it was like, ‘this was the greatest summer of my life!’ And she was like, ‘This is the worst summer of my life!’

After BiRd-BrAiNs, he joined tUnE-yArDs to tour with Dirty Projectors in Europe, and they’ve been a two-piece ever since. It was Brenner who encouraged Garbus to salvage “Manchild” and “Water Fountain” from the sessions for Nikki Nack.

Rigorously, Garbus made two demos a day for all of January 2013, handing over her hard drive to Brenner during the occasional exhaustion, for him to make “Save As” versions of basslines, “so she wouldn’t feel pressured to use anything that I did.”

“She’ll write the same song 20 times,” says Brenner. “All the verses in ‘Wait for a Minute’ were completely different lyrics. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Maybe it’s about me, I don’t know?’ I don’t wanna ask her too many…because I know it’s so personal. But sometimes they start really personal and then just end up a way to, you know, relate to people.'”

w h o k I l l‘s depictions of sex and violence were more blatant than the more satirical, ambivalent-seeming Nikki Nack. I can hear Brenner shrug over the phone when asked about a song like “Powa” (“My man likes me from behind/ Tell the truth I never mind”): “I might be wrong, but I don’t think a lot of people know we’re in a relationship. I don’t think about it that much.”

On the new single “Water Fountain,” it’s up to us to figure out what the blood-soaked dollar, the two-pound chicken, Busta Rhymes-cum-Al Pacino “woo-hahs” and “jump back, jump back, Daddy shot a bear” are all doing there.

Perhaps the anticipation of a larger audience for Nikki Nack led Garbus to pull back the curtain more lyrically.

“That’s a good question. I mean, it’s a great and annoying question,” she says. “It’s like ‘can I really say that?’ Not because it’s personal or anything—if people want to think they know a lot about me from listening to my songs, that’s fine—these songs are obviously extremely personal. But I’m not worried about what I’m…disclosing. In ‘Stop That Man’ it gets uncomfortable to come to talk about or grapple with in a song, my own fears, my own racist tendencies, my own really fucked up shit in myself that I’m not comfortable with, that I’m working out through a song. That’s what’s vulnerable I guess, that I’m working through stuff by using the songs. I’m not the kind of songwriter who’s like, ‘Everyone knows about my relationship with John Mayer through this song.’ It’s not autobiographical like that, and I’m always suspicious when someone’s like, ‘Really? You really want to tell the world about that?'”

Brenner talks about the sexism they witnessed while touring early on: “Before anyone had heard of us and we were opening for Xiu Xiu, the sound guys would assume she didn’t know what she was doing. She’d show up with her loop pedal and floor tom. They wouldn’t listen to her, but I’d be like ‘If she says she wants more vocals in her monitor, that’s what she wants.’ They didn’t believe that she knew what she was doing. Then every time after we played they’d say, ‘You were amazing, here’s my card if you ever need a sound guy.”

In 2011, w h o k i l l was the first album by a woman to win this paper’s Pazz & Jop critics poll since Lucinda Williams in 1998, an honor not bestowed on Beyoncé, Bjork or M.I.A.—or Radiohead. It’s worth remembering that people expected Bon Iver to win, despite mixed appeal. Bon Iver placed at #9 in the poll, at the time having sold exactly 300,000 more copies than w h o k i l l‘s 47,000, the lowest-charting and selling Pazz & Jop winner of all time. Partly the runaway surprise was that such an unknown artist had captivated critical hearts. But the critical establishment became less friendly to women around the 2000s, with previous winners like as Liz Phair and Courtney Love dragged through the mud as easy punchlines, while M.I.A., Lady Gaga and most recently Lily Allen have all been subject to widespread backlash after just two albums. Following its Pazz win, pop culture author Chuck Klosterman wrote a widely-reviled piece on w h o k i l l for the launch of Grantland that among other things, confused the terms “asexual” and “androgynous,” and “asexual” with the woman who sang “Powa.”

(Klosterman tells the Voice by email: “I hadn’t heard the album. I decided to write something about it after throwing it on without any preconceived notion about what it supposedly was. I generally liked it. But people freaked out, because the Internet exists and people are crazy. And I obviously can’t control the kind of person who misinterprets my work on purpose.”)

“We joke about a tUnE-yArDs backlash a lot,” says Garbus. “But it’s not really my business, in a way. I’m powerless over how I’m perceived by people. We’re out here [currently on tour]with Arcade Fire and we kind of see that [mentality], like ‘Oh those guys are playing a stadium, they can’t be cool anymore.’ Which I have been guilty of. I just can’t care about that. The more I can be centered in my own integrity about what I want from this music and the emotional, physical and spiritual health of the band—that’s what I want.”

Ironically, her statement somewhat echoes Klosterman’s. Despite her freewheeling attitude towards letting the audience answer their own questions, she fears misinterpretation: “The danger in that is people hear what they want to hear in it, or people hear what they don’t want to hear in it.”

“Someone thought that ‘Powa’ was a pro-life song, which I didn’t really understand. That was one of the only times where someone was like, ‘Is the song about this?’ and I was like, no. Some people want to say ‘Gangsta’ is about being white and wanting to be black.’ I mean yeah, but…no. That’s not where the inspiration came from and that wasn’t the story that it came out of. I just hope people can continue to take what they need to from these songs, and not ask for permission to hear what they hear. They do not need my permission to know what a song’s about.”

But not all interpretations have been for the worse: “‘The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out,’ [from 2011’s “My Country”] I had a lot of people thank me for that line who were queer and said ‘That really helped me come out,'” she says. “It’s part of this whole complex truth that a lot of things can fit into a lot of lines. It becomes more of an experience thing than like, ‘this was written for this specific type of person.'”

A self-described anxious person who considered buying a mattress an “intense” experience, Garbus has no desire to shut down chatter she doesn’t want to hear. “When you’re in the public sphere at all, there’s a fear of misrepresentation in the media. On the other hand, I went to an all-women’s liberal arts college where we learned to dissect and criticize every single thing that we saw. I want people to do that, I want to be checked. That’s why I want to be complicated. I’m not worried about my reputation or public opinion, I’m worried about whether I can every day go to bed feeling like I was in integrity with my beliefs. And I feel like I have a good grasp on that.”

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

SPLISH SPLASH

tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus is back with a new album that is, among other fantastically genre-subverting things, more grammatically off the grid than 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs and w h o k i l l in 2011: Nikki Nack. Inspired by the Haitian drum and dance lessons she took in fall 2012, Garbus’s new record sparkles with ingenuity: There’s a song-poem about Tupperware and eating tots, the percussive anthem “Water Fountain,” and “Wait for a Minute,” a slinky, Fugees-reminiscent ballad. No matter which direction she goes with her inspired take on African polyrhythms, Garbus always puts on a magnificently raucous show it’s impossible not to move to.

Wed., May 7, 9 p.m., 2014

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Big Tree

Big Tree hail from the Bay Area, but their sound holds remnants of the blossoming folk-pop movement from every landscape. With an emphasis on soaring harmonies and dynamic multi-instrumentation, the art rock collective caught the attention of tUnE-yArDs, gaining some exposure by touring with her in 2011. Their music woozy guitars evoke open skies and road trip freedom, expect to keen for childhood summertime and lost innocence—but without any regret.

Sat., April 13, 10:30 p.m., 2013

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Roomful of Teeth w/ Merrill Garbus

Tonight, experimental vocal octet Roomful of Teeth will be joined and perform works by the visionary electroacoustic composer William Brittelle, with cameos from Merrill Garbus, who will also perform some of her own tUnE-yArDs material using the ensemble as backing singers. This marks the first summer edition of the Ecstatic Music Festival curated by Judd Greenstein, whose Yehudim ensemble will perform the composer’s afrominimalist illuminations of Jewish history and mystery.

Sat., June 30, 7 p.m., 2012

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Mica Levi’s Tweaked Take on Pop

On Friday, Merrill Garbus’s band tUnE-yArDs—whose spellbinding, genre-and-gender-bending album w h o k i l l won the most recent edition of the Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll—will headline the cavernous Terminal 5. The midtown venue has definitely improved since opening a few years back, with the room’s sound-swallowing properties being minimized and its crowds behaving more fun and less like thrashing extras in the hyper-aggro video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish.” And truth be told, even if it did still have those problems, Garbus would probably conquer them anyway. She’s a skilled performer who knows how to draw crowds of all sizes into the palm of her hand. Her shows aren’t rote executions of her recorded material as much as they are chances for communion, an opportunity for concertgoers to whoop and wail along with her as horns bleat.

Opening that show will be another act that takes the underlying concepts of pop—most importantly hooks, beats, and passion—and treats them like a twist tie: Micachu & the Shapes. The multi-instrumentalist-slash-composer-slash-mixtape auteur Mica Levi leads the London-based band; Friday’s show will be its first in the States since 2010. In the interim, Levi has performed with the London Sinfonietta, released a mixtape with fellow Londoner Kwes (their second), and been given an artist-in-residence slot at the Southbank Centre, situated right on the Thames. The way she shifts not just between genres but between instruments and styles and idioms is a testament to her musical omnivorousness; she’s what Questlove has referred to as “shuffle culture” made flesh, bingeing on any piece of music she can find so that she can remake it in her own image.

In July, Micachu & the Shapes will release Never (Rough Trade), their second studio album and follow-up to 2009’s sharply drawn Jewellery. The first Micachu song I heard was “Lips,” off Jewellery, and despite it not even being 90 seconds long, it struck my ear instantly. It was so arresting in part because of Levi’s approach to her tools, which goes far beyond their ability to produce musical notes; her guitar playing on “Lips” is as much about showcasing the instrument’s ability to sound like cats clawing at a closed-to-them door as it is about making the yowling notes that make up its melody. She treats her vocals similarly—she sing-talks the verses of “Lips” in a droning, monotonous alto, while the chorus consists of her getting up close and personal with the microphone and making a big smooching sound that’s almost buried in the chaos surrounding it. The end effect is disorienting in the best way, a brief starburst that puts a microscope on the way the human touch is essential to making music.

Which isn’t to say that Micachu’s music is the audio-only equivalent of, say, the down-the-hatch video of Steven Tyler’s vocals in action. (In that clip, the Aerosmith lead singer allowed a camera to burrow down his throat while he sang the lighter-waving power ballad “Dream On,” letting the world see just how that song’s yowls and pleas were physically manifested.) “Golden Phone,” also from Jewellery, is a quickstepping pop song turned on its ear, with a hyperventilating intro leading into its singsong hook and a snappy, hip-shaking beat that might very well have been inspired by a 45 that was skipping at just the right stutter.

Never is similarly studded with up-close-and-personal takes on noise; some of the music summoned sounds completely otherworldly, which is probably attributable to the fact that Levi takes the idea of “making music” to its logical end of making instruments as well. (The “chu” appended to her name refers to a hammer-modified guitar; last year she created the Chopper, an instrument derived from a wooden CD rack.) “Are you sure you’re OK? . . . If you’re not, that’s OK,” goes the hook on “OK,” which has a beat that manages to be simultaneously dreamy and methodical, thanks in part to its being punctuated by bleats that could have come from a malfunctioning phone. The downtempo “Low Dogg” snakes around a hook that sounds like someone stopping up a speaker at regular intervals, with Levi singing a descending vocal line in such a way that the whole thing meets M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” at some smoke-suffused middle point. (If the rumored sequel to Pineapple Express does come to pass, perhaps “Low Dogg” could soundtrack its trailer.) The musical bed of “Holiday” could have been summoned by a smeary watercolor of a hurdy-gurdy, but the chorus is pure sugar, with Levi’s longing for a break being greeted by a joyous harmony—it’s like the feelings of optimism and hope that get summoned by looking at a calendar with a circled-for-importance day. And “Nothing” is the Enchantment Under the Sea dance made almost painfully literal, a slow dance submerged under bubbly distortion that almost, but only almost, cloaks the hair-raisingly vulnerable lyrics.

I suspect that as I listen to Never more, I’ll find more aural Easter eggs, each of which will be a testament to how much pleasure Levi and her bandmates derive from making music; the album is nervy and sharp-elbowed and brimming with vitality. Micachu & the Shapes do offer a more intimate reframing of pop than Garbus’s huge-tent approach—there’s a reason that the clip for “Lips” has Levi in extreme close-up for much of it—but it’s one that demands a closer listen, especially underneath Terminal 5’s high ceilings.

Micachu & the Shapes play Terminal 5 with tUnE-yArDs and Delicate Steve on June 1.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Summer Music Guide: Death Grips’ Disappearing Act

Last month, seeking an interview with the elusive Sacramento experimental noise-rap band Death Grips, I e-mailed the address posted at the bottom of the band’s website, thirdworlds.net. The group had announced a June 13 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in support of its much-anticipated major-label debut album, The Money Store—and with no publicity information available from label Epic Records, the direct approach was the next-best alternative.

Within an hour or so, I received a polite, unsigned note agreeing to talk. Hey, this is fun, I thought. A little mystery never hurt anything.

Little did I know that, within weeks, the band would up and cancel a full summer slate of tour dates on multiple continents and announce the about-face with a message on Facebook and Twitter: “We are dropping out to complete next album NO LOVE. See you when it’s done. (There are no longer any scheduled shows).”

Fan reaction tended toward the predictably perturbed. (At the ever-vitriolic Brooklyn Vegan, comment-thread remarks ranged from “Shows don’t mean shit anyway” to, referencing the band’s drummer and public face, “Zach Hill = Axl Rose.”) But tellingly, no one had any real information to share. Even promoters seemed flat-footed by the news: It took the better part of a day for the Music Hall of Williamsburg to confirm the cancellation. The person who answered the phone at Bowery Presents several days later refused to comment about any possible reasons or even confirm which publicist to direct questions to, saying, “It’s all very secretive.”

If the sudden abdication from their summer-long coming-out party hasn’t made much sense, well, neither did much about Death Grips’ signing to Epic in the first place. After all, we’re a long way from the 1990s, when company A&R reps stretched their long leashes in order to vacation through the underground, looking for edgy acts possessed with potential above-ground appeal. In the era of crowd-sourced pop, you’d be forgiven for wondering what Epic could want with a hip-hop ensemble that delivers beats abstracted with a free-jazz energy, vocals reminiscent of early hardcore punk, and cover art that’s casually sadomasochistic.

When I spoke in April with Hill—the only member of the trio who routinely talks to reporters, and as I had by then discovered, my mystery e-mail correspondent—he told me that none of it was a hard sell. Epic was the final label that Death Grips met with last winter, after the success of their self-released mixtape Exmilitary brought several suits calling. Hill told me the whole process of meeting with record execs was “feeling based,” and that label president L.A. Reid seemed to be responding to the “true nature of our energy.”

Months later, as the band was prepping the release of The Money Store, Whitney Houston died. And Reid, who was close with the singer, made a surprising connection, telling Death Grips that their intensity reminded him of Houston’s. “He was still emotionally dealing with her passing,” Hill recalled. “And I was just like, ‘That was something.’ . . . In our first meeting, you could tell that’s the level on which they were connecting with this music. On completing the record, it was kind of reaffirmation that we had made the right decision.”

Despite the WTF? Internet commentary that Reid’s Whitney/Death Grips nugget set off, it wasn’t that big of a leap. After all, a young Houston once sang in a group with downtown-scene eminence Bill Laswell. Energy, conceptual refinement, and pop technique needn’t be enemies or even strange bedfellows, a point driven home by The Money Store, an early candidate for end-of-2012 best-of lists ever since its April release.

More hooky than Exmilitary (while managing the trick of also being sample-free), Money Store doesn’t scrimp on rustling, scraping textures—even when using a Salt ‘N Pepa–like beat on “I’ve Seen Footage” or employing riffs that recall subcontinental pop before the big distorted beat drops during “Punk Weight.” And MC Ride’s barked, not-always-rhymed vocals haven’t taken on any corporate sheen in the interim, either. After a decade-plus of pop-culture derision of rap-rock, the fusion of the two musics has taken on a renewed legitimacy, especially for a band like Death Grips, which blends additional genres as well. There’s a global pop language here, as well as a wider-than-usual palette of energy that admits of free-improvisational playing.

For a band that gets called “horrorcore,” “aggro-rap,” and “dark” so often—due mostly to the stream-of-subconscious disturbances that flow through Ride’s head (“Lycanthropic manic cycles/Fire water burnin’ Bibles/Wake up ragin’, call a taxi/Take me to the nearest city”)—there’s an undeniable danceability residing within tracks like “I’ve Seen Footage” and “Hacker.” Pressed on just how much of the band’s sound runs through his electronically augmented kit, the place where the band’s hooks are taken through a wood chipper, Hill admitted that “a lot of the music is dictated by rhythm, even the melodic aspects.”

So are listeners who have thought of Death Grips as straightforward doom merchants missing something? Hill pointed to early American hardcore punk for comparison. “The energy of the sounds you’re hearing may come from a negative environment. But the exercising of those feelings, on the other end, is where it becomes really positive. There’s a lot of music that comes from a place of possible suffering or whatever unrest of some sort, even with the happiest rave or house music in the world.”

Hill was also—ironically, in retrospect—eager to talk about the band’s desire to expand and transform their by all accounts high-energy live show. According to Hill, the Death Grips live experience means to offer ecstasy and euphoria. In fact, he told me, the band was hoping to play more dance events. “Rave-oriented festivals, we talk about that all the time as something that’s interesting,” he said.

Death Grips wasn’t booked into the biggest venues in its alt-rock-friendly milieu—not even on their since-scotched summer tour—and Hill was humble about their prospects of getting there. “We have a lot of ideas as far as once we’re able to expand—or if we’re ever lucky enough to expand—like [placing] audiences into bigger spaces, in terms of how we want to approach things visually,” he said. Everyone in the band is a visual artist, he added, noting that each member contributed to the video for the new song “Blackjack,” a found-footage collage that plays inside a rotating circle that looks both like a record spinning backward and a ship’s porthole window.

The question going forward, however, is: How much of this still stands? If a band on the verge can just pull a 180 like this, how much of anything they say can be counted on? Will we actually see a planned second album this year, No Love, which Hill told me was “70 percent” finished already? Because Internet-music culture abhors a vacuum, the near-term danger is that the band’s surprise disappearing act will overshadow the aesthetic solidity of their music—the one thing that ought to be more important than touring dramas or surprise major-label signings.

When I called Hill’s cell phone after news of Death Grips’ macro cancellation broke, my call went straight to a full voicemail box. E-mails to the website address likewise went unanswered. I did track down the publicist-of-record for Death Grips, at Big Hassle Media, and asked whether anyone at Epic Records might be able to speak to the band’s future progress or schedule. He replied: “I don’t think so only because they don’t know. Band just went underground.”

Meanwhile, fans and music journalists alike are left to look for clues in the band’s thin sampling of past public statements. (Plus a new video of unknown vintage “Hustle Bones,” that recently showed up on YouTube.) In what now seems like foreshadowing, Hill told me in April that Death Grips were prepared to dismantle and reassemble the formulas that have worked thus far. In particular, he predicted a pivot back toward some more work with recognizable music samples and said their third release would try to synthesize the respective energies of the stark, streamlined Exmilitary and the more generous-sounding Money Store.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about the ways that we work,” Hill said then in describing the band’s progress on No Love. “There’s a lot of destruction that comes into play, in terms of making something and slowly mutating it or destroying it. . . . I think we’re just constantly developing.”

Bang on a Can Marathon

June 17

Given that the Bang on a Can organizers are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, it makes sense that they’d pull out all the stops for this iteration of their annual free summer festival. During this year’s 12-hour stretch of adventurous contemporary music, you can expect to see some alt-rock boldface names like David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth having their solo works performed. That’s in addition to a presentation of Steve Reich’s Six Pianos and a performance by Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening Band. But don’t just try to catch the familiar names; the great thing about spending time at a Bang marathon is discovering a previously unknown act, like Buke and Gase (who came to broader attention after their 2010 appearance). World Financial Center, 200 Vesey Street, bangonacan.org

Hilary Hahn & Hauschka

June 20

Hilary Hahn wants you to know she’s not just your average, elegant violin virtuoso. So when she’s not tackling rough pieces of modern repertoire—think Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg—she’s cutting albums with the German prepared-piano experimentalist Volker Bertelmann, who is better known to indie-world types as Hauschka. This concert celebrates the release of Silfra, their collaborative, improvisational album on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label (which might now be wondering if it’ll get its first-ever Pitchfork review). City Winery, 155 Varick Street, citywinery.com

The Governors Ball

June 23 through 24

So Fiona Apple is back! Perhaps you saw some of the breathless coverage during SXSW or the reporting on the long (natch) title of her forthcoming record? She’s probably going to be unseeable in small venues for the foreseeable future—so both new fans and those with deeper bragging rights are advised to check out her set at this Randalls Island festival, which is promising no overlapping sets. (That’s good news for the nostalgic, who won’t have to make an agonizing choice between Apple and, say, Beck.) Major Lazer and Santigold are putative highlights among the rest of the lineup. Randalls Island Park, governorsballmusicfestival.com

New York Philharmonic

June 29 through 30

It’s something serious when the philharmonic has to leave Lincoln Center to put on a show. The occasion this time is truly remarkable: a rare NYC performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s epic Gruppen for three orchestras (they play simultaneously). This is not just the most exciting thing on the philharmonic’s schedule this year; it should also prove to be a contemporary-art event, full stop. The theme of the evening is music prepared with “spatial” concepts in mind—and so the 55,000-square-foot Armory will be put to use for a staging prepared by director Michael Counts. Expect cacophony, expect disorientation, expect a scene. Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, nyphil.org

Roomful of Teeth

June 30

Did you know that Pazz & Jop 2011 winner Merrill Garbus, a/k/a tUnE-yArDs, knows how to write notes down on paper? At the behest of New Amsterdam Records organizers William Brittelle and Judd Greenstein, Garbus has contributed music to a vocal ensemble called Roomful of Teeth. That debut record, new Garbus music included, is scheduled to be released later this year, but this free show presents an opportunity for an advance hearing. World Financial Center, 200 Vesey Street, worldfinancialcenter.com

Morton Subotnick

July 8

Subotnick pioneered electronic music in the ’60s with albums like Silver Apples of the Moon, as well as at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which he co-founded (and where he co-commissioned the first synthesizer from Don Buchla). This “composition-improvisation” performance of “Energy Shapes,” presided over by Subotnick, will see him feeding vocals into the Buchla 200e model, manipulating and spinning them out via his own patented process into a work that will probably be hard to describe, other than as a product of Subotnick’s inimitable style. Michael Schimmel Center, Pace University, 3 Spruce Street, pace.edu/culture

Dirty Projectors and Wye Oak

July 10

For one of the benefit concerts to support the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival, the indie-rock group will tout the release of their new album, Swing Lo Magellan, which is due to be released on the same day. The addition of Wye Oak—whose most recent effort for Merge Records, Civilian, represented a career high—gives this lineup the slight edge over Wilco (who take their turn celebrating the borough on July 23 and 24). Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, bricartsmedia.org/performing-arts/celebrate-brooklyn

Neko Case

July 12

This singer-songwriter brings her bottomless vocal technique to the free Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival. Case doesn’t have a new record to promote, but so what? The concert will be a top draw simply on the basis of her six-album solo songbook. One evening earlier, Buddy Guy will take care of the guitar side of the blues. World Financial Center, 200 Vesey Street, worldfinancialcenter.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

tUnE-yArds, PJ Harvey, and St. Vincent Get Physical

Merrill Garbus had to get over being stared at this year. “I’m amazed at my capacity to look at myself in pictures and see myself on YouTube and not do to myself mentally what I used to do,” she said in November. But if Garbus proved anything in 2011, it’s that she’s able to plow past her insecurities when faced with a larger mission. Like a motherfucker. “Women . . . need to see a woman doing more on her own [and] being really weird and bizarre and loud.” Thanks to w h o k i l l, the 39th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll #1 album, lots of women (and men, too!) saw and heard Garbus doing exactly this, but you know, virtuosically. More than any artist this year, male or female, Garbus reinserted the body back into body politic, crafting a feral feminist manifesto that refused to bow to the binaries framing pop discussions about gender, sexuality, and power.

“I gotta do right if my body is tight, right?” At the end of each verse of “Es-So,” Garbus’s voice splits into two to ask this question, a sharp bit of soft psychosis masquerading as self-help and a stark shift from the soulful, high coo surrounding it. But she doesn’t stop at body image; she aims much higher. Think of the song’s title as both a play on Esso, the trade name for Exxon Mobil, and “is so,” a statement of assumed fact implying “Of course, that’s the way things are.” When she confesses, “I run over my body with my own car,” she parallels the junk we put in our bodies with the war-starting crude shit that powers our automobiles.

Equal to its political force, pop music has always been about the human body: its capacities to create music, to register and display the effects of that music, and its sui generis potential to narrate all of this while it happens. 2011 indeed was a remarkable year for the pop body in all of its beautiful, ugly, complex, and grotesque forms. w h o k i l l might be the best of the bunch, but Garbus has contemporaries who crafted career highlights out of the corporeal. PJ Harvey both has and hasn’t come a long way since daring a lover to rub it until it bleeds nearly two decades ago. On the stunning Let England Shake, which finished a strong second to w h o k i l l, Harvey floats over the English battlefields of the 20th century’s first Great War, reframing her penchant toward unflinching accounts of bodily extremes to address the blunt impact of political conflict. Less expressly political but not lacking in force was Strange Mercy, on which Annie Clark forcefully challenges the archetype that her demure physical appearance suggests by finally perfecting the self-reflexive form of musical theater she has created as St. Vincent.

While Harvey, Clark, and Garbus pushed ideas of the body in new directions, and Occupy Wall Street’s human microphone displayed the capacity of lungs and larynxes alone to circumvent public noise regulations, the most prominent musical narratives were marked by more traditional tropes. Adele’s curvy frame and Beyoncé’s “baby bump” (is there a less humane phrase for a nascent human?) were translated into evidence of these ladies’ ostensible “realness,” while upstart chanteuse Lana Del Rey’s noticeably engorged upper lip was given as state’s evidence to the contrary. It took the cocky come-on “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten'” to elevate the pigtailed Harlem rapper Azealia Banks to her first taste of stardom after years of label limbo. When she wasn’t paralleling her heartbeat to a dude’s trunk rattle on “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj was detailing the myriad virtues of her own lady parts. Then there was the fashionable misogyny of Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator—the former joined in his gothic mansion by many dead models dangling from chains in the long-delayed video for “Monster,” while the latter unleashed his goulish, boyish id on Goblin, which detailed, among other things, the pleasures inherent in punching pregnant women.

Then there was this line, which topped them all: “I’ve seen bodies fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees.” This terrifyingly mundane account of war, which could have been drawn from a soldier’s journal at any time over the past five centuries, is perhaps the most powerful single lyric of 2011, delivered by PJ Harvey in her highest vocal register and buffeted by a ghostly autoharp on “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Let England Shake might end with a moving ethnographic portrayal of Iraq’s more recent life during wartime, but the album needs little current context to register powerfully. England poetically captures a visceral reality that applies to all armed conflicts: They are waged not only between competing ideologies of nation-states but also between human bodies and the technologies we design to destroy them.

Harvey’s 10th album is notable for exposing the bodies we don’t see. Her words ring so true because the imagery—limbs dangling from trees, verdant European hills sown with the blood of young boys, the smell of rotting flesh covered over by thyme—lists the human remains that are carefully cut from war nostalgia. Official accounts of war are about validating and protecting life, not the decomposing corpses left in the wake of battle. Yet Harvey cuts England‘s stark reality with an aching sense of beauty—even wonder—at what she opens herself to. She splashes and laughs in the fountain of death, finding a morbid poetry amid the brutality of war.

“Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?” Annie Clark wondered on “Cruel,” a fitting obituary for a year in which bodies were pulled in every direction at once, for pleasure and pain, life and death. Clark’s word choice is strategic: She’s addressing not sentient beings (or “My Country,” as Garbus does), but the assemblages of flesh and bone that are prone to inhuman actions. On “Surgeon,” Strange Mercy becomes a salacious soap-opera hospital, and the invasiveness of surgery is conflated with the act of lovemaking. The song starts off dreamily, as if succumbing to a local anaesthetic, before building to the sort of orgasmic climax for which Prince should get residuals. Clark’s repeated plea “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open” could emanate from a desperately injured person or one seeking a tabula rasa for her outward appearance.

Yet it remains. Even the smartest critics were taken aback by the sight of Clark’s tiny frame slashing through Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the Mercury Lounge in May, recasting its dark, nebbish machismo as something they didn’t have language for, as if the Y chromosome alone contains the predisposition to fucking shred. In their own virtuosic manner, Garbus’s remarkable live performances extend her body’s built-in capacities with a simple loop pedal, collaging her own utterances to create an organic funk foundation with a fiercely primal urgency—the tribal face paint doesn’t feel like an affectation.

w h o k i l l is at its most compelling when Garbus unleashes her most primal desires—the “jungle under my skin,” as she calls it—particularly those that don’t jibe with stereotypical understandings of bodily empowerment. On the sultry slow jam “Powa,” she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession “my man likes me from behind,” before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on “Riotriot,” admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It’s a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.

Garbus opens w h o k i l l by speaking truth to state power. By nicking the first two lines of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she twists that song’s claim—that America is made up of sacrificed human bodies—by boldly asking, like Harvey, if that’s necessarily a good thing. As tribal drums layer atop one another, Garbus extends the metaphor of country as human, acknowledging her discomfort in her native land’s embrace, its misdeeds in her name too egregious to overlook. She can’t see a future within America’s arms, but Garbus’s own body politic will incorporate anyone. Most importantly, sacrificing one’s body isn’t required. The only rite of citizenship is answering in the affirmative to the question Garbus is known for yelling out in concert: “Do you wanna LIVE?!”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Beyonce, Nicki, and Merrill Get Optimistic

The most ecstatic noise in Beyoncé’s “Countdown” doesn’t come when B flutters through the vowel-stretched “Boyyyy” at the song’s outset, nor does it come from the blats of brass, nor does it come when she delightedly wraps her voice around the newly minted term of endearment “Boof.” It’s buried so deep in the song’s stuffed-to-the-gills mix that it reveals itself only after her ode to fidelity and baby-making has been fully taken in: It’s an undergrowth of moans, pulsing in time with the rat-tat-tat drumline and underscoring the sensual pleasures that go hand-in-hand with the romantic splendor detailed in the lyrics. The close listener gets rewarded with the knowledge that, why, yes, she did have quite a bit of fun while trying to make that three from the two.

“Countdown” was both one of the standout tracks on Beyoncé’s 4 (#26 album) and a yawp of unbridled joy. And joy was at a premium in 2011, a year that was full of hard times—calamities both man-made and natural, economic uncertainty, the sour political side of the ’90s revival finally manifesting itself. It’s probably not accidental, then, that the song placed high on this year’s poll. Indeed, a lot of the albums and singles that performed well had a sense of wonder about themselves, inviting the listener along on journeys that veered into unexpected places with gusto.

Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” not only had a feel-good story attached to it—it was the Little Bonus Track That Could, a Pink Friday afterthought-turned-Hot 100 force—but it also sparkled sonically, its tale of infatuation manifesting itself physically and seeming to spill out of Minaj’s brain at the speed of light. The upstart uptown genre-melder Azealia Banks used her breakout single “212” as a way to figure out just what she could do with her mouth, whether it was shifting back and forth between ferocious rapping and silky singing, or flicking “that tongue, tongue d-deep in.” Wild Flag’s album (#4) was the work of four veterans of the now-retrofied ’90s indie-rock world who disdained the looking back engaged in by so many of their peers and instead created something wholly new, swearing blood oaths to each other and to the transformative power of rock and roll. Lady Gaga’s (#24 artist) maximalist approach to pop involved throwing as many things that she could—mermaid-sex fantasies, Clarence Clemons, a pro-gay marriage lobbying campaign—at whatever wall happened to be nearby, but her reactions when any of them stuck seemed absolutely giddy. And while Rihanna’s Calvin Harris–assisted “We Found Love” (tied for #18) was a brick house better suited for listening during dance-floor blackouts than anywhere else, its central, endlessly repeated conceit of finding “love in a hopeless place” could have doubled as a palliative for any politics-watcher wondering where all the optimism of 2008 had gone off to.

Even the entrants on my ballot that dealt with more somber themes had something pushing them underneath—PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, my co-No. 1 and the poll’s second-place finisher, quivered with knowledge that the world was in a dark place, its optimism manifesting itself with the declarations that something was wrong, and that the global situation shouldn’t be the way it is right now. Charli XCX’s “Stay Away” was a song about heartbreak that doubled as a realization of the importance of letting others into one’s heart, even if it resulted in some damage here and there; Patrick Stump’s “Everybody Wants Somebody” (from his solo debut Soul Punk, the other record topping my list) was a warning about unrequited love that wrung the joy out of protecting one’s heart so convincingly, it almost argued in favor of longing for someone else.

Before this year’s ballots were even sent out, many outside observers had tagged Bon Iver’s falsetto-swaddled, reverb-drenched second album, Bon Iver, as the likely pick for No. 1; it had Meaning and Artistic Growth, and Justin Vernon was coming off a year where he got an all-important co-sign from last year’s landslide albums-poll-winner Kanye West. To these ears, it sounded mushy and furtive, the work of a dude getting lost in his own depths for the sake of feeling even worse about having done so later; I found myself wishing that he’d edited himself a bit, so his points shone through more. (Although the constant information flow of the current age has made me a little more impatient, other records that could be classified as having “ambiance” also figured out ways to slyly do that or at least hint to the listener that one would be forthcoming.) That w h o k i l l—the second album by Merrill Garbus’s tUnE-yArDs, a shot across the bow that blended the personal and political into a stunning proclamation of faith in the self that quite literally begs “Don’t take my life away” at one point—marched to the top spot instead could speak to an unspoken desire to wrench one’s ears and brains out of the constant stream of bad news and appreciate the miracle that is being fully alive and present in the world, no matter what external, extenuating circumstances might exist.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Pazz & Jop’s Album Results Get Soundscanned

Famously, Nirvana’s major-label debut in 1991 was only expected by David Geffen Company to sell about 100,000 albums, tops. That’s about how much indie godfathers Sonic Youth sold for DGC with their major-label debut, and surely, for Kurt Cobain’s little band, that figure would be a reach.

The reason this probably apocryphal bit of lore is oft-repeated with such delight is the gobsmacking way Nevermind went on to surpass expectations—by a factor of roughly 100 times. What’s gotten lost is what the anecdote reveals about the realism of music-industry expectations. Sonic Youth were the ultimate critics’ band, and a conglomerate-backed label was both willing to sign them and fairly sensible about how many copies they, or a band like them, could shift, largely on the strength of ink-stained wretches’ hosannas. (Attempts to break Thurston and Kim on the radio, via the then-emerging alternative rock format, were halting at best.)

It’s worth reflecting on the 100,000 figure when we consider the winner of the 2011 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Currently at 47,000 in sales, and having never got higher in Billboard than #148, tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is—likely—the lowest-selling and lowest-charting winner in the poll’s history.

I say “likely” because reliable recording-industry sales figures are hard to come by before 1991, when Billboard converted its charts to Nielsen Soundscan data and made them dependably accurate. Hence, it’s hard to know how well, say, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks had sold in America by the time it won the 1977 edition of Pazz & Jop; 47,000 in year one is probably a reasonable figure for them, too, but who knows? Bollocks did eventually go gold, in 1987, and platinum five years after that—sales marks tUnE-yArDs will have trouble reaching.

Garbus’s sales and chart figures might say less about critics’ independence and incorruptibility than about how the album format itself has diminished during P&J’s existence. All but one of Garbus’s 38 fellow Pazz album-winners either eventually went gold or peaked in the Billboard Top 40; of the 20 prior winners released in the data-accurate Soundscan era, all have outsold her. For context, here are the sales of the previous five winners of Pazz & Jop, according to the helpful folks at Nielsen Soundscan, as well as their respective peak positions on the Billboard 200 album chart:

Previous P&J winners

2006 Bob Dylan
Modern Times
1,010,000; Billboard peak No. 1

2007 LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver
178,000; No. 46

2008 TV on the Radio
Dear Science
203,000; No. 12

2009 Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
192,000; No. 13

2010 Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
1,238,000; No. 1

In all five cases, the peak Billboard chart position came in the album’s debut week. Taking Dylan and West out of the equation—each had a serious base of fans boosting their respective discs to the top of the chart—we’re left with a trio of winners in 2007–09 that more closely resemble tUnE-yArDs in pop profile. All three arguably got their first-week chart lift entirely from underground buzz; none had a significant radio presence at the time each album dropped. And even these three acts did better than tUnE-yArDs on the charts.

Generally, albums that win Pazz & Jop peak within the Top 40 of the Billboard 200. Looking just at the Voice poll’s 20 winners from 1991 to 2010, i.e., the Soundscan era in Billboard, we find their mean Billboard 200 peak is 26. That’s a pretty high average for a group of albums that, in their acclaim, are supposedly blind to pop success. All 20 winners made the album chart, and one-fourth actually topped it, including discs by Nirvana, OutKast, and Kanye West; add in discs by Arrested Development and Bob Dylan, and fully half made the chart’s Top 10.

Only four of these 20 albums missed the Top 40; three of the four are by women or are woman-fronted: 1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair (Billboard peak #196), 1994’s Live Through This by Hole (#52), and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams (#65). Albums by ladies tend not to debut well unless they’re solidly in the pop genre; avid male rock fans can aptly be compared with boys who refuse to see a girl-fronted Disney movie in its opening weekend. Happily, acclaimed female rock albums improve in sales over time—Phair’s and Williams’s discs are gold, and Hole’s is platinum.

(The one dude among the foursome of Pazz winners missing the Top 40 is James Murphy, with the aforementioned 2007 winner by LCD Soundsystem. Sound of Silver still isn’t anywhere close to gold.)

Garbus is recording in an era of vastly diminished sales. But that’s vastly diminished compared with 12 to 15 years ago, not five—in fact, album sales in 2011 were up slightly from the prior year. All five of Garbus’s immediate Pazz predecessors peaked higher and sold at least three times as many copies as she has. And even if we give her another year or two to catch up, cracking DGC’s 20-year-old Sonic Youth benchmark is going to be tough.

The pop-culture footprint of our 2011 P&J winner, measured numerically, says more about what’s expected these days from an album than it does about tUnE-yArDs’ cultural potential. A recent L.A. Times article profiling veteran indie label Sub Pop notes that most of the Seattle imprint’s albums “now are budgeted to become profitable by the time they sell 10,000 copies — some even 5,000.” Surely Garbus’s label 4AD had similarly modest expectations for tUnE-yArDs; by that yardstick, w h o k i l l is a smash.

Focusing just on the 2011 poll for a bit, here are cumulative sales of the Top 10 albums of Pazz & Jop 2011, according to Nielsen Soundscan:

1. tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l 47,000
2. PJ Harvey Let England Shake 70,000
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch the Throne 1,232,000
4. Wild Flag 33,000
5. Tom Waits Bad As Me 156,000
6. Adele 21 5,824,000
7. Destroyer Kaputt 32,000
8. Drake Take Care 1,248,000
9. Bon Iver 347,000
10. Shabazz Palaces Black Up 17,000

Including our winner, half the albums sold less than 100,000 copies. Another four ranged from low six figures to just over a million. And then there’s that 10th album (at #6), which outsold the other nine albums combined by more than two million copies.

About three months ago in my Sound of the City column “100 & Single,” I floated the tantalizing possibility that Adele’s 21 might pull what I dubbed (inspired by the EGOT) a PB&G: winning Pazz & Jop, topping Billboard‘s year-end tally of bestsellers, and winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. It’s happened only once before, in 1983, when Michael Jackson’s Thriller won the trifecta. Four P&J winners took home the Grammy but didn’t lead in Billboard; one album, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., was tops in P&J and Billboard but missed the Grammy.

My October semi-prediction looks a bit naïve now—especially given the revelation that several high-profile critics found Adele’s smash album “completely boring”. Still, historically among big hit albums, 21’s sixth-place Pazz finish is impressive. Of the eight albums that both topped Billboard for the year and won the Grammy but didn’t top Pazz & Jop, only one, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, did better in the critics’ tally (fourth place, 1977) than Adele’s did. Most Grammy-and-Billboard smashes do quite poorly on P&J, ranging from a 10th-place showing for Carole King’s Tapestry in 1971 to 58th place for Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2008; three other albums (Saturday Night Fever, The Bodyguard and Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) won industry hardware but didn’t place with the Pazz-pollees at all.

The facile explanation for tUnE-yArDs’ victory over an album like Adele’s is that critics will be critics. But the sheer range of sales figures in the above Top 10 suggests something deeper—never mind the titles whose sales can’t even be measured. At a time when two titles in the Pazz Top 20 are actually free, download-only mixtapes by The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, the very definition of a culturally relevant album is in flux.

Finally, and for contrast, below are the digital sales for the Top 10 songs of Pazz & Jop 2011:

1. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”: 5,813,000

2. Beyoncé, “Countdown”: 325,000

3. Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”: 3,608,000

4. M83, “Midnight City”: 9,000

5. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris”:
1,469,000

6. Azealia Banks, “212”: 6,000

7. Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”:
2,492,000

8. Lana Del Ray, “Video Games”: N/A

9. Adele, “Someone Like You”: 3,750,000

10. Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”: 3,843,000

As is P&J tradition, when it comes to single tracks, the voters had little difficulty rewarding best-sellers. Still, critics like their viral phenomena: the Azealia Banks and Lana Del Rey tracks barely exist outside of YouTube. (The former was released on iTunes late in the year; the latter just last week, hence its lack of sales.)

Even at under five minutes, for recordings in the 2010s, the ratio of cultural footprint to cultural influence is ever-widening. I’m sure Merrill Garbus can relate.