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

1995 Pazz & Jop: Lost in the Soundscape

Buffeted by two equally implacable forces, the advertising department and the hand of God, the 22nd or 23rd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll got off to a depressing start, and not just because the Blizzard of ’96 immobilized New York on our earliest due date since Clay Felker ruled this precinct of Alternia. One of the odd luxuries of our annual retrospective is that it really is one. Where other critics are compelled to sum up a year that hasn’t ended yet, our voters commonly spend the fallow weeks of early January finding out which of their fondly remembered or recently embraced favorites stands up to one-on-one comparison and repeated listening. For me it’s always a pleasant respite —an excuse to have fun and call it work on a job that too often demands the opposite. This January, however, it felt rushed, forced, pinched, its only blessed moments the night I converted my wife to Eric Bachmann (who he, you wonder, as well you might in this ominously private year) and the midnight of Storm Sunday, when we locked James Carter onto our lists as we sat in the dark watching pioneers traverse a white, still Second Avenue.

But soon Second Avenue was a mess, and so was our poll — for a week the Poobahs and their elves alternated between counting the vote and getting it out. Generous though we were with late ballots, the short deadline daunted some — our 278 respondents represented a slight dip in the decade’s 300-ish turnouts. Or maybe the nonvoters just couldn’t get revved up for 1995’s music. With winner and runner-up foregone conclusions (some would say since April), the biggest excitement of the staggered schedule was provided by Oasis and Björk edging past Son Volt and Joan Osborne, or maybe Alanis Morissette and Wilco supplanting the Roots and Steve Earle. This beat watching paint dry, but not smelling grass grow. With young reedmaster Carter flying and Peter Stampfel and Randy Newman passé, your faithful Senior Poobah was reduced to rooting for Wilco — partly to fend off the complementary contagions of Son Volt and Supergrass, mostly just to stay awake. I mean, what a dull, disheartening bunch of finishers.

Back before Public Enemy plus Nirvana set off punk- if not Beatlemania-scale cultural expectations in rock’s long-fractured community, the standard ballot used to lead: “It was the worst year for music since…” One wag even suggested we distribute a form letter to that effect. Me, I rarely think in such terms until my rhetorical labors require it, and I entered January feeling neutral at worst. I knew my A list was kinda quirky, and as my points indicate, I felt uplifted by only the tippy-top of a satisfactory top 10. But in the crass way I measure these things — by counting good records — the year more than held up musically. And although too many people I care for are busy dying and three irreplaceable colleagues were fired in the most brutal management action this place of employment has ever known, the ups outnumbered the downs personally and professionally as well. So how would I have begun my ballot? Something like this: “It was the worst year for humanity since…”

I mean, right — you love music, I love music. It could even be said that music is my life — hyperbolically (“Your CDs or your wife,” sure), but there’s a truth there. Only that truth has limits. Assigned to a concentration camp, I’d no doubt gravitate to the guy with the guitar (guitar, hell — flute), but my passions would be putting food in my belly and getting the fuck out. And in a world consumed by a class war in which the aggressors are the rich and the rich are winning, music’s power to inspire and console is, I’m sorry, decisively diminished. This might be less true if musicians were responding actively to the crisis. But it’s the opposite, and I see no purpose in abjuring what satisfactions remain at my disposal by pretending otherwise. Which I’m afraid makes it the worst year for music since…

[related_posts post_id_1=”692630″ /]

Ordinarily, I consider it impolite to commence these reflections with my faves — by the fifth graf I should at least have named the winner whose mug is up front selling papers, don’t you think? But in this every-person-for-his-or-her-self year I want to note the political inadequacies my own chosen escapes. Joining the gnomic Pavement on the formerly alternative front, Luna’s languidly songful 45th-place Penthouse is the cheekily entitled career album of Harvard trust-fund semipopster Dean Wareham, while the Archers of Loaf’s cheekily dissonant 82nd-place Vee Vee flexes the muscle of four avowedly apolitical North Carolina road musicians, three of them from homes more comfortable than mine (and one of them Eric Bachmann, who also heads my favorite “post-rock” combo, cough cough hack hack ptooey ptooey, the saxy Barry Black). Randy Newman’s Faust (87th) is an insouciantly arrogant El Lay musical comedy, Peter Stampfel’s You Must Remember This… (112th) a recklessly peculiar cover cavalcade. Carter and [File Under Prince] are no-holds-barred roots innovators whose social ideas are inexplicit and sensationalistic, respectively. And Orüj Güvenç’s Ocean of Remembrance, an effort somehow overlooked by the remainder of the electorate, is trance music (the real thing for once) that fuses clinical psychology and Sufism, a faith whose attraction for Western intellectuals I have always attributed to its elitist tendencies.

Except perhaps for Vee Vee — rarely do I so adore a young band so underrated by my young colleagues — my 1995 top 10 achieved a typical consensus: three out of eight in the Pazz & Jop top 40, which makes five out of 10 now that we’re finally ready for the big guys. Ladies and germs, I give you THE UNCHALLENGED ONE-TWO PUNCH OF THE 1995 PAZZ & JOP CRITICS’ POLL. Put your hands together for PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, which got more points than the numbers two and three albums combined. And before you sit down, let’s hear it for Tricky’s Maxinquaye, which got just 63 fewer points than the numbers three and four albums combined. Really, these are some numbers. In 1988, a troika comprising Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and Tracy Chapman very nearly outpointed the next nine finishers. But only one runner-up and one winner have ever piled up such margins, and they sure didn’t do it in the same year: the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls finished second back in new wave 1978, while Hole’s Live Through This steamrollered just a poll ago. Trend or blip? Both, probably. But statistical speculations will have to wait until we honor the complementary triumph of two radically dissimilar records.

In only one way is our famously blues-drenched and verity-revitalizing winner more retro than such trendy neotrads as Oasis, Joan Osborne, and D’Angelo, not to mention our raft of roots-rockers: she has the courage to go for a Great Album and the talent to bring one off. Asked to profile its creator for Spin well before the record was released, I’ve been living with To Bring You My Love for over a year as I write, and while axe-grinders will always finger-point (sings off-key, naughty girl), I’m qualified to affirm what most of you already know: the thing hits hard and holds up even though it’s impossibly old-fashioned, arty, Romantic. It addresses universals in a form as much received as renewed; intrinsic, indelible, and inimitable, its power is in its spiritual yearnings, emotional quests, and delved essences. Polly Jean Harvey can make virtues of such hermeneutic indiscretions for only one reason. She is — and I do my very best not to toss this word at people under 30 — a genius.

Tricky may be a genius too — let a thousand geniuses bloom, given how much we’re accomplishing without them — but although he’s put in a proper apprenticeship on the English trip-hop scene, wherever exactly that is, it’s too soon to know. Anyway, unlike Polly Jean he doesn’t act the genius. Yet even so he’s belittled in certain outposts for encouraging a cult of personality instead of letting the, er, culture express itself through him — or maybe just for making a record “everybody” can like. Applied to an enigma known to perform without lights whose album has yet to make the acquaintance of the Billboard 200, I find these complaints obscure. All I know is that Maxinquaye was at once my ear candy of choice and the strangest, darkest, most formally unreceived album ever to bowl over an electorate that always insists on songcraft in the end, however much rap pacesetters Public Enemy and De La Soul stretched that concept. Granted, he’s Holland-Dozier-Holland compared to Ritchie Hawtin or the Sea and Cake, even Goldie or Raekwon, and without Martine’s spacy vocal stylings his album would barely exist. Nevertheless, Tricky’s seductive ability to transmute hopelessness into escape is realized mostly with texture and mood. And in this he is the opposite of anomalous avant-rockist Polly Jean Harvey.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692625″ /]

Songcraft versus soundcraft is a crucial polarity this year, fused and deconstructed and recombined and mushed up though these abstractions are at their best. So I don’t want to make too much of PJ’s and Tricky’s confluences, such as the tour they shared last spring — they also share a label, after all, and anyway, Tricky’s cooled-out if surprisingly rockish show failed to convert the headliner’s followers. And while in each case a woman singer puts a novel emotional spin on a traditionally male-dominated musical approach, Tricky’s tradition is unformed and Martine is even more unreadable than he is. Still, that probably helps explain the two albums’ otherwise unapproached electoral outreach. Usually four or five records attract at least one in five respondents. But unlike Maxinquaye, Moby’s third-ranked Everything Is Wrong (album of the year in Spin, failed tom make Rolling Stone’s top 10) didn’t altogether shake its dance stigma — or else (my theory) didn’t cohere as magically as its partisans claim. And while Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters, who finished second in Rolling Stone, got just one fewer mention than Moby, our weighted voting system slotted it as a record more liked than loved — both Elastica and Neil Young–Pearl Jam’s Mirror Ball had more passionate stats.

The weakest support ever for top-10 also-rans is the obverse of the chart-toppers’ huge margins, and as I said, both are part trend and part blip. Or at least I hope they’re part blip — hope the worst year for music since… isn’t obliterated with all deliberate speed by 1996 and then 1997. Because in a more general sense this dilution of common enthusiasm has been under way for a decade or two — even in the down year of 1985, John Fogerty’s 10th-place Centerfield (remember that one, roots guys?) got more points proportionally than 1995’s fourth-place Elastica. As taste subcultures are broken down into ever-smaller components by ragged individualists plucking likely-sounding flotsam and jetsam out of a flood of local and specialized releases, diffusion becomes inevitable, and I appreciate its cornucopia effect — on the longest Dean’s List ever, 71 strong, I count 24 genuine indie labels, fewer than 10 the rock/dance/alternative outfits that define the term for most voters. But just to look a gift cornucopia in the mouth, let me mix in another metaphor, one that seemed a quaint historical abstraction until Bosnia: balkanization. The cornucopia’s glories are best utilized by those with broad taste in comestibles. Balkanization’s horrors are best avoided by those with broad taste in people.

Balkanization seemed a distant threat last year, at least to alternarockers, who rooled Pazz & Jop like — well, without trivializing real-life horror, let’s just note that Serbs aren’t the only folks convinced of their cultural superiority. Semipopular guitar bands romped in 1994, and autonomous women got respect for the third straight year. Folk music in the broadest sense had its standard-bearers, and the Mavericks’ Nashville country record counterbalanced Johnny Cash’s Burbank one. But only six black artists finished, none in the top 20, an alarming nadir, and Britannia sunk even lower: Elvis C., Shara Nelson, and Portishead, who give or take a few poppish singles was the closest we got to the burgeoning dance world. And except for grunge immortal Neil Young, over-40s charted only under Rick Rubin’s or Ali Farka Toure’s steam.

All of this made sense critically — it was a hell of a year for semipopular guitar bands. But there was less than no reason to hope it would last, especially given how fast organic culture breaks down into fliers, trends, fads, and tiresome clichés. In 1995, critics made it their business to look askance at the flavor-of-the-month alternapop bizzy being hyped — most visibly on a singles list tattooed with the new wave novelties “Lump,” “Name,” “Hey Man Nice Shot,” and “A Girl Like You.” The symbol of its hegemony, who I’ll bet the franchise isn’t a one-shot in Billboard even if her Pazz & Jop days end as soon as they begin, is the Wicked Witch of the North, Alanis Morissette, reliably reported to have been invented by Madonna herself so she could get away from the publicity machine and have a material child. The symbol of its absurdity was the New South’s answer to Michael Bolton, Alanis’s close personal friend Hootie Rucker, whom some bizzers initially slotted as alternative because they’d never heard of him before, and whom the voters denied but couldn’t ignore.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692617″ /]

With no consensus culture to fall back on, the voters listened more catholically and/or grasped at straws. Four Brits (plus one Icelander) in the top 10 and three in the top four constitute the proudest U.K. showing since 1978; four dance albums in the top 40 and two in the top three constitute the most ecstatic dance showing ever (easy). A dozen black artists made the cut, and although only two went top 20, one was Tricky. Hip hop generated Raekwon’s populist obscurantism and D’Angelo’s minimalist neoclassicism (although Coolio’s populist heart was confined to the singles ballot); jazz and reggae returned to the lists, as did Prince Be and Prince Used To Be. A different and highly disparate bunch of autonomous women checked in — only three of the nine, including our third consecutive female winner, had ever charted, only the winner under her own name — and five top-25 albums wedded male and female energy: Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth from literal married couples, Tricky, Garbage, and the 6ths from professional partnerships of varying conventionality. Dwight Yoakam took the Mavericks’ lateral for an end run. Bruce Springsteen embraced the folk music cause, Emmylou Harris cloaked herself in its aura, and four commercially marginal Midwestern roots-rock bands labored to evoke the same soulful past that the original folkie generation had somehow mistaken for the conformist present. Yet all told, more than a dozen noisy semipopular guitar bands also made the top 40 — most repeaters and a few brand-new, including several alternapop best-sellers who are semi only by association. There was a semipopular piano band too.

All of which looks dandy, and most of which sounds dull and disheartening. It’s clear that last year’s parochialism fed off a true musical bonanza. If anything, alternarock remained healthier than it got credit for in 1995, as Lollapalooza convinced me: Hole and Elastica, Sonic Youth and Pavement, Beck and Moby, the Dambuilders and Superchunk. Although axe-grinders prog and trad whined about “predictability,” I haven’t heard so much exciting music in one day since Monterey. As put into practice by Everclear, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, NOFX, 16th-place Rancid, 18th-place Sonic Youth, Belly, my beloved Archers, and poor Green Day (who plummeted from 12th place to four mentions atop Dookie’s perfectly sincere follow-up, which I hope teaches them never to sell a gazillion records again), Amurrican punk/grunge did more for me than for critics in general this year. Nevertheless, as an old generalist I obviously welcomed their need to seek elsewhere. What dismayed me was what they found.

At my dourest, which is usually, I suspect voters of falling for variations on the very hype they pride themselves on seeing through. Although 27 first-timers made the albums list, this high is compromised by the spinoffs and regroups and past lives that signal gathering professionalism — Björk and Farris, Son Volt and Wilco, Foo Fighters and 6ths had all put other billings on our chart. Indie action was low-normal at best while the spread among alternifying megacorps broadened notably (WEA led as usual, but PolyGram was a strong second, and the other four majors all charted three or four albums, a first). And I note with serene disinterest that one imbalance the voters failed to right was generational: the edgy returns of Ornette Coleman (47th), Yoko Ono (60th), and (I insist) Randy Newman would have been shoo-ins five years ago, and after a 23rd-place rediscovery in 1991, John Prine put out an equally good record that finished 100th. Instead, voters tried to put their own stamp on history.

I can forgive going gaga over catchy trifles like Matthew Sweet or Garbage or the noble Foo Fighters — I did it with Luna myself, only I did it because Penthouse is beautiful (only you know whose ear beauty is in). But too often records were rewarded for tackling worthy concepts that got away — D’Angelo’s Marvin Gaye abstraction, P.M. Dawn’s sample-free r&b, Wu-Tang’s hip-trop, Joan Osborne’s gotham blues mama, Dionne Farris’s intelligent black postdiva, Emmylou Harris’s grievous angel, Smashing Pumpkins’ rock slopera, Ben Folds’s Todd Rundgren tribute, and let us not forget Oasis’s phony Beatlemania rising from the dust (just what we needed — a Cheap Trick revival). No doubt converts will call me a philistine as regards this or that treasure, to which I can only reply, So’s your old man. Except for the slopera and the Rundgren, I have nothing against the concepts, but the basic thrill of these records is that they’re doing the right thing even when they’re not doing the thing right.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692612″ /]

About two touchstones I don’t much enjoy I’m less cocky. Like Maxinquaye, Björk’s hiply well-named Post and Goldie’s schlockily well-named Timeless are formal coups — their mix of song and sound points directions many will follow. Paradoxically, Post registers as one of our most grooveless top-10 albums ever, with the basswise productions of Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper (and the noisescape Tricky kicks in) reduced to orchestral settings over which Björk can recite and emote and shriek and coo and generally dramatize. And if Goldie is to jungle what Tricky is to trip-hop — the “accessible” name brand for strangers in wonderland — then Martin Denny was Dr. Livingston. Occasionally some diva takes up a tune, but this pleasant, far from arhythmic soundspace posits an impressionistic respite from hard-core techno, with warm links to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Rick Wakeman.

Both coups have their connection to the post-rock fiddle-faddle you may have read about, as do several of the weaker finishers on our new compilations list (all but the winner, that means). These were somewhat more grooveless than the dance- and perhaps “world”-friendly finds I’d envisioned, although the category’s instigator, Junior Poobah Ann Powers, harbored no such illusions — or desires. As Erik Davis’s sane if overly visionary counterview emphasizes, dub is the most crucial source of the hipster vogue for slow, exotic instrumentals, and also the most unimpeachable. Hence the real numbers for Macro Dub Infection in an otherwise inconclusive competition that I expect to heat up next year, and hence my critical insecurities, for despite Bruce Sterling, Augustus Pablo, and my friend Greil, I’ve been not getting dub for over a decade, always with the uneasy sense that I’m missing something. But never forget the hipsters’ fatal attraction to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Holger Czukay — the real-life consequences and/or correlatives of the silly loungecore bubble. Also note that Ennio Morricone did better with reissue voters than Can, all of whose albums were put back on the market by Mute for a grand total of four mentions — and that just as I prefer Sufis when it comes to trance, I prefer Pygmies when it comes to jungle. Heart of the Forest, the real thing — dig those crazy water drums.

If the futurism doesn’t look so bright this year, the sense of history is also dim. I actively deplore only two of what I count as seven arrantly trad finishers (eight if you buy this thing about the Geraldine Fibbers being country), and actively admire Steve Earle’s 41st-place Train a Comin’. (The 42-50 also-rans: Cesaria Evora, the Roots, Portishead, Luna, Mary J. Blige, Ornette, Supergrass, Vic Chesnutt, Helium — as varied as the top 40, and as full of grasped straws.) But my choices and the electorate’s vary inversely: the Bottle Rockets’ stroke of local color is down in the thirties with the light, smooth Wilco and the soulful, densely worked Jayhawks, while Emmylou Lanois and the revolting Son Volt crowd up behind supposed blueswoman and nice enough gal Joan Osborne, who might at least offer them a few tips on avoiding sanctimony. These priorities befit an escapist, soundscape-ridden year. The Bottle Rockets rock out more than they root around, and achieve what I like in my roots-rock: class consciousness, which usually requires words. They’re specific, strike one, and funny, fouling the next pitch into the seats. Son Volt’s Jay Farrar is too smart and too stupid to take such risks. His lonesome drawl as redolent of PBS docudramas as his meticulously cornball music is of honky-tonks imagined at hootenannies, he subsumes his songs in the soundscape he hopes sells them. As for Emmylou, her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it’s fraying with age is ripe for Daniel Lanois’s one admittedly beguiling trick: gauze over every aural detail and call the soft focus soul.

Harris’s instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, because this inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup (check her out on Earle’s similar career move) has no vision of her own for Lanois to obscure. Tragedy was left to the self-determined Springsteen, whose soundscape was at once the most courageous and the most depressing of the year — and since a soundscape was hardly Springsteen’s intention, also the most contradictory. Springsteen’s motives were even better than usual. Astonishingly and disgracefully, he was (with partial exceptions for Buju’s bondage, Rancid’s solidarity, and Moby’s jeremiad of a CD booklet) the only artist in the entire top 40 to do more than hint with the odd tale or image that 1995 might have been the worst year for humanity since… — to directly address the war on the poor (and, increasingly, what is called the middle class) that is now the political agenda of the industrialized world. Of course there were moral outcries and desolate backdrops from Tricky to Neil Young to Raekwon to the Bottle Rockets to the Geraldine Fibbers. Of course improving society isn’t what artists are for. And of course my own faves are just as clueless. But when the political culture is healthy, a portion of artists will preach and protest and prophesy, even if it’s only talk. I mean, four years ago I was apologizing for the ideological fecklessness of an album list with room for Public Enemy, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Billy Bragg, the Mekons, and, Lord-a-mercy, Linton Kwesi Johnson. I’m appalled by what’s been lost — by what no longer seems possible to artists I’m used to expecting great things from. As most of its admirers realize, that sense of impossibility is the ultimate message and underlying burden of The Ghost of Tom Joad.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692608″ /]

The album reads well enough. But supporters should ID its “Atlantic City” or “Highway Patrolman” before citing Nebraska, and listen to Struggle before they go on about Woody. Guthrie is less literate and detailed, but he figured out a way to sing his bare-bones horror stories of battles mostly lost. He was outraged rather than sad, and his outrage is almost jaunty at times — even, dare I say it, ironic (bitterly ironic, that is). Maybe he had the guts to come on so cool because he wasn’t beset by class guilt (although in fact his background was more genteel than Springsteen’s, his everyman persona a construction), but he was abetted by, dare I say it, the Communist Party — a bunch of acquaintances who shared his anger and believed they could do something about it. Springsteen plainly doesn’t, and in addition is so frustrated by the paradoxes of his outreach — by his conviction that the very gifts that enable him to engage a large audience will distract it irrevocably from what he has to say — that he chooses to muffle his songs, so that only those who really want to hear their despair will bother trying. His tunes, arrangements, and mysteriously praised “phrasing” aren’t just forbiddingly minimal — often they’re rather careless. This Brechtian strategy may be justified aesthetically. But it’s no paradox that it fails to engage — and no capitalist plot that it’s sold dick, either. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a bore. It is recommended to the many people of conscience who’ve developed a taste for ambient techno and the Sea and Cake.

In short, the bravest artist of 1995 ended up in the same trap everybody else claimed as home. Reading the comments, I began to think the voters were angrier about Hootie and Alanis than Gingrich and Giuliani, and it could be. What’s the point of getting mad at a system you’ve long assumed has nothing in it for you? A general resignation has clearly set in, and grasped straws won’t prevent younger critics’ now habitual us-and-them skepticism — as regards Washington, music they didn’t know about first, whatever — from slipping into garden-tending know-nothingism. Alternative cultures seem self-sufficient when they’re peaking, as alt-rock did in 1994. That’s why the inevitable 1995 commercialization/rationalization of grunge/punk excites such fear and loathing. It’s also why a clutch of self-defined pioneers is convinced the Next Significant Thing will be found at that spot just over the horizon where their personally rediscovered disco, art-rock, crappy jazz, minimalism, and electronic music must certainly converge — the perfect site for New Alternia, where a person can live or at least listen free forever if only he or she is hep enough.

And though others may take hope in all the less arcane directions voters pointed, something is fucked up when artists as apparently dissimilar as Raekwon, Emmylou Harris, D’Angelo, and Son Volt — or, hell, Yo La Tengo, maybe even James Carter (not Tricky, he builds the horror right in) — devote themselves to soundscape construction instead of working to make themselves understood. If these soundscapes were marked as respites, aural environments where the beleaguered can replenish their energies, it might be different — that’s the Sufis’ gift. Instead they posit a self-sufficiency that is one more metaphor with depressing real-life correlatives and consequences.

I’m a fan of bohemias, and a bigger fan of the postpunk music and sensibility that generated the counterculture this poll now quantifies. I have scant tolerance for the puritan distinction between “new” and “novel” that would deny us both transient thrills and a greater array of genuine innovations than the puritans admit (or want any part of). And I’m proud of all the artists Pazz & Jop has gotten to first. In recent years, however, the impulse to get there first has looked more and more like a reflex in the service of a lie, whether that lie be the aura of hip, the myth of progress, the dream of eternal youth, the chimera of immortality, or the story you need to sell to pay the goddamn rent. That’s why those 27 first-timers obviously aren’t the hook here. Rather than portending a brave new anything, they merely signify an endangered counterculture desperate to make of its raison d’être — and a journalistic culture eager to make of its subject — a system that isn’t just self-sufficient but self-renewing. It will come as no surprise that I’m unconvinced. All of us — musicians, listeners, and the writers who at their most effective serve as an interface between the two — are implicated here. And I say that only if all of us make it a priority to assure that our pleasures mean outside themselves, those pleasures will seem more rushed, forced, and pinched every year. Until finally the pleasures dry up, we give up, or both.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1995

1. PJ Harvey: To Bring You My Love (Island)

2. Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island)

3. Moby: Everything Is Wrong (Elektra)

4. Elastica: Elastica (DGC)

5. Neil Young: Mirror Ball (Reprise)

6. Foo Fighters: Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capitol)

7. Björk: Post (4AD/Elektra)

8. Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia)

9. Yo La Tengo: Electr-O-Pura (Matador)

10. Oasis: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Epic)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1995

1. Coolio: “Gangsta’s Paradise” (MCA Soundtracks)

2. Edwyn Collins: “A Girl Like You” (Bar/None/A&M)
Alanis Morissette: “You Oughta Know” (Maverick/Reprise)

4. Elastica: “Connection” (DGC)

5. TLC: “Waterfalls” (LaFace)

6. Joan Osborne: “One of Us” (Blue Gorilla/Mercury)

7. PJ Harvey: “Down by the Water” (Island)

8. TLC: “Creep” (LaFace)

9. (Tie) Dionne Farris: “I Know” (Columbia)
Shaggy: “Boombastic” (Virgin)

—From the February 20, 1996, 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

1994 Pazz & Jop: Hegemony Sez Who? Does ‘Alternative Rock’ Rule or Rool?

The shoo-in winner of the 21st or 22nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is hardly a shock, except perhaps to those who’ve declared the nifty little pop band Green Day a sign of the zeitgeist. Most wily young alternacrits had handicapped Hole’s Live Through This at No. 1 months ago, and without much to-do about her gender. One reason Liz Phair’s status as our first female victor in 19 years was so momentous was that it signaled the very change in rock’s sexual politics that renders Courtney Love’s status as our second consecutive female victor relatively incidental. Her gender is integral to her appeal — at the core of what she says and how she says it, essential by definition to her descents into the madness of sexism. But it’s no longer headline news in a milieu where female artists may finally have achieved a measure of permanent respect. Zeitgeistwise, Love signifies as a bohemian — totally identified with a subculture she scolds, consults, and gives herself up to every time she mounts a stage — before she signifies as a woman. And she also signifies as a widow before she does as a woman. Only I don’t really mean widow, I mean FOK, and maybe FOK should come first.

I mean, we got Friends of Kurt all over this poll. We got his wife’s breakout at number one, his group’s exequy at number four, his Dutch uncle’s tribute at number five; we got his new buddy Michael Stipe rediscovering the guitar at three and his replacement love object Trent Reznor superceding the guitar at nine and Seattle’s Soundgarden inhabiting their groove at 11 and Seattle’s Pearl Jam eyeballing his death mask at 25. We got a singles list featuring five records by the above and a video list featuring three of those. We got a bunch of Pazz & Jop-approved and -unapproved “alternative” albums going multiplatinum, never mind Hole’s gold. In short, we got the Nevermind revolution, three years after Nirvana’s major-label debut transformed the Amerindie aesthetic into a corporate tool. Alternative doesn’t just rool, it rules; it’s mass culture, mainstream, hegemonic. Leaving us with not just the eternal question “Alternative to what?” but the brand-new conundrum “Hegemonic sez who?”

On the most obvious level, Pazz & Jop ’94 is the triumph of a subculture and a generation — the nationwide postpunk bohemia that has fed into our poll since the early ’80s, back when everybody from R.E.M. to the Minutemen were critics’ bands. That the triumph is fundamentally symbolic — limited not just to the universe of signs, but to an attempt to quantify quality there — doesn’t nullify its sweep. Talk about your blitzkrieg bop. In 1994, Pazz & Jop’s politely ecumenical mix of Euro and Afro, Yank and furriner, fart and turk was demolished. This was the sorriest year for black music in Pazz & Jop history: the six black artists in the top 40, one in the top 30, and zero in the top 20 are the fewest since we started counting to 40 in 1979; except for 1978, when there were zero in the top 20 but two in the top 30, they’re the fewest ever. The three albums from the British Isles also represent an all-time low, reached just once before. Ambient ethno his specialty, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was the sole “world music” finisher as well as one of the six blacks, and he needed help from Ry Cooder, one of just three prepunk survivors to make our list. That’s also a record, and at least Ry’s only half a ringer: his fellow oldsters are denim-clad Neil “Forever” Young, whose postpunk affinities date to 1979, and basic-black Johnny “Hard” Cash, whose Rick Rubin–masterminded acoustic pseudocountry record impressed young death-trippers worried that a “real” gangsta might beat them up. As in the “real” world, where people buy their records, Cash’s support from fans of the Mavericks, the Nashville-massaged nuevo honky-tonkers whose 35th-place ranking was an encouraging anomaly, was random at best.

Don’t let my dismay mislead you — as a matter of sheer taste, a judgment of where the musical/cultural action was and wasn’t in 1994, I go along with the electoral trend. It was a great year for good new-fashioned guitar-band rock and roll. This was the first time since 1987 when I didn’t put a hip hop record or two in my top 10. Ditto for Afropop. In fact, the sole black voice among my favorites was provided by dance diva Heather Small on one of the two Brit albums in my top 40. M People’s Elegant Slumming came in an ill-informed 55th with the voters, lower than any other record I gave points to; the other selections in my most critically conventional top 10 in memory finished 1-2-4-10-18-20-21-27-43. The coots on my ballot are Los Lobos spinoff the Latin Playboys, who I assume are in their forties; the mom-and-pop band that is the paradoxically named Sonic Youth, who I know are in their forties; Bob Mould of Sugar, who retreated to the boho enclave of Austin at 34; and Iris DeMent, who at 33 makes a matched Pazz & Jop set with 35-year-old Victoria Williams, two chin-up Southern aunts to balance off sourpusses Young and Cash, although both are young enough to be their sisters (and my daughters). Except for Sugar, all four of these artists were Consumer Guided at an overcautious A minus only to overwhelm me with mature musical command — how rich and right they sounded as waveforms in the air. But it was under-30s like Beck and Hole and Sebadoh and Pavement and most of all Nirvana — as well as such voter favorites as Soundgarden and Green Day and to some extent Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys — who spoke most compellingly to my sense of history. And in this respect I may well have been hearing them differently from their natural-born fans.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692625″ /]

Not one to abjure the comfy emotions of uncledom, I’ve always taken an indulgent attitude toward Amerindie – ingrates might call it condescending. Over the past decade, postpunk has outproduced even such pleasure-intensive subgenres as rap and Afropop, and in addition it’s held out hope for bohemia — for disssenting subcultures where new ways of doing things can be tested. But bohemias are silly and deluded places. Back when my hair was halfway down my back and my Lower East Side apartment cost $45 a month, I scoffed at hippieville’s insularity, self-righteousness, privilege, and half-assed analysis of the marketplace. And in the postpunk era I’ve been wont to ask, “Why so glum, chum?” The charges of nihilism endured by young people with nose rings and unusual hair are dumber than the young people themselves, and not just because nihilism is rarer than it’s given credit for — in artistic output and personal relations both, alternakids make room for considerable kindness and enough hope, and their bleakest moments tap into a musical energy capable of reversing the negative charge. Often, however, the polarity remains unchanged, leaving only misery and rage, passivity and sloth, willful incoherence and helpless sarcasm, naive cynicism and cheap despair. And even when it does go positive — as with Nirvana above all, or Beck — it’s hard for anyone who’s spent 30 years watching fucked-up kids get lives not to point out that there are more direct routes from A to B. Growing up hurts. Duh.

By November, however, I was feeling more simpatico. Partly it was coming to terms with Kurt. Weighing in late, after the bullshit had cleared, I read several books, reimmersed in his catalogue, and got serious with MTV Unplugged, music I had earlier dismissed regretfully as a low-energy holding action turned last will and testament. But although like most live albums this one isn’t without redundancies and flat moments, it goes a long way toward establishing Cobain’s genius. By singing his opaque lyrics instead of howling them, he shades in his affect, and Nevermind’s and In Utero’s as well — thus helping well-adjusted optimists like me empathize not just with his pain but with the extravagant alienation that fed off it. And by November, it wasn’t just a dead guy making me feel that way. As a left-of-McGovernik electoral skeptic, I don’t believe a shift of a few percentage points among lever-pulling registered voters signals a transformation of the national character. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frightening to watch editors and pundits leap slavering to that self-fulfilling analysis. It doesn’t mean the real-life consequences of the Republican takeover won’t be horrific for Americans who can least afford more shit. And it doesn’t mean that without Tom Foley to kick around anymore, the nattering nabobs of negativity holding forth on Capitol Hill — not to mention the medium that long ago gave us rock and roll — won’t now take out after more genuinely marginal types, “alternative” rock (and “alternative” newspapers) included.

So my November was as shitty as many Pazz & Joppers’ April, a disjunction in timing suitable to someone who has long believed rock and roll shouldn’t be a religion — that if your life is saved by rock and roll, either it would have been saved anyway or it wasn’t only you don’t know it yet. Kurt’s suicide distressed me, but it didn’t surprise me much, and it took the equally unsurprising suicide of America’s corporate liberals to traumatize me into feeling it as deeply as my young friends did. Suddenly all the anarchic, discordant records I already considered 1994’s best were expressing an inchoate rage that I felt. Suddenly the loopy jokes, bitter asides, and free dissociations of Beck and Cobain made perverse sense. Suddenly all that angst and confusion and cynicism and despair felt like part of my daily life.

The under-35 Amerindie natives who now constitute our largest voting bloc rarely fret so about personal identification. Although some alternacrits look back wistfully to when they could fairly be characterized as under-30, even under-25, for them — and for most of today’s rock criticism audience, even in this historically hyperconscious, culturally catholic periodical — discordant-to-anarchic guitars are the world. Many respondents delightedly or defiantly or dutifully or desperately broaden their aural perspectives, and only a few are so ignorant or intolerant that they never venture out of the compound. But whatever smorgasbord of hip hop and funk and jazz and r&b and classical and pop and blues and country and dance and trance and African and Hispanic and Asian (and lounge?) they sample, guitar bands of a certain scruffiness remain their staple diet. For 10 or 15 years these critics’ lives have revolved around clubs, shops, and radio stations that specialize in such bands, and far from finding the musical language limited, they suspect, more as a habit of thought than a tenet of faith, that it can be adapted to any meaning worth expressing, any need worth satisfying — at least any meaning or need that interests them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692617″ /]

I don’t want to overstate how narrow this world is. Many alternative-identified voters — although too separated from each other (and probably their faculties) to comprise any counterconsensus — would find our top 40 hopelessly pop, slick, unindie, etc. Anyway, discordance is a dinosaur-era tradition — cf. Neil Young, cf. Soundgarden, cf. even pomo scam artist Jon Spencer — that remains discreet in such new singer-songwriters as Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh and to a lesser extent the postmodern folkie Beck and to a greater extent the premodern folkie Johnny Cash and to any extent you care to calibrate the eternal folkie Jeff Buckley, and just about inaudible in such alternative-by-association singer-songwriters as Freedy Johnston and Victoria Williams. Moreover, while such finishers as industrialist Nine Inch Nails and rap-derived Beastie Boys and demo-hawking Magnetic Fields and pop-ambient Portishead and fiddler-engineer Lisa Germano and music therapist K. McCarty and gosh-jazzlike Soul Coughing all utilize guitar sounds, not one made a true guitar-band record. So there’s variety aplenty on our list. Even if Nine Inch Nails and Portishead are both technoid, one’s as assaultive as Archie Shepp, the other as soothing as the MJQ. Even if Pavement and Pearl Jam are both guitar-driven, one’s as cool as Sade, the other as corny as Mariah Carey. And even if Michael Stipe and Courtney Love are both politically outspoken FOKs, one will settle for a cup of coffee while the other wants the most cake.

So, OK, I’m being fair, right? And remember, I said this was a great year for loud guitar bands, got off on most of the faves myself. Yet seven of our top 12 — Hole, Pavement, R.E.M., (the admittedly unplugged) Nirvana, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, and Green Day, with Young and Beck and Nine Inch Nails this close sonically and lucky sophomore Liz Phair not all that far away (which in case you’ve lost count leaves Uncle Johnny standing alone with his unwhine and his hand-powered axe) — somehow seems too uniform. It’s exclusionary, myopic; it can’t last, it won’t last, and even though it vindicates all of us (not just Amerindie natives but their older supporters) who’ve been fending off rock-is-dead rumors for as long as we can remember (would you believe 1969?), I don’t want it to last. Gratified though I am by how my favorites placed, that’

s all the more reason for me to suspect that this year my dissents from the consensus aren’t just nitpicks, judgment calls, and specialized pleasures.

For starters, there’s the critics’ hype and fantasy of the year, Guided by Voices: nerd concocts obscure hookfests in basement, transmutes magically into Michael J. Fox onstage. And hey, he’s almost old besides, just barely under-35, plus he has a real job. (Let me here give thanks that my fourth-grader is taught by someone who loves her job rather than Robert Pollard, who has bigger dreams. At least Courtney limits her ministrations to her own kid.) Then there are the mainstream hypes: Big Jawn, who’ll capitalize by collaborating with the Dust Brothers on the vinyl-prereleased Outlaw Rap, and Ms. Liz, lavishly forgiven for producing a barely adequate follow-up instead of an unmistakable sophomore stiff. There’s the future presaged by the least enthusiastic EP list in poll history — the 1994 album by the Pizzicato Five, who with 15 EP mentions would have been fifth in 1993, finished below 140. There’s a 41-50 list where “alternative” continues to wield an iron hand: Veruca Salt, American Music Club, Sonic Youth, L7, Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Jack Logan, Seal, Seefeel, Wu-Tang Clan. There’s the disgraceful shortfall of the noisebringers of 1987, Sonic Youth (43rd) and Public Enemy (60th), perennials who elaborated their innovations with something very much like wisdom in 1994 and were counted old and in the way by voters whose tradition of the new makes them semiofficial biz interns, chain-gang volunteers shoveling bands into buzz bins. And there’s the collective point inflation of Phair, Kristin Hersh, Luscious Jackson, Lisa Germano, and the less female-identified K. McCarty, which suggests to my obviously nonfemale ears an electorate that considers gender solidarity (by men as well as women) a suitable substitute for full-service politics.

I do more or less exempt Hole from this charge. Live Through This’s punk song sense, screechy lyricism, and all-around voracity would have taken it top five if Kurt had given up music to become a narcotics agent. Still, I note that Courtney could be the second straight winner to make girls who don’t know any better think twice about the perils of feminism. Liz Phair didn’t “sell out,” children, but she sure did “freak out,” as we used to say, so you have to wonder when the far crazier Courtney’s far more stressful bout of fame will simply waste her, to the relief of the fools who find her bad personality and lust for attention distasteful when in fact they’re her skillfully orchestrated aesthetic ground. I’m not asking Courtney over for dinner, but I am rooting for her, because I think she’s smart (and lustful) enough to make a great record, not just a fortuitously timed very good one — a record that bounced around the bottom of my top 12 along with five other guitar albums, landing higher than it probably deserved. Which is to admit that I don’t entirely exempt Hole from suspicions of special-interest support. But it’s OK, really — since one proof of Nirvana’s greatness was the spontaneous antisexism of its ordinary-joe apotheosis, it’s only natural that girls in Nirvana’s wake should get extra credit for being girls. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help me hear their records. With Hersh especially the disconnection may be personal — I’ve never gotten Laura Nyro, but I grant others their response to her emotionalism. With Luscious Jackson, however, I’m positive there’s not much there, because I wish it was, and so feel certain they’re being rewarded for their (theoretically) funky agape as Veruca Salt are passed over for their cynicism or calculation or something — which I find inaudible, and isn’t it the stuff you can hear that matters in the end?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692612″ /]

Given my feelings in the Veruca Salt matter, which inspired water-balloon attacks and even food fights in a community you’d think had more important things to argue about, I’m relieved the critics had enough fun in them to select “Seether” their No. 2 single, behind the song of the year, Beck’s “Loser.” And there were plenty of titles not on top-40 albums in the lower reaches of that list, which is always a sign of health — of voters actively enjoying records with a life of their own. Seven of the top 10, however, were from top-40 albums, the most since 1986. Worse still for pluralists, six of these came from “alternative” albums in the top 15 and only two didn’t score as videos. Worse than that, the five rap singles were the fewest since 1987, and only one of what might loosely be called the three dance records — Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” — could also be called a club record.

I assume these patterns aren’t permanent, but they worry me. In the techno era, dance music has become such a DJ’s medium that hits no longer cross over automatically — you have to seek them out, which can seem like one of the seven labors of Lester Bangs in a market predicated on mastermixing, exoticism, and disposability. As for what any critic worth his or her baseball cap now calls hip hop, Touré’s unapology (headed “Skills, Son”) speaks for itself. I’m enough of an East Coast chauvinist to give props to several of his designated aesthetic milestones; at his behest I’m reconsidering Wu-Tang, and nonspecialist though I be, I could always hear the art in Jeru and Nas (with the proviso that Nas’s music is in his rhyming/rapping). But the questions Touré barely thinks to ask are precisely those so many more-alternative-than-thous consider beneath them. Why should anyone outside the hip hop community care? And isn’t the failure to induce outsiders to care an artistic flaw in itself? In a culture of overproduction, skills aren’t all that hard to come by.

It’s true that the core audience for albums like Illmatic and The Sun Rises in the East seems economically self-sustaining, and it’s undeniable that hip hoppers are historically justified in paying small mind to outsiders — if not the large number of African American music lovers with no interest in Jeru’s subtly disquieting beats, certainly white pleasure-seekers. As the American apartheid rap prophets ranted about becomes a malignancy so virulent I won’t waste space on the exceptions, racial separatism — deliberate or de facto, power play or default position — becomes ever more inescapable in hip hop. Not to respect the impulse is to give too much slack to the racism it reacts against. But it has to trouble integrationists — because we don’t like being left out, sure, but also because it seems short-sighted. It’s not just that uncommitted fans who are given an, er, alternative will probably pass on spare purist beats yoked to in-crowd rhymes — hip hop that rejects pop music and pop imagery. It’s that there’s no guarantee the larger black audience will provide sustenance once somebody comes up with a more reassuring and legible option. One thing that can be said for Pazz & Jop’s alternarockers, including the dubious ones, is that as heirs of the dominant culture they know how to make themselves legible. A hip hopper or anyone else could be forgiven for confusing K. McCarty and Lisa Germano at a distance, but in sound and sense, the distinctions between them are still broader than the quite real distinctions that differentiate Nas and Jeru.

What’s more, this counts for something. Pazz & Jop rewards legibility — pop hooks, pop success — and that’s as it should be. Of course it’s about aesthetics, about the enduring satisfaction experienced listeners find in their records. And right, surface meanings don’t endure as reliably as the stuff you can hear. But one way or another this is still pop music, and for most of us, sharing its outreach validates and enriches its satisfactions. The belated Nirvana revolution produced broad-based sales on a scale that was only a projection in 1991. It sweeps into prominence one- (or two-) hit platinum (or multiplatinum) wonders like Weezer and Offspring (two album mentions each) as well as non-Billboard 200 critics’ choices like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. And if it’s a trifle giddy in its self-regard, its landslide here was assured as much by generalists swept away by a cresting subgenre as by the Amerindie bloc. Even at that, had our electorate been approximately 15 per cent African American, as were our invitees, rather than 8 per cent, which is what we got back, we would have gotten a more useful overview of the nation’s hip hop succés d’estimes. My guess: baby gangsta Warren G still on top, Wu-Tang a finisher, Biggie Smalls well up from 68, Public Enemy and the Digables (and Jeru) holding if they’re lucky.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692608″ /]

Generalizing about blocs is tricky — most African American critics, for instance, are not hip hop specialists (and many who are don’t credit our vote any more than the government’s). Still, I’m struck by the third-place reissue — Bar/None’s Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, by ’60s Mexican pop-mewzick orchestrator Esquivel. Esquivel is a wild-eared kitschmeister whose vogue is generational — over-40s won’t give him try two because he reminds them of the hi-fi pap their parents used to drive them out of the rec room with. But beyond pomo’s weakness for anticanonical nose-tweaking, his demographic edge was Bar/None’s mailing list, which reaches lots of youngsters who may not see a free reissue all year. No matter how shrewd you are at the used-CD store, you can only vote for records you hear; a slab of world-historical genius like the Louis Armstrong box made 34 ballots instead of 150 because no more than (a wild guess) 60 respondents were serviced with it. And that isn’t just because publicists are chintzy with big-ticket packages — it’s because many voters receive only “alternative” product, if that, from the major labels. As rock history expands in every direction, it’s damn near impossible to become a young generalist, and the majors, for whom ’zines and local weeklies are an adjunct of the boutique marketing that now complements all blockbuster strategies, don’t care if they make things worse — specialists are ideal chain-gang fodder. For somebody so balmy as to still believe in criticism, this is tragic. I’d like to think that, given the chance, many young crits would find Slim Gaillard (eight votes, not bad considering) pretty anticanonical. Unlike Esquivel, he means to be funny.

Of course, that’s assuming young alternacrits want to become generalists. In fact, most of them can’t be bothered, especially when it comes to contemporary pop, defined by purists as what happens when a record on Matador is distributed by Atlantic and by triumphalists as the shallow stuff dumb people buy instead of Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash, Tall Dwarfs, or Anal Cunt. And to me insularity on this scale looks suspiciously like a species of, well, suicide. Hegemonic sez who? In the world where people buy their records, our assembled tastemakers’ landslide is merely a thriving pop-music taste culture. My hope is that — like alternacheerleader Renée Crist (see “Fun Matters”), who’s probably too openhearted to be typical — alternacrits and the subculture they represent are intelligent enough to put out a few feelers when the truism that it can’t last hits home as truth. My fear is that a taste of power will put the kibosh on whatever chance the alternarock bohemia had of not ending up yet another self-contained enclave in a balkanized Amerikkka where one citizen in eight now pays a community association to police the streets.

The strangest thing about our national-election commentary this year is that with a few notable exceptions there wasn’t any — especially from alternacrits, who had plenty to say about Courtney’s flawed feminism, who’s really punk, and whether Minty Fresh is a Geffen front. The mood I sense is that Washington is them, alternarock is us, and let’s hope the twain never meet, because we’ve now got a big enough piece of the pie to feed us in perpetuity. Not the whole pie, even in music-biz terms, not actual hegemony, but we’re not greedy. As indicated, I think this is deluded. Since the right-wing agenda is as much cultural as economic, a reaction to everything “the ’60s” are thought to have done to this happy land, direct attacks on weirdos correctly perceived as modern hippies are inevitable once hippie sellouts like Bill’n’Hill are out of the way — that is, yesterday. If alternarock should prove more a fad than seems likely, our piece of pie will shrink pronto. And while alternarock had developed a solid infrastructure well before the big boys started throwing money at it, key components of that infrastructure are now in peril — left-of-the-dial radio, college loans, relatively humane public-service jobs, and the whole edifice of middle-class leisure on which slackerdom is based. But why fool around? The main reason alternarock separatism bothers me is that I think it’s wrong. It isn’t just intellectually bankrupt for critics to ignore or dismiss music that doesn’t fall into their laps — by which I mean not yet more indie obscurities but hip hop, dance music, straight pop, and, increasingly, a canon that ought to be understood before it’s rejected or reconfigured. It’s also morally weak. So there.

I say this in full confidence that some will ponder and others jeer, and I’m Dutch uncle enough to believe both responses are healthy. We always need young jerks pumping obscurities no matter how useless 95 per cent of them are. For years I’ve been grousing about the ideology now dubbed lo-fi — the notion that poorly engineered records are aesthetically and spiritually superior to ones where you can hear separate instruments and make out some of the words. One of my problems with Live Through This, in fact, is that I suspect it shortchanges Hole’s guitar sound — Courtney’s singing is lo-fi enough on its own. And one reason I love MTV Unplugged in New York is that I can hear Kurt’s every creak. But as it turns out, my three favorite 1994 albums deploy the lo-fi idea instead of stupidly embracing it. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star cuts the modest gloss of Dirty and Goo with a textured evocation of where Sonic Youth are going and where they’ve been. Mellow Gold uses sounds of vastly disparate purity to create a convincing neorealist environment for Beck’s best-recorded and best recorded songs. And the Latin Playboys — David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Mitchell Froom, and Tchad Blake, whose big statements on Kiko I found sententious, cautious, and, well, overproduced — construct dream music that reveals ambient techno for the cerebrum trip it is. Without considering content or zeitgeist, I made Latin Playboys my No. 1 because it was the most beautiful record I’d heard in years. But in a separatist year when this nation’s ample xenophobia has come down hardest of all on California’s Hispanics, maybe it has more to teach than I thought. Sure reaching out and touching somebody is a corporate hype. But like “alternative rock,” that ain’t all it is.

[related_posts post_id_1=”705021″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1994

1. Hole: Live Through This (DGC)

2. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Monster (Warner Bros.)

4. Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC)

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)

6. Liz Phair: Whip-Smart (Matador)

7. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (American)

8. Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (Scat)

9. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

10. Beck: Mellow Gold (DGC)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1994

1. Beck: “Loser” (DGC)

2. Veruca Salt: “Seether” (DGC)

3. Coolio: “Fantastic Voyage” (Tommy Boy)

4. Warren G: “Regulate” (Violator/RAL)

5. Beastie Boys: “Sabotage” (Grand Royal/Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Warner Bros.)

7. Pavement: “Cut Your Hair” (Matador)

8. (Tie) Hole: “Doll Parts” (DGC)
Liz Phair: “Supernova” (Matador)

10. Offspring: “Come Out and Play” (Epitaph)

—From the February 28, 1995, 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

1990 Pazz & Jop: Hard News in a Soft Year

The night Voice music editor Joe Levy and I began tabulating the 17th (or 18th) Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, the war had been on for more than a week, and my CNN habit was in remission. So we played music uninterrupted as we counted from 8:30 till 4 and 9:30 till 1. Though Public Enemy led for the first quarter (wouldn’t that piss people off?) before giving way to Sinéad O’Connor (who dominated straighter, smaller polls), by bedtime Neil Young looked like the shoo-in we’d figured. We were having fun, sampling dark horses (matched Replacements surrogates Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls) and cracking wise about other people’s tastes (today Tim Buckley, tomorrow Essra Mohawk). Glimpsing the top of the mountain (289 voters, 34 more than the 1989 record), we broke for lunch, picked up a paper, and there it was: oil slick all over the front page, for me an even worse nightmare than the bombing of Tel Aviv. Suddenly fun was beyond us. Back upstairs, after a brief TV fix, I felt compelled to hear music that was painful and familiar: Wild Gift, Exile on Main Street.

As it happened, our return-mail date was January 17, so that many out-of-towners found themselves trying to say something clever about their fave albums as the UN deadline passed and the countdown began. Geopolitics put our little world in perspective — or so it seemed in late January. But one reason the gulf war is the most disastrous event of my conscious lifetime is that it tempts us to obsess on it at a time when so much else desperately requires our attention. Culture vulture though I am, I wouldn’t put the death of rock and roll up there with nationwide bank robbery, semitropical winters, the future of excommunism, or even the budgetary suicide every public school parent is up against — especially since I suspect the obituaries are premature yet again. But there they were, set off by Billboard chart-watcher Paul Grein’s observation that 1990 was the first year since 1963 that not a single guitar band had a number one album. And as I pored over the mountain, I realized that for many critics, especially sharp young ones and bitter old ones, 1990 seemed like a turning point. Something is happening, and nobody really knows what it is — me included, so don’t get your hopes up.

Poll results reflect this uneasiness only insofar as they represent small departure from recent trends — fail to provide so-called trendmakers the breakthrough they crave. Never have albums seemed more irrelevant. As Mike Rubin notes in the “Yesterday’s Papers” section — and I recommend you read the conversations I’ve constructed from the ballots before winding through my inescapably inconclusive comments, which I’ve held down to make room — 1990 was a year in which press coverage of the usual profusion of product gave way to larger thematic concerns. Or maybe smaller. Hard news, maybe. Or maybe just what hard-news hardheads (the guys who churned out videogame criticism and called it military analysis) dis as “back-of-the-book copy” — reported, even investigated, “stories” instead of celeb profiles or (ugh) reviews.

Censorship was the heavy deal all year, and don’t tell me it’s a red herring, not with retail chains prescreening sex ’n’ violence and so-called parental warning stickers keeping tapes out of Saudi Arabia. Though metal took its licks, rap obsessed the watchdogs, generating racial controversy and racist hysteria even as the Oreo and the Sno-Cone topped the charts, and rock/rap sexism (though not, fancy that, homophobia) ballooned from boring old left-lib plaint into national nightmare. Everywhere, Public Enemy and Madonna angled for the ink Sinéad O’Connor dove into. Predictably, all these headline-stealing issues and personages inspired mucho respondent analysis — especially rap, which remains “the new punk” on formal and cultural momentum alone. But to my surprise, it was Silli Vanilli that really stirred the critics up. I assume you know how dumb the shit was — John Leland found ghostsingers behind Frank Farian’s video-friendly concoction a year before Rob and Fab confessed their sins. And the voters were hip, only rarely bemoaning the shame and scandal of it all. But among many conservatives, as I’ll label them — the Clubrats described toward the top of the long section called “Mass Culture Theory,” or professionals like Geoffrey Himes, who spends his life reviewing the “news events” hardheads demand (the reason concerts rather than records dominate daily rock coverage) — the story struck a spark.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

So suddenly I get eight or 10 letters hyping live over Memorex, and with common sense on their side. After all, which came first — the juke joint or Sun Studios? But even if Sam and Elvis did recreate a roadhouse music, which is highly debatable, so what? The medium may not be the message, but the medium sure changes the message, and Stayathomes like different kinds of messages than Clubrats. Or vice versa. Himes’s “unmasked emotion” is cant — it happens once in a while, usually when the sound man fucks up, but the most you can expect from someone who’s singing the same song for the 200th or 2000th time is the variation on authenticity quote-unquote that the forgotten popular culture theorist Reuel Denney termed “self-stimulation.” David Sprague’s “wild abandon,” on the other hand, is more subject to performance discipline and its obverses, though it sure gets faked a lot. And the question of who can “really” play or sing isn’t altogether meaningless — while technical skill obviously doesn’t guarantee artistic innovation or listening pleasure, it does help sometimes, even on record. But the main thing that happens at shows is that you see other people there. The artiste first of all, with all the extra inflections that fabricated intimacy, physical detail, and interpretive variation can afford. Even more important, listening to music live puts you in contact with other listeners. Instead of imagining a pop community, you encounter one.

This isn’t the main thing the conservatives care about, of course. That would be art in all its truth and beauty — especially truth, a truth associated with unmediated perception and “human” scale, though some wise guy might wonder why it so often comes in a four-four box. Relatively speaking, their opposite numbers, who I’ll call the couch potatoes, are relativists, skeptics, pop intellectuals. Truth and beauty aren’t their game. One reason they stay at home so much (almost as much as the average fan!) is that they like to read and watch television, which ain’t so easy when you hang out in bars three-four nights a week. Whether this makes them smarter or stupider is beside the point — either way they feed on secondhand information. I say civilized human beings have always shown this sort of bent for abstraction, though not to the extent of fashioning pomo theories out of it. And although that doesn’t end the discussion — people who like rock and roll have always had their problems with the way civilization quote-unquote defines the civilized (as non-Islamic, say), not to mention the human  it’s why I side with the couch potatoes even as I dream of getting out more.

So say it loud — what all our deliberations and computations add up to is a bunch of ABSTRACTIONS. The points are abstractions, the results are abstractions, and, oh fuck, in many ways the albums are abstractions too. Sure they have physical reality, even in the digital form so few critics resist any more. And sure our judgments proceed (can proceed, should proceed) from our aural experiences. But not only are these experiences intangible in themselves, they generate intangibilities of a greater order of magnitude. We have the presumption to construct imaginary communities around them even though we can’t swear our significant others went to the same heaven we did last night. And we assume they can stand in for barely expressible ideas — certainly when we write about them, and too often when we vote for them as well (many critics feel obliged to augment their favorite records with representative black/white/female/male/indie/pop/disco/metal/jazz/worldbeat mentions, a piety I deplore). One reason voters are forever discovering that they prefer singles to albums is that singles aren’t so burdened with abstraction. They’re usually experienced publicly, on the radio or the street or the dance floor, and — in the famous guilty pleasure effect — less subject to superego review (although I confess to leaving Bell Biv Devoe’s jack-swinging “Poison” off my list solely because I found its sexism intolerable). Albums are still supposed to resonate like Great Works even though we suspect the concept of the Great Work is an oppressive fiction.

Statistically, that fiction held this year. As music has factionalized and consensus softened, the top Pazz & Jop albums haven’t been getting such Great numbers — in recent years only Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times has won big. So it’s no surprise that the 1990 triumph of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory was less than sweeping — its points-per-voter quotient fell about midway between that of 1988’s controversial It Takes a Nation of Millions and 1989’s flukey 3 Feet High and Rising, which had the shallowest support of any winner in poll history. Although the point strength of the top 10 albums was respectable, the wan kudos volunteered on The Rhythm of the Saints and Interiors and Graffiti Bridge and even Time’s Up made you wonder how much the critics raved about their faves after their reviews were in. But I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and Fear of a Black Planet were powerful second- and third-place finishers in both votes and corroborating commentary. Different as the top three records were — the Young an atavistic garage stomp, the O’Connor a singer-songwriter effusion bursting with rock/rap/worldbeat juice, the PE the impossible followup to a revolutionary LP — they obviously entered many different voters’ lives (61 named at least two, 10 all three). And most of us can take comfort in the one overarching value all three artists share: they don’t have much use for the American flag as it’s currently displayed. Ragged glory indeed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

In general, though, the album list was inconclusive if not stagnant if not meaningless. Though rap is said to be hurting artistically, it landed exactly as many albums in 1989 as in 1990 — six, with Queen Latifah placing the same record twice, 3rd Bass a late-’89 release, and the other full-fledged debuts by unreconstructed middle-classniks Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest in a year when street Afrocentrism was the power move. More debut albums charted in 1990 (10 counting Ice Cube and the Texas Tornados) than in 1989 (eight counting Bob Mould), but only sophomore-in-disguise Cube made top 10, whereas last year De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A–Soul II Soul placed 1-5-6-9. Thanks partly to inspired poaching by Deee-Lite, Lisa Stansfield, and 3rd Bass, the top 40’s black-artist total dipped from 14 to 11, but once again half the top 10 was black. There were seven albums by women in 1989, six (counting Deee-Lite) in 1990. Dance heroes Soul II Soul broke in a little higher in 1989 than dance heroes Deee-Lite did in 1990. Non-English-speaking Caetano Veloso finished 27th in 1989, non-English-speaking Youssou N’Dour 25th in 1990.

In fact, the only album “trend” I see is, of all things, white rock and roll. Early in the decade new indie groups bum-rushed Pazz & Jop every year, but not lately. In 1989, the only indie-style poll debuts came from NRBQ, who are older than Gavin Edwards, and Galaxie 500 (who plunged to an astonishing one mention in 1990); in 1988 the Cowboy Junkies (who plunged to a less astonishing zero mentions in 1990) were the new kids on the block, though art-rockers Jane’s Addiction and metalists Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also made their dents; in 1987 it was two more sad stories, 10,000 Maniacs and That Petrol Emotion. This year five newish bands charted for the first time: the Black Crowes were 31st, Faith No More 27th, Yo La Tengo 19th, and World Party 15th, while the Chills scored our cult record of the year, finishing 12th even though they made 11 fewer ballots than 13th-place Deee-Lite. Precedent suggests that some of these artists will never darken our poll again; except for the smart, sublime jangle-pop of the Chills’ Submarine Bells, I found all their music slightly annoying myself. But flashes in the pan they’re not — only the flashy Black Crowes placed a debut album. With the junk syncretism (kitchen-sink eclecticism? styleless mish-mash?) of Jane’s Addiction up from 34th to 24th, it’s my reluctant conviction that Faith No More will be around. And World Party might just turn into a Squeeze for our time — Beatles fans (also Tim Buckley fans) with their fun-filled conscience on Karl Wallinger’s sleeve. Hold the obits, please. Critics can be so stubborn.

On the singles list, meanwhile, things changed plenty, and in the opposite direction. Women sang lead on only four of our 1989 top 25; in 1990, the figure was 12. And for all the rap-dance futurism of last year’s comments, 12 rock/pop singles underwhelmed seven rap and six dance singles on the list itself; this year, rock/pop singles were down to eight and dance up to 11. For all you category-haters out there, I’ll hasten to emphasize that mine are dubious. People obviously dance to rap, especially the likes of “Bust a Move” and “Humpty Dance,” while dance records like “Buffalo Stance” and “Poison” get half their shit from rap (to make matters worse, I counted Snap’s “The Power” as dance and Chill Rob G’s as rap even though the tracks are identical). “Tom’s Diner” is a dance record that owes an immense debt to rock (or folk, or whatever); “Epic” is a rock record that owes a medium-sized debt to rap. In fact, though dance singles obviously achieved some critical hegemony in 1990, with the crucial side effect of a surge in female voices (a bow to Martha Wash, who belongs on MTV no matter what you think of authenticity as concept and construct), this category-hopping is the story. For all their syncretic dreams and cute little experiments, the Pazz & Jop albums categorize pretty easy. The singles, which in the top 12 or so all got airplay in a dismal year for pop radio, ignore genre boundaries the way Neil Harris planned it.

I don’t think rock and roll is dying, even in its square old guitar-defined form. Not because Warners signed the Chills, or because the Black Crowes are younger than the Rolling Stones, or because Yo La Tengo is the most shameless critics’ band since the Pet Shop Boys. The poll has never had that kind of precise predictive value. It’s just that after 17 (or 18) years I know years are funny things — they’re all atypical. Grein didn’t count Sinéad or Bonnie Raitt because girls who play rock and roll ruin neat theses. Two rappers, one worse than the other, topped the pop charts for more than half of 1990, and though rap isn’t dying by a long shot, I bet that never happens again. Springsteen takes over the racks in April. And so forth. But though it hit a blank with the commercial shortfall of Amerindie (a hardy cottage industry in any case), the poll has always had general predictive value. What it predicts is that’s something’s gonna happen and we don’t know what it is. What I’m hoping is that eventually we’ll figure it out.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

For years young critics have been pointing toward the rock-dance fusion Billboard has been bruiting lately — maybe not in the form of one famous professional (Phil Collins, say) jiving up his schlock by hiring another (Shep Pettibone), but that’s biz for you. Critics rarely understand biz — they just sense what people need to hear a little quicker than bizzers do. So for a neat thesis we can posit rock-dance fusion as if no such thing had ever happened before — though in fact it was a fad (and a Pazz & Jop theme) 12 years ago, and what Brit New Pop was about, and also, from another angle, what rap was, is, and will be about. This thesis carries with it the usual unexceptionable abstractions — serious fun on the mind-body continuum. And not only is it all over the singles chart, it’s revitalized the EP chart, which is topped by some postpunk guitar heroes’ dance record (because they’re reserving the real stuff for a new label?), a gangsta rapper moving on indie-rock turf (or getting paid more per song), and guitar uglies gone New Romantic (really new age). Extry, extry: Amerindie redoubt goes DOR.

But the thesis doesn’t explain the out-of-nowhere showing of pop pigfuckers Pavement, who finished fourth (surrounded by Two Nice Girls and major-label product of wildly disparate quality) on one of the tiny labels the EP list is supposed to give a crack to. It doesn’t explain a reissue chart dominated by Brobdingnagian CD reclamations of music that safely predates postmodern fuss. It doesn’t explain the top three albums, each of which honors the great god beat in its own cerebrally undanceable way. It doesn’t explain Sonic Youth even if their drumming’s better, much less Living Colour, whose jagged, pretentious art-rock qualifies as DOR only if you subscribe to the theory of natural rhythm. It doesn’t explain Rosanne Cash, whose songs sang clear when she toured without a drummer. It doesn’t explain Los Lobos or the Texas Tornados, roadhouse-rooted though each may be. It doesn’t explain Jane’s Addiction or the Black Crowes, Iggy Pop or Eno/Cale, Reed/Cale or Robin Holcomb, Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, the Pixies or the Replacements. It doesn’t even explain the Pet Shop Boys.

All right, we’ve been here before. Electoral processes are rarely unanimous, trends are never monolithic, and different critics like different kinds of music. Big deal. Radical pluralism or a thousand points of light, it’s an old story, and as such a long way from the divine rupture of something-is-happening-and-we-don’t-know-what-it-is. Indeed, I’m almost as sick of the metaphor as you must be. Like any concept, pluralism risks turning into a shibboleth unless it absorbs new data — it’s losing its explanatory aura. But what can I do? According to many respondents, 1990 was the latest in the endless line of worst years ever, yet having freed myself to seek out only good records, I put together my longest Dean’s List ever. And as usual my picks were all over the place, including 13 and counting representatives of a black Africa that from Ladysmith to the Oriental Brothers has far more to offer than the estimable Youssou N’Dour. Internationalism is built into the dance-rock thesis — I don’t just mean Hull’s own Beats International, I mean Snap — but as the term is usually understood it remains a far-future projection of indeterminate shape. Even for this radical pluralist, whose list was dominated by what we jokingly call rock and roll — 17 guitarslingers as far-flung as Ministry and the Flatlanders and the Beautiful South, as differently same-old as Sonic Youth and Living Colour and the Chills and the Pixies and, well, Neil Young.

As Elena Oumano says somewhere hereabouts, we dance to Armageddon to the beat of our own drummer. And as Joe Levy says somewhere else hereabouts, there’s no reason to think guitar rock won’t be a viable residual subgenre for a long time to come. It would be tasteless to make any grand claims for its ability to save or even improve the world at this horrible moment, but it certainly speaks to a little group of paras and professionals who’d like to see the world save or improve itself, and who take hope in the best of popular culture — “people’s” culture, to and/or from as the case may be, generously accessible in both its renegade-seeker and utopian-hedonist forms. Looking over my own list, I was struck by all the high-ranking faves I’d classify as pop rather than rock, pop with historical perspective — Red Hot and Blue and The Civil War, and also Evan Lurie’s all faux, all true tango and Madonna’s blindly underappreciated camp. They reminded me of Jason Weisbard’s modestly visionary suggestion — a grander version of whatever inspired a vocal minority to campaign for the return of the video ballot — that our interest group comprises not just rock critics but all popular culture fanatics. And what are our interests? How about free expression for those human X-factors Victorians referred to as the dangerous classes? Spiritual growth from the ass up? Pop history as art history? The old ideal of art as community? Trial by disco for Allan Bloom? Like that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

Reclaiming mass culture is a couch potato’s dream. Insofar as live-over-Memorex partisans hope to encounter a community instead of imagining one, it’s a community fixated on difference — a community of people who already agree with them. There’s admittedly something very abstract about the commonality couch potatoes posit as an alternative — real human beings are far more unpredictable than any work of art, however “complex,” “vital,” and so forth it may be, which bothers aesthetes no end. But there’s something even more abstract about the Clubrat-Stayathome polarity itself — most of us fall somewhere in between. So let me tell you a story and turn the speculation over to my colleagues.

Like most of the voters in this pluralistic interest group, I didn’t put Ragged Glory in my top 10 — thought it dragged, basically. But though those who don’t get Young may dismiss his victory as pure reaction, I like the record, which makes good on several potent fantasies — eternal renewal, the garage as underground, the guitar as shibboleth and idea. And I wasn’t going to miss his gig, especially not with Sonic Youth opening. When’s the last time two such Pazz & Jop eminences shared a bill anywhere, much less Madison Square Garden? (Answer: in Chicago a month before, when Chuck & Flav and Kim & Thurston occasioned a police riot you may have read about.) But between the display ad and the event fell the bombs, which transformed the concert as they have everything else. Ordinarily the kid from the cheap seats wearing an American-flag T-shirt with the legend TRY BURNING THIS ONE…ASSHOLE would have served as a neat symbol of mass culture and its contradictions. Now he brought to mind Toby Goldstein critiquing Madonna’s morality one minute and nuking the barbarians the next.

Young has made some exceptionally asinine political comments in his time, so I didn’t know quite what to think when he skronked out an invisible Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” after Sonic Youth went on and off. Wasn’t so sure about the giant yellow ribbon hung around the giant microphone prop, either. Sure was nice to see that peace symbol up there, even if it was Freedom’s logo. But though I’ve heard complaints about the predictability of his set list and the automatism of his abandon, I don’t think he’s ever exalted me like that. I admit his every-word-counts claim on “Blowin’ in the Wind” — as if to say, “This is my song now, Bob, but I’d love for you to try and take it back” — put me in a receptive mood, especially after the huzzahs for “Before they are forever banned.” But though he didn’t utter a nonlyric for two hours, that painful and familiar beat provided respite from Armageddon, with warhorses like “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer” and for that matter “Rockin’ in the Free World” ideologically focused for once. And when during a delirious encore of “Welfare Mothers,” he kept yelling “Day care, day care,” I felt he understood. I didn’t especially deserve the respite, of course — not the way they do over in the gulf. But we haven’t figured out how to effect the transfer. All we can do is contest symbols and abstractions — rhythms and sonorities, flags and ribbons — as we mourn and marvel at the incursions they make on our physical lives. Ain’t much, is it?

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1990

1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Ragged Glory (Reprise)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)

4. Sonic Youth: Goo (DGC)

5. Living Colour: Time’s Up (Epic)

6. Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority)

7. Paul Simon: The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros.)

8. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia)

9. L.L. Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam)

10. Prince: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1990

1. Deee-Lite: “Groove Is in the Heart”/”What Is Love” (Elektra)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Digital Underground: “The Humpty Dance” (Tommy Boy)

4. Madonna: “Vogue” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

5. (Tie) Faith No More: “Epic” (Slash/Reprise)
Lisa Stansfield: “All Around the World” (Arista)

7. Black Box: “Everybody Everybody” (RCA)

8. Madonna: “Justify My Love” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

9. Soho: “Hippychick” (Atco)

10. Public Enemy: “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Def Jam)

—From the March 5, 1991, 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

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692586″ /]

Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, issue

 

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

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1979 Pazz & Jop: The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll (Almost) Grows Up

A few weeks ago two rock critics were gossiping on the phone, something rock critics do more than ever now that there aren’t any press parties. Both were among the many newcomers asked to contribute to the sixth or seventh annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and both were awed by this responsibility, as is only mete. One of them, however, was apparently overawed, he — I assume it’s a he, since most rock critics are — told my informant he felt like he’d been knighted. A jest, of course, but nevertheless — I mean, I’m obviously not the only one who takes this thing seriously. Every year I am beset by late ballots via special delivery and express mail; messengers and living critics come up to the fifth floor to hand me and my fellow Poobah their lists. And for what? No one is paid, and very few ballots are reprinted. As the poll gets larger the power of any individual to affect the result diminishes. But people actually listen again to dozens of albums, agonize, call long distance to clarify our chronically incomprehensible letter of invitation, all to assure that the tally reflects their deepest convictions. Ain’t representative democracy grand?

Representative of what, you might ask, and I admit I could be happier with the answer. This was to be the year the P&JCP grew up; I vowed that in 1979 I’d start tackling the problems of regional and racial spread early. But that vow, like others before it, went down to defeat. Instead I spent two days in mid-December working phones with co-Poobah Tom Carson. Our method was simple — frantic calls to acquaintances all over the country to ascertain who was actually reviewing records where, never mind how well — and its effectiveness scattershot. We did better in Minneapolis than Chicago and lousy indeed through the southeastern and Rocky Mountain states. It doesn’t bother me that L.A. and Boston are disproportionately represented, or that New York provided 66 of the 155 critics who responded. Those are the cities where the outlets are, and anyway, this is still a Voice poll — all Riffs contributors who hear a lot of records are included in automatically. But nobody from Nashville or Denver or Omaha or New Orleans was even invited, and this is a good time to mention that any regularly published rock critic with access to most of the important releases who’d like in should write now and I”ll file his or her address. Go knight yourself.

Racial balance proved even more difficult to come by. Our informants were useless, and consultation with black journalists around here yielded few new names. Finally, around New Year’s, I resorted to record company publicists specializing in black music, but most of the 30 or so invitations that resulted went out so late that I got only 11 back in time, enough to suss certain patterns but not enough to see them fully realized in the tally. The post office was a big problem in general. A lot of people got our instructions 10 or 12 days after they were mailed, or never, and when no first-class letters were delivered to the paper on deadline day we were forced to postpone the final count for 24 hours. Even so, late ballots kept dribbling in afterwards, including several from black critics and several others from regional punkzines, which were also contacted late. Next year we’ve got to get organized.

As it was, though, I think the poll ended up pretty much what it should have been in a very enjoyable but critically inconclusive year. Four “r&b” acts (the term is returning to favor) made the album list, expanded this year from 30 to 40 in honor of an enlarged electorate and the curly-headed kid in the third row. More black input would have meant more commanding finishes for all four — crossover queen Donna Summer, comeback prince Michael Jackson, disco pacemakers Chic, and elder statesman Stevie Wonder — as well as for Ashford & Simpson (Stay Free, 44th), probably Dionne Warwick (Dionne, 52nd), and possibly Millie Jackson (Live and Uncensored, 55th). More punkzine input would have helped the nouvelle vague concrete of Pere Ubu, the reggae agitprop of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the maximal minimalism of Philip Glass, and the elderly statesmanship of Iggy Pop, as well as pushing Off White (45th) and/or Buy the Contortions (47th) — James Chance’s two albums, which totaled 139 points on a spottily distributed independent label — into the top 40, and perhaps aiding XTC (Drums and Wires, 49th) and Wire (154, 53rd) as well. Both constituencies would have boosted Bob Marley, and either might have gone for the jazz records that got scattered mention: not only the Art Ensemble’s Nice Guys, but also Mingus at Antibes (48th) — three Mingus albums totaled 121 points — Air Lore (51st), and Blood Ulmer’s (excuse me, I mean James Blood’s) Tales of Captain Black (60th). And they would have upped the disco discs and imports on the singles chart.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692481″ /]

But especially if allowances are made for Nashville and Denver and Omaha and New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine any other album cracking this year’s top five: Armed Forces, by last year’s overpowering winner, Elvis Costello; Fear of Music, by Talking Heads, up from fifth in 1978; the confusing American version of The Clash, which in its 1977 English edition showed up on a lot of best-of-the-decade lists; Rust Never Sleeps, generally regarded as Neil Young’s best album since Tonight’s the Night; and this year’s model, Squeezing Out Sparks, by Graham Parker & the Rumour, who placed their first two albums at two and four in the 1976 poll but haven’t made much noise among the voters since.

The 1978 P&JCP’s consensus was, in the immortal words of my editor, a “triumph of the new wave,” with 16 of the top 30 albums falling clearly into the category and lots of others on the fringe despite increased participation by suspected conservatives. Not that I considered the triumph unmixed — my punkophile elation was undercut by my natural distrust of hegemony, especially defensive hegemony based on ressentiment. Commercially, after all, Saturday Night Fever and its trentuple platinum was spearheading its own victorious vanguard, and I detected in the sweep some of the racism and homophobia of “disco sucks,” then a mere slogan rather than an arrogantly out-of-it prefab “movement.” But it did seem that new wave was over the bottom line — that the best artists in the style (or whatever it is and was) were going to make albums for quite a while — and that print media were part of its success. It had always been a truism of the record manufacturers (and of music journalists) that good reviews don’t sell enough product to keep anybody but the reviewers in business. But recently it’s become apparent that between the prestige they impart and the core audience they generate (especially in the absence of adventurous radio), good reviews do keep good bands, in the immortal words of the Bee Gees, “stayin’ alive.”

That was last year. Since then, an arrogantly out-of-it prefab industry has taken a nasty fall, with some blame due both trentuple platinum (and the consequent lure of overproduction) and disco (now regarded once again as a cult music with crossover potential). As a consequence, there are rock and roll propagandists who’ll tell you that new wave’s triumph isn’t just artistic — that last year’s critical consensus is next year’s big thing. As usual, I don’t believe it’ll happen, and furthermore I don’t want anyone else to. I’m delighted that Blondie’s Parallel Lines, which finished 25th in the 1978 P&JCP, subsequently achieved the AM airplay and platinum sales its inspired popcraft deserved, and pleased enough that together with, yes, Get the Knack, (86th), it’s made it easier for similar bands to record. I even find a good many of the resulting power pop albums fairly likable. But a world of Blondies and Knacks would hardly be rock and roll heaven, and I worry about unreasonable expectations, which after a few foolish bidding wars could make new wave a no-no just like disco. Who needs them? Rock’s capital crisis is a drag for would-be Foreigners, but for good bands it’s a blessing. What ought to make new wave attractive bizwise isn’t mass appeal so much as strong regional roots in an era of prohibitive travel costs and strong simple music in an era of studio parsimony. To hell with superprofits. I’ll give you power pop if you’ll give me all the independent labels that have come over from Europe this year — I.R.S., ZE, Stiff, a revitalized Mango, a reorganized Virgin. May they prosper modestly, just like such U.S.-based companies as Alligator, Rounder, and Ralph.

In short, I haven’t spent years learning how and when to ignore the Hot 100 just so I could get all het up when Blondie makes number one or CBS makes a boo-boo. It was a great year for rock and roll — in a class with 1978, which was the best ever for the hard approach I prefer — because of all the good-to-great new records. Admittedly, it’s only over the past month, which I’ve spent in a continual state of desperate delight catching up with stuff I hadn’t found time for, that I’ve become fully convinced. And I think more of my finds are good than great — I’ll probably end up with 50 A or A minus albums from 1979, a few more than last year, but where in 1978 I wished I could squeeze 14 records into my top 10, now I could stop comfortably at seven. My top 10 would be even thinner if I hadn’t given up and included jazz records that enriched my rather inchoate rock aesthetic — that spoke to my shifting ideas about rhythm and electric noise, pop and folk, “accessibility.” (In other words, I eliminated all jazz in the pure music tradition first asserted by my favorite jazz style, bebop, including Thelonious Monk’s Always Know and Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden’s Soapsuds, Soapsuds, which I love, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys, which — to my own discredit, I’m sure, since it came in number 29 this year, the first time an acoustic jazz record has ever placed — I never quite got.) Anyway, here’s my own list, with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10. It’s my custom to joke about how permanent the order is, but this year my listening is still in such flux that I won’t bother. Believe me, these are damn good albums, and there are others (by Irakere, Midnight Rhythm, the Heartbreakers, David Bowie, maybe Smokey, maybe Toots, maybe Cleanhead, maybe James) waiting in the winds:

1. The Clash (Epic) 18. 2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 17. 3. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 14. 4. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 11. 5. Air: Air Lore (Arista Novus) 11. 6. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 9. 7. The B-52s (Warner Bros.) 5. 8. Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5. 9. The Roches (Warner Bros.) 5. 10. Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia) 5.

11. Tom Verlaine (Elektra). 12. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca). 13. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire). 14. Wreckless Eric: The Whole Wide World (Stiff). 15. The Only Ones: Special View (Epic). 16. Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra). 17. James Monroe H.S. Presents Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington (Elektra). 18. The Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.). 19. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Reprise). 20. Marianne Faithful: Broken English (Island).

21. Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango). 22. Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song). 23. Fashion: Product Perfect (I.R.S.). 24. James Brown: The Original Disco Man (Polydor). 25. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army: Replicas (Atco). 26. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic). 27. Culture: International Herb (Virgin Internatioal). 28. Chic: Good Times (Atlantic). 29. Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor). 30. Living Chicago Blues Volume 1 (Alligator).

31. Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic). 32. Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest). 33. James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House). 34. Cory Daye: Cory and Me (New York International). 35. Mutiny: Mutiny on the Mamaship (Columbia). 36. Steel Pulse: Tribute to the Martyrs (Mango). 37. Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis). 38. Roxy Music: Manifesto (Atlantic). 39. George Jones: My Very Special Guests (Epic). 40. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

But though record albums dominated rock in the ’70s, they’ve never been the whole story, as both new wave and disco have demonstrated. Somewhat belatedly, the P&JCP has expanded to reflect this: In addition to 10 albums, contributors were asked for unweighted lists of up to 10 singles and three local bands. From disco adepts like Mike Freedberg (“it’s impossible to poll disco, or even black slow music, fairly from LPs alone”) to r&b oldtimers like Robert Pruter (“my record-buying friends have always bought singles and always preferred them to albums”), black music fans were enthusiastic, and so were new wavers, many of whom commented that it was hard to keep their lists to 10. “Rock” people, on the other hand, complained (Noel Coppage of Stereo Review: “I’m too old and elitist for this shit”; Blair Jackson of Bay Area Music: “Aah forget it. I hate most singles”). Since I spend most of my working (and waking) hours listening to albums, I had no trouble containing my list, but the following 10 singles definitely weren’t the only ones to make a dent on my life this year:

The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Michael Jackson: “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (Epic); the Clash: “1-2 Crush on You” (CBS import); James Brown: “It’s Too Funky in Here” (Polydor 12-inch); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion 12-inch); McFadden & Whitehead: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (Philadelphia International 12-inch); Kleenex: “Ain’t You” (Rough Trade import); the B-52s: “Rock Lobster”/”52 Girls” (B-52s); the Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor).

The new category in which I had more trouble limiting my selections was local bands, an appellation that was left vague to find out how the voters would define it. For me, there were two musts: the Feelies, whose avant-garde surf music thrilled me frequently before they withdrew to the big time, and the James “Blood” Ulmer Quartet, whose second set at the Tin Palace May 23 rivaled the Clash at the Palladium for intensity and who also fused me at CBGB and Hurrah. But I passed on the Lounge Lizards and In the Tradition — not to mention Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, whose visit from Austin impressed a lot of people, as we shall see — reluctantly, only so I could pay my respects to Richard Hell’s lamented Voidoids.

New York seemed bound to dominate the local band competition — on demographics, if not sheer vitality. And indeed, the winner was predictable, a shoo-in with 14 votes: Anya’s Bad Boy himself, James Chance, a/k/a James White and the Blacks, a/k/a the Contortions. (This year we’re giving out awards with the poll and we’re wondering whether James would prefer his across the backs of the thighs.) But after that the New York vote broke up, so that three out-of-town bands scored more mentions than the local second-runner. Most impressive by far was the aforementioned Senor Carrasco, who divided 10 votes between Texas and New York — his band sounds like a speedy synthesis of every Farfisa group that ever tripped over a hook, and you’d better listen up or they’ll pass you on the left. After that, with six mentions, came X, from Los Angeles, and Human Sexual Response, from Boston (though as a sexually responsive human I must register my doubts about the latter). New York’s Fleshtones strolled in fifth with five. Other strong showings included four votes for New York’s Feelies and L.A. Alley Cats, and three for Curtiss A (Minneapolis), the Beat (San Francisco and CBS), Greg Kihn (Berkeley and Beserkley), Robin Lane (Boston and pretty soon now Warners, plus an indie EP that scored on our singles chart), the Lounge Lizards (New York), the Naughty Sweeties (L.A.), the Nervous Eaters (Boston), Prince Charles and the City Beat Band (Boston), the Speedies (New York), Blood Ulmer (New York), and the Zippers (L.A.).

It may say something about local-band consensus or lack of it that although I spent more time seeing groups in clubs in 1979 than ever before, my most unforgettable moment was not provided by Blood Ulmer or the Feelies or even Pere Ubu. It came one frigid night in February when three of us slogged uptown to catch the Only Ones and instead stumbled upon a seething mass of well-kempt youths who were dancing to rock and roll. Mercy day, I said to myself, this ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB — this is the “rock disco” Hurrah, only it has normal rock and rollers in it. Straight weekend escapists, on leave from Fordham and Farleigh Dickinson and high school, they danced stiffly, except for a few scattered punks, but there they were, shaking ass to Cheap Trick and the Cars and Devo and the Ramones. Suddenly I believed yet again that rock and roll was here to stay.

This wasn’t the punk-disco fusion I had posited wistfully at the end of last year’s P&JCP roundup, but it was a start — a primitive one, as it turned out. Six months later art-punk and electropop were melding into dance tracks as empty as the most soulless Eurodisco, and if you wanted to step out to Cheap Trick you had to go to Brooklyn, or anyway Heat — suddenly rock discos were all over the place. But by that time the B-52s had proven that they really were “a tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia” — it was on the dance floor rather than in my living room that they made my top 10 — and white people were once again catching up with the black music of an earlier time, in this case James Brown funk. Bizzers began talking about DOR — dance-oriented rock — instead of disco, and a real punk-disco fusion was achieved by two notable records, which oddly enough ended up on top of the first P&JCP singles chart: Ian Dury’s “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” and M’s “Pop Muzik.”

I must now interrupt this program to explain how singles were counted. P&JCP contributors are asked to limit their album choices to domestic releases so as not to split support for the many new albums released in different years on different sides of the Atlantic. But singles are about immediate impact, and critics who care about them usually buy (or trade for) imports. So rules were kept to a minimum, and we got votes for all kinds of stuff — not just EPs and disco discs, which were encouraged, but promos, even album cuts, the latter of which were expressly forbidden (and not counted). Multiple editions, configurations, and mixes presented worse problems. In the end we decided not only to add all versions of a song together, but — as a tribute to the ancient concept of the two-sided single — to combine the votes for two songs that appeared on the same record. This is how Ian Dury beat out Robin Scott (a/k/a M), whose “Pop Muzik” was certainly our song of the year. Not everyone who voted for “Rhythm Stick” or “Cheerful” has even heard the 12-inch that included both songs; some may (foolishly) disapprove of the disco mixes. But it seemed fairest to consolidate all of Dury’s votes.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692474″ /]

Although singles actually played and possessed by critics would have been preferred, we got a lot of lists of radio favorites. This was fair enough. Both the r&b trend in disco and the popularization of new wave have once again “made the radio fun” (J.D. Considine); 1979 was the year when Donna Summer heated up her stuff and Nick Lowe produced pure pop for real people. But even the best radio stations don’t play all the most interesting music, and away from the likes of BCN and PIX it’s still hard to hear imports and indies. Which is why the showing of the Brains’s privately produced and distributed “Money Changes Everything” — a little too slow for DOR, much too obscure for AOR, and tied for ninth anyway — is doubly significant. And why the Pretenders, who without a U.S. release got more votes than any singles artist except Donna Summer (in addition to “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket” was on seven ballots), can be expected to make considerable noise with their debut album.

I must admit that I found the singles chart more interesting than the generally unexceptionable album selections. That’s what’s so great about the singles — they’re quirky. I especially enjoyed the tie for sixth — “My Sharona,” which brightened the radio as surely as Fantastik takes the enamel off your refrigerator, and “Tusk,” the weirdest 45 issued by any megagroup since the defeat of George McGovern. I was pleased that Funkadelic, who dipped almost as precipitously as Ian Dury in the album voting (Dury went from 13th to one mention, Funkadelic from 27th to 89th), could score in its long suit. I was glad so many high school intellectuals manque admitted their crush on the grown-up teen schlock of Peaches & Herb. And I found the five-way tie for 22nd laudable in five different directions.

It’s worth pointing out that the singles list is hardly a triumph of the new wave. Given the presumed bias of the electorate, it’s more of a triumph of disco, with two consciously compromised (and quite enjoyable, don’t get me wrong) punk-disco fusions beating out two irresistible examples of the real thing — except, of course, that “Hot Stuff” is as much a conscious compromise as “Pop Muzik.” The real new wave triumph goes to the Pretenders, who did it with a Ray Davies song. Hmm. Perhaps after triumph comes growth, consolidation, and some looking around, eh? That’s the way the album vote looks to me.

First of all, despite (or maybe because of, as they say) the plethora of new wave albums released in 1979, the number of them in the top 30 is down from 16 to 14 — not a big dip, but enough to make room for Michael Jackson and the Art Ensemble. Moreover, even the staunchest new wavers seem to have broadened their listening this year — Donna Summer and to a lesser extent Chic got votes from all over, and it was the hard-core punks who brought Linton Kwesi Johnson home. Also, the new wave grows older. Of the nine debut albums in the top 30 last year, seven were outright new wave, an eighth was David Johansen, and a ninth was the Cars (who fell to 61st this year, which may say more about the fickleness of pop fans than the fickleness of the Cars). This year’s eight debuts include the Roches, Marianne Faithfull, Rickie Lee Jones, and Linton Kwesi Johnson as well as the B-52s, the Buzzcocks, Lene Lovich, and Joe Jackson (hurray for all the women in that catalogue, by the way — last year we were down to Blondie and Patti Smith). And if the widespread support for Pere Ubu’s gruesome, funny, resolutely experimental, subtly hooky Dub Housing is a shot in the arm for the futurists among us, the equally strong showing of Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes is a shot in the mouth.

Petty got this year’s Bruce Springsteen Memorial Rock and Roll Verities vote. Damn the Torpedoes is a pretty good record, but a measure of its appeal is that of 18 first-string daily critics, always the conservatives, 12 voted for it. (None, by the way, selected Pere Ubu; one of them, in fact, is reputed to have once — literally — pulled the plug on the band.) Damn the Torpedoes is a breakthrough for Petty because finally the Heartbreakers (his Heartbreakers, this Live at Max’s fan should say) are rocking as powerfully as he’s writing. But whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it — that is, whether he has anything to say — remains shrouded in banality. And in this he establishes himself as the fave rave of those who want good rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over, rock and roll that won’t disturb your sleep or your conscience or your precious bodily rhythms. It’s fun in small doses — about three minutes is right — and it beats state-of-the-studio smuggeries like those of Supertramp (tied for 66th) or the Eagles (69th). But if Tom Petty ends up defining rock and roll heaven, then Johnny Rotten will have died in vain.

I don’t mean to imply that the 1979 P&JCP is a triumph of let’s-boogie revisionism, and a good thing, too. But as a 37-year-old pro, I’ll trade insults myself with any ageist putz who claims it’s impossible for other aging pros to make exciting rock and roll, and I think that, basically, this happened to be a year when old guarders — from artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison to craftsmen like Ry Cooder and Fleetwood Mac — managed to translate their vitality and courage to vinyl again. Morrison’s return was especially auspicious; he shows signs of turning into Ray Charles with lyrics. But the voters pretty much knew it wasn’t happening: Old guarders who made tired albums, like Randy Newman, were rewarded in kind (43rd), and those who flubbed altogether, like Joni Mitchell, got theirs (two mentions). And I believe the great El Lay hope of Rickie Lee Jones is a chimera, the same goes for the great post-punk hope of Joe Jackson. There are no stylistic rules; lots and lots of good records are being made; collectively, the critics have a pretty accurate idea of what they are.

And so, upon reflection, I think that Squeezing Out Sparks is an entirely apposite winner. Graham Parker is a genuine transitional artist. Surfacing a little earlier than fellow pub-rock veterans like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, he never assumed the kind of protective pop irony they’ve perfected. Though his lyrics are knotty, their passion is palpable — Parker speaks directly. And his music, while a long way from Robbie Robertson, isn’t reticent about its blues and country roots. Rhythmically and dramatically he’s not above corn, but it would be risky to call him safe — he might [spit] in your eye. I found that the masterfully hooked-up Squeezing Out Sparks wore thin after a powerful initial impression, but the memory of its craft and commitment stayed with me, and apparently many felt the same. The kind of critics who voted for Rickie Lee Jones or Ry Cooder often picked it number one, but those of us who preferred Neil Young or the Clash (both of which got as many first-place votes) still felt inclined to pay our respects, which is how it amassed its solid margin. If this be compromise, I just might settle for it myself.

The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has grown quite a bit since its semi-official quasi-beginning in 1974. Once it was a survey of a few writers I especially respected; now I’ve never read half the people whose ballots I tabulate. It’s based on what may be a naive belief — that people who listen long and hard enough to formulate their opinions on paper have special judgments to make. That assumption is holding up pretty well so far.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Selected Ballots

ADAM BLOCK: Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Beat [sic] Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic 12-inch); Roxy Music: “Dance Away” (Atlantic 12-inch); Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Nick Lowe: “Cruel To Be Kind” (Columbia); Jacksons: “Blame It on the Boogie” (Epic 12-inch); M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Pearl Harbor & the Explosions: “Release It”/”Drivin’ ” (415); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Atlantic 12-inch); Ray Charles: “Some Enchanted Evening” (Atlantic); James White and the Blacks: “Contort Yourself” (ZE 12-inch).

TOM CARSON: M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Lene Lovich: “Lucky Number” (Stiff/Epic); Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Dave Edmunds: “Girls Talk” (Swan Song); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English” (Island); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion); Sid Vicious: “My Way” (Virgin 12-inch import); Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime” (Sire); The Kinks: “Superman” (Arista 12-inch); Anita Ward: “Ring My Bell” (T.K.).

GREIL MARCUS: Essential Logic (Virgin import EP); Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing” (Real import); Blue Oyster Cult: “In Thee” (Columbia); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English”/”Why D’Ya [sic] Do It” (Antilles 12-inch); Moon Martin: “Rolene” (Capitol); Foreigner: “Dirty White Boy” (Atlantic); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories” (Virgin import); Delta 5: “Now That You’ve Gone” (Rough Trade import).

JON PARELES: Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Ian Dury: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Elvis Costello: “My Funny Valentine” (Columbia promo); Gang of Four: “At Home He’s a Tourist” (EMI import); Pop Group: “We Are All Prostitutes” (Rough Trade import); Robin Lane & the Chartbusters: “When Things Go Wrong” (Deli Platters); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor 12-inch).

GEORGE ARTHUR: Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 15; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 12; Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros.) 12; Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic) 12; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 10; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 9; Rachel Sweet: Fool Around (Stiff/Columbia) 8; Jerry Lee Lewis (Elektra) 8; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 8; Get the Knack (Capitol) 6.

LESTER BANGS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 25; Marianne Faithfull: Broken English (Island) 20; The Clash (Epic) 20; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 5; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 5; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 5; Charles Mingus: Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic) 5; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; Patti Smith Group: Wave (Arista) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): Fern Kinney: “Groove Me” (T.K.); Jackie Moore: “This Time Baby” (Columbia); Love De-Luxe: “Here Comes That Sound Again” (Warner Bros.); Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band: “I”m an Indian Too”/”Deputy of Love” (ZE); Bionic Boogie: “Hot Butterfly” (Polydor); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor); Claudja Barry: “Boogie Woogie Dancin’ Shoes” (Chrysalis); Carrie Lucas: “Dance with You” (Solar); Black Ivory: “Mainline” (Buddah).

TOM CARSON: David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 14; The Clash (Epic) 14; Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia) 14; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 12; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 10; The Roches (Warner Bros.) 9; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 8; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 7; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 7; Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 6.

DAVID JACKSON: Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (ECM) 10; Steppin’ with the World Saxophone Quartet (Black Saint import) 10; Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 10; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 10; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 10; Robin Williamson and His Merry Band: A Giant at the Kindling (Flying Fish) 9; James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House) 8; Bread and Roses (Fantasy) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Polydor) 20; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 15; Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner Bros.) 15; Peter Green: In the Skies (Sail) 15; Tonio K: Life in the Foodchain (Full Moon/Epic) 10; Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 5; David Johansen: In Style (Blue Sky) 5; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 5; Randy Newman: Born Again (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 5.

REGGIE MATTHEWS: Brenda Russell (Horizon) 15; Heath Brothers: In Motion (Columbia) 13; Ron Carter: Parade (Milestone) 12; McCoy Tyner: Together (Milestone) 11; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 11; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 10; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 7; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 6; Jeff Lorber: Water Sign (Arista) 5.

MARIE MOORE: Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla) 10; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 10; Crusaders: Street Life (MCA) 10; Cameo: Secret Omen (Chocolate City) 10; George Benson: Live Inside Your Love (Warner Bros.) 10; Dionne Warwick: Dionne (Arista) 10; Stephanie Mills: What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (20th Century-Fox) 10; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Commodores: Midnight Magic (Motown) 10.

JON PARELES: Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 15; James White and the Blacks: Off White (ZE) 15; Philip Glass/Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach (Tomato) 15; Art Bears: Winter Songs (Ralph) 15; David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 5; XTC: Drums and Wires (Virgin) 5; Police: Regatta de Blanc (A&M) 5; Wire: 154 (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Verlaine (Elektra) 5.

DOUG SIMMONS: Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 25; The Clash (Epic) 15; Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.) 10; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 10; Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango) 10; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 5; Inmates: First Offence (Polydor) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; The Boston Bootleg (Varulven) 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Gino Soccio: Outline (RFC) 20; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 20; Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest) 14; Merle Haggard: Serving 190 Proof (MCA) 11; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 8; Tammy Wynette: Just Tammy (Epic) 6; Sylvester: Stars (Fantasy) 6; Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra) 5; Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 5; Arlo Guthrie: Outlasting the Blues (Warner Bros.) 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1979

1. Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista)

2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise)

3. The Clash: The Clash (Epic)

4. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire)

5. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia)

6. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.)

7. The B-52s: The B-52s (Warner Bros.)

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA)

9. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis)

10. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca)

Top 10 Singles of 1979

1. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic)

2. M: “Pop Musik” (Sire)

3. Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca)

4. (Tie) Sister Sledge: “We Are Family”/”He’s the Greatest Dancer” (Cotillion)
The Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing”/”The Wait” (Real import)

6. (Tie) Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.)
The Knack: “My Sharona” (Capitol)

8. Blondie: “Dreaming” (Chrysalis)

9. (Tie) The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter)
The Flying Lizards: “Money” (Virgin)

— From the January 28, 1980, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1978 Pazz & Jop: New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question

Given my pure mania for what must now be called new wave — punk, I will never forget you — the fifth or sixth annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll ought to feel like a triumph, and in some ways it does. The 98 ballots received were almost half again as many as the previous high of 68, and a conscious attempt was made to avoid loading the panel with new wavers, with many freshpeople drawn from such citadels of tradition as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Circus, and Crawdaddy (which I will call Feature the day Johnny Rotten — or John Lydon, okay — makes the cover). To a lesser extent than expected, I got my conservative response from those critics. But it was overwhelmed by a post-punk sweep to which more than 80% of the voters contributed with at least one selection.

Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model is the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Except in 1974, when there were a mere 28 voters, only The Basement Tapes has ever made over half the ballots, and Costello’s point spread — huge over the runner-up Stones and absolutely staggering over everyone else — is unprecedented and then some. But what’s even more remarkable is the rest of the chart. Last year, eight of the 30 finishers were directly associated with new wave; this year — not counting Brian Eno, the Cars, or Cheap Trick — the figure is 16. And now consider the non-new wavers in the top 20, where the poll is most reliable statistically. Eno produced No New York and Talking Heads and is referred to in a recent issue of Punk as “God”; the Cars may share a producer with Queen, but they share a&r, not to mention key musical ideas, with Television and the Dictators. Bruce Springsteen was a punk before there were punks — a “real” punk, as they say. Singer-songwriter Neil Young encored at the Garden with a reprise of his paean to Johnny Rotten, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is an excitable boy who has done Neil one better by encoring with “God Save the Queen.” Hard rock perennials Stones and Who both responded more or less explicitly to the punk challenge with their toughest records in years. The best album since 1971 (if not 4004 B.C.) by the venerable rock vanguardist Captain Beefheart responds to nothing except the weather, but the Captain was his own kind of new waver before there was an ocean, or a flag. And finally there’s Willie Nelson, the great exception, described by ace ballot annotator Tom Smucker as follows: “Nelson takes the crossover spirit of 1978 Country Music and crosses over so far with it he misses the mainstream entirely and ends up with an album that takes risks and gains integrity.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

In part these monolithic results reflect the inactivity of a few major artists. Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne all finished very high in 1977 and could probably have done so again this year. (Note, however, that Kate & Anna McGarrigle, number 13 in 1977, put the disappointing Pronto Monto on exactly one ballot. Though at least they got 10 points. Nicolette Larson, unaccountably named female vocalist of the year in Rolling Stone’s so-called critics awards, got only five from her supporter.) But even if Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had pitched in, there would still be no doubt that for rock critics 1978 was a year in which to rediscover rock and roll.

Despite the wing of the movement represented in the poll by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who lead a band called Rockpile that played better than the Stones this year, I don’t buy the claim that new wavers merely revive the rock ’n’ roll verities. Still, in terms of spirit and structure the idea has its validity. The wit and the temper of Presley/Berry and Beatles/Stones, intensified by compact, catchy, rhythmically insistent music, abound on the best new wave records. What’s more, the same virtues are now being pursued with born-again fervor by the best of the non-new wave selections. For critics who have deplored rock’s increasing pomposity and blandness, this is a vindication. Rock and roll is our passion, and suddenly there’s more of the real stuff than at any time since rock criticism began.

As the ballots crossed my desk, though, I began to feel vaguely depressed. I’ve never thought it a critical virtue to nurture weirdness, yet for some reason I kept remembering the comment of convinced eccentric Tom Hull, whose 1977 votes for such cynosures as Blondie Chaplin, Kevin Ayers, Hirth Martinez, and Tony Wilson got lost in the consensus, but who this time placed nine of his 10 favorites in the top 30: “I haven’t heard as much odd stuff as in years before, and this list strikes me as pretty mainstream. Some mainstream, eh?” As fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Tom Carson and I computed the Rs through the Zs, my depression got worse. It so happens that there are a lot of orthodox new wavers toward the end of the alphabet, including three of Trouser Press’s Anglophiliac cabal, and suddenly artists like Dave Edmunds (as Brit-purist as r&r gets), Devo (whose marginal early showing had encouraged us to hope they wouldn’t place at all), and Generation X (accomplished but by no means original — or principled — power-pop punks) were vaulting upwards. This was turning into new wave hegemony, and I don’t like hegemony of any sort. Not even the sudden success of my own favorite record of the year, Wire’s Pink Flag, warmed my heart.

For although I remain a gleefully defiant rock and roll fan — I’m sure the Ramones are one reason I’ve escaped the cosmic cynicism that affects many of my contemporaries these days — I’ve lived too long to feel comfortable with monomania. Rock and roll has always been eclectic, not to say cannibalistic, and in the bleak mid-’70s all but its most dogged (dog-eared?) critical adherents learned to translate that eclecticism into an enjoyment of other kinds of music. In my own case, habitual attention to the byways of pop was augmented by a certain tolerant fondness for the best of folk, curiosity about the more accessible downtown avant-gardism, and renewed enthusiasm for jazz. This year, I elected to exclude the latter two genres from my personal Pazz & Jop top 30, though I’ve certainly gotten more pleasure from David Behrman’s On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing, Eric Dolphy’s Berlin Concerts, and several Sonny Rollins records than from many rock albums I’ve admired in 1978. My reasons were part formalism (rock still seems to me to connote songs and/or electric instruments), part humility (I don’t pretend to cover jazz or avant-garde music and am not entirely confident of my judgments), and part expediency (there were too many rock and roll records I wanted to list). But my decision didn’t stop me from rooting for Steve Reich’s (rather Muzaky) Music for 18 Musicians, which tied for 38th, or Carla Bley’s (loose but likable) European Tour 1977, which came in 54th.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692474″ /]

The major disappointments, though, were in black music. Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they’re always fuzzy), it’s a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O’Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop from Linda Hopkins to Ashford & Simpson, Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears). All these genres share formal and cultural presuppositions with white rock. As in white rock, their virtues have been diluted and puffed up, and they rarely sustain over an entire album. But turn on WWRL for half an hour and they’ll still be there.

All this is so obvious I feel dumb writing it. But it bears reiteration in the year of Saturday Night Fever and its pathetic, homophobic rebuttal, “Disco Sucks.” Whatever the real dangers and deficiencies of disco as a genre and a mentality, some disco records do more than just succeed on their own terms, as dance music — some of them are wonderful rock and roll. The Best of the Trammps (ineligible for the poll, like all best-ofs) is rough, driving soul in the great tradition of Wilson Pickett; the Bee Gees’ side of Saturday Night Fever (which broke — broke the ice, broke records, broke the bank — in 1978 but is ineligible because it was released in 1977) is inspired silliness in the great tradition of “Carrie-Anne” and “Itchycoo Park.” But the disco-sucks crowd can’t hear that any more than they can hear a Charlie Parker solo or a Joni Mitchell song. These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar — hell, the first lilt — as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco,” though most often the discos could care less even when it’s true. They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.

So although the sweep put my beloved Pink Flag in the running, it cost me Lee Dorsey’s Night People, which I’ve played as much as any album to appear this year, although under scrutiny it does come up slightly short on consistency and wit. Night People is a real fluke, a classic New Orleans r&b album a decade after the style peaked, a great rock and roll album by an artist who is now 54 years old. It finished 34th, one of four records by black artists that ended up between 31 and 35. Two of the others were P-Funk outings, Bootsy? Player of the Year and Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair. Together with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, the year’s leading black album way up at 27, they would add up to 192 points and top-10 status for George Clinton if that were the way things were counted. Oh well. The two other most successful black albums, Al Green’s Truth n’ Time (30th) and Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta (32nd), were released late in the year on labels with sporadic (Green) or almost nonexistent (Coleman) distribution and press coverage, and might have done better with more time for word-of-mouth. But that wouldn’t have shattered the new wave hegemony either.

One thing [that] might eventually challenge it would be a shift in the critical population, but although I sought out writers specializing in black music, there aren’t very many. Only 12 of my 98 respondents, including two disco people, fit the category, and these followed a much less predictable line than the new wavers. This is partly because only the best new wave artists are getting recorded, while the term “black music” encompasses the multitude of genres I’ve already listed and probably a thousand albums a year. But it’s interesting to me that of the 12, only three named black albums exclusively. In contrast there were 39 critics who named not one black album — not only new wavers but a great many middle-of-the-road Joni-to-Brucie rock traditionalists, including several writers who I know love black rock and roll. If it weren’t for Lee Dorsey, I would have been among them myself. Which seems as good a place as any to enlighten you with my own painstakingly calibrated top 30, which you will read on newsprint only because Rupert won’t pay for granite:

1. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest) 13. 2. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 13. 3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13. 4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 11. 5. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 11. 6. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11. 7. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 7. 8. Lee Dorsey: Night People (ABC) 7. 9. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 7. 10. The Vibrators: Pure Mania (Columbia) 7.

11. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire). 12. Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA). 13. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis). 15. Television: Adventure (Elektra). 16. Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia). 17. Al Green: Truth n’ Time (Hi). 18. Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 19. Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff). 20. Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes (PVC).

21. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum). 22. Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca). 23. Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song). 24. Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter (Lone Star). 25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Kaya (Island). 26. David Johansen (Blue Sky). 27. Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest). 28. Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt). 29. Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista). 30. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island).

And just because it was such a good year, allow me to append the makings of a top 40 for those with sentimental attachments to that concept: Raydio, Steve Gibbons Band, Ornette Coleman, Albert Collins, Loleatta Holloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Tom Robinson Band, Tapper Zukie.

Measured by the sheer number of terrific new records, it has been a good year, too, despite my misgivings — more than satisfying in black music and the best ever in hard rock. That’s right, folks, I said the best ever in hard rock. Which is the less ominous reason for this year’s new wave hegemony. Because blacks have always been treated like a second-class market, a cost-cutting, singles-oriented, let’s-lay-down-a-party-track-and-split attitude continues to damage the overall effectiveness of black LPs — the Raydio album, for instance, knocks the Bee Gees out of the box until its last two songs. That’s one reason six of the 13 black artists I’ve named are clustered in the addendum at the bottom of my list. But the reason so many new wave records are clustered toward the top — nine out of 15 — is simply that they’re so damned good. In its first flush of studio assurance, the new wave mentality has set off a creative explosion, especially in songwriting, and I just don’t believe in upgrading an album on political grounds. Because my rankings are based solely on some intuitive balance of listenability and aesthetic intensity, I was forced to conclude that any five songs on the Vibrators or Ramones LPs were of broader usefulness than the wonderful 11-minute scatalogical rap that opens Funkadelic’s side two. Similar judgments were made by a devotee of the more standard r&b-rooted hard rock, Dave Marsh, who would have listed Saturday Night Fever and Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’n All had they not been released in 1977, but who finally decided that Candi Staton and Teddy Pendergrass didn’t quite cut it.

I’m gratified that someone like Marsh, who’s a lot more skeptical about new wave than I am, should find so much good rock and roll of his sort this year, because it reinforces my suspicion that everybody’s rocking harder. True, most music bizzers are relieved that the Sex Pistols have vanished into infamy; they still find the Clash strident and the Ramones simplistic, declaring such bands unacceptable to the imaginary consumer who personifies their own complacency and cowardice. But because it’s the nature of complacent cowards to hedge all bets — and because they want to prove they’re not, you know, square — they reassert their own putative attachment to “good” rock and roll at the same time, thus easing the sales breakthrough of ‘twixt-wave-and-stream bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick. A similar snap-to by old fans (including radio people) who had previously been backsliding into resignation makes quick, surprising commercial successes of Dire Straits (42nd in Pazz & Jop despite late-year release) and George Thorogood and the Destroyers (51st despite a small press list), spearheading a minor white-r&b revival. The more conservative critics, eager to be open-minded, find the new Elvis irresistible and become instantly infatuated with Nick Lowe, whose genius for high pop was inaudible to all but a few pub-rock experts three years ago, while the new wavers move on to the likes of Pere Ubu and the Contortions and love Captain Beefheart better the second time around. Meanwhile, more and more musicians play lots and lots of rough, tough rock and roll.

It’s only fair to add that Marsh himself does not share my sanguine mood. He’s afraid it’s all a last gasp, and for his kind of rock and roll it sometimes seems that way. An interesting statistical sidelight of the poll is the high points-to-voters ratio of Who Are You and (hullo! what’s this doing here?) Street-Legal. When this happens with records below the top 15, it usually indicates preemptive ballot-stuffing, a cultish determination to push the Real Stuff up there, which in earlier polls helped hype Eno and Dr. Buzzard and Kraftwerk but these days seems to be the defense of the mainstream. (Some mainstream, eh?) On the other hand, the 10 records in the top 30 that have gone gold — Stones, Springsteen, Young, Cars, Zevon, Who, Dylan, Nelson, Cheap Trick, Funkadelic — are mostly to Marsh’s kind of taste, including four in his top 10, and he also voted for 36-ranked Bob Seger, who spent the year trading in his silver bullets on something more fashionable. So maybe what the traditionalists are really worried about is that, like me, he suspects Willie Nelson is more likely than Pete Townshend (or Bruce Springsteen) to make good music till he’s 60. Maybe they too detect in the eyes of the Cars and Cheap Trick the blank gleam that gives away artists who are turning to platinum from the soul out. Or maybe it’s just that he’s not comfortable with the shift to the left himself. Three years ago Bruce Springsteen was young blood, the bearer of rock-and-roll future. Now he’s a likable conservative — the vital center, your favorite uncle, like that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692472″ /]

This would seem to be a swing year. The truism that success on the Pazz & Jop chart isn’t exactly synonymous with success on the one in Record World is borne out primarily by new wavers, who contributed most of this year’s dozen or so stiffs. Not even Patti Smith, who with help from Uncle Brucie finally bagged her hit single, achieved gold, which in the year of trentuple platinum (Saturday Night Fever has sold over 30 million units worldwide) is beginning to strike many bizzers as a rather negligible commercial goal. But for the more poppish artists the prognosis is favorable. Patti came close, and Talking Heads is over 200,000 with “Take Me to the River” still breaking as a single, so who knows where that will end? This Year’s Model has also done 200,000 or so and Costello looks unstoppable — he’s got a better shot at going platinum eventually than Jackson Browne appeared to five years ago. Lowe and Edmunds, who sold zilch, are just as talented as Elvis, but less passionate, less ambitious, and less young; still, if Rockpile is willing to slog it, they’ll do all right too. So will Blondie, already a major [band] in Europe and Australia; if Devo doesn’t go the way of the Tubes, they will too, which I’ll try to convince myself is a mixed blessing.

For the others, however, things look bleaker, with the U.S. sales prospects of the two greatest bands to come out of this thing, the Ramones and the Clash, especially depressing. So far, all that the Ramones’ hard touring and good music has netted them is more hard touring, more good music, and a nationwide cult large enough to keep their road operation out of the red; the Clash are stars in England but have shown as little interest in America as America has shown in them. David Johansen’s solo debut sold disappointingly, and although his sudden professionalism is awesome and his company support unusually single-minded, whether his hip, hoarse New York style can ever make a real dent in these United States is beginning to seem questionable. Solo Tom Verlaine, now minus Television, will tend to his own kind of professionalism, which will most assuredly have everything to do with music (and words) and almost nothing with becoming a star. Ian Dury is so English that he’ll always be a fringe benefit here. And Wire and Pere Ubu, both of whom enjoy modest success in the U.K. (even though Ubu is as loyal to Cleveland as the Clash is to its safe European home), are currently without U.S. labels.

Finally, though, I’m not convinced that all this crass pro and con retains importance. I’ve discussed sales annually in this wrap-up not only because they affect artistic strategy and define what kind of community the music and we its fans inhabit, but also, of course, because they determine what records get made and thus enter history. But it seems clear (knock on plastic) that we’re over that bottom line for a while. Maybe the Clash, embroiled and embittered, will bollocks Britain; maybe the Ramones and David Johansen will finally lose heart; maybe Tom Verlaine will do one solo album and disappear; maybe Wire will go back to art school; maybe Pere Ubu won’t even put out records in Cleveland any more. But though any of those things could happen and one or two of them probably will, all of them won’t. Nor will every one of the more salable new wavers turn to shit before our very ears. This new kind of rock and roll is going to be around for a while.

If someone had told me five years ago that I was destined for cultism, I would have scoffed, or cried. Rock and roll was pop music, that was my line — it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cultural resonance. And in a critic like Marsh, the idea that good rock must move an expansive, broad-based audience remains as powerful as any inborn aesthetic conservatism. But I’ve changed my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm for jazz that the bleak mid-’70s rekindled in me had a lot to do with it. For, looking around me, I am reminded of nothing so much as what I’ve read about the twilight of the swing era. Swing was vital popular music into the ’40s, and some of its proponents — not just Duke and Billie, either — did great work until much later, although not usually in a big-band format. But when Frank Sinatra shifted public attention from the bandleaders, who were swing’s artistic standard-bearers, onto the vocalists, most of whom had little of his talent and less of his integrity, swing began to evolve into the fatuous pop music of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, the music rock and roll revolted against.

Long before then, however, two different groups of black musicians had staged their own revolts. The Kansas City style that had been sophisticated into big-band swing was also simplified into rhythm-and-blues, which many blacks and slowly increasing numbers of whites preferred for dancing. Aimed point blank at the new teenage market (sometimes in combination with country music), r&b of course turned into rock and roll. Meanwhile, somewhere to the other side of the pop-swing mainstream, renegade big-band musicians sparked by Charlie Parker invented the apparently undanceable, virtuoso jazz style called bebop. Shortly after World War II, the style enjoyed a brief vogue symbolized in the picture magazines by Dizzy Gillespie and his zoot suit. Despite that flurry, though, bebop never became massively popular, and some of its key figures — such as Thelonious Monk — had trouble earning a living at it. Yet somehow, by the late ’50s, the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that originated with Parker pervaded jazz-based music.

There are no perfect historical analogies, and the equation of bebop with new wave doesn’t come close, not least because when bebop began there was no bebop — no popular-music-as-art-music — and now there is. As someone who has regarded Charlie Parker as the greatest 20th-century American artist even at the height of his infatuations with William Carlos Williams and Chuck Berry, I get nervous just putting the comparison on paper. But I’ve been making it in conversation for six months now, and I know of no better way to explain what I see happening. The rock that has become America’s popular music is rotten from Olivia Newton-John all the way to Kansas. Good art and/or worthy entertainment will continue to be created within its various genres, but as forms they’re moribund. Inevitably, the new wave ideas will infiltrate these genres and pop hybrids proliferate; since hybridization has always been a means to good rock and roll — eclecticism, remember? — some of them may be quite exciting and the real stuff will keep happening. I don’t believe any more than I ever have that new wave will turn into the next big thing. But I feel certain that it will survive and evolve as an entity — the musicians will be there, with a community of fans to support them. Some of them may even age more gracefully than most rock and rollers.

One reason this comparison makes me nervous is that in several ways new wave is bebop’s obverse: can a black music of unprecedented (for jazz) harmonic sophistication really parallel a white music of unprecedented (for just about anything) self-conscious primitivism? But though a lot of new wave may be technically unsophisticated, not all of it is — the English punk moment was an extreme — and in any case rock-and-roll so-called sophistication has always been conceptual, not technical. What’s more, rock and roll has been exploring self-conscious primitivism as a means of making black-derived forms authentic for white people ever since Elvis Presley; sometimes, as in Eric Burdon, the results are embarrassing, but other times, as in the best one-take-and-out Bob Dylan, they’re magnificent. And it’s interesting that in a couple of ways the parallel really comes alive — because, in addition to the hostile bohemian stance assumed by both new wavers and beboppers, a corresponding musical strategy has served to repel potential fans of each vanguard.

The great jazz critic Martin Williams argues that Charlie Parker’s most decisive innovation was not harmonic but rhythmic — that the difference between a Parker phrase and almost the same notes played by Ben Webster was that “Parker inflects, accents and pronounces that phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it.” While I can’t follow bebop’s harmonic permutations closely enough to judge with any certainty, that’s always sounded right to this unschooled bebop fan. Similarly, John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls “forced rhythm,” a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here’s another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas new wavers — unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don’t swing — don’t swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the “frantic” quality of both musics.

The main reason I’ve never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-’n’-roll verities is that new wave doesn’t sound very much like (good ol’) rock ’n’ roll. It’s too “forced,” too “frantic.” It’s this — combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop — that limits its audience, and it’s this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn’t just (blues-based) white music — it’s White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony.

I believe new wave’s aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I’d consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I’ve made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed — disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the “race market.” But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to its right resemble, in their patterns of production and consumption, other eccentric, largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny.

In the ’50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called “hard bop” and “soul jazz.” What do you think new wave disco might sound like?

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Finally, my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few samples:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Vince Aletti, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Anonymous, Lester Bangs, Michael Barackman, Alan Betrock, Michael Bloom, Steve Bloom, Jon Bream, Tom Carson, Brian Chin, Georgia Christgau, Jay Cocks, J. D. Considine, Noel Coppage, Bruce Dancis, Michael Davis, Robert Duncan, Lita Eliscu, Susan Elliott, Todd Everett, Jim Farber, Carol Flake, Mike Freedberg, Dave Frechette, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Deborah Frost, Russell Gersten, Harold Goldberg, Toby Goldstein, Jim Green, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, Bob Hilburn, Geoffrey Hines, Richard Hogan, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Scott Isler, David Jackson, George Lane, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, The Masked Marvel, Janet Maslin, Perry Meisel, Joe McEwen, Daisann McLane, John Milward, Rick Mitz, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Richard Mortifoglio, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Fran Pelzman, John Piccarella, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Joe Sasty, Mitchell Schneider, Dave Schulps, Andy Schwartz, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Bob Sheridan, Don Shewey, Michael Shore, Steve Simels, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Chip Stern, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Sam Sutherland, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Roy Trakin, Roger Trilling, Ken Tucker, Gregg Turner, Mark von Lehmden, Richard C. Walls, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Paulette Weiss, James Wolcott, Jon Young.

VINCE ALETTI: USA-European Connection (Marlin) 10; Don Ray: Garden of Love (Polydor) 10; Musique: Keep On Jumpin’ (Prelude) 10; Voyage (Marlin) 10; Sylvester: Step II (Fantasy) 10; Alec Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: Romeo and Juliet (Casablanca) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; James Wells: True Love Is My Destiny (AVI) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 10; Cerrone: Cerrone IV: The Golden Touch (Cotillion) 10.

LESTER BANGS: The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 30; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 20; Joe Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 15; David Johansen (Blue Sky) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 5; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 5; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 5; No New York (Antilles) 5.

TOM CARSON: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 18; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 15; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 12; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 7; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 7; Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff) 6; Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista) 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca) 15; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (Warner Bros.) 15; Tito Puente: Homonajo a Beny (Tico) 10; Eddie Palmieri: Lucumi Macumba Voodoo (Epic) 10; Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: Secrets (Arista) 10; Chick Corea: Secret Agent (Polydor) 10; Tipico Ideal: Out of This World (Coco) 5; Van Morrison: Wavelength (Warner Bros.) 5; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 5.

STEPHEN HOLDEN: Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (ECM) 19; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13; Nina Simone: Baltimore (CTI) 12; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 9; Daryl Hall & John Oates: Along the Red Ledge (RCA) 8; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 7; Gerry Rafferty: City to City (United Artists) 6; Wendy Waldman: Strange Company (Warner Bros.) 5.

TOM HULL: Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 15; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 15; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 14; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 12; Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis) 12; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 9; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song) 5; Silver Convention: Love in a Sleeper (Midsong International) 5; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 5.

DAVID JACKSON: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 30; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 10; D. J. Rogers: Love Brought Me Back (Columbia) 10; George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Move It On Over (Rounder) 9; Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano (Improvising Artists) 8; Joan Armatrading: To the Limit (A&M) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; 21st Century Singers: Sunday Night Fever (Creed) 5; Peabo Bryson: Reaching for the Sky (Capitol) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Bryan Ferry: The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic) 30; Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 20; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 15; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 5; Johnny Shines: Too Wet to Plow (Blue Labor) 5; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 5; Carlene Carter (Warner Bros.) 5; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 5; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5; Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 30; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 12; Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight (Epic) 12; Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: Hearts of Stone (Epic) 11; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 10; Steve Gibbons Band: Down in the Bunker (Polydor) 5; The Cars (Elektra) 5; The Who: Who Are You (MCA) 5; John Prine: Bruised Orange (Asylum) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 17; Joe “King” Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 16; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Eric Dolphy: The Berlin Concerts (Inner City) 12; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)(Warner Bros.) 12; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 10; Raydio (Arista) 6; Jack Clement: All I Want To Do in Life (Elektra) 5; Delbert McClinton: Second Wind (Capricorn) 5; Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest) 5.

JON PARELES: Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Air: Open Air Suit (Arista Novus) 10; NRBQ: At Yankee Stadium (Mercury) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 10; Happy the Man: Crafty Hands (Arista) 10; Jules & the Polar Bears: Got No Breeding (Columbia) 10; Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia) 10; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 10; Carla Bley: European Tour 1977 (Watt) 10.

TOM SMUCKER: Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia) 17; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14; Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine (Capitol) 12; The Gospel Keynotes: Gospel Fire (Nashboro) 11; Bonnie Koloc: Wild and Recluse (Epic) 10; Alec R. Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Casablanca) 9; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 8; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 6; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5.

ROGER TRILLING: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 10; Conjunto Libre: Tiene Calidad (Salsoul) 10; Culture: Harder Than the Rest (Virgin Front Line import) 10; Miles Davis: Dark Magus (CBS/Sony import) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros) 10; Majestic Dub (Joe Gibbs import) 10; Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt) 10; Thelonious Monk: Monk at the Five Spot (Milestone) 10; Milton Nascimento: Milagre dos Peixas (Odeon import) 10; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10.

Top 10 Albums of 1978

1. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia)

2. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones)

3. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia)

4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic)

5. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness at the Edge of Town (Columbia)

7. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire)

8. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise)

9. The Cars: The Cars (Elektra)

10. David Johansen: David Johansen (Blue Sky)

— From the January 22, 1979, 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

1975 Pazz & Jop: It’s Been a Soft Year for Hard Rock

As per tradition, let me open this discussion with my own personal top 30 for 1975, arrived at with more travail than seems healthy to me.

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” 24. 2. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” 11. 3. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” 10. 4. James Talley: “Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love” 10. 5. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. Toots and the Maytals: “Funky Kingston” 8. 7. Elton John: “Rock of the Westies” 8. 8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” 8. 9. Patti Smith: “Horses” 6. 10. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 5.

11. Roxy Music: “Siren.” 12. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run.” 13. Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Nuthin’ Fancy.” 14. Neil Young: “Zuma.” 15. Eno: “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” 16. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross. 17. “Fleetwood Mac.” 18. Amazing Rhythm Aces: “Stacked Deck.” 19. Gary Stewart: “Out of Hand.” 20. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: “Nightingales & Bombers.”

21. Terry Garthwaite: “Terry.” 22. Loudon Wainwright III: “Unrequited.” 23. John Prine: “Common Sense.” 24. Randall Bramblett: “The Other Mile.” 25. “K.C. and the Sunshine Band.” 26. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame.” 27. Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here.” 28. Al Green: “Al Green Is Love.” 29. The Meters: “Cissy Strut.” 30. Leon Redbone: “On the Track.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”692468″ /]

A lot of my colleagues are feeling beamish with power these days; this has been a good year for rock and roll, they tell me, burping contentedly after trying to fit 13 records onto their 10-place ballot for this year’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. I disagree, and I think Pazz & Jop illustrates why. Look carefully at the results for a moment; I did not choose the figure 13 arbitrarily. Roughly speaking, that is where the critical consensus stops short. Not that any of the 38 participating critics chose from precisely those 13 records on which the consensus arrived. But those were the possibilities that dominated our collective mind; with the inevitable exceptions (especially vehement on Patti Smith, who is not much appreciated outside of New York, at least not yet; more weary and widespread on Roxy Music, who understandably leave many listeners cold, and the Who, whom even admirers of the present LP suspect of moribundity) people who apply aesthetic standards to “rock” agree that all 13 are “good records” of one sort or another.

In contrast, consider the next three finishers. Paul Simon’s staunchest fans will admit that “Still Crazy” represents a slip — the controversy is over how big a slip. “Red Headed Stranger” is a cosmic cowboy cult record. And while “Fleetwood Mac” is very, very pleasant, as my own list attests, it most certainly garnered its votes as “good listening” rather than “good art.”

Since rock criticism is determinedly hedonistic, that distinction still doesn’t go down with some participants, who insist that what they listen to is identical to what is good. Lester Bangs voted for “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” and “Metal Machine Music” because he played them more than he did “Blood on the Tracks”; Vince Aletti omitted “Al Green Is Love” because he filed it away after admiring it a few times. But more than ever the results represent a kind of balance. What mattered was not only what we’d been playing, but also how much a record had to give when it did reach our turntables.

Which brings us back to the lucky 13. Look at the titles again — a rather limited selection, wouldn’t you say? Two each from Bob Dylan (numero uno), Roxy Music (critic’s band), and Neil Young (genuine comeback, hooray). An album by numero uno’s band. Old faves the Who, new faves Steely Dan. Token blackness from two of the three single-artist reggae LPs released in America in 1975, one of them a compilation stretching back more than half a decade for its goodies. And two critic’s records, one an enormous — frightening, I’d say — commercial success, the other as yet unproved among people in general. Charley Walters — who voted for “Diamond Head,” by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera — looks over his list and experiences some disquiet: “It makes me feel as though I spent the entire year listening to Dylan and Roxy.”

In 1974, the top 13 were not so sharply demarcated from what came below, and there were really 13 of them: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Band, Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, New York Dolls, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, the Raspberries.

Admittedly, part of this year’s narrowness reflects nonoutput by Newman, Wonder, the Stones, and Browne, all of whom will be back. But it also reflects the death of Parsons and the break-up of the Dolls (now semi-reunited and looking for a contract) and the Raspberries (a fluke anyway, I suppose — leader Eric Carmen’s solo album of this year received just one mention). And it reminds us of how badly Joni Mitchell (two mentions), Linda Ronstadt (also two mentions, albeit such enthusiastic ones that she placed number 26), and Eric Clapton (one mention for his studio LP, two for his live) let us down this year. Two fine LPs from Neil Young don’t quite compensate for all of that.

Of course, I could be reading too much into this. A certain ebb and flow is to be expected, and I have no doubt that some of the artists who were disappointments in 1975 will surprise me pleasantly in 1976 or 1979. But there’s more reason for my gloom; you can find it in the point values I assigned in my own Pazz & Jop ballot: “The Basement Tapes” 24, “Tonight’s the Night” 11… There were 12 albums vying for my top 10, but only one of them had the earmark of greatness — the same album that also dominated the Pazz & Jop consensus by a wide margin. This album was never intended to be an album at all, which is fine with me — I’m not much of a studiolator myself. But it has to be just a little depressing to people that the accident occurred in 1967.

I made the counterargument myself when the set appeared last summer: it would have been the best of 1967, too. I think so. But it is significant how utterly “The Basement Tapes” dwarfs even the most courageous music to come out of this year, this time. “Tonight’s the Night” and “Horses” — both uncompromising records — sound puny and desperate in comparison. They lack the utopian edge, that hint of cultural possibility, that gives the realism of “The Basement Tapes” its agreeably wry flavor. Realism is narrower now, more personal, and so 1975 produced 13 “good records” by 10 artists plus a lot of (often excellent but nevertheless) personalized taste.

This fact embarrasses critics a little, I think — Jerry Leichtling told me he omitted “The Basement Tapes” to make his list more contemporary, and others commented that they didn’t want to list two records by one artist. Which is to say, the consensus could have been even broader. As I compiled it was not clear for a while which of the top four would pull ahead. I was surprised and gratified by Patti Smith’s strong showing (which came almost entirely from New York in what is purposely a New York-dominated poll — a late vote from Larry Rohter of the Washington Post would have put Springsteen back in second) and slightly embarrassed by Springsteen’s. But I was worried by both, because the two records seem to me to typify the inevitable insularity of criticism.

Taking a lead from MIT prof and former Rolling Stone reviewer Langdon Winner, who came out of semi-retirement in the Real Paper to point out that “Born to Run” represents the formalization of all rock’s rebel precepts, I have to believe that neither Springsteen’s sense of history nor his saving vulgarity contributes as much to his popularity as the subliminal promise of aesthetic safety he offers. And while the acceptance of Patti Smith signifies the receptivity of rock’s critical establishment to music that is genuinely avant-garde in roots and intent, that does not obliterate two objections: one, that Smith’s avant-gardism is second-hand, semi-realized, or both — I’m not convinced that many of the critics who like her work are qualified to judge how vanguard it really is; and two, that the popular appeal of Smith’s music may be limited to those who want to think of themselves as avant-garde, critics included. I’m not saying I believe this myself; I don’t think I do. But the possibility remains, and I think it’s much too early to declare “Horses” any kind of masterpiece. The victory of “The Basement Tapes” represents the bitter truth about a year that was equivocal at best; I’ll always settle for that.

This was a bad year for black music, especially on albums; if I’d contacted more critics specializing in black music — next year I will — I’m sure the Harold Melvin album would have done even better, but after that it’s Earth, Wind & Fire, the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac. It was also an excellent year for country music, with four albums making the top 30 as opposed to one last year. In the case of each fringe I think this is largely a matter of care in making the albums inconsistent at best, while country artists are just beginning to catch on to the great “Sgt. Pepper”/Otis Redding album-as-work-of-art tradition.

Pazz & Jop was expanded this year; due to my own bad organization, I didn’t reach as many critics as I would have liked. Critics who don’t know a lot of other critics are the best corrective to critical cliquishness, though a certain penchant for the obvious does tend to result as well. Last year 24, this year 38, next year 52? And maybe someone named Brenda to help me with the tabulations.

Meanwhile, thanks to all voters, plus a few sample ballots below if there’s room: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Patrick Carr, Georgia Christgau, Ben Edmonds, Ken Emerson, Danny Fields, Ben Gerson, Toby Goldstein, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Lenny Kaye, Jerry Leichtling, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, John Morthland, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Wayne Robins, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692470” /]

Other Critics Pick Their Hits

PATRICK CARR: 1. “Red Headed Stranger” 20. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 15. 3. Delbert McClinton: “Victim of Life’s Circumstances” 15. 4. “Natty Dread” 10. 5. “Dreaming My Dreams” 10. 6. “Horses” 10. 7. Allen Toussaint: “Southern Nights” 5. 8. Robert Palmer: “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” 5. 9. Bad Company: “Straight Shooter” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

VINCE ALETTI: 1. Silver Convention: “Save Me” 10. 2. Donna Summer: “Love to Love You Baby” 10. 3. Smokey Robinson: “A Quiet Storm” 10. 4. “To Be True” 10. 5. The O’Jays: “Family Reunion” 10. 6. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 7. “The Salsoul Orchestra” 10. 8. Barabbas: “Heart of the City” 10. 9. “The Trammps” 10. 10. Bohannon: “Insides Out” 10.

TOM SMUCKER: 1. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame” 20. 2. Evie Sands: “Estate of Mind” 20. 3. “Prisoner in Disguise” 15. 4. “Stacked Deck” 10. 5. Pink Floyd: “Man Shakes Hands With Man on Fire” 10. 6. Commodores: “Caught in the Act” 5. 7. “Horses” 5. 8. “Red Headed Stranger” 5. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5. 10. The Miracles: “City of Angels” 5.

LESTER BANGS: 1. “Horses” 30. 2. The Dictators: “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” 20. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 15. 4. “Born to Run” 5. 6. David Bowie: “Young Americans” 5. 7. Lou Reed: “Metal Machine Music” 5. 7. “That’s the Way of the World” 5. 8. Kraftwerk: “Autobahn” 5. 9. “Country Life” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

ED WARD: 1. Elvin Bishop: “Juke Joint Jump” 22. 2. “Dreaming My Dream” 20. 3. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 4. Asleep at the Wheel: “Texas Gold” 10. 5. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 7. 6. Man: “Slow Motion” 7. 7. “Tonight’s the Night” 7. 8. “Out of Hand” 6. 9. “Natty Dread” 6. 10. Betty Wright: “Danger High Voltage” 5.

GREIL MARCUS: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 17. “Katy Lied” 15. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 4. “Got No Bread…” 12. 5. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 6. “Siren” 10. 7. “Funky Kingston” 5. 8. “Natty Dread” 5. 9. “Tonight’s the Night” 5. 10. “Born to Run” 5.

GEOFFREY STOKES: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 23. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 12. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 11. 4. “Horses” 10. 5. “Funky Kingston” 10. 6. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 8. 7. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 8. 8. “Stacked Deck” 7. 9. Tut Taylor: “The Old Post Office” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5.

FRED MURPHY: 1. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 2. “Revelation” 10. 3. Natalie Cole: “Inseparable” 10. 4. Labelle: “Phoenix” 10. 5. The Pointer Sisters: “Steppin’ ” 10. 6. “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan” 10. 7. Isaac Hayes: “Chocolate Chip” 10. 8. The Isley Brothers: “The Heat Is On” 10. 9. “To Be True” 10. 10. Roberta Flack: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” 10.

JAMES WOLCOTT: 1. “Horses” 18. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 13. 4. “The Who by Numbers” 12. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 10. 7. “Katy Lied” 7. 8. Elton John: “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” 7. 9. Born to Run 5. 10. “Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1” 5.

FRANK ROSE: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 2. “Horses” 14. 3. “Funky Kingston” 13. 4. “Born to Run” 13. 5. “Zuma” 11. 6. Ronnie Lane: “Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance” 9. 7. Joni Mitchell: “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” 8. 8. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 7. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6. 10. “The Basement Tapes” 5.

JERRY LEICHTLING: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 13. 3. Marlena Shaw: “Who is this Bitch Anyway?” 12. 4. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 5. “Katy Lied” 10. 6. Jan Hammer: “The First Seven Days” 10. 7. Melissa Manchester: “Melissa” 9. 8. Larry Coryell: “The 11th House: Level One” 8. 9. Leon Redbone: “On the Track” 6. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

LENNY KAYE: 1. “Physical Graffiti” 10. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 10. 3. “Blow by Blow” 10. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 5. “Natty Dread” 10. 6. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebels: “The Best Years of Our Lives” 10. 7. Albert Ayler: “Witches and Devils” 10. 8. “Beserkley Chartbusters” 10. 9. “Horses” 10. 10. “Siren” 10.

CHARLEY WALTERS: 1. “Country Life” 13. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. Phil Manzanera: “Diamond Head” 12. 4. “Physical Graffiti” 11. 5. “Siren” 11. 6. “Katy Lied” 10. 7. “Blood on the Tracks” 9. 8. “Hummingbird” 8. 9. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” 6.

JANET MASLIN: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Still Crazy After All These Years” 15. 3. “Katy Lied” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 5. Bee Gees: “Main Course” 10. 6. “To Be True” 8. 7. “Born to Run” 8. 8. “Ian Hunter” 6. 9. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6.

PAUL NELSON: 1. “Born to Run” 13. 2. “Zuma” 13. 3. “Red Headed Stranger” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes: 13. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 13. 6. “Tonight’s the Night” 9. 7. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 9. 8. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 9. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 5. 10. Elliott Murphy: “Lost Generation” 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1975

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” (Columbia)

2. Patti Smith: “Horses” (Arista)

3. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run” (Columbia)

4. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” (Columbia)

5. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” (Reprise)

6. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” (ABC)

7. Roxy Music: “Country Life” (Atco)

8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” (Island)

9. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” (Capitol)

10. The Who: “The Who by Numbers” (MCA)

— From the December 29, 1975, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Mere Words Can’t Describe “Milford Graves Full Mantis,” Man

Form and content collide in inspiring ways in this documentary about Milford Graves — avant-garde jazz percussionist, educator, gardener, martial artist, and cardiovascular researcher. Milford Graves Full Mantis is a jazz movie in every sense of the word. Nearly every spoken line ends in “man.” Mixing older performance footage, lengthy fly-on-the-wall takes, and a few epic instances in which Graves sits down to tell a story, the result is total immersion in the mind-set of this remarkable and unusual man. There are no talking heads and no career bullet points; if you want context outside of what’s given, you are on your own.

We’re witness to ecstatic drum circles and solo workouts, including a mesmerizing sequence in Japan for an audience of autistic children. Graves is an autodidact and tinkerer and Renaissance man, and a job as a veterinary assistant leads to a fascination with recording heartbeats. His DOS-era home system looks straight-up sci-fi, especially as he begins explaining how certain sounds can affect musculature, which then affects emotion. (This is demonstrated, bringing himself to tears.) Directors Jake Meginsky and Neil Young (not that one) occasionally use abstract expressionist imagery while Graves raps to us about his philosophies, and if ever there were a film appropriate for such a technique, it’s this one.

“I went straight to the boss,” Graves explains about learning the praying mantis fighting style. He quit human teachers to just observe the insects themselves. It sounds silly, until you see his moves. More documentarians should consider just going straight to the boss.

Milford Graves Full Mantis
Directed by Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
The Cinema Guild
Opens July 13, Metrograph

 

Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

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

1. Eleanor Friedberger, Rebound (Frenchkiss)

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

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

First impressions:

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”594093″ /]

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

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

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

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

5. Overheard, Minneapolis (June 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”589514″ /]

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

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

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

https://youtu.be/OpIoO9SpPcw

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

Thanks to Steve Perry and Bill Brown.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Eminem and Neil Young Explore Trump’s Country, Mavis Staples Soldiers On

1. Tokyo Fish Market, Berkeley (January 4)

A Japanese-American woman in a motorized wheelchair pulled up to the fresh-fish aisle.  It was clear she wasn’t going to be able to reach the Take-a-Number dispenser; a man offered to pull a slip for her. “No,” she said. “I don’t like numbers. I was in a concentration camp.” She looked as if she’d be happy to wait there all day. “They’ll notice me,” she said.

2. Bob Dylan, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979–1981 (Columbia Legacy)

Reviewers have stood in line to praise this testament to the years when the singer performed as a born-again Christian. In its fullest version, it’s eight CDs (concerts, rehearsals, alternate takes from Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love), plus a DVD of concert footage and scenes of Michael Shannon reading sermons written by Luc Sante. The denunciations, warnings, prophecies, damnations, and entreaties Dylan offered from the stage between songs in those years were funnier, more inventive, scarier, and more horrible than the music, and while they were collected in 1990 as Saved! The Gospel Speeches in a watch-pocket book — and put across with acerbic heart by Christian Bale in Todd Haynes’s 2007 film I’m Not There — there’s none of them here.  

But no matter. This set documents as deep a creative dive as any in the singer’s career, one writer after another has said. The band is as good as any he’s ever played with — maybe better. And the choir line — in different combinations, Carolyn Dennis, Mona Lisa Young, Regina Peebles, Regina McCrary, Helena Springs, Madelyn Quebec, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Gwen Evans, Clydie King, Jo Ann Harris — oh, the way they lift these songs up to…people have barely been able to restrain themselves from adding the word, and some haven’t. But they reach up and touch the Hem of His Garment on cue, their ecstasy so automatic that if the quest for God is real to you — and even if God isn’t — it can make you sick. Dylan’s singing on a 1980 version of the hallowed “Every Grain of Sand,” a/k/a “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is the worst from him I’ve ever heard. Michael Shannon has played the sinner as avenging angel for years, but the role never takes on shadings. While there are interesting attempts to make “Slow Train” a more interesting song, and live versions of “Pressing On” that capture at least some of its beauty — though not, again, as much as Christian Bale did, with John Doe’s voice coming out of his mouth — as a friend said, there’s more piety in the few minutes of Van Morrison’s recent cover of Rosetta Tharpe’s 1946 “How Far From God” than in the hours of bullying collected here.

3. Bob Dylan, “Louie Louie” (YouTube)

Uploaded just weeks ago (as of the first week of January only a few thousand people had seen it), from 1985,  a rehearsal with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the first Farm Aid show. It’s raucous, precise, determined, and somehow cruel, with Dylan singing words that can’t have been in the song before, though it might take months of listening to string three of them together. The backing singers — as from the revival shows, Carolyn Dennis and Madelyn Quebec, with Peggi Blu and Queen Esther Marrow — seem charmed by the song, and if the pleasure Blu takes in getting the Louie-Lou-Ay syllables exactly right doesn’t make you smile you’ve got a heart of stone. To say that it’s better than anything on Trouble No More is sort of a cheap shot. But it is.

4. G-Eazy, The Beautiful & Damned (RCA)

Swift.

5. & 6. Neil Young & Promise of the Real, The Visitor (Reprise) & Eminem, Revival (Interscope) 

Two musicians try to get inside Trump’s country — and get out alive. Young struggles to create the sense that all that much is at stake — countering MAGA with a first cut called “Already Great” is a wan gesture, and the song is barely a wave.  

It’s stunning the contempt Eminem has brought forth from so many critics policing their critical neighborhoods — the continual citing of his age seems to be an argument that he has no so-called street cred because he’s not dead yet. With eighteen full-length numbers and two slips, the album is too long. He does seem to run out of gas two-thirds of the way through — or the listener does. He may have lost a step: The cutting snap that has always made his delivery so distinctive seems soft, which makes him sound distracted. But that may be style, not form. The most powerful pieces here — “Walk on Water,” with a gorgeous, altogether down-to-earth echo from Beyoncé, and “Like Home,” a twisting, intimidated, blindman-with-a-pistol attack on the man who as president of the United States, the song says, humiliates the country’s own citizens — create an atmosphere of uncertainty, displacement, the desperation and defiance of someone trying to regrow a tongue that’s been cut out. Taking the choruses on “Like Home,” Alicia Keys pulls back, but her vehemence as she traces lines about nostalgia as the engine of patriotism — “There’s no place like home,” and there’s no place harder to hang on to — is different from Eminem’s in tone, not in kind.  

So much of the discourse against Trump and his clear vision of the country he means to create says little more than NOKD. As a pure demographic, not a person, Marshall Mathers is a pure Trumper. He knows it, and that’s why he sounds like Charles M. Blow and Masha Gessen, not the likes of E.J. Dionne or Frank Bruni. He can see himself as an enemy of the state, in a country where, in point of Constitutional fact, there is no state, and no such thing as a crime against it — even if in the United States today the Constitution is just another set of regulations.

7. Wolf Parade, Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop)

Spencer Krug has a full, rounded voice that calls to mind Jim Morrison, Marian Gold of Alphaville, David Eugene Edwards of the fire-and-brimstone band 16 Horsepower. Without changing his tone, he can go anywhere: embrace, despair, a demand for freedom, a call to arms. From British Columbia, the group looks over the border and wonders if it sees its own country’s future — or if the future is in the past. Seek out “Valley Boy” — what the guitarist Dan Boeckner does in the break is like someone discovering fire.

8. Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life (Interscope)

The question has been raised as to whether Del Rey’s singing here draws more from Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (from 1946) or Claire Trevors Velma in Murder, My Sweet (from 1944). With “Change,” in the way Del Rey’s voice floats on itself, it’s Vivian.  With the scraping “In My Feelings” (“Shot herself clean through the heart — twice,” says a cop in Farewell, My Lovely, which Murder, My Sweet, was made from), it’s Velma. But she’s saying things they never did.

9. & 10. Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples, Xcel Center, St. Paul (October 25)

He was so strong, the highlight was “Thunder on the Mountain,” which is a nothing song.  She sang “Freedom Highway”: “March for freedom highway/March each and every day/The whole world is wondering/What’s wrong with the U.S.A.” Once that last line referenced Emmett Til; now it didn’t have to. Then, with the band vamping behind her, in a kind of call-and-response with herself, she gave a speech about how her father had written the song in 1965 for the march from Selma to Montgomery: “I was there, and I’m still here. I’m a living witness. I’m a soldier.” She summoned the presence to fill the hall with history that was made and history that was being unmade. It was very overdone, very showbiz, and it was true. Even if you couldn’t get out from under what an act it was, it was impossible not to be humbled, at least if you were listening. Fans at Dylan shows are the rudest anywhere. They never shut up. They’re in the presence of a legend. Anybody else is trash, and he might as well be dead.  

Thanks to Steve Perry, Joe Levy, and Jon Bernstein