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

2002 Pazz & Jop: Party in Hard Times

The worst one-two finish in the history of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll couldn’t have come in a worse year, and it’s my sworn duty to tell you why. The year was so bad it quashed a worthier worst one-two finish and continued on to a worst one-two-three, so bad that a worse finish yet could come in a worse year yet — namely, the 2003 this worst year sets up. But hey — rock and roll, big deal. If next Presidents’ Day Annan has snookered Wolfowitz and Sharon is on a leash and the worst son of a bad man has failed to slip another quantum of GNP to the one percenters, I won’t care if Pazz & Jop does go to early favorite Daniel Lanois. Meanwhile, history sucks, and headed by two of the dullest works of well-turned semipopularity ever to contemplate their own impotence, our 29th or 30th poll sucks right along with it.

One way or another, artists can’t help responding to current events. The question isn’t whether, it’s how —with denial always an option. From Tweedy and Beck to Cee-Lo and Karen O, from Charles Aaron to Shannon Zimmerman, almost all our finishers and the vast majority of our respondents are dismayed if not outraged by September 11’s fallout: the imminent attack on Iraq, invasions of privacy bleeding into curbs on expression, the arrant escalation of the class war initiated by Reagan. But that doesn’t mean they know what to do about it, and this old artistic dilemma is further snarled in reactions to September 11 proper that go deeper than outrage and dismay: mourning, disorientation, uncertainty, fear. While the oligarchs in Washington jumped to arrogate more power to their cohort, the rest of us grieved, seethed, tossed and turned, worried about right and wrong, and tried to reclaim our lives. Recall if you will how brave and weird it felt to go to a club or celebrate a birthday in the early autumn of 2001. Then realize that a lot of the apparently apolitical music honored by our critics this year was created under comparable emotional circumstances.

And then add the complication that a lot of it couldn’t have been, because it predates that pivotal day. Eight of our top 40 got votes in last year’s poll: Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Super Furry Animals, Andrew W.K., Soundtrack of Our Lives, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an earlier version of the N.E.R.D. album, and our winner (do the words “back story” mean anything to you?); so did several of the information thefts expropriated for the illegal-times-two Best Bootlegs in the World Ever. Linda Thompson’s return is a life project, and many early-2002 releases — Streets, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Doves, Clinic, Cee-Lo — were begun if not finished before the world changed. Even Steve Earle’s Jerusalem, with its focus track claiming John Walker Lindh is a human being, was mostly written by August 2001. And except for Jerusalem, which insisted, and our winner, so redolent it wrapped any meaning its admirers hung on it in a haze of regret, none of these albums was burdened with ex post facto relevance. All registered as getting-on-with-our-lives records, background music for a party in hard times.

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These before-and-after distinctions will seem overly fine to two camps that concur on little else: the hedonists who scoff at any politicization of pop discourse and the moralists for whom pop discourse is never political enough. Both find that music post-9/11 was as down with its own program as ever. Even our critically sanctioned kind is escapist on the singles chart, where the artistic action is bright of plumage and light of foot to compensate, and self-involved on the album chart, where blue brontosauri, hoary anodynes, great-headed shows of significance, and other protected species still rumble across the plain: Solomon Burke’s latest comeback, which has him trading backslaps with once-famed songwriters in a push-me-pull-you bacchanal the Grammys understand too well, or Sigur Rós’s deliberately incomprehensible attempt to bring Debussyan tone color to their gray-green land. But other bands demonstrated that formalism needn’t be ponderous to be self-referential. Austin’s Spoon jacked up their groove and pared down their sound on an album that accentuates keyboard yet announces its intentions with the opening words “small stakes”; Dakar’s Orchestra Baobab ended the long retirement that followed their climactic final LP with a masterful encore CD whose four best tracks improve songs from their first life. These were spirited and resilient records that had zero to do with the world situation they helped the world survive. Career albums topping career albums, they were music for music’s sake, down with their own programs.

Which brings us — God have I been dreading this — to our underwhelming winner-by-a-mile and surprise runner-up. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Beck’s Sea Change didn’t amass near the support of Dylan and the Strokes in 2001 or OutKast-Harvey-Radiohead-Eminem in 2000; with voting up 12 percent to 695, they pulled markedly fewer points. But they’re Pazz & Jop albums of the year regardless, and I wish they were easier to tell apart. Remember folk-rock? Well, this is folk-rock — evolved folk-rock, postmodern if you must, but folk-rock nonetheless. The giveaways are (a) pedigree and (b) drumming. Beck has long served as celebrity spokesperson for an antifolk movement long turned pro, and while alt-country turned out to be where songwriting adepts Ryan Adams and Rhett Miller shored up their popcraft against the roil of grunge, Wilco chose a different kind of genius move — channeling Woody Guthrie for Billy Bragg. Beck is also the white-funk trickster of Midnite Vultures, and although I’m truly sorry about his girlfriend, his groove there was knock-kneed enough to kick off a mutation into string-swathed crooner of sad songs all by itself. Wilco’s drummer is Ken Coomer — you could look it up, and I bet you’ll still have to. His most prestigious side credit is an inert track on Jerusalem, which rocks high-octane when Will Rigby is driving.

How I tell them apart is that Wilco is the one I tried to hate and ended up respecting and Beck is the one I tried to like and ended up walking around the room until it could get home on its own. As I relistened, it happened again: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was so passive-aggressive I wanted to throttle it, Sea Change so pretty I wanted to tell it I was sorry, only then Beck’s songs vaporized as Wilco’s took on a weathered solidity. Clearly, though, the two share a genetic code: diffident vocals, winsome tunes, contained tempos, affectless rhythms, and, above all, texture as aesthetic signifier. Nothing wrong with texture, which as timbre, melisma, “microtones,” etc. is a prized delicacy in almost every kind of music; in rock and roll, it’s been sticking out its tongue at “classical” canons of tonal purity since 1955. But note that its present vogue privileges what once would have been called sound effects, and that these proceed from the sampler and hence hip hop, though in England they say techno. Most would rate Radiohead’s OK Computer the apogee of pomo texture, well ahead of Beck’s Odelay, but before those two I fell for Latin Playboys. Where OK Computer’s sound effects are also alienation effects, all dystopian gloom, fractured groove, and hate-love relationship with technology, on Latin Playboys, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez conjure places and people past and present from Tchad Blake’s audio treasure chest, blending them in with a hip, swinging, hip-swinging sense of time. My view of our dystopian prospect is that if I change my mind now about who was right, bin Bush has won.

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As a token of their transcendent genius, Wilco split the difference. Our winner is temperate rather than warm or cold, reticent rather than sociable or disaffected, and barely sampled at all — more “treated,” or just plain arranged. The way Jeff Tweedy’s tunes seep through shifting strata of complication recalls Beck’s in Odelay, but Odelay was a lot jollier than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and also than Sea Change, which signals a retreat by abandoning the sampler for sour strings, gobs of reverb, and passably parsable lyrics. Both records make a virtue of their entanglement in disconnected sound, their depressive inability to control an encroaching environment — a defeatism familiar enough from slacker days, only slackers were hyperactive, funny, or at least ironic about it. Wilco’s and Beck’s integrity comes down to a stubborn determination — distinctly American in its folksy affect and go-it-alone-ism — to tell the world how very ineffective they feel.

There’s honor in this. But right below Beck, a better way glints through yet another pokey piece of soundscape Americana, the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where the psychedelic nutballs joke, cope, hope, and okey-doke with a lot more life than on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. I might have A-listed it if the pink robot was Dick Cheney instead of a stock sci-fi villain. But not even the guy I had penciled in above Beck found a way to get that specific. Had The Rising been half what it intended instead of a quarter, I could have nattered on about the matched insufficiencies of broken field run and power play, aestheticism and moralism, shards of sound and great gallumphing truckloads of good old rock and roll. But it wasn’t. It was a failure, magnificent or pathetic or tragic or self-important or merely insufficient. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s politics, as left-decent as any in the music. Then ask yourself how left-decent a reaction he got. And then try to imagine what better album might have radicalized his return. Should he have adopted the Mekons’ “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”? Earle’s “Jerusalem”? Would it have made a damn bit of difference if he had?

What, us effective? Of the finishers who responded directly to September 11, and there were several, only Earle seemed at all programmatic, a folkie without apology now. Elsewhere, politics were personal. If Sleater-Kinney and the Mekons were jolted upward pollwise, that’s because they’d been jolted themselves; if Missy Elliott name-checked the World Trade on her way to Aaliyah’s funeral and Eminem warned his army to stay out of Rumsfeld’s, they were doing what came naturally. Sonic Youth recorded at Ground Zero without getting literal about it, chalked up survivor credit, and were propelled back onto our chart by the musical machinations of fifth member Jim O’Rourke (also all over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and since I prefer the late-’90s Kim-and-Thurston Pazz & Jop snubbed, assume I don’t get him). Three “conscious” rap albums — by gabby Blackalicious, esoteric Common, and the perennial Roots — could have been recorded in 1997 for all the social science they dropped: career name-namers Zack De La Rocha and Gil Scott-Heron, for instance, contribute only righteous generalizations to Blazing Arrow, which burrows its aspersions on patriotism so deep John Poindexter will never notice. The opposition was out there. Be-Afroed Mr. Lif rhymed against the bombing of Afghanistan and finished a respectable 89th; conscious godfathers Public Enemy rhymed against Bush and won the support of a single cross-dressing punk rocker. But the voters preferred Common at his uncommon worst, dripping keyb-enhanced rectitude.

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It’s conceivable they had no way to know better. Strangely or not, all of our “alternative” hip hop albums are copyrighted information products of UniMoth MegaCorp, while Koch signee Public Enemy is now an indie act no less than Mr. Lif and his Def Jux labelmate, 41st-by-a-tiebreaker RJD2. (41–50, available online like the rest of our results: soundscaping RJD2, O Dixie Chicks Where Art Thou, third-with-its-2001-points White Stripes, AYWKUBTTODLAMF, Friends of Karen O, Tom Waits’s unbloodied Alice, she-has-my-2001-points Pink, Avril fans Boards of Canada, Boards of Canada fans Black Dice, state-of-the-union address Red Hot + Riot). Although the majors continued to bleed quality to small businesspeople less burdened by debt service, support for indie albums among our expanded electorate slipped slightly. Granted, exact counts are impossible, especially with every distribution and capitalization deal hiding its own wrinkle and the sign-’em-up farm-team model making a comeback (see Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Andrew W.K., Blackalicious, Houston ghetto boy cum former Rap-A-Lot recording artist Scarface, and soon Yeah Yeah Yeahs). But really, how was MCA’s Blazing Arrow a drastic improvement over Quannum Products’ NIA — music or promotion? Duh.

Also major-friendly is one of two significant European movements — not mashups, as indie as it gets even when 2 Many DJ’s gets permissions, but what I’ll designate Eurosemipop because Europop already means anything from ye-ye to Abba to *NSync to Coldplay itself. It would be willful to deny the tunes and sonics of Coldplay, Super Furry Animals, Doves, and Soundtrack of Our Lives, and they’re of their own culture. Stateside semipop like Spoon and (O Neko Where Art Thou) New Pornographers is altogether quirkier and more intense; the few American bands who aspire to a comparable sound — prominent melody textured with worked harmonies, whitebread emoting, and arrangements that mix trad and pomo — end up beefcake or cotton candy. Which is why only a cowboy like me could call Coldplay or Doves semi-anything — although they’re less laddish about it, in the land of Blurandoasis they were conceived to go for the gold. Gothenburg’s Soundtrack and Cardiff’s Furries are somewhat more boho. But all four distinguish themselves from, let us say, Clinic and the Hives by simple virtue of being dead on their feet — even Soundtrack, Stones fans though they may be. They hire drummers who could beat Ken Coomer within an inch of his life and then put that power in the service of the Antifunk. They aim for stasis even when they rock. Stasis is beauty. And beauty is…well, everything, innit?

Lyrically, let’s say that the Swedes and Welshmen favor alt-style allusion where the English bands cultivate well-meaning commonplaces. I feel Coldplay’s and not Doves’, but both clearly whispered radio-video to whoever was running Capitol at the time. Funk, Antifunk, what’s the diff. Just keep it vague, er, accessible — universal. When that’s the name of the major-label game — which it needn’t be, just ask such holdouts as Flaming Youth, Sonic Lips, E. Costello & His Amazing Gall Bladder, younger please, er, Queens of the Impending Stone Age, Scandinavia’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band, Shadow Knows, Norah Jones is too all-ages — stasis is neither here nor there. If there’s a market for beats, business schools, it’s your job to provide beats.

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For those who favor corporate support of the arts, this has long been a piece of luck. And in 2002 the voters finally offered clear statistical indication that great-headed shows of significance weren’t the only evolutionary success in a music that remains blues-based historically whatever its chords. For the first time since “Sun City” edged Little Creatures in 1985 — after “The Message” and “Sexual Healing” whipped Imperial Boredom in 1982 — more respondents listed our No. 1 single than our No. 1 album. With a third of the electorate still standing moot on singles, this makes Missy Elliott’s “Work It” pretty universal — hoisted aloft by 46 percent of the voters in her category where Wilco limped along at 29. For some voters, radio is a vast wasteland, the record business in its death throes. But for many others, pop innovation is at a historic peak, with artist-of-the-year beatmasters Timbaland and the Neptunes come to slash and burn the extinction-bound ponderosas on the album chart.

This old argument has never had more weight. Tim and the Neps have placed 12 records by 11 different artists on our singles charts over the past two years, with the Tim-and-Missy combo twice No. 1 in a landslide and “Work It” ’s Neptunes-Nelly preamble “Hot in Herre” third by a single vote in 2002 — behind “Lose Yourself,” Eminem’s rock song about the rap agon. For purposes of argument I wish two-three had reversed — Eminem got respect by becoming less interesting and less hip hop in 2002, and “Lose Yourself” isn’t even the best 8 Mile has to offer (especially 8 Mile the movie). Inconveniently, however, I never connected with “Hot in Herre”; for me the Neps’ great triumph was the sly funk they fashioned in tandem with Tim and 127th-place Justin Timberlake. If they’re the future, as Sasha Frere-Jones isn’t alone in believing, maybe I’m just showing my age. But hear me out.

The producer as auteur is an idea whose time has come and then some; having gotten to where what are called beats sometimes reject, sometimes exploit, and sometimes just are what are called hooks, we need figureheads with more rebop than Jeff Tweedy. But it’s one thing to insist that musicality in a rhythm music doesn’t equal songcraft plus sound effects, another to explain how any kind of pure musicianship, rhythmic included, signifies in pop, which achieves meaning by any means necessary. I should have voted for the backward-unmasked “Work It,” which grabbed me right after our deadline — it’s a surreally inventive novelty, so eventful it would take thousands of words to describe (love that jackass, or is it an elephant?). But even more than “Hot in Herre,” a novelty is what it is, a novelty about the liberating power of sex — especially if you think liberation involves oblivion, an ancient idea in people’s music.

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This is a myth whose efficacy is well-known at Pazz & Jop’s anti-pop extreme, in the only alt movement of moment: the Brooklyn bohos who successfully declared themselves a scene in the wake of 9/11, embracing the soft-core porn deceptively trademarked electroclash before shape-shifting toward an alienated DOR (“dance-oriented rock,” we called such earlier overrated bands as the Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid) best understood by the DFA label. Result: three charting singles, the dominatrix tongue-in-chic of the squeaked-on Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP, and the well-chilled eroticism of half-Brit Interpol’s top-20 album. Right, the sexualization of pop has been accelerating for many years — since MTV, maybe disco. And as usual — here come da “Sexual Healing,” now tell me where da “Message” — black musicians do it better. Still, this is a party in hard times however you slice it. Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before we let that happen we’ll fuck our lives away.

A believer in sex myself, I voted for Tweet-and-Tim’s “Oops (Oh My),” where Tweet strokes herself in the mirror after a hot date, a consummation much preferable to Interpol’s “You’re so cute when you’re frustrated dear/You’re so cute when you’re sedated dear.” But I’m not convinced anyone should feel obliged to get naked at the drop of a hint, and wish Missy was autonomous enough to differentiate between sex-positive and boy-crazy; when she offers to “put my thing down flip it and reverse it,” well, I like the way the image matches the music, but as a procedural guideline it seems a bit on the fancy side. I love the track, and in general prefer Tim’s gnarled beats (every one a swamp, with old sneakers, interesting deadwood, and empty Henny bottles set out like folk sculpture) to the Neptunes’ sleek, efficient ones (more like airports: strong franchise coffee, moving sidewalks, fluorescent lighting everywhere). But for me the most gratifying surprise of this poll was the Neptunes d/b/a N.E.R.D.’s In Search of…, which I now love for the same reasons I panned it in July: Obscenely wealthy, obscenely catchy thugs-by-association rationalize their ethics and throw their dicks around, only they’re consumed by doubt and hence honest enough to make themselves look like jerks. As conflicted as Biggie or Ghostface and more self-examined, they’ll be ready for the orgiasts whenever it cools down in therre — which is not to claim the orgiasts will be ready for them.

There I go, trumping a single with an album like I always do. Sorry, that’s how I hear, and how I want you to hear. I’ll never dis beatmastery, been pumping it forever, but even in hip hop I see bigger future in the Roots and Cee-Lo, both of whom chose this year to humanize their formal commitment with injections of singing and guitar. Up against my fellow citizens over in Williamsburg I’ll take the Drive-By Truckers’ underclass regionalism — or the alt logorrhea of Omaha’s/Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Brixton’s/the Streets’ Mike Skinner, one texturing with an 11-piece band featuring bassoon and cello, the other with low-end electronic junk. And when I want to escape — which I often do, music is great for it — I have plenty of living options. Heading my fuck-what-you-say Dean’s List, the longest ever, are the worldly, faithful, Muslim/Catholic, catholic/pagan Afrosalsa of Orchestra Baobab; the self-sufficient, ears-everywhere, middle-class microcosm of DJ Shadow; and the mad, bitter, guarded, indomitable truth-telling of the Mekons. I’m proud they all finished, never mind where. Jon Langford, who’s managed to put out four albums since last March including one against the death penalty, is my artist of the year, and I intend to follow his example. The world won’t end, you know. It will just get worse.

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Top 10 Albums of 2002

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

2. Beck: Sea Change (DGC)

3. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)

4. The Streets: Original Pirate Material (Locked On/Vice)

5. Sleater-Kinney: One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)

6. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia)

7. The Roots: Phrenology (MCA)

8. Eminem: The Eminem Show (Aftermath/Interscope)

9. Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)

10. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (Elektra)

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Top 10 Singles of 2002

1. Missy Elliott: “Work It” (Elektra)

2. Eminem: “Lose Yourself” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. Nelly: “Hot in Herre” (Universal)

4. The Hives: “Hate to Say I Told You So” (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph)

5. Eminem: “Without Me” (Aftermath/Interscope)

6. The White Stripes: “Fell in Love With a Girl” (V2)

7. Kylie Minogue: “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (Capitol)

8. Nirvana: “You Know You’re Right” (DGC)

9. Rapture: “House of Jealous Lovers” (DFA)

10. Tweet: “Oops (Oh My)” (Elektra)

—From the February 12–18, 2003, issue

 

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

 

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

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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

1993 Pazz & Jop: Playing to Win

No use seeking hidden meanings in the 20th or 21st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. The story is smack dab on the surface, there for the kvelling and the selling — self-evident and significant, heartening and thrilling, unprecedented and maybe even sexy. Liz Phair — the first female victor since Joni Mitchell in 1974, when the 24-person electorate consisted largely of my friends — is joined on the album chart by 11 other women, recording under their own sobriquets or fronting bands that usually include more women. With PJ Harvey scoring twice, and the Digable Planets and Yo La Tengo granted half-credits for Ladybug and Georgia Hubley, that’s 13 and two halves records all told, and though in 1992 we had 10 and two halves, then women garnered a mere one (and a half) of the top 10, whereas in 1993 they scored three of the top four. On the traditionally distaff singles chart, where the gender breakdown is unremarkable, the Breeders follow Tracy Chapman in 1988 and Laurie Anderson in 1981 to the top spot. Björk’s “Human Behaviour” came in second on our video ballot, following Cyndi Lauper in 1984, and “Cannonball” rode in fourth on a goofy clip codirected by better half Kim Gordon. Rap-rockers Luscious Jackson follow Lucinda Williams in 1989 as EP winners. Only on the reissue list, where Columbia’s proudly feminist Janis Joplin box finished seventh in an otherwise male field, did guys still rool.

Needless to say, skepticism is always justified when journalists crow about trends. Note that as recently as 1991, the only women to place were Bonnie Raitt, Sam Phillips, and Kirsty MacColl, and note also that this is hardly Pazz & Jop’s first Year of the Woman. We had one in 1992; we had one in 1988; we had one in 1981, when women put ten and three halves albums in the top 40; hell, we thought we had one in 1979, when 10th-place Donna Summer, now cited as an example of how critics only respect sexually assertive white women, led seven (and three halves) female artists onto our chart. And as was noted by many of our 309 respondents — a new high, as were the 68 female voters, their numbers swelled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton Memorial Poobah Ann Powers’s affirmative-action effort and H. L. Mencken Memorial Poobah Joe Levy’s insistence on declaring our deadlines a disaster area — the women on our chart are as varied as the men. (Almost, anyway — none of them is as big a creep as Dwight Yoakam, not to mention Dr. Dre.) I’ll grant you that 68th-place diva Toni Braxton and 47th-place sexpot Janet Jackson deserved more respect, that icons on the order of Sinéad and what’s-her-name were nowhere in evidence, and that we got no riot grrrls either (although Bikini Kill’s Joan Jett–produced “Rebel Girl” was tied just below chart level with seven other singles that would have toned up an already healthily non-album-dependent list). But despite all that, we cover a lot of territory; I mean, from Sade’s velvet wallpaper and Aimee Mann’s power-pop singer-songwriting to Rosanne Cash’s mainstream privatism and Jane Siberry’s eccentric privatism to Carol van Dijk’s Euroneotraditionalist lead work and Laetitia Sadier’s Euroexperimental front work to Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s people’s poetry and Cassandra Wilson’s art of improvisation seems like a lot to me. And Phair at number one, PJ Harvey at three, and the Breeders at four (plus Belly at 37) represent a sea change.

I’m not forgetting that Harvey and the all-female L7 burst upon us in a 1992 that was topped by the half-credited Arrested Development. And I’m down with the profusion of comments on the varieties of female experience. But I still think that the big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules, and play it to win. Sade and Mann and Siberry and Cash and Me’Shell and Wilson and van Dijk and Sadier all fit established female niches that critics appreciate. It’s not impossible to imagine a poll-topping successor to Joni’s Court and Spark emanating from a leader-plus-backup like van Dijk’s Bettie Serveert, even from a singer-songwriter who combined Siberry’s singularity with Mann’s thralldom to the hook. Not impossible — just damned hard. I believe that Blondie’s 1978 Parallel Lines was a more incandescent explosion than the poll-topping This Year’s Model, that the McGarrigles’ 1977 Dancer With Bruised Knees was a tougher statement than Never Mind the Bollocks, but I wouldn’t waste time electioneering for either. I know all too well that in practice, our poll honors music that parades its mastery of meaning, and that in practice this comes down to bands, whether ad hoc creations like Paul Simon’s Graceland hirelings, De La Soul’s voice-and-tape fantasias, and Prince’s multitracked versions of his multitalented self or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like the Clash, E Street, Crazy Horse, and Nirvana — whether ad hoc studio creations like Phair and friends or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like PJ Harvey or hybrids like Belly and the Breeders.

In short, what we have here is the consummation a lot of male critics said they were waiting for — not women who could play their axes or anything stupid like that, just women who knew how to come on strong. This is basically the musical bias the Brits call rockism, a promethean schema that valorizes the artist as creative actor. From Van Morrison at 55 to Mick Jagger at 110, from Donald Fagen at 43 to John Cougar Mellencamp at 93, from Elvis Costello at 57 to Sting at 65 — hell, from John Hiatt at 38 to Billy Joe Shaver at 38 (hell and tarnation, from Kate Bush at 65 to Rickie Lee Jones at 106) — old-timers of all ages still strive proudly to fulfill this ideal. But it’s no longer the fine strapping hegemony it used to be, and not just among fad-hopping U.K. pomo-poppers. What does it mean, for instance, that three of our most aged white male finishers — Jimmie Dale Gilmore (seventh), Willie Nelson (22nd), and Bob Dylan (23rd) — devoted themselves to other people’s songs? Or that after years of traditionalist resistance, the Pet Shop Boys — whose three previous entries finished 22nd, 32nd, and 35th — should leapfrog to fifth on their poorest-selling disc? Above all, what does it mean that after years of posing atop Mount Caucasus, torch aloft and eagle at liver, U2 should finish ninth with a damn Eno album?

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For good reason, the rockist vision is often attacked as Euro, male chauvinist, and so forth — as an aestheticization of the will to dominance. Yet oddly enough, while rockism continues to define metal and fuels many of the new male country singers, two of its bulwarks these days are rap (pardon me, hip hop) and the former Amerindie subculture still sometimes labeled alternative, both of which reject or redefine virtuosity while championing their own modes of rugged mastery. As so often happens in countercultures, it’s like hippie all over again: in order to combat the ruling class, the media, the powers that be, the establishment, the man, both rappers and alternative rockers lay claim to an individualistic ethos they believe has been homogenized out of existence. Big on authenticity and creative control, they carry the rockist flag. But not without misgivings. Reluctant to cross over yet desperate to get paid, reliving African trickster and griot traditions as they act out against absent fathers, forced by the forces of censure and censorship to front about how literal they are, rappers suffer ugly doubts about their own autonomy. And the indie guys, who reject rockist ideology while embodying its aesthetic, don’t have it so simple either. They’d be confused about gender privilege even if their girlfriends didn’t hock them about it.

When Nevermind overwhelmed Billboard first and Pazz & Jop later in 1991, we all knew “alternative” was in for weird times, but except for some feminist critics, notably the Seattle-born Powers, few considered gender consequences in the year of Raitt-Phillips-MacColl. Who would have figured? Yet here we are. Say there are 12 Amerindie bands in our top 40, and nine in our top 20: Dinosaur Jr., Belly, Uncle Tupelo, Yo La Tengo, American Music Club, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders, Nirvana, and Liz Phair. Since not one of these bands records for a fully independent label, this list is deeply debatable; maybe it’s wrong to exclude long-ago Twin/Tone stalwart Paul Westerberg, and I count Pearl Jam only because…I forgot. Still, bear with me. Seven of the 12 are first-time album finishers, but not one of the four male newcomers — Uncle Tupelo, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, and Smashing Pumpkins — scored with a debut album. All came up in the indie farm system, where all recorded at least two albums/EPs. A version of the Breeders that included Belly’s (then Throwing Muses’) Tanya Donelly released a Rough Trade album in 1990 and a 4AD/Elektra EP in 1992. But Liz Phair and Belly charted true debut records, which added to Digable Planets, Me’Shell, and Netherindies Bettie Serveert makes five, all showcasing women, on a chart that averages around eight — with Exile in Guyville, which predated the Atlantic deal critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper Gerard Cosloy cut for his poll-vaulting Matador label, our only genuine Amerindie album.

Nor is it just the numbers that tell me women are now the prime hope of a onetime youth culture whose length of tooth is measured by the 1986 and 1988 debuts of Overkill and the Whigs. It’s my ears. Although I didn’t resist Exile in Guyville, I did find it hard to hear through the word-of-mouth, just as Nirvana’s number-two In Utero was hard to hear through the media clamor (in my defense I’ll say that two decades ago it took me just as long to penetrate Exile on Main Street, which I promise not to mention again). When I gave myself the Christmas present of relistening in depth, however, the voters’ choices ended up my favorite new music of 1993, and Guyville started sounding like a full-fledged classic.

If you wanted to get wise, you could grouse that Guyville shares all too much with Court and Spark, but you’d be jiving. Where Joni’s winner was a produced, listener-friendly variation on the audaciously arty For the Roses, Phair’s recalls the more tentative Clouds — except that it’s realized and Clouds isn’t, proof positive that minimalism lives. Phair milks drummer-coproducer Brad Wood (who kicks things off with a perfect Bill Wyman bass hook) and multitracks with Princely panache, adding simple, self-taught, alternative guitar noises — strums and riffs rather than Nirvana/Sonic Youth noise-a-rama — where he-who-cannot-be-named would lay in a beatwise panoply. By the time I’d heard the 18 songs 18 times, I was hooked right down to the perverse slow ones — like “Canary,” which follows a minute of halting piano with a sad ditty whose mix of domestic detail and attempts at cooperative cohabitation climaxes quietly with a house on fire. Clearly, Phair wanted to prove she could do it with a band and prove she could do it without one; substitute “guy” for “band” and you’ll know why. Not only does she have another album in her, she has a career in her, one she’s canny enough to stay on top of. But at the same time she’s alternative-rockist enough to look askance at careers undertaken exclusively from behind closed doors. So her next step is to get out of the studio and start a band. Since this leader-plus-backup is unlikely to bog down in participatory democracy, I just hope Phair figures out how to generate the requisite synergy anyway, and noting that the four musicians credited on her record are fulltime citizens of Guyville, submit that a female player might shake up the dynamics.

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For I also note that of the three other women’s bands, PJ Harvey, which consists of Polly Harvey and two guys from Somerset who knew a genius when they saw one, is at once the most accomplished and the most conventional — a blues-based power trio who, like Nirvana, hired critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper, alternative ideologue, and sexist dweeb Steve Albini to guarantee the hard-edged power-as-integrity they demanded in a followup. Albini’s input was pitiless and extreme, and although the device of turning some levels so low that listeners have to choose between not hearing the record or playing it loud is what insiders call a “stupid gimmick,” I go along with the consensus that Rid of Me is realer than the 35th-place 4-Track Demos. I prefer it to Belly’s Star and the Breeders’ Last Splash, too, and not just for its passion — hybrids who recorded before they played out, Belly and the Breeders aren’t all there yet musically. Yet live, Star’s mystofemmes are postmacho masters of their own pre-Amerindie pastiche, while Last Splash is simply the most outlandish record ever to make our top five. Take as a metaphor the tumble-bumble number-one single “Cannonball,” which is either alternative’s “Horse With No Name” or the revenge of the shambolic — proof the garage lives creatively, commercially, and in all the erogenous zones in between. Unlike the Pixies or PJ Harvey, the Deal twins don’t equate guitars with virtuosity or expressive display, and if they’re too messy by me, the voters took their loose ends as proof of a righteous impulse worth loving and rewarding.

And at least Last Splash made the Dean’s List — down in the 50s, stranded in a vast expanse of nonfinishers. Where before world beat and college radio my lists often anticipated the consensus, recently their correspondence to the general wisdom has been random — my first would be the voters’ 87th, my fourth their 32nd, my ninth their eighth, my 38th their fourth. This year, however, the pattern was different. Rarely have I concurred so thoroughly on the cream — four of the voters’ top eight are in my top seven, nine of their top 17 in my top 18. But not one of the 23 records below that — and only two of a typically varied 41–50 that goes Spinanes, Henry Threadgill, Donald Fagen, Counting Crows, Björk, Mekons, Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, Suede, Velvet Underground — made my year-end A list. Most of the voters’ choices were solid and smart, worthy of honor or at least mention; from Dwight Yoakam to Cassandra Wilson, I might have missed a few altogether without the P&J seal of approval. But they’re almost all by Yanks. And while the chauvinism wasn’t as unremitting as in 1992, when PJ Harvey and Morrissey were the only aliens on our chart, I find the census discouraging: the only non-Americans are Harvey, perennials U2/Sade/Pet Shop Boys, major-label freshpersons Stereolab, and Amsterdam Anglophones Bettie Serveert.

Although under the sexual circumstances I cherished hopes for 62nd-place Zap Mama, this is not a plea for “world music” — most of my African and Caribbean (and Central Asian) finds were strikingly archival. So forget Third World outreach — I would have settled for Anglophilia. Because in this particular year of the woman, I found the oblique genderfucks of the Popinjays and Saint Etienne and the self-contained dream-pop of Ireland’s Cranberries and Michigan Anglomorphs His Name Is Alive more pregnant with meaning than the arty variations on womanist expressionism served up by Mann, Siberry, and Me’Shell. When expressionism works it’s the shit. Mud-wrestling with chaos, cutting their rage with conscious grotesquery and indignant self-deprecation, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey, and Greg Dulli give irony the arm without denying themselves its out. In contrast, crooner-poemwriter concrète Mark Eitzel, one-trick guitar god J Mascis, Music Row status symbol John Hiatt, recovering outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, Oprah volunteer Eddie Vedder, and Prince surrogate Terence Trent D’Arby all express too much, methinks. Yet though their moments rarely become minutes and their minutes never become hours, all have parlayed identifiable styles, discernible smarts, and reliable personas into serious Stateside reps. Meanwhile, a straight U.K. band’s gay-identified U.K. record affects a pathos so flamboyant that reasonable people can’t stand it — until the songs climb into bed with them. In Britain, Suede wins a Mercury Music Prize. In Rolling Stone, it’s “Hype of the Year.” And in Pazz & Jop, it finishes 49th — better than it might have, worse than it deserved, and at least it deflected repressed homophobia from the Pet Shop Boys.

Although the shortfall may be random, to me Suede’s showing seems emblematic of Amerindie provincialism. With its naturalization of fashion, hype, indirection, androgyny, and Jacques Brel, Brit music culture is now so far removed from America’s alternative mindset that the poor guys might as well be performing Bulgarian folk songs. But provincialism begins at home. Were I to kvetch that of the 16 votes for Suede, nine came from New York and California and only two from Middle America, Midwesterners could respond that of the 18 votes for St. Louis fiddle-and-steel band Uncle Tupelo, nine came from Middle America and only four from New York and California. So as with Suede, I’d listen a lot and get it eventually. There’s something smartly posthomespun there, though not enough — I’d like more lyrics on the order of “Name me a song that everybody knows/I bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose.” On the other hand, I’m not always so sure what Suede’s songs mean either, and if a Minnesotan were to claim that our differences came down to dialect — that camp and falsetto are indigenous to one place, banjo and drawl to another — I’d have trouble mounting a convincing counterargument. As discrete monads segregate themselves into subsubcultures determined by geography and sensibility, battening down the hatches from Compton to Croatia, the fine old liberal myth about music dissolving boundaries is showing its bullshit quotient.

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As you might have guessed, it is with rap that segregation becomes most problematic, although this time it may be less characteristic of consumers than critics, with formerly tolerant white worrywarts on one side and populists and rap specialists on the other. Dr. Dre didn’t get near the victory some scaredy-cats predicted was his for the drive-by. But having fretted that gangstas were cordoning off their own market niche like the heavy metal kids of yore, I obviously never imagined that The Chronic, a late-’92 album that picked up all of 10 points last year, would finish a triple-platinum sixth in our 1993 poll. Still, Dre’s triple-platinum partner in profit Snoop Doggy Dogg was only 52nd, and the tenor of the few progangsta comments suggested considerable support in the fact-of-nature, sound-of-the-streets, and guilty-pleasure categories. And though the tough-talking Latinos of Cypress Hill were 29th, voters generally preferred the alternative: De La Soul, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Me’Shell, all whom explored jazzy beats that signified bohemia as much as they did great black music. I don’t exempt myself from this tendency — after a year of prayer and meditation, I’ve learned to loathe The Chronic. But I much prefer De La’s dislocated funk and the Digables’ hard-bop hooks to the cocktail-flavored groove of 82nd-place Guru, Me’Shell, even Quest, and would single out for praise the alternative/metal-rap of the 60th-place Judgment Night soundtrack, which attempts to suture cultural lacerations more patient-appropriately.

Dave Marsh leads off the “Gangsta Bitching” section with a typically passionate outburst that’s also typically, shall we say, overstated. The facts are these. Between 1988, when It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back announced hip hop’s rockist agenda, and 1992, when 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… became our third rap winner in five years, we’ve averaged two black albums a year in the top five, three in the top 10, and 10 in the top 40. But by “black,” I mean “featuring an artist of African descent.” This makes sense to me; anyone who doesn’t think Vernon Reid or Tracy Chapman is “really” black should try and imagine saying so to their faces. Others might counter, however, that a black album can only be one that attracts a substantial black audience, which also makes sense. Then our black numbers go down, although not that much — unless you want to argue that the black audience for Prince and P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development isn’t “black enough.” These calculations do get tricky — and risk unseemly racial presumption in the bargain.

We can safely say this much, however: 1993 is the first year that there hasn’t been a black album in the top five since 1985, when Artists United Against Apartheid earned only a half. And if we can also project that this will prove an exception rather than a trend, we can nevertheless see why Marsh is so upset. Because make no mistake, bohemia is a trend, from Digable Planets and Me’Shell NdegeOcello to Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. Bohemia is a function of class, a concept that in this context encompasses cultural style as much as gross income; it’s hostile to the merely popular in ways both stupid and smart. Marsh, who voted for Pearl Jam as well as Dr. Dre and has always trumpeted working-class taste and rockist expressionism over collegiate exclusivity and pomo irony, hates bohemians for reasons he would argue are fundamentally political, and even those who would beg to differ will grant that politics is hardly a specialty of this year’s boho crop. Where in 1992 we heard nonstop propaganda from John Trudell and the Disposable Heroes and heavy protest from Arrested Development, Neneh Cherry, even Sonic Youth and Leonard Cohen, 1993 never gets more ideological than Me’Shell, Digable Planets, and — jeeze — the Pet Shop Boys. For some, this leaves Dr. Dre in the symbolic position of embodying our inarticulate collective rage. I say he’s not good enough for the job. In fact, I say he’s not angry enough.

Yet however much our women pussyfoot around the four-syllable F-word, however heavy they come down on the inward, they do represent a power shift, and power shifts are what politics is about. It’s my (male) belief that the progress this shift will effect is unlikely to nudge, much less dislodge, the entrenched economic interests exploiting gangsta pathology, although it might palliate some symptoms. Nor do I expect international sisterhood to cut into an America-firstism that could get real tedious real soon. And let me note that as a longtime bohemian hanger-on, I’m appalled to witness in one year the returns of Tim Buckley (in the voice of his EP-charting son) and El Topo (a dreadful fillum revived as the dumbest video ever to top our poll). But none of the above is to suggest that Liz Phair represents anything less than a long overdue and exceptionally happy development in an exercise that teaches me something new every year. Male critics said they were waiting for it, and they were. Now they get to find out how much they like the consequences.

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Top 10 Albums of 1993

1. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (Matador)

2. Nirvana: In Utero (DGC)

3. PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (Island)

4. The Breeders: Last Splash (4AD/Elektra)

5. Pet Shop Boys: Very (EMI)

6. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (Interscope)

7. Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Spinning Around the Sun (Elektra)

8. De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy)

9. U2: Zooropa (Island)

10. Digable Planets: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum)

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Top 10 Singles of 1993

1. The Breeders: “Cannonball” (4AD/Elektra)

2. (Tie) Digable Planets: “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (Pendulum)
Nirvana: “Heart-Shaped Box” (DGC)

4. Dr. Dre: “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (Interscope)

5. Salt-N-Pepa: “Shoop” (Next Plateau)

6. (Tie) Radiohead: “Creep” (Capitol)
Soul Asylum: “Runaway Train” (Columbia)

8. The Juliana Hatfield Three: “My Sister” (Mammoth/Atlantic)

9. Urge Overkill: “Sister Havana” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day”/”Check Yo Self” (Priority)
Tony! Toni! Toné!: “If I Had No Loot” (Wing)

—From the March 1, 1994, 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

1991 Pazz & Jop: Reality Used to Be a Friend of Ours

An unprecedented 300 voters made the 18th or 19th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll the most colossal ever. So even though Nirvana’s Nevermind finished one shy of an almost unprecedented 1700 points, Seattle’s reluctant teen spirits, whose 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach was actually plucked from the Amerindie swamp by three Pazz & Jop respondents (Jem Aswad, Pat Blashill, and Jim Maylo, we salute you), aren’t anything like the biggest winner in poll history. Proportionally, many albums — from London Calling and Born in the U.S.A. to Sign “O” the Times and, hell, Never Mind the Bollocks — have excited more sweeping support. But that was earlier in the never-ending story of rock fragmentation. Since 1984, only Sign “O” the Times has posted heftier numbers. Only in 1983, the year of Thriller, “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It,” has any artist scored an album-single-video hat trick. And nobody but nobody has ever won by a wider margin — although runners-up rarely amass less than 70 per cent of a winner’s points, Public Enemy got 54 per cent. Nor does the timing of Nirvana’s late-year surge explain the size of the victory. Come on — this is a classic critics’ band. As a modest pop surprise they might have scored a modest victory, like De La Soul in 1990. Instead their multiplatinum takeover constituted the first full-scale public validation of the Amerindie values — the noise, the toons, the ’tude — the radder half of the electorate came up on. Poof, they’re a landslide.

In early September, Nirvana entered my major/indie-neutral world — where David Geffen’s DGC label has more credibility than RCA or Relativity, as much as Virgin or SST, and less than Sire or Shanachie — as the latest scruffy rumor. Where a single play serves to peg most well-buzzed postindie bands as interesting, spotty, generic, or worse, Nevermind stood out from the first sarcastically magnificent bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Strong throughout, I reported. But I didn’t hear a distinct sound — just distinct songs/hooks/riffs, which the way “alternative” aesthetics go is aces in a band loud enough to rouse the pissed and vex the complacent. Just like a million teenagers, I listened compulsively only after Nirvana sandbagged the Sisyphean Michael Jackson as the hit of a dicey Christmas and then overwhelmed our poll — at which point what I’d taken for Amerindie pop-by-accident emerged as an inspired, if accidental, synthesis.

In varying sonic and philosophic proportions, Nirvana recalls an honor roll of bands who’ve rooled our charts while barely grazing Billboard’s: Flipper, the Pixies, their fans and labelmates Sonic Youth, and especially those standard-bearers of the eternally unmarketable “Minneapolis sound,” Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. Hundreds of scruffy rumors — Dinosaur Jr. (whose confused major-label debut finished 37th after two near-misses on SST), Volcano Suns, the Fluid, Soul Asylum, Superchunk, Mudhoney, Run Westy Run, Das Damen, and onward to China — have put out thousands of albums that don’t come within ass-sniffing distance of this one. But like the Beastie Boys, whose rap slapstick made them the Nirvana of an earlier pop moment, all the above-named Pazz & Jop heroes have topped Nevermind by at least a hair: with Album: Generic Flipper and Bossanova (most would say Doolittle) and Sister and Daydream Nation and New Day Rising and Candy Apple Grey and Let It Be and Licensed To Ill.

You’ll note that except for Licensed To Ill, which may outsell Nevermind yet (the septuple platinum bandied about is “projected,” as bizzers say), the sole nonindie releases in this list are Candy Apple Grey, Hüsker Dü’s fifth (and next-to-last) album, and the most recent, Bossanova. Not that any of them would have gone ballistic on a major (though I wished we’d watched Let It Be try). But Nirvana reflects an adjustment in the way the majors exploit their indie farm teams — instead of waiting until some kid hits 70 home runs, the bosses are trying to snag the comers on the way up. As Chief Operating Poobah Joe Levy pointed out to me shortly after the results were in, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth were already world-weary by the time they seized the main chance. Nirvana aren’t — not if you allow for their anomie addiction — and Nevermind is where they shot their wad. Geffen picked them just as they were getting ripe, and you can bet their next album, assuming it materializes, won’t jam as hard as this one. Like the Beasties in 1986, they’re still kids, which helps kids relate to them — and also appeals to grownup critics, whose yearning for the authentic often overwhelms even their weakness for the specific.

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Artistically, what distinguishes all this historic Amerindie vinyl is artiness first of all: Flipper’s art-damaged minimalism, the Pixies’ art-school surrealism, the Beasties’ downtown street cred, Sonic Youth’s downtown tunings, Hüsker Dü’s virtuosic barrage, Paul Westerberg’s songs and sound and sense and unsense. But I prefer to say that what distinguishes them is their distinctiveness: the stylistic particularity aesthetes savor so. Nirvana’s breakthrough achieves a generalization level that in a perverse way reminds me of such transrepellent new rich as Nelson and Michael Bolton. In terms of its own tradition, this is a band without qualities. So are many scruffy rumors, of course — without the hook riffs, or Kurt Cobain’s power yowl, or the motorvation of their ultimate drummer, Dan Grohl. And it’s worth noting that many older pop folk — the radio programmers who blackballed “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for instance — find Nirvana’s tradition as offensive per se as good bohemians find Nelson’s glamourpuss homilies. I love our heroes’ noise and toons and ’tude. But from their incomprehensible lyrics — and before you blame the mall rats for not paying attention, try and make out a third of them yourself — to their covertly eclectic three-chord punk/pop/metal, their only signature is Kurt’s voiceprint. Thank God he’s got more soul than Michael Bolton.

The Nirvana phenomenon is Amerindie’s pop culmination, dwarfing such overreported critical-commercial convergences as Faith No More’s asshole-rock or Soundgarden’s Zep worship, which was supposed to turn Seattle into rock ’n’ roll heaven two-three years ago and instead finished 41st and 42nd in our poll on two A&M releases that have yet to go that high in Billboard. Nor is there all that much parallel with perennial poll faves R.E.M., who have now sold three million copies of the third-ranked Out of Time after building their audience the old-fashioned way — gradually. Critics and clubrats may view Nevermind as an Amerindie success story, sellout, or whatever. But as far as bizzers and buyers are concerned, it’s simply the hype of the season, another Dangerous or Lose Your Illusion or Niggaz4life or Unforgettable or To the Extreme rather than another Out of Time — or Let It Be. Sometimes these hypes are meticulously orchestrated, like Michael J.’s (which finished a hype-deafened 52nd while ranking in singles and videos) or Axl R.’s (11th and 20th). But sometimes they take the wise guys by surprise. Sure Elektra and SBK had fond hopes for Natalie Cole (tied for 96th) and Vanilla Ice (a 1990 release, how could you ask), but nobody figured they’d pay out on such a scale. Except with a presold superstar and not always then, bizzers never figure that. They just tell themselves something will turn up.

So though I’ve barely scratched the surface of Nirvana’s music, and remain fascinated by what their success says or doesn’t say about adolescent alienation, sheeplike spectatorism, etc., my deepest insight into the band came from the Times business reporter who — after revealing that Nevermind had been, wink wink, promoted — added an odd little fact: “DGC initially risked only about $550,000 on the group.” A keen aperçu, slyly voiced. The “only” kills me every time, and that mischievous “initially” adds ambiguity — are DGC’s followup investments literally “risk”-y, or is “risk” just capitalist jargon for “spend”? Taking those septuple-platinum projections without salt, DGC will bring in $50 million on its first Nirvana album, a tidy 9000 per cent return. And they say there’s no magic left in the music business!

I cite these absurd numbers not to illustrate bohemia’s continuing market function, or to pump/prick Nirvana’s honor, significance, or aesthetic achievement, but as a poem about hype. Weird as it is to imagine an “alternative” band grossing 50 mill, which would keep 500 scruffy rumors in food and drugs for a year, it’s weirder still to conceive $550,000 as “only.” For something like three years, after all, this nation and this planet have suffered through what is called a “recession.” A scarier word might seem appropriate by now, but no, another Times business reporter predicts the long-promised upturn by summer, and since there’ll be some dismal presidential campaign on by then, he could be right. Whether it will last is another question. Americans are coping with the devastations of a decade in which the rich stole $500 billion — that’s 1000 Neverminds, rock and rollers — from ordinary citizens in FDIC guarantees and bullshit loans alone, in which Pentagon greedheads cruelly inflated the national debt and then destroyed their new death machines in a cruel, entertaining war. One consequence of this massive flimflam is the inexorable shrinkage of ordinary citizens’ leisure time and/or discretionary dollars. So far the music business seems to have survived this structural threat, unless you happen to be a laid-off worker or dropped act. But the future doesn’t look bright — and I’m speaking as someone whose capacity for optimism in this space has amused bohos and Marxists for years.

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None of the warning signs is conclusive, and some are so obvious they bore know-it-alls who should know better. There’s consumer resistance to exorbitant CD prices, which has lately inspired much ban-home-taping-style blather about controlling the brazen traffic in used product. (Recycle, recycle, it ain’t illegal yet.) There’s the inevitable exhaustion of the catalogues from which labels now reap so much surplus value. (The boxed-set scam has gotten so out of hand that in 1991 our 10 reissue titles, which comprised 24 CDs the year before, were up to 50, partly because we decided not to penalize Rhino for making the 15 volumes of its late-soul collection available separately when you have to buy all nine Stax-Volts at once. This can’t go on.) There’s the increasing dependence on intellectual property rights — sponsorships, advertising jingles, atmospheric snatches in movies and TV shows, rationalized and hence oversimplified sampling, SST crushed by Island for taking U2’s name in vain. (The thought police have yet to recall my Negativland CD, which as proof against court orders I’m home-taping like crazy.) There’s the death of Rough Trade; the fiscal ills not just of SST but of Enigma, Twin/Tone, and — until its recent windfall — Sub Pop; and Tower’s purchase of its own indie distributor, which at best will cost the others a major account. (How autonomous are little labels when they can’t survive without giant retailers? Youth — or at least K Records — wants to know.)

But though none of this is good, all of it is bizness as usual — the short-sighted ineptitude and dumb cupidity rock and roll has been surviving for years. What’s really got me down is stuff that looks suspiciously like ’80s-a-go-go five years late, after sensible capitalists have moved on to subtler crimes against the polity. Corporate takeovers, for instance — the purchase of behemoths like Columbia or MCA or major indies like Island or Geffen at prices that guarantee crippling profit demands and/or debt service. Often as a corollary — Richard Branson is said to have overbid on the Stones and Janet J. primarily to increase Virgin’s market value — mammoth advances to cynosures and dinosaurs have become the rule, and just as you’ll soon pay ticket prices you can’t afford at Yankee Stadium so you can watch Danny Tartabull on television (if you get cable), you’ll soon pay for Tommy Mottola’s faith in his Mariah by forking over more extra bucks for CDs that cost the companies the same as cassettes (if they still make them). This in turn assures endless hypes of the season, inordinate future spending (by which I mean risking) on the promotion not just of Aerosmith and Madonna, not just of Prince and Bruce and U2 and the like, but of, who knows, Phil Collins, Elton John, Anita Baker, Keith Sweat, Depeche Mode, Poison, Mannheim Steamroller — anybody whose smart manager can convert a track record into visions of sugarplums. Which in turn assures parsimonious investments in guess what. That’s right — music.

Just as my optimism amuses my dour contemporaries, I’m always amused by the optimism of the young seekers who dismiss all cavils about clubland’s scruffy rumors with the same rhetorical question: “Where’s the new music supposed to come from, then?” The assumption being not just that new music is the special province of young, English-speaking white people with funny hairdos, but that new music is a fact of nature, as ineluctable as the tides. To me the ozone layer seems a richer analogy. It’s the old substructure/superstructure metaphor — the music (superstructure) can affect the cultural economy/ecology (substructure), but is finally dependent on it. When money shifts or dries up, when leisure is imperiled, the music will probably change, though not in a precisely or predictably corresponding way. It may even dry up itself — all bets are off. So while I never boast about my crystal ball, I have less confidence than usual in poll-based prognostications. I see more blips than trends, and even the trends seem subject to forces beyond the control of such evanescent variables as critical judgment and public taste.

The most striking oddities of this year’s Pazz & Jop are the poor showing of female artists, by which I mean solo lead voices, and the apparent resurgence of indie labels, by which I mean nondance outfits without major-label distribution or established pop outreach. There were three women on the album chart (Bonnie Raitt was high at 24, with younger postfolkies Sam Phillips and Kirsty MacColl below) and a pitiful two on the singles list, down from six and 11. The five indie albums in the top 40 (including the first import ever to make the top 10, The Curse of the Mekons) are the most since Amerindie’s salad days (six in ’85 and ’86), and the three indie-rock singles in our top 25 the most since “O Superman!,” “Homosapien,” and “Ceremony” in 1981 and the first time even one has placed since Ciccone Youth’s “Into the Groovy” in 1986. Also notable were the falloff in the dance music that bumrushed 11 singles onto our chart in 1990 (of this year’s six dance-pop smashes, only one, Crystal Waters’s “Gypsy Woman,” broke out of the clubs), the ever-increasing congruences between the video and single charts, and the highest-ranking metal album ever. Unlike Chuck Eddy, whose Stairway to Hell provoked much cranky critcrit approbation by ranking Jimmy Castor and Teena Marie in a top 10 for the metal ages, I don’t think the Sex Pistols or Hüsker Dü count. Metallica definitely do.

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Rock and roll has proven a recalcitrantly male chauvinist genre (see the comments section headed “Lose Your Illusion I”), and no woman has topped this poll since Joni Mitchell in 1974. Women’s showings haven’t just varied, they’ve fluctuated wildly, and not with the moon (or the economy: never bought the saw that in times of trouble we gravitate to women singers because we miss our mamas). In 1988, in 1989, and again in 1990, women put six or seven records in the top 40 and one or two in the top 10. Before you mourn thwarted progress and free-associate to sex criminals with expensive lawyers, however, note that way back in 1981 there were nine in the top 40 and way back in 1984 there were six in the top 20 — and then tally up the two intervening years, when a miserable six combined made the top 40 and zero the top 20. As some jerk is forever pointing out, years are arbitrary divisions. I like to think women will eventually get more respect in pop music. But the background presence of female instrumentalists in such bands as My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, 47th-place Eleventh Dream Day, EP-charting Blake Babies, and singles-charting Unrest may not be as epochal as Ann Powers hopes (remember Sara Lee? how ’bout Tina Weymouth? Susie Honeyman?), and Scrawl and Babes in Toyland, the two all-woman bands on our blipping EP chart, promise considerably less than the Slits and the Raincoats. It’ll get better for sure. How much, how permanently, and how fast we can’t tell.

The indie surge is more significant, though not the way partisans hope. Only one of the albums is by a newish or youngish artist — with their fifth release, American Music Club follows in the path of somewhat fresher Amerindie picks-to-click Yo La Tengo in 1990 and Galaxie 500 in 1989. The others — the Mekons, John Prine, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and ex-Blaster Dave Alvin — have sold their souls to the majors and lived to say goodbye, and only the oldest, 1971 new-Dylan pick-to-click Prine, is a Pazz & Jop rookie. Except for the Mekons, these artists record for (and in Prine’s case comprise) labels modeled on the folk-oriented pre-Amerindie Amerindies Rounder and Alligator, geared to discerning adults rather than the disaffected young. Their capitalism is quietly marginal, rather unlike the rhetorical rebellion of new wave entrepreneurs who’ve been signing distribution deals since Slash joined Warners. In a year when six of the eight Pazz & Jop newcomers in our top 15 — Sonny Sharrock, My Bloody Valentine, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ice-T, Matthew Sweet, and last but most Nirvana — didn’t do it with debuts (Chris Whitley and P.M. Dawn were the rookies), the indies’ farm-system function is self-evident. Here’s hoping SST, or Alias, or at least Rhino turns into the HighTone or Shanachie of aging “alternative” rockers.

On the single and of course EP charts, we have more traditional indie action, in EPs because the majors don’t mess with them, in singles because…well, we’ll see. Primed just slightly by Joe Levy’s habit of taping 45-rpm discoveries for critic friends (he voted for Nirvana’s “Sliver” last year), vinyl revanchism is part of the story — where in this era a single’s place is in the air rather than on your shelves, the tiny, stubborn seven-inch movement typified by Unrest’s/K Records’s fuck-crazy “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl” is nothing less than rhetorically rebellious commodity fetishism, and possibly something more. Together with Negativland, which has followed John Prine into DIYland after a sad dispute with SST over who pays for their now-banned single’s supposed copyright infringements, and Pavement, whose forthcoming Matador debut is a certain Amerindie pick-to-click for 1992 (the demo tape finished 56th), it wants to promise that there will always be enough money and/or passion around to assure some sort of hearing to the portion of unmarketable music that manages to survive its gauntlet of cliquish subjectivity.

Because dancers are pop’s proudest trendhoppers, this was a transitional year for them. The house/rap/pop syntheses of 1990 were already pure pop by 1991 — even the mixmaster-conceived C + C Music Factory broke on the radio, while industrial, techno, rave, and dancehall rocked the discos, which will certainly launch new crossovers in 1992. The video/single overlap (only Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” didn’t also chart as a single after five videos scored on their own last year) says less about videos than about singles — and CHR, which no longer programs as hip a pop mix as MTV. As for metal, that’s generational, and there’ll be more. Even critics who aren’t full-fledged fans, as many are, harbor vestigial hankerings for the stuff if they grew up on ’70s AOR. And though maybe us graybeards should educate ourselves, I think it’s like Balkan girl groups — internationalist/cross-generational imperative or no, I’d be a doofus to try and like everything. I still believe a fondness for metal is cousin to a fondness for the symphony, a relationship that honors neither, and enjoy it mostly as “hard rock,” which wasn’t always a metal-aligned category. Thus I prefer the kneejerk sexism of GN’R I to the asshole existentialism of GN’R II and took James Hetfield out of his misery inside of five plays — not only was life too short, I could feel it getting shorter with every song. I should also mention that I haven’t finished Stairway to Hell after eight months of effort — my choice for most overlooked rockbook of the year is Donna Gaines’s burnout ethnography Teenage Wasteland.

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Another generalization worth drawing is that for all the brouhaha over Ice Cube (whose points-to-voters ratio makes him a shoo-in for cult artist of the year), rap is now clearly a fixture in the rockcrit mix. Let the old farts who never vote for anybody who isn’t an elder or a respecter of same retire, and stop the young farts who never vote for anybody outside their bubble from going pro. But note that of the 127 respondents who didn’t name a single rap album, including many genuine specialists (folk/worldbeat/dance/metal/whatever aficionados) and more than a few early rap fans, 43 listed a rap single (and of the 17 who named only P.M. Dawn, 10 listed somebody else’s rap single). My own view of the new punk is that nice guys finished last this year. Daisy-age from A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the boombastic Dream Warriors, and especially Queen Latifah (three mentions) lacked the conviction of what I’ll call hybrid hard: Ice-T, Cypress Hill, Naughty by Nature and Yo-Yo (tied for 54th), and the felonious Slick Rick (whose album is strange, and not in any way you’d expect). The voters, however, picked a little of this and a little of that; tag the small tolerance for Five Percenters signaled by Brand Nubian’s 67th place and Poor Righteous Teachers’ one mention as the only ideological trend, and praise Allah that 79th-ranked N.W.A proved a fad.

The rest of the poll is self-explanatory with a helping of deja vu — Seal is Terence Trent D’Arby only not as good, Massive Attack is Soul II Soul only not as good, Rumour and Sigh is Amnesia only not as good, The Bootleg Series is Biograph combined with The Basement Tapes only nowhere near as good, Storyville is Robbie Robertson only worse, Van Morrison is eternal. Sonny Sharrock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and John Prine and Ice-T got their belated props. Matthew Sweet’s guitarists staged a triumphant return. The Pixies, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, A Tribe Called Quest, the great Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, and Marshall Crenshaw made records marginally more or less worthy than their last charting effort. Chris Whitley was a trad wet dream. Unlikely rap groups and British posers came up with singles they think they can top and we don’t. De La Soul didn’t fall off the chart; Prince almost fell off the chart; Elvis C. did fall off the chart; Sting and J. C. Mellencamp fell off the edge of the earth. (That would be 88th and 99th, respectively; 41-50 went Graham Fucking Parker, Soundgarden, Son of Bazerk, Costello, Pooh Sticks, Robert Ward, Eleventh Dream Day, Julian Cope, Aaron Neville, La’s.)

As always, the critics supported high craft, from the be-here-now syntheses of Nirvana and Public Enemy and R.E.M. to such retronuevo variations as Phillips’s jazz-tinged electrofolk and Alvin’s blues-rock electrofolk and MacColl’s new wave electrofolk. But neither PE nor R.E.M. — nor such striking but less than unprecedented rookies as Sweet and Sharrock — inspired comments worth sharing. In fact, the only also-rans whose music seemed new enough to cry out for description and explanation were fifth-place P.M. Dawn and 14th-place My Bloody Valentine, and significantly, both were far from any kind of hard, including hard rock along the GN’R/Nirvana model. P.M. Dawn loves rap the way the original rappers loved disco — as sonic source and kinetic playground. They’re from rap but not of it, intertwined with the feminine principle even though they mean to escape a reality they conceive as “she,” and rappers may never forgive them for it. On both Loveless and the underpublicized, tied-for-seventh Tremolo EP, My Bloody Valentine brings downtown minimalism and its schlocky new age offspring to rock if not rock and roll. Simultaneously ambient and abrasive, its oceanic discord is mysticism that computes in a stressed-to-the-max world. Although others found more compatible spiritual havens in U2, Chris Whitley, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to me even Gilmore seemed corny by comparison.

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In short, the most suggestive musicians of the year were escapist and proud — with some reason, they hate the reality that used to be a friend of theirs, and they’re coping with a visionary audacity that signifies. Personally, I think Nevermind is more fun and possibly more realistic than Loveless if not Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross, and when art is no fun anymore I’m getting out. But the dubious equation of loud/fast/smart with tough-minded activism/realism — a casual (and ultimately insupportable) assumption that shores up a lot of Amerindie’s (and my) musical pleasure — is absurd on the face of it in this year of dazed here-we-are-now-entertain-us. With all respect to PE and LKJ, the political voices on our chart have shrunk in both number and spirit. Beyond a few protests, part-of-the-problem Ice Cube and searching-for-a-solution Ice-T, red diaper baby Kirsty MacColl and red flag waver Billy Bragg, fucked-up Mekons and God-fearing Sam Phillips all carom from rage to confusion to defeat to utter hopelessness. Almost like, of all people, Nirvana. Talk about no future.

Really, who out there believes our reluctant teen spirits have the stuff to survive not underground obscurity — there are models for that — but hype-of-the-season megasuccess? More honest than that poor schmuck Vanilla Ice, which should count for something, but less ambitious, which counts for plenty whether it should or not, they’re certainly nothing to hang your hopes on. And though I enjoy the vulgar glee of the post-“alternative” skeptics who can’t wait for the talented mall rats Nirvana will inspire to go for the gold with scruffy guitars, I don’t put much stock in that scenario either. Rich-and-famous is a rock paradigm, I accept that, but the democrat in me has never much liked it. And as we watch the whole rich-and-famous nexus — the market warfare now making the world safe for belts tightened to zero, Islamic fundamentalism, and of course freedom — drain the life not just from rock and roll but from the world as we know it, I don’t look forward to watching Mitsubishi-backed ex-burnouts the Maul — three guys and a gurl who deciphered or misprised every lyric on Nevermind and went on from there — turn into the hype of Christmas 1995. The same goes for the “alternative” escape-rock/pop-rap synthesis of End of the Night, which formed after an Ian Curtis lip-synch contest.

It’s worth remembering that in the early years of what was called the Great Depression record sales did literally dry up — volume on a typical hit plummeted almost 900 per cent, from 350,000 to 40,000. It won’t happen again on so grand a scale — the information age, bread and circuses, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean the bizness isn’t setting itself up for a fall. Commercial still means something like popular, and indie insularity is the rock equivalent of left sectarianism, but if I have to choose between people who are in it for money and people who are in it for love (or righteousness, or pride, or even vanity), I know where I’ll stand. The only hope I’ll permit myself in this bleak season is that it never comes down to that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1991

1. Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC)

2. Public Enemy: Apocalypse 91…The Empire Strikes Black (Def Jam/Columbia)

3. R.E.M.: Out of Time (Warner Bros.)

4. U2: Achtung Baby (Island)

5. P.M. Dawn: Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (Gee Street/Island)

6. Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh (Capitol)

7. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo)

8. Metallica: Metallica (Elektra)

9. Chris Whitley: Living With the Law (Columbia)

10. Mekons: The Curse of the Mekons (Blast First import)

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Top 10 Singles of 1991

1. Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (DGC)

2. R.E.M.: “Losing My Religion” (Warner Bros.)

3. Naughty by Nature: “O.P.P.” (Tommy Boy)

4. Geto Boys: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (Rap-a-Lot/Priority)

5. Metallica: “Enter Sandman” (Elektra)

6. (Tie) P.M. Dawn: “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (Gee Street/Island)
Crystal Waters: “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” (Mercury)

8. (Tie) Public Enemy: “Can’t Truss It” (Def Jam/Columbia)
Seal: “Crazy” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

10. EMF: “Unbelievable” (EMI)

—From the March 3, 1992, issue

 

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

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Cringe’s John Cusimano On The Beatles’ Vintage Gear, The Killers’ Drummer, And New York’s Best Chinese Restaurant

Editor’s note: In Tweets is Watching, Phillip Mlynar asks local artists questions based solely on the contents of their Twitter timeline.

New York City-based rockers The Cringe released their fourth studio album, Hiding In Plain Sight, earlier this week. The Cringe is fronted up by John Cusimano, who also handily happens to commandeer the band’s Twitter account. Being that Cusimano is also married to celebrity home-cook Rachael Ray, the band’s timeline is a suitably chow-happy experience. We approve.

See also:
Skyzoo On Bed-Stuy’s Breakfast Options And Supermarkets, Spike Lee, And Not Getting Signed By Jay-Z
“Yellow Submarine” Sends Beatles Fanatic Into Childhood Rage Fit
Melvins’ Buzz Osborne On Freak Puke, Digging Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld And Not Trusting People Who Don’t Like The Beatles


What’s The Raid: Redemption about?
It’s a pure action movie. There’s this big bad guy drug kingpin who lives on the top floor of a tenement building and all these crazy martial-arts police have to go floor by floor and reach in and kill him. It’s almost like a video game. Each floor has more and more complex challenges and fight sequences. I’ve never seen fight sequences so brilliantly choreographed. It’s a foreign language film but you can literally not read any of the subtitles and follow it.

Which song on the new album would you pick to soundtrack a scene from the movie?
It would be the first track on the album, “Rushing Through The World,” ’cause it’s a fast-paced aggressive song about how fast the world moves and getting disconnected from all the insanity of modern day life. I’d be happy to see it in any of the fight sequences in the movie.


You’ve tweeted about dining at Yunnan kitchen. What’s the food like there?We just discovered this a few months ago. There’s Chinese food all over Manhattan–and some of it’s good and some of it’s bad–but this is such a different experience to any Chinese food I’ve had before. It’s from the Chinese province of Yunnan, which I believe is in south-western China. It’s not been readily served in the U.S. but it’s different to Chinese food you’ve had. They used schezwan peppers, which numb your mouth for about five minutes. They have chicken wings with that, and they have beautiful lamb meatballs and different salads and these beautiful cold pork noodles that are so tart and delicious. You’re not gonna go there and get spare ribs and egg-rolls.

You also mention eating a recipe that apparently Julius Caesar enjoyed. That’s one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants in Rome, called Spirito DiVino. It’s called Caesar’s Pork and it’s the exact recipe that Caesar ate thousands of years ago. It’s basically stew– don’t know the recipe itself–but it’s got a whole bunch of different spices and a sauce and very tender cubes of pork. There’s probably a bit of cloves and some all-spice–my wife would probably be better at figuring out the recipe than me–but it’s delicious.

You’ve posted up pictures of your previous vinyl releases. I take it you’re a vinyl fan?
Yeah, I didn’t start collecting vinyl though – I was just buying records as a kid ’cause that’s how you used to buy music. Then I co-opted some of my dad’s collection and have been adding to it. It’s close to a thousand records – I know there’s people out there with tens of thousands – but it’s something I’ve acquired over the years. To me the spirit of listening to vinyl is more engrossing than putting on an MP3. It’s active listening, not passive listening –it’s like you’re watching a movie.

What were some of the records in your dad’s collection?
He had Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the first album I really listened to and he had an original mono pressing. That was the best record in his collection in my opinion. He had a lot of classic rock, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Dylan, some old folk music. I just started adding to that when I was young, like buying Led Zeppelin, until I ended up having a big record collection.

Do you ever buy vinyl on the basis of the cover art alone?
When I was a kid I didn’t know much about Pink Floyd and I remember just going to the record store and looking at all their really weird record covers and thinking this was a band I wanted to check out. Led Zeppelin had cool covers, like Led Zeppelin III had the spinning thing where you could try out different pieces of artwork. And the Rolling Stones, I remember the cover of Some Girls was so weird for me.

Why did you post up the photo of the book about The Beatles?
There’s a book called The Beatles Gear, and all aspiring rock musicians owe it all to The Beatles, and part of their magic was in the studio creating all these songs that still sound as fresh today as they did 40 years ago. When you’re in the studio with your band you want to work out what your heroes did, and as a band we’re obsessed with The Beatles. There’s this book that has all the guitars they ever played, all the drum kits and all the amps they used. There’s another book out that’s the most comprehensive called Recording The Beatles [by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew]; it took ten years to make and these two authors went back and found every piece of equipment they ever used. They interviewed engineers and worked out how The Beatles recorded every single sound they made.


When did you reach the revelation that the drummer of the Killers and Nirvana’s bassist look alike?
I guess when The Killers’ latest album came out, a friend of mine, Steve Lillywhite, was one of the producers, so I bought it ’cause I wanted to support my friends and I was looking at the artwork and I went online and was reading about the album and saw photography of the drummer and he had a beard and I was like, “This guy looks exactly like Krist Novoselic!” I looked at two pictures of them side by side. But there’s no way no one else has not made this comparison before!

Who’s the most entertaining person you follow on Twitter?
Steve Martin is a really funny good Twitterer, and Albert Brooks.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FOOD ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Faith-Based Curry

If it weren’t for almost perpetual civil war, Sri Lanka would be a model of ethnic and religious diversity. Four of the world’s chief faiths—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—live side-by-side on the teardrop-shaped island once known as Ceylon. The colonial history is a patchwork, too, with the island controlled successively by Portuguese, Dutch, and English interests prior to independence in 1948. Sri Lanka is also steeped—like its famous tea—in legend: Adam’s Peak boasts a giant footprint on top, which Christian pilgrims claim is where Adam landed when he was flung to earth from the Garden of Eden. Buddhists assert it’s the footprint of Buddha.

Not long ago, getting good Sri Lankan food required a pilgrimage, too. Staten Island’s Victory Boulevard hosts several small cafés anchored by a mosque, and there’s a slightly more ambitious Sri Lankan eatery in a remote Hindu neighborhood in Flushing. But now a full-blown Sri Lankan restaurant has appeared near Gramercy Park, like a sign from the deity (or deities). The name, Nirvana, as well as the presence of pork and a predilection for vegetarian dishes, should tip you to its Buddhist leanings. Nevertheless, any Sri Lankan restaurant in New York must produce food to please the followers of all four religions, and Nirvana is no exception.

There’s no better introduction to this fascinating cuisine than hoppers. These flatbreads cook up fluffy and rice-tasting, but instead of lying prone, they’ve been rendered bowl-shaped by a cheni chatti (“Chinese pan”). Hoppers come in fours, and every fourth one has a wiggly, sunnyside-up egg annealed to the bottom. Asking why is useless: Just tear off pieces of the flatbread and let the yolk flow where it may. At Nirvana, hoppers come with your choice of curry—chicken, lamb, beef, fish, or vegetable. The best complement is the vegetable curry ($10), a mild coconut-laced mélange. While both curry and hoppers tend to be bland, the red paste that comes alongside is not. Known as lunumiris, it imparts a haunting oniony flavor, searing your throat as it slides stomach-ward.

Nirvana’s best main courses are similarly anchored by an exotic starch. Pittu arrives like an encoded message from outer space—a perfect white cylinder compacted of beaten rice and shredded coconut, which begins to crumble and flake as it lands on your table. As with the hoppers, you’re given a choice of curries to go with it (most $14), along with a gravy boat of sauce and a bright orange relish called katta sambol. This condiment originated with the Indonesian field hands who were brought by the Dutch to work Ceylon’s spice plantations in the 18th century. Other strange and singular Sri Lankan starches include coconut roti (a brittle flatbread), string hoppers (rice-noodle patties), and kottu roti (a stir-fry of ripped flatbread).

The curries that come with these starches—also available with plain white rice—constitute meek, meat-only compositions in varying shades of brown. The exception occurs when the cook decides to make a “black curry” of pork—and don’t miss it if he does. This signature Sinhalese recipe toasts the spices darkly before grinding them, resulting in a flavor both brooding and complex. And the pork is fatty enough to make the curry glisten in the reflected light of the dining room’s wide-screen TV—which paradoxically shows travel footage of Hawaii and Jamaica.

Equally black, but not as a result of toasted spices, is ambul thiyal ($12), slabs of fresh tuna swimming in ebony sauce. The color and sour taste are attributable to a native fruit called goraka, which is orange when ripe but turns black as it dries; the latter form is used in the sauce. Also darkly hued are the “devilled” selections on the menu—chicken, lamb, or shrimp stir-fried with onions and fresh chilies, which arrive on a sizzling platter. Have I ever mentioned that I hate sizzling platters? I’d much rather eat the grease than wear it.

When you reach Nirvana, you won’t find much in the way of appetizers. Which is fine, since a couple of the desserts are totally dope, and you’d never get to them if you had to eat the apps. Wattalapan ($4) is a cakey, nut-studded pudding darkened with palm syrup and tweaked with caradamom. It’s a dead ringer, tastewise, for the Indian pudding (that’s American Indian) one finds in the Yankee restaurants of Boston. “Curd and treacle” constitutes another meal-concluding triumph, a super-thickened yogurt dribbled with a golden syrup. Rich and creamy, you won’t mind that the so-called treacle is really only honey.