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

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

Guess who didn’t win the 27th or 28th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. C’mon, I’ll even give you a hint. If you were rooting for him, you didn’t give him much chance. But if you regard the motherfucker as the epitome of all that is vicious and/or venal in popular music, you may well have assumed the worst — after all, assuming the worst is a habit of yours. Now you got it, right? His name is, his name is, his name is — Mr. Triple Trouble himself, Eminem/Marshall Mathers/Slim Shady, who finished only fourth among the 586 pros, prose poets, hacks, hackers, slackers, hobbyists, copywriters, and gray eminences who participated in our most humongous rock critics’ poll ever. Eminem was way ahead of the neck-and-neck if not yet tits-and-pecs Shelby Lynne and D’Angelo, but well behind third-by-a-hair Radiohead. Although PJ Harvey attracted no more voters than her fellow Brits, whose leader sang more winningly on her record than on his own, Pazz & Jop’s almost-famous point system boosted her almost-perfect record to second in a year when supporters of D’Angelo, Eminem, and Radiohead felt no obligation to deny their faves’ flaws.

As for the perfection of our biggest winner since Pazz & Jop hit cyberspace, suffice it to say that OutKast’s fourth album has people crying masterpiece, and that whatever my personal rankings I was glad Stankonia beat Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Having decided that The Marshall Mathers LP was so intense it had to be my No. 1 even though Harvey had generated the more through-inspired record, I was in no position to quibble that Stankonia doesn’t maintain for 73 minutes. If the voters felt that OutKast’s singles-topping “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.” blew such distinctions away, that feeling alone proved it. Hallelujah! Our first real rap winner since De La Soul in 1989 or — depending on how you define reality, always the key to hip-hop metaphysics — Arrested Development in 1992. And while the surest proof that the end is near may well be that our best golfer is black and our best rapper is white, African American artists have suffered polite liberal prejudice so regularly in our poll that it was nice to see OutKast benefit from it. Relative to the dreaded Mathers, the reformed Atlanta drug dealers — hey, that detail couldn’t be some Slim Shady persona-twist, could it? — seem pretty safe.

But that’s a jaded reading. Stankonia is also the deeper musical choice, its hooky funk far stickier than Eminem’s brightly tripping high-versus-low pitch juxtapositions and its raps even more rapid and rhythmic, with bonus points from diehards hung up on music being played live. Its vision of a community as enmeshed in pleasure as in responsibility is a way out of the gangsta trap, too. But in 2000 Eminem was the more momentous artist, and not only because he was white, or “provocative.” It’s because he was brilliant, galvanizing an audience everyone knew was there with rhymes of exceptional if not unduplicated technical bravado that layered levels of meaning hip-hop had always hinted at but never so fully exploited — and also because, far from indulging the woman-hate that has long been a sorry cliché of our richest genre, he begins the ugly labor of unpacking it, in terms that never kowtow to the public moralists whose imprimatur would taint any such development for his faithful.

Please, I’m not claiming Eminem is a caped crusader battling for justice under cover of warning sticker. He’s just a rock star, the old-fashioned kind who cares (even) more about fame than money and isn’t a creature of the lifelong career calculation that distinguishes the current glut of Mickey Mouse Club alumni from the Bay City Rollers. But he’s so intimate with the dissembling pseudoauthenticities gangsta rappers lay on friends and foes that he’s taken them somewhere, and in this, as Frank Kogan’s “Open the Trapdoor Eminem” makes as clear as is suitable, his stardom provides leverage. Many believe such multifaceted contradictions are over the heads of a young audience that’s even more confused than he is — surely that’s why pundits are in a lather over his Grammy nods while no one peeps about Steely Dan’s 19th-place Two Against Nature, in which cheaters plot to drive a wronged wife insane and a lovable pedophile sets up a three-way with his “Janie Runaway.” I don’t think so — teenagers in love generally hear lyrics better than professionals holding their noses. And one reason I decided to publish Kogan’s explication de gestalt was that a lot of my colleagues weren’t getting it either.

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Unannounced, 2000 turned out to be what some were proud to anoint “Year of the Rock Critic.” Sadly, it wasn’t in-house causes célèbres like Jim DeRogatis’s Bangs bio or Richard Meltzer’s Da Capo best-of that inspired the heavy breathing. It was sanction from popular culture’s Holy See — Hollywood. First came High Fidelity, which deftly imported Nick Hornby’s London-based record-geek novel to Chicago. And then the clincher, Almost Famous, an entertaining fantasy with a cute premise that presented both Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe as paragons of a J-school integrity few were aware they had anything to do with. Fun flick, but the main thing it told me about rock criticism happened when it placed midway up the Voice’s much smaller film critics’ poll. As both filmmaking and culture myth, this critic preferred not just High Fidelity but Gladiator. Us guys may not be so classy, but as a group we’re also not so damn avant-genteel. Which is why I was bummed by all the voters’ Eminem-keyed boilerplate — from “homophobic” and good ol’ “misogynistic” to “rhyme skills” and “urban stories,” not all equally inaccurate but all useless rhetorically and analytically. After we win our Pulitzer, the new Voice ownership will publish the Eminem section separately and distribute it in schools. Also included will be the Napster-etc. “Danger — Sky Falling” and “Boogie Oogie Google,” an unsolicited-and-then-some missive from inactive critic Julian Dibbell, whose name I struck from the rolls myself, but who was then invited to vote via — life can be so poetic sometimes — computer glitch.

Pazz & Jop’s hugeness can be a pain in the ass; God intended better things for me than extracting indie labels from CDNow so surfers who’ve clicked over from The Drudge Report will know who to blame for the latest Nitin Sawhney joint. We did finally succeed in attracting more African Americans and hip-hop specialists (unidentical cohorts, as Condoleezza Rice and DJ Koala will soon explain to Charlie Rose), but beyond that I doubt the size of the thing impacts results much. What it does is provide proof against elitism, claiming aesthetic authority for informed consensus rather than rhetorical force. My theory has always been that listening to lots of music so you can write about some of it will teach anyone things they’re better off knowing. Dullards dance with smartasses and cranks harangue geniuses as the buzzworthy corrects for the tried-and-true and the strictly personal stays that way.

Patterns assert themselves — Best New Diva, Great Country Hope. But they also shift. Those who consider alt-country yesterday’s news because Jay Farrar took a powder, for instance, should note that 2000 gave us a young Great Country Hope (Shelby Lynne, whose fifth and best album is up for a “new artist” Grammy), an old GCH (Merle Haggard, whose 76th and best album snared a P&J debut), and a middle-aged GCH (Steve Earle, whose 11th and squishiest album coasted on cred), as well as the surprising reprise of trans-Atlantic transubstantiators Billy Bragg & Wilco, the suspect alt-countrypolitan resuscitation of the Jayhawks, and two standard-bearers from the Bloodshot flagship: Warners/Whiskeytown refugee Ryan Adams and Neko Case, 36th with her Boyfriends and 118th with her New Pornographers. Strap yourself to a tree with roots, they belong in any future-conscious overview of American pop. Over the decades, as more young critics cut their chops on college radio’s different-is-better-but-new-will-do, the pop part has angered many militant avant-gardists, not all of whom would be voting if we applied the same exacting standards to criticism they think they apply to music. But polls generally measure consensus, and a thrilling consensus is what pop is.

So we examine the results and conclude that 2000 was a great year for hip-hop. Ignore the wailing wall of alt-rap ideologues and thirtysomething grouches sounding just like the doomsayers of that great year for alt-rock 1994 — who, OK, had a point, but history doesn’t always repeat itself, and this history began before alt-rock knew its name. After 20-plus years, the genre formerly known as rap is still exfoliating from both its pop-crossover and bohemian-purist trunks. Our record eight hip-hop finishers include Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah commanding strong genre support and major-label alt-rappers Jurassic 5 jollying none, conscious pioneer Common forging onward, New York undergrounders Dead Prez and Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek edging low, young loonybird Eminem and old quack Dre, and the most dominant P&J album since the mid ’90s, when Hole, then Harvey, then Beck ran away with successive polls. Although it somehow failed to excite alt-country roots fanciers, Stankonia is very much of a place — East Point, the working-class-when-there’s-work Atlanta ’hood where Dre 3000 and Big Boi live large without playa playing. Yet by backing up front-porch solidity with assault-weapon sass, its hugely successful run at the pop charts packs as much metaphysical ambition as any alt-rock master-statement. OutKast need to see more of the world before they can take it to George Clinton’s stage. But note that no Clinton album ever breached our top 10. Not only do hits come more naturally to funk innovators these days, so does status.

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Ah, hits — where “r&b” lives, supposedly, only on our chart rhythm things were always getting lost beneath the album-cut staples of college/alt radio. So we canned the reissues category, which had degenerated into a dick-size contest for well-promoted luxury boxes and tokens of retro hip, and expanded to 40 singles from 25. And in a technical adjustment to the Napster-etc. brouhaha — which moved the wags at Spin to name “your hard drive” album of the year — we defined a single (too broadly) as any individual song. So perhaps the way hip-hop and r&b overran our chart — 11 rap records top 25, five more below, plus Aaliyah and Sisqó and Badu and Scott and R. Kelly and Lucy Pearl and Macy (not David) Gray and three Destiny’s (not Desmond) Childs — reflects the dispersion of the album-rock vote into the mists of unlimited choice, while folks who love rhythm things remained social beings tryna get this party started. Or maybe, with deserving teenpop down to Britney and ’N Sync smashes (no Pink? no M2M?) and the 38th-place “Kryptonite” and “The Bad Touch” the only decent new radio-rock novelties (no Matchbox Twenty! no Bon Jovi!), the silly likes of “Country Grammar,” “Shake Ya Ass,” and “Thong Song” could be cheered on as the affirmations they always are. Maybe it was just a great year for hip-hop.

A similar logic would then pertain on the album chart, which for all its neotraditionalism has always honored the accessibly avant-garde — progressive populism, call it. This dream is mocked by avant-garde militants, who are so postpop they’re barely aware that hip-hop might be an artform, although the city dwellers among them presumably recognize its existence as other people’s noise. But for those who hold to the avant-pop hope/illusion, the argument would go, the scant guitar-band options have given way to an underground rap achieving critical mass and dozens of bigger names approaching maturity. Compared to the low-overhead Blackalicious or Del the Funky Homosapien, the Jurassic 5 seem as blandly good-time to me as the Del Fuegos of early Amerindie, but I like what their finish signifies. Common finally made our chart with the most musical of his four honest albums. I’m only sorry that De La Soul (81st) and the late-released Wu-Tang Clan (45th) didn’t get the respect their accrued accomplishments warrant.

It turns out, however, that the voters didn’t find 2000 such a bad year for young guitar bands. After dipping to 18 in 1998 and 14 in 1999, Pazz & Jop debuts rebounded to 20 in 2000. These include the solo bows of Wu-Tang’s Ghostface and Whiskeytown’s Adams, the winterbloom of 63-year-old Hag, and the reunited Go-Betweens (whose ’80s shutout proves that sometimes we miss even guitar bands), as well as the fresh hip-hoppers and Best New Diva Jill Scott. But Lynne and Neko Case lead us to a varied alt-rock contingent, from the aggressively conventional Travis and Coldplay and Marah and Queens of the Stone Age to the glacially keyby Sigur Rós to the dissimilarly punky Le Tigre and At the Drive-In to my favorite pairing, mopey Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy and calm Californians Grandaddy.

Few of the new newbies are alt-rock in the familiar Amerindie sense: the Springsteenish Marah and the metallic Queens forswear any collegiate vibe, Sigur Rós are from Iceland and hunger, and three others are just plain British. Even if Travis are dumb sub-Bluroroasis tunesmiths who seem alt over here because we’ve gotten so chauvinistic, together with Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy they betoken an Anglophilia revival that picks up on the excitement that a few years ago surrounded electronica. Why not? Damon Gough isn’t just another depressive with hooks — his album mutates like Tricky rather than marching like Bluroroasis. Six thousand miles away in the sun-baked Modesto flatlands, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy has also been nurturing a gift for song cycling. Thom Yorke, call your guru.

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In case you were wondering, Yorke seems to be what happened to the excitement surrounding electronica. Was 2000 the year when Moby launched his world takeover from the top of our 1999 poll? Or was it the year when not a single danceable techno album placed among the voters’ 100 favorites? The latter, I’d say. (Down to 50, for your tree-killing information: Björk, Bebel Gilberto, theasteriskedEgoTrip’sTheBigPlayback*whichgot30pointsfromallthede admag’splayasandstillfellshortfuckyouguys, James Carter’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Wu, Emmylou, North Mississippi All Stars, Dandy Warhols, Modest Mouse’s Moon and Antarctica, and John R. Cash). But it was also when the world’s greatest rock band cough cough chose to concede techno its futuristic pretensions by emulating illbient texture and flow. Although Radiohead’s subtle, synergistic exercise in pomo beauty is accounted terribly difficult by Kid A’s anhedonic supporters, don’t waste any paranoia on it. Not only was more recondite music available from sex symbol D’Angelo, the years to come promise terrible difficulties worth warning people about — and I don’t mean the fallout from Primal Scream’s dystopian XTRMNTR, which does a Radiohead-style solid for pomo ugly.

In the section entitled “The W,” you will find many conflicting theories of what Washington’s return to Reaganism will mean to progressive music. I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which means that at the very least I think it’s deluded to wax optimistic, just as it’s deluded to swear the damn Democrats will come roaring back in 2002. But as usual I hope you grant this much to Pazz & Jop’s version of the damn Democrats, oldsters tied to the tried-and-true: New doesn’t equal progressive. Although encouraged by the three Best Old Divas — Scott’s impressive ninth place didn’t cancel long-awaited efforts by Sade or Erykah Badu or the latest from the fecund Madonna — I suspect that our electorate’s openness to young guitar bands comes at the cost of insensitivity to old ones, and that fresh-obsessed hip-hoppers taking De La and Wu-Tang for granted are no better. U2 wrote some songs and got many props, Yo La’s lounge venture lost some fans as it reassured others, and while my clique was convinced that the world’s greatest rock and roll band hip hip hooray had finally slipped, the 10th-place finish of Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One, after 1999’s The Hot Rock came in 23rd, could mean we were wrong. But some of my deepest satisfactions in 2000 were provided by old artists up to old tricks with new twists: Lou Reed’s Ecstasy (63rd), Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers (104th, Jesus), and RZA’s supremely meditative Ghost Dog soundtrack (83rd). Maybe I’m just a damn New Yorker, but the voters’ preference for young repeater Elliott Smith’s soupiest album, not to mention old farts the Jayhawks’ smiliest, gets me mad.

Top 10s do rein one in. Me, I’d have loved to tip my ballot to the life-sentenced Waco Brothers (two mentions), in-it-to-win-it Amy Rigby (six), ‘buked-and-scorned Fatboy Slim (six), postexotic Youssou N’Dour (nine). But I suspect many voters would have kept listing putative next big things, often strictly personal ones. Of the record 1621 albums named by our 586 respondents, 1021 appeared on precisely one ballot. Figure a mean length of an hour and it would take a person 40 work weeks to consume each of these leisure products once. Or put it another way — 1621 is almost half the total estimated annual album production of the mid ’80s. This is, as I hope everyone at least glimpses, the flip side of both the Napster brouhaha and the Mickey Mouse Club blitzkrieg, each of which is equally as responsive (or not) to the incomprehensibilities of defining and servicing an audience.

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Ponder the 2000 label breakdown. A full half of our major-label albums came from the megacorp I call UniMoth — 11 in all, four of the top seven, on Interscope, Island, MCA, Motown, Giant, DreamWorks. But breaking last year’s record of 14, 18 of our finishers were on independent labels, be these well-capitalized ventures by renegade bizzers from the philanthropic Danny Goldberg to the profiteering Richard Branson or tiny outfits like Le Tigre’s feminist Mr. Lady or renegade bizzer Aimee Mann’s DIY SuperEgo. This is hardly a utopia — those don’t exist, not under anybody’s capitalism. But it’s myopic to see only doom in the spectacle of a music industry that can conceive no market vast and malleable enough to manipulate on a scale acceptable to its number-crunchers except kids who don’t yet know their own power — kids who may remain passive forever, probably won’t, and are certain to change in other ways regardless. And it’s also myopic to think the music industry stops with the five-going-on-four megacorps up top. Will Napster-etc. put an end to the album — and, boo hoo, Pazz & Jop — as we know it? I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which isn’t to say I don’t wonder — and worry — sometimes. Then again, I’m also on record as mourning the death of the monoculture. Those who don’t, which means all too many technodeterminists, should rejoice instead that for the foreseeable future some Internet facility or other will enable anyone with a modicum of motivation to get his or her recorded music to simpatico individuals — maybe retail, maybe fucking free.

Is this progress? Of a sort, at a loss. But in a historical moment when no music is capable of providing the relief all anti-Reaganites crave, maybe the path of wisdom is to leave the pronouncements on who and what does and doesn’t truly herald progress to the Nayda-hatas and their opposite moralizers among the damn Greens. I just figure that in a marginalized left, the symbolic one Pazz & Jop monitors no less than the real-world one where it is oh so marginally situated, all who desire justice for the disadvantaged are my allies — however pathological their personalities, impotent their tactics, or delusory their respect for the actually existing disadvantaged.

As rock becomes ever more self-conscious, what I prefer these days to call popular music encompasses an ever more incalculable profusion of aesthetic…”levels”? “approaches”? “multivalences”? “tones”? But what’s interesting about the ones rock stars go for is that they move masses rather than nurturing subcultures. For 30 years now, ever since I uttered the words “semipopular music,” I’ve wanted both while too often settling for the easy one. Subcultures are for company, solace, protection, inspiration. Only if they’re exceptionally strong and lucky do they have a chance of germinating change. Symbolically yet again, rock stars with a pipeline to the actually existing disadvantaged hold out the possibility of something more. The unlamented Eazy-E was proud to donate money to the damn Republicans, and I wouldn’t put the same stratagem past his opposite immoralizer, Eminem’s man Dr. Dre. But on the other hand, Eminem has cameoed on more rap records in the past year than anybody this side of that ho Snoop. So here’s my modest proposal: that the good Dre, the dirty Southerner in the faggoty pants, give Marshall Mathers a call.

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Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

2. PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island/Def Jam)

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

4. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope)

5. Shelby Lynne: I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

7. U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope)

8. Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)

9. Jill Scott: Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach)

10. Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)

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Top 10 Singles of 2000

1. OutKast: “Ms. Jackson” (LaFace/Arista)

2. Eminem Featuring Dido: “Stan” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

5. Madonna: “Music” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

6. Nelly: “(Hot S**t) Country Grammar” (Universal)

7. Eminem: “The Real Slim Shady” (Aftermath/Interscope)

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

9. Destiny’s Child: “Say My Name” (Columbia)

10. (Tie) Aaliyah: “Try Again” (Blackground/Atlantic)
Macy Gray: “I Try” (Epic)

—From the February 20, 2001, 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

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, 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

1995 Pazz & Jop: Lost in the Soundscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1995

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

2. Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island)

3. Moby: Everything Is Wrong (Elektra)

4. Elastica: Elastica (DGC)

5. Neil Young: Mirror Ball (Reprise)

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

7. Björk: Post (4AD/Elektra)

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1995

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

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

4. Elastica: “Connection” (DGC)

5. TLC: “Waterfalls” (LaFace)

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

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

8. TLC: “Creep” (LaFace)

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

—From the February 20, 1996, issue

 

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

 

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

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.

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

1992 Pazz & Jop: Between Rock and a Hard Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1992

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

2. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)

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

4. PJ Harvey: Dry (Indigo)

5. Beastie Boys: Check Your Head (Capitol)

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

7. Sugar: Copper Blue (Rykodisc)

8. Sonic Youth: Dirty (DGC)

9. Tom Waits: Bone Machine (Island)

10. Basehead: Play With Toys (Imago)

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Top 10 Singles of 1992

1. Arrested Development: “Tennessee” (Chrysalis)

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

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

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

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

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

8. U2: “One” (Island)

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

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

—From the March 2, 1993, issue

 

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

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Angel Olsen

That 100 proof voice grabs you by the throat at jump, strokes your cheek tenderly, leads you through rollicking barroom arrangements that are expert but almost secondary to, yes, that wonder of a voice. And the way Angel Olsen wields that most core of instruments is what will have you coming back for more: that dry, effortless mapping of twisty emotional terrain, that telegraphing of invulnerable vulnerability. If ever you longed for a Mirah who aches like PJ Harvey aches, look no further.

Thu., Feb. 20, 5:30 p.m., 2014

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Anna Calvi

Among the women who dare lapse into the darkest, deepest parts of the psyche and emerge musically stronger, Anna Calvi has cut her own path through the jungley doom of melancholic sirens. Although she, of course, evokes comparisons to the obvious forerunners—Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, namely—it seems a disservice that whenever a woman strays into moody rock she’s ultimately pegged as a disciple of one or the other. On her latest album, out this October and titled One Breath, Calvi manages to weave her scruffy voice in and out of nuanced guitar licks and up into a throaty soprano that wraps itself around simple, cosmic lyrics. Expect to feel transported and frozen on the spot—Calvi has that thing you just know when you hear it.

Mon., Nov. 11, 9 p.m., 2013

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The Myth of the Happy Hooker Debunked in Blunt and Beautiful Whores’ Glory

As with meat processing and politics, the day-to-day drama, tedium, and heartbreak of prostitution have little to do with our spoon-fed fantasies or well-intentioned wishful thinking about the profession. Michael Glawogger’s fearless Whores’ Glory demystifies trick turning with a bluntness and sneaky artistry that’s sure to make even the most jaded of us choke on our next sitcom-hooker-joke chuckle.

Not that Glawogger—an Austrian provocateur whose earlier films Megacities (1998) and Workingman’s Death (2005) comprise with this one a gruesome, damning autopsy of global capitalism—aims for shock alone; if that were the case, he’d likely have picked a cameraman other than Wolfgang Thaler, whose lush setups look like they took days to compose and light, and less sedate soundtrack artists than PJ Harvey or those grating frauds CocoRosie. Instead, Glawogger is more interested in the ways whoredom supports and contradicts a culture, and to that end divides Whores’ Glory into three distinct parts and locales.

The first sets the stage in a “fishbowl” brothel in Bangkok, where middle-class johns live out their glitzy porn fantasies in streamlined, near-antiseptic conditions. The shock here comes from how matter-of-fact it all is: The workaday routine of the girls, whom Glawogger eavesdrops on more than profiles, generally puts the “grind” in “bump and grind.” It’s in the second segment, in a prostitution district in primarily Muslim Faridpur, Bangladesh, that the ghastly sadness and lack of options inherent in the trade truly surface. This is a cinder-block commercial containment zone (or as one madam puts it, “a whorehouse, not a fucking family dinner”) where dozens of women and girls vie (sometimes violently) for a steady stream of men who wouldn’t acknowledge them in any other setting and forestall impoverished, lonely old age as best they can. The final third, in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, brings the baroque: Drive-through hooking is the norm, while between gigs—and we finally see what whores do for their money here—the women, many of whom were kidnapped into prostitution, bond over hard drugs and a black-magic strain of Catholicism, and openly long for their eventual delivery by Santa Muerte.

Glawogger stumbles into cliché in this last section, as he does in a jokey scene in Bangkok of protracted canine copulation: Mexico is presented as lawless and mystical yet again, and its specific complications get lost in the swirl. Whores’ Glory could also be accused of having too narrow of a focus overall, but its unwillingness to look away makes it, like the films of Frederick Wiseman, enlightening, sublimely uncomfortable, and necessary all the same. And if Glawogger resists feeling anything besides clinical interest in his case studies, it hardly detracts from their humanity, which might be the only glory anyone can hope for.

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Pazz & Jop Comments: Top 10-Plus

Why doesn’t everyone’s sound laboratories sound as much fun as Merrill Garbus’s?

Serene Dominic
Phoenix, Arizona

I listened to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake during every critical moment of the year. Ten years since 9/11. The death of Osama. OWS. #OWS. The Resurrection of Godfather’s Pizza into popular conversation. And in a strange way, this album continued to be relevant and adopt itself to whatever political moment was going on at the time, however important or nonsensical it was. Maybe it was just me projecting, but the ability to do this marks the nature of a great work of art.

Mike Ayers
New York

The only reason people have embraced Let England Shake is because it’s brilliant—it’s some sort of masterpiece that makes expectations irrelevant. But if she doesn’t start giving us more electric guitar on her next one, don’t be shocked if the reviews are snarkier.

Mark Deming
Ypsilanti, Michigan

I honestly didn’t know that PJ Harvey was gonna be one of the most exciting artists of, like, the last 30 years! How could I know? Who knew? PJ Harvey, Sade, and Kate Bush. Three of the most creative pop forces of the 21st century. I didn’t see that coming, although I suppose I should have.

Scott Seward
Greenfield, Massachusetts

I deleted Watch the Throne from my iPhone three times. It still refuses to disappear. #OtisIlluminati

Phillip Mlynar
Brooklyn, New York

Mo’ money, mo’ predictable records. Is there an album more out of step with the times than Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Beats aside, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard as much “luxury rap” bullshit as I need from Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.

Daniel Durchholz
Wildwood, Missouri

“Riot Grrrl Supergroup” sounds stupid. Luckily Wild Flag’s album doesn’t.

Serene Dominic
Phoenix, Arizona

Tom Waits’s albums never fail to be interesting, but sometimes they can get a bit light on the pure fun—put it this way, it’s been a while since he put out an album with a song the Ramones could cover. Bad as Me has a few: the herky nihilism of “Get Lost” or the foulmouthed chant of “Hell Broke Luce.” And there are a few to play when your bourbon’s for crying into.

Lissa Townsend Rogers
Las Vegas, Nevada

21 is a map of Adele’s reactions to her recent breakup, but those who claim that the album is over-sung and overdramatic miss its more central concept: her age. She has called her now-finished relationship “the biggest deal in my entire life to date,” which is the sort of ridiculous but romantic pronouncement that the young are prone to making.  

Joey Daniewicz
Morris, Minnesota

Video might not have killed the radio star, but overamped hype can kill almost anything. When Adele sings “hard,” many of my critical peers allow themselves to be more impressed than they get when, say, Patti LaBelle or the gospel duo Mary Mary sing “hard.”

Carol Cooper
New York

Thanks to two consecutive Kanye and Drake albums, not to mention the critical success of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, monstrous self-regard and after-hours sobbing are the new mean. What’s fascinating is how both Drake and Kanye depend on aural chambers whose intricacy is inversely proportional to the boys’ rapping/singing skills. Where their influences didn’t sweat the technique, Drake has none to speak of, and that’s the way he likes it; it makes him, in his own mind, the realest guy in the game.

Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Take Care was my favorite slab of music of 2011 in part because I admire Drake’s willingness to appear ridiculous, but I would totally buy him a tuna sandwich if he would shut the fuck up about his sex life for five seconds.

Michael Robbins
Hattiesburg, Mississippi

If Justin Vernon is going to insist on talking nonsense, he should take a lesson from Sigur Rós and invent a new language for his lyrics lest someone make the mistake of dissecting them.

Joey Daniewicz
Morris, Minnesota

Apparently it’s now cool to like fucking Bon Iver but not TV on the Radio.

A.S. Van Dorston
Chicago, Illinois

I don’t have beef with Justin Vernon, artistically. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing: making bold choices and putting his shoulder into them. The glacially-paced, ambient “rock” on Vernon’s second Bon Iver album takes the biggest risk I can imagine from an aspiring mainstream musician: It stakes itself on mind-numbing dullness.

Marty Brown
Brooklyn, New York

If Das Racist are in a constant state of processing the world and spitting it back at us reconfigured, Shabazz Palaces are only concerned with the world inside their heads. I take “Recollections of the wraith” as words to live by—”clear some space out so we can space out.” That deep bass drum sounds like it is programmed to reconfigure a heartbeat and the flanged, wobbling guitar easily disengages me from whatever is in front of my face. Unplug your shit. I like how it feels.

Marc Gilman
New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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