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

1990 Pazz & Jop: Hard News in a Soft Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

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Top 10 Albums of 1990

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

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

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

4. Sonic Youth: Goo (DGC)

5. Living Colour: Time’s Up (Epic)

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

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

8. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia)

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Soho: “Hippychick” (Atco)

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

—From the March 5, 1991, issue

 

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

 

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

1988 Pazz & Jop: Dancing on a Logjam

When last we sat down for a serious chat, it was the end of the world as we knew it, and I felt fine. The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, conceived as a goof and evolved willy-nilly into a barometer, was plainly in a jam — a “logjam.” On the album chart, which dated back to posthippie 1971 or 1974, a plethora of well-crafted yet ultimately inconsequential records by postpunk post-Amerindies confounded electorate and dean alike; on the singles chart, instituted in 1979 after the twin ’70s movements of punk and disco jolted rock and roll back toward its original format and function, late-released songs from charting albums crowded out the striking yet ultimately arbitrary moments of passion that emerged on individual ballots. A crisis of consensus had moved the Poobahs to dispense with the EP chart and was also evident in sparse video voting. There were lots of great reissues, most of which nobody had heard.

Yet I really did feel fine, if only because I had just written something moderately cogent and entertaining about this mess, and obsessed the way I usually am in February, I made grand plans to bring Pazz & Jop into the present, or future — plans cut to fit the moderately cogent and very entertaining objective correlative of my good cheer. By which I mean the inevitable internationalization of a world-pop hegemony that’s been American since the end of World War I — new vistas, fresh blood. Baboon Dooley notwithstanding, I didn’t expect the impending flood of U.S.-released “world-beat” to show up on the voters’ 1988 chart: when I say internationalization is inevitable, I’m talking decades or generations rather than years, and I’m also talking a pluralism resistant to electoral quantification — more different kinds of good music than any sensibility can make sense of, created for the most part in blissful disregard of crippling late-capitalist doctrines of artistic decorum (though embracing, I’ll bet, crippling late-capitalist chimeras of superstar glory). Solution: a plethora of minipolls, panels of specialists reporting on African music, Hispanic music, Caribbean music, Amerindies, Europop, jazz, disco, whatever — even videos! Sounded pretty snazzy, assuming the cash cow you hold in your hands would allot personnel to the project — since I maim my marriage every winter with computation, analysis, and shitwork, I wasn’t about to devote the fall to beseeching specialists.

So instead I spent it pondering my future in journalism, just like my [colleagues at said cash cow, which on January] 4 came under its eighth editor since 1974, too late to budget any grand plans. And quite a decent chap he seems to be, cough cough, but there was less than no way to know that then, and — more to the point — no way to budget any grand plans. Hence I was doomed to pore over the same old graph paper and dot-matrix screeds in a year that would make the 1987 logjam look like Beatlemania. I couldn’t even figure a winner until a college student I know transformed Tracy Chapman into an instant favorite by dropping her name. I didn’t look forward to enumerating the shortcomings of this young black female lefty, the first alumna of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival ever to go double platinum. But at least she was all those worthy things, and something new to boot, and thus better copy than Talking Heads, R.E.M., or U2, whose well-crafted but ultimately inconsequential albums would presumably vie for place and show with the sonic youths of yesteryear, 1987’s 14th- and 12th-ranked Public Enemy and Sonic Youth. As for the other front-runners, maybe some legends — plenty of them out there shaking their bones. But all the contenders felt like 11-to-20 material to me.

As it turned out, my confusion was a premonition; statistically, the 15th (or 16th) annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the strangest ever. The album chart was completely dominated by three candidates: Tracy Chapman, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, and the overwhelming victor, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Not that victory was overwhelming in absolute terms — though Public Enemy did break 1000, only the Clash in 1981 and Talking Heads in 1985 won with fewer prorated points, and several second- and third-place finishers have bested 1988’s number one, not to mention 1988’s numbers two and three. What’s more, Sandinista! and Little Creatures were winners by default, perched uneasily atop a neatly graded heap of less-equal works of art. This year, Public Enemy is an actively controversial positive choice: its 295-point margin is just 13 shy of the total accorded fourth-ranked Midnight Oil.

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Which brings us to the nut, because Midnight Oil would have been 12th or 13th in a normal year. In other words, the collective judgment is that 1988 produced only three major albums — the lesser contenders felt like 11-to-20 material because that’s exactly what they were. The 212 voters divided albums four through 29 by a mere 128 points, from 308 down to 180, a differential negligible enough to be bollixed utterly by a couple of partisans; indeed, perennial ballot stuffer Greil Marcus upped Randy Newman two places and Keith Richards three with his strategic 30s, and if the next two days’ submissions had made our deadline, Brian Wilson would have finished not 12th but sixth. Strangest of all is that U2’s underrated if grandiose Rattle and Hum squeezed in at 21st, with two fewer points than the sophomoric October got in 1981; Talking Heads accrued 193 points for Naked, an honest if unsustaining internationalist gesture hailed as a leap forward from 1986’s quasi-roots-rock True Stories, which got 187; and R.E.M., top 10 with all five previous albums, tied for 35th with their Warner Bros. debut, Green. Executive Poobah Doug Simmons, whose heart has never bled for the Georgia obscurantists, was appalled by this rank injustice. “But they’ve done nothing wrong,” he cried.

Except maybe living too long, but let’s put that on hold, because the evolution of one album logjam into another is only half our strange story. The bigger half takes place on the singles chart, which a year ago seemed at an impasse. The old Pazz & Jop plaint that singles matter more than albums seldom shows up in the results; just as there’s too much “world-beat” to absorb much less agree on, singles fans have so many options that rarely do they unite to overcome the casual nod vouchsafed the album cuts respondents remember from their hours with the car radio — their autumn hours, usually. I should note that in a classic Pazz & Jop fuckup, our original invitation requested five rather than 10 singles, which may have skewed our results a little. We rushed out a correction, but one in 10 ballots didn’t comply, a dozen of them from out-of-town, where the car-radio vote is strongest. An unfuckedup invite might have helped U2’s “Desire,” Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers,” Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” Prince’s “I Wish U Heaven,” and either of two Pet Shop Boys singles (though they’re hardly an out-of-town-type band), all of which received 10 votes along with Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It,” and the Godfathers’ “Birth, School, Work, Death.” But album samples weren’t the trend. For the first time in years, even critics who don’t have much use for dance/rap chose real singles instead, so that “Roll With It” (one album mention) and “Birth, School, Work, Death” (three) and Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” (two) and Pursuit of Happiness’s “I’m an Adult Now” (three) and Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” (well, nine) all beat out, for example, Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” and Randy Newman’s “It’s Money That Matters.”

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” an unrelenting, unbombastic escape-to-nowhere so pithy and sisterly that several respondents claimed the long-player rides its coattails, got its landslide, one of just 10 top-25 singles from top-40 albums. That compares to 15 in 1987, 11 (all in the top 14) in 1986, and 13 in 1985, while in contrast last year’s singles chart made room for just two rap and two dance records, with only “Pump Up the Volume” from a non-album-chart group (and Eric B. begging to differ). This year, as AOR thrashed about and top 40 sunk deeper into a pap cycle, Teddy Riley’s versions of Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown and Spike Lee’s version of E.U. all placed, as did Ofra Haza’s sabra-cum-Yemenite stomp “Im Nin’alu”/”Galbi,” the sole “world-beat” finisher anywhere, which as it happens could also be heard in bits and pieces on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” remix. And get this — “Paid in Full” was one of nine raps selected.

That’s nine — nine! — when the previous high, reached once, was four. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s nagging, whooping James Brown rip-out “It Takes Two” was beyond question the rap single of the year; anywhere reachable by boombox, it was in the world’s face louder than “Don’t Believe the Hype” from March to October, and it ended up an easy second. The other eight finishers leaned toward crossover while showing off the genre’s range. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is a shameless bid to suburban wannabees, “Colors” a shameless bid to inner-city moralists, and “Wild Thing” just shameless. But both Salt-n-Pepa entries feminize an intrinsically male-chauvinist genre with spunk, soul, and imagination, “Follow the Leader” sums up a virtuosic, underrated album, “Paid in Full” is the big payback, and “Don’t Believe the Hype” is the slogan of the year.

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Anyone who knows much about the business of music may suspect a con here — how can the single be an augury when as a consumer item it’s staggering to its grave faster than vinyl? But don’t, don’t, don’t you-know-the-rest. The death-of-the-single line is self-fulfilling paranoia in a biz that’s forever scoping stillborn trends and a visceral response to the rack-space crisis created by its frantic promotion of two new formats. Which in their CD-single and cassingle minivariants are getting to second base with the convenience seekers who’ve made cassettes America’s musical long-form and CDs its measure of aural luxury. The 45 may be a promotional fiction and the gold 45 a relic, but in 1988 the single maintained the dollar volume bizzers live by, with a little help from the above-mentioned miniformats and a lot from the 12-inch, a high-profit item that happens to be the basis of the entire contemporary dance scene and its attendant promotional alternatives. D.J. CD and even cassette manipulation will no doubt come into their own (though they’ll be hell on scratching), but for the nonce an industry greedy for avenues of exposure isn’t gonna kill off disco.

So in effect the single, like vinyl itself, is turning into a specialist medium. It took the crash of 1929 to finish the cylinder, which had been a dodo for decades, and though vinyl will get harder to find, it won’t disappear for a long while even if it dips well below its current 20 per cent market share; maybe soon almost no one will sell little records with big holes in them, but 12-inch singles will persist for as long as the D.J. is a cultural hero, and like vinyl-only oldie and indie LPs, they’ll be sought by seekers, critics’ meat for sure. Fact is, as many locals as out-of-towners listed only five singles, and for the same reason — they didn’t give a shit. New York is a 12-inch stronghold, but the New Yorkers who failed to amend their ballots favored promotional fliers like “Slow Turning” and “It’s Money That Matters” and obviously didn’t figure good citizenship required them to rerack their brains for another five. In fact, more than one old new waver suggested changing to a song-of-the-year category to avoid vexing questions of commercial availability, but I like the way things came out.

This may also look like a con, especially to the dance-sucks brigade. “Very aesthetic, a little short on black music,” I wrote of the first or second poll back in 1974, and ever since I’ve been climbing on my soapbox preaching punk-disco fusion, funkentelechy, world-beat, etc. But if I sometimes seem a little repetitive, that’s because history doesn’t change direction annually no matter what the trendmongers want. Sure it was a Year of the Woman/Year of the Protest Song, sorta; we’ll get to that. But the numbers put something else first. To oversimplify for clarity’s sake, they divide 1988’s popular music into a meaning function, reflected in all its weary (and compromised) ambiguity by the album chart, and a pleasure function, reflected in all its subliminal (and cooptable) subversion by the singles chart. If the split were absolute, of course, the end would be at hand — the whole idea of rock criticism is that if pleasure and meaning aren’t made one then meaning will fail, not just as persuasion but as meaning. So say this dichotomy is close enough for rock and roll. Although Chapman’s single does pick up speed, it’s one of the most meaning-laden in poll history, while her album, if far from party-girl whoop-de-doo, proffers more simple enjoyment than Anthony Davis, Dick Hebdige, Jean Baudrillard, Kathy Acker, Andrei Tarkovsky, Z magazine, or 7 Days. Several of our rap singles make social statements, and several of our rock albums turn hanging loose into a middle-aged manifesto. Yet in general, the singles are about the future of fun, and the albums aren’t.

So even though only rap/dance inspired widespread optimism among our respondents, the meaning-laden winner was the sole rap album in the top 40 (last year there were three). What’s more, Womack & Womack are the only black finishers who could be said to play to a black audience, much less the black dancers who put new beats in action: we’re talking women’s music, fusion-with-brains, metal-with-brains, crossover blues, and, well, Prince, his official album a major dink after last year’s poll-sweeping Sign “O” the Times, his “black album” (clandestine copies of which finished eight points, five mentions, and three places behind 17th-ranked Lovesexy) withheld from public scrutiny out of fear it was well-named. And while over the past few polls not many black pop albums have deserved much better than the nothing they got, this time I’m not so sure.

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With hip-hop preoccupying a growing minority of young critics, rap albums did flourish twixt 41 and 100: meaning-laden Big Daddy Kane and Boogie Down Productions 45th and 47th, party-smarty formalists Eric B. and EPMD 54th and 68th, and girl-group-and-proud Salt-n-Pepa 73rd. But significantly, only Kane and EPMD were supported by even one of our 19 black voters, who preferred the street-sweet new jack swing of Teddy Riley (“same old crossover-cowardice in [a] brand-new suit,” saith white Schoolly D fan Chuck Eddy), giving 75th-place Keith Sweat four out of five mentions, 91st-place Al B. Sure! five out of seven, and Riley’s own 83rd-place Guy three out of six. For those closest to the heat, the producer’s cool, rapwise elaboration of Jam-Lewis signified, and what it signified was something like “B-Boys Can’t B Boys Forever.” In the grand tradition of unreconstructed adolescence, rock critics consider this defeatist. My bet goes with the wisdom of the ages.

Opting for Women and/or Protest, meanwhile, was an altogether different subset of critics, with not a single one of the 31 who backed fifth-place Michelle Shocked, for instance, naming any of the rap also-rans (and vice versa). Leaving out pornotopian egalitarians Sonic Youth (who this year as last did much worse with women voters than with men) and including Björk’s Sugarcubes and Linda’s Womack & Womack, eight women finished top-40, as many as in 1986 and 1987 combined, but what I find especially significant is that five of them — Chapman, Shocked, self-determined white blueswoman Lucinda Williams, neotrad outsider K. D. Lang, and pristine depressive Margo Timmins — can be described without stretching as folkies, five more than in 1986 and 1987 combined; all-singing all-songwriting Sam “Talk About Born Again, My Christian Name Used To Be Leslie” Phillips (69th) also fits the category. Respondent Roger Moore is right: they’re not all alike in the dark. From rock and roll to new-age world-music (and from good to bad, which isn’t the same thing), Etta James (62nd) and Voice of the Beehive (96th) and Toni Childs (44th) and Edie Brickell (60th) and the Primitives (72nd) and the Bangles (87th) and Sade (71st) and even the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir (50th) aren’t folkies. (Maybe the Miriam Makeba of 87th-place Sangoma is, or the Ofra Haza of 88th-place Seven Gates of Wisdom, but not to Americans — and not in the American sense.) Nevertheless, folk music, in all its respects for truths that we hold self-evident, was what Year-of-the-Woman coverage was really about.

None of our five folkie finishers projects a Baez/Collins-style purity, or comes on like one’s sainted mother — often punky or dykey, always autonomous, sometimes even funny, they’re very post-Joni (two mentions), and not just because they write their own. But men liked them a lot. The only female finishers afforded disproportionate support by our 39 female voters were rock and roll heroine Patti Smith and new wave pretenders the Sugarcubes; Michelle Shocked and Lucinda Williams did significantly worse with their own gender, and neither Womack & Womack (I blame Cecil) nor the Cowboy Junkies (I blame Margo) was named by a single woman. To an extent this may reflect new wave origins and loyalties — punk opened the music to some-not-enough female critics as well as some-not-enough female musicians. But beyond liberal guilt and headline lust, male journalists were happy to make 1988 the Year of the Woman because the folkie madonna, wise and soulful whether calm or passionate, once again seems a comforting idea to the kind of white former boy disquieted by rap and disco.

One reason for all the Protest play is that an equally reassuring aura surrounds folk music’s straightforward literary-political aesthetic, epitomized by 42nd-place Folkways: A Vision Shared, in which stars and legends underwrote the Smithsonian’s (i.e., the federal government’s) Folkways purchase by interpreting predominantly political titles from the label’s most trenchant fellow travelers, Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie. Although politics are heaviest among the leaders — of our top five, only Sonic Youth, whose anarchism laughs at ideology, aren’t staunch lefties in art and life — this was a year in which Richard Thompson and Patti Smith and R.E.M. essayed more or less conventional protest songs, in which Living Colour and Metallica aimed to focus metal’s antisocial tendencies, in which all but maybe half a dozen charting album artists imagined an audience that resented or despised the suicidal inequities of late capitalism.

This is nothing new in Pazz & Jop, but it keeps intensifying, and from Midnight Oil nurturing their muse in the outback to U2 preaching roots they hardly knew they had (not to mention Van Morrison taking up with Irish folk ambassadors), folkie notions of tradition and solidarity have come to constitute a collective vision of sorts. To an extent I share it myself — unlike, say, Greil Marcus, an enemy of capital who hears sanctimony dripping from almost every artist I’ve named and says a pox on them all. But straightforwardness has serious limits, and even Michelle Shocked, easily the most wordwise of the latest crew of singer-songwriters, gets tired pretty quick by me. There’s not enough fun or adventure in them — not enough pleasure function, not enough music.

Rap/dance singles weren’t the only quality product to address this familiar problem in 1988. Glance again at the top of the album chart and note an accidental but entertaining trio of groupings. The top five is fresh meat, young or at least new (if Peter Garrett isn’t pushing 35 he either suffers too much or does drugs on the sly). Then we have Pere Ubu and Was (Not Was), first- and second-generation new wavers who avoided the sweepstakes so long it looked like forever. And after that there’s the most incredible procession of old farts in Pazz & Jop history: seven artists who predate punk by at least nine or 10 years, their mean age 46, the youngest 39-year-old Richard Thompson. They got it up, too — except for poor simple Brian Wilson, every one deserved to beat U2, R.E.M., and Talking Heads. Ornette is as ageless as any jazz or pop musician in history, and this year like never before he was both. Richard Thompson finally recovered from walking out on Linda, and while I’m Your Man was only a half-step up from 1985’s unnoticed Various Positions, Leonard Cohen never got old because he was never young and thus remained ripe for rediscovery by the eight under-30s who selected him Dutch uncle. Randy Newman supposedly got more personal and certainly got more pissed, moving the old-sourpuss faction to shower him with points. And Keith Richards and the Traveling Wilburys boogied.

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Both Talk Is Cheap and Volume One smelled bad out of the box, and bigots will claim they stink forever. But if you think you’re gonna hate them too, you may be in for a surprise. Though I don’t know what place Talk Is Cheap deserves in my life, I’m happy to attest that somehow Richards has created generic classics — the kind of stuff you always forget until you hear it again and figure for collectorama covers until you check the copyright notice. As for the Wilburys, what could be more obscene than five overrated “superstars” getting together for some “fun” and then trying to foist it off on the suckers who made them rich and famous in the first place? Yet what we have here is not only Bob Dylan’s best record since Blood on the Tracks but a group that does as much for George Harrison as the Beatles, and even without Roy Orbison (who despite the gush is pretty much a fifth wheel) I sometimes find myself wishing they’d make a career of it — keep them out of harm’s way. Keith and the Wilburys address the future of fun. They make flesh Mick Jagger’s insulting contention that if Howlin’ Wolf could do it till he dropped, so could the Stones. They assume that great grooves need not surrender all pleasure function just because their novelty no longer tickles your fancy, and prove it with a spirit that renews one’s faith in humankind, for if it becomes possible to share a laugh with Jeff Lynne, then fellow feeling can know no bounds.

Professionals so entrenched they’re beyond careerism, our exemplary boogie-men stuck to their guns with nothing up their sleeves, while former untouchables R.E.M. and Talking Heads were worn and torn by the biz. R.E.M. experimented with verbal and rhythmic specificity, a gutty move for a band whose sizable cult was built on murmur and airy flow, but the holes in their songwriting showed, and it cost them; David Byrne concealed the ricketiness of his current compositional practice by riding in on soukous’s jetstream, but the trick didn’t stick, and a record that looked sure top-10 in March finished 24th. Both bands were rejected by new wave stalwarts fighting midlife crisis. I refuse to write off proven artists of any era, but the thirties are a scary age in rock and roll, and I sense a changing of the guard. The dyed-in-the-wool rockers who cheered Richards and the Wilburys will plump for the same beat in perpetuity, but punks manqué are trapped in the tradition of the new — hard for bohemians who defined their own mission in contradistinction to hippie conservatism to sit tight in a logjam, settling for the same old well-crafted, revitalized shit. Such are the long-term perils of new wave commerce. Interesting, isn’t it, that rather than getting rusty during their long layoffs on the biz’s fringe, Was (Not Was) and Pere Ubu jes grew?

And with a few omissions, that’s how rock’s meaning function breaks down in 1988 — the old kicked ass, the new got old. Of course, as the ambiguously entitled “Hit List” attests, some would call the omissions the story — ironic pop hedonists the Pet Shop Boys, unironic pop hedonist George Michael, lying sons of bitches Guns N’ Roses. No consensus doesn’t mean no passion — to recall a church-library title that revealed the errors of Unitarians, Swedenborgians, Roman Catholics, and other misguided souls to a 10-year-old Poobah-in-the-making, it’s a “chaos of cults” out there, and some claim to want nothing better. At a tiny London symposium celebrating the literary event of the rock year, Simon Frith’s Music for Pleasure, the delegate from Rough Trade, this year’s only album-charting indie except Capitol-distributed Enigma, indignantly denied that music had anything to do with movements — The Disparate Cognoscenti, her label’s new compilation is called, and though I’d rather buy a bridge myself, embattled individualism is what holds the latest generation of diehard bohemians together and tears it apart. Punk-cum-Amerindie Gerard Cosloy, who signaled his disdain for consensus by joining a record 41 late voters and dubbed his own label comp, harrumph, Human Music, comes clean in “Future (No Future)”: to hell with “the music’s potential impact on the rest of popular culture.”

Out of respect for Amerindieland’s subcultural ideals, we brought back EP voting, and though boho hero Bruce Springsteen won with the worst record he’s ever made, deserving young indies did get free publicity — New York’s Caroline, Boston’s Taang!, and Seattle’s Sub Pop joined the eternal SST with two finishers apiece. Embattled individual artists Mudhoney and Bullet LaVolta turn out to be better-than-average garage bands who may go somewhere and may fall off the edge of the earth, Poi Dog Pondering’s word-of-mouth is better than its distribution, Pussy Galore and Live Skull are easy to spell, and let’s do this again soon. After all, even with seven votes good for fourth place, EP results were more meaningful than in reissues, which more than ever rewarded size: three of the top four were multi-CDs whose exhaustiveness could not but bowl over young crits filling out their collections and middle-aged audiophiles-come-lately seeking permanence in a troubled world. Far be it from me to put down Chuck Berry — given the chance I would have named a son after him. But let it be noted that MCA has both the most generous review-copy policy of any label doing serious catalogue exploitation and four of our 10 winners. I admire The Chess Box, but I miss the briefly available Great Twenty-Eight and 1964’s St. Louis to Liverpool, my (second) copy of which is badly worn. When the dubious Chess original-reissue program gets around to the latter, which like most original Chess LPs runs well under 30 minutes, I hope I get one free.

For most voters, internationalization will arrive late if at all, but unless this is just an abnormal year, which is possible (will they still yawn after the Replacements go pop and Lou goes political?), a pluralism resistant to electoral quantification may already be upon us. The Poobahs’ uncouth requests for demographic detail met with somewhat wittier resistance this year (see both “The Personals” and “I Gotta Be Me”), most of which I blame on the refusal of would-be autonomous subjects to recognize the determinations we’re all subject to (plus perhaps fear of math) (and, oh yeah, ressentiment). Ira Robbins has always been obtuse if not defensive on this issue, and — racist? moi? — Armond White isn’t much better, but note the japes of my cranky pal Greil, who complains that he could have listed many additional categories that impinge on his musical proclivities.

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No doubt. But unlike blacks and women, doowop fans aren’t systematically oppressed in this society, nor excluded from journalistic discourse, and though I’m sure some diddy-bopping anarchist out there thinks market-researched reissues exemplify consumer-capitalist exploitation, I trust he or she doesn’t find math so scary that distinctions of degree lose all meaning. Of the additional categories White sarcastically proposes, only “Greeks” wouldn’t produce interesting results, although I must note that until I can get critics to admit they’re bigots that one isn’t practicable. In fact, the main reason we don’t do a separate poll of gays is that homosexuals’ right to privacy comes first. Acknowledging oppression — and in the case of blacks, a fundamental artistic debt — is obviously the main idea.

So though we skipped the whippersnapper-graybeard breakdowns this year, our much-maligned all-black and all-female polls appear once again under the wiseass headings “No Whites Allowed” and “Boys Keep Out.” Wonder whether Robbins will think it’s, er, superficial for black voters to get behind 15 black acts (though three did give it up to Iceland’s musical ambassadors, for five points each, and many other white artists got one or two mentions). I mean, come on — do I have to keep restating the obvious? Speaking generally, demographically, quantitatively, African-American’s musical culture fosters shared “personal values,” values that whites, acculturated to believe their shared values are “objective,” are forever adapting after a decade or so has safely passed. That’s reason enough to find out what records our statistically unreliable sample of black critics has fastened on. Womens’ musical culture is far more indistinct no matter what the Michigan Women’s Music Festival thinks, and female cognoscenti are even more disparate than black, but with two of rock and roll’s most sexist subgenres in critical ascendancy, it’s worth knowing that our 39 women voters put the rap group behind the feminist and awarded double points to the unmacho metal band cited by one as a male chauvinist scam. Panels of experts or at least fans will be necessary if pluralism continues to reproduce itself, but it’ll take a lot to convince me that minority minipolls aren’t a better one.

As for your faithful Dean and Poobah, well — I, too, gotta be me. Once upon a time my ballot was a bellwether, but in 1988 I was a weirdo, an isolated internationalist — only four other voters put as many as four non-AmerBrit albums in their top 10s, never mind black African. About a quarter of my 60 or so gooduns were African, so many I can break them down by region — eight southern (Graceland fallout), five central (give me the chance and I’ll make it a dozen), two west (can’t fathom the groove); several are quite obscure, and one — my favorite, which I never heard of till last January — came out three or four years ago. I also named records from Brazil, Argentina, the French Caribbean, good old English-speaking Jamaica, and an English-born Indian who sings in Urdu, and if Amerindies are irrelevant, I am too — in addition to the above exotica I went for 10 rock albums, three rap albums, two jazz-rock albums, and a blues album from independent entrepreneurs, while maybe a dozen of my recommendeds qualify as straight major-label product and maybe half of those were hits. Yet for all my weirdness I’m down with the Pazz & Jop consensus in all its contradictions.

What sustained and exhilarated me in 1988 was the slick, deep, joyously cosmopolitan body music of the Paris-Kinshasa connection — except maybe for Lucinda Williams’s joyously uncountrypolitan blues, no domestic alternative approached the sheer playability of Omona Wapi and Zaire Choc. But there was nothing like the Pazz & Jop top two for pondering Michael Dukakis or one’s future in journalism — they stiffened the backbone, toned the blood, unlocked the pelvis, exercised the gall bladder, and gave the mind something to shout about. If Farrakhan’s a prophet my dick’s bigger than Don Howland’s, but that doesn’t make Nation of Millions anything less than the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade — no matter how the music looks written down (ha ha), Hank Shocklee and Terminator X have translated Blood Ulmer’s harmolodic visions into a street fact that’s no less edutaining (if different) in the dwellings of monkey spawn and brothers alike (and different). Nor was Sonic Youth’s nation holding them back. For one thing, it ain’t big enough. Even though their commitment to chaos has outgrown the imitative fallacy, they show no signs of relinquishing their antistar status in commercial fact, and given the contradictions of consensus these days, there’s something reassuring in that. No way their marginality seems slight. I eagerly await their transmutations of George Ade, George Clinton, and Marxism-Leninism.

Had I located a physical copy of the thing, my single of the year would have been more esoterica — “N’Sel Fik,” a funkadelic love pledge by Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui said to have been the biggest record in the Arab world in 1985. Never having taken my Africanism across the Sahara, I’ve been known to dismiss rai as a Gallic fad, but when Rai Rebels arrived, the internationalist professional in me put it on and had a mystical experience exemplary in its intensity and serendipity. People complain when I call their singles arbitrary, and I certainly don’t mean they pick them out of a hat. But tastes are so undetermined, especially tastes that last two to eight repetitive pop minutes, that on a collective level they are arbitrary. No matter how acutely an autonomous subject rationalizes some special passion, it’s unlikely that even half of his or her readers — parties to the aesthetic consensus that distinguishes the most mutually contemptuous rock critics from Allan Bloom or Michael Dukakis — will be induced to share it, and there’s always the chance that nobody will know what he or she is talking about. So if on the one hand street and radio and dance floor make singles seem very communal and all, if “Fast Car” is a social fact and “It Takes Two” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” are inescapable in the land of the boombox, on the other hand singles typify our, harrumph, existential solitude, and hence all the contradictions inherent in, harrumph, our social, subcultural, and political alliances.

So if despite my isolation I’m down with the Pazz & Jop consensus in all its contradictions, that’s fine with me. The eight rap records in my top 10 constituted a personal high, and though four made the big list, others were off the wall — wrong Bobby Brown (could be), wrong EPMD (baloney), otherwise unmentioned 12-inch by the ordinarily ordinary Chubb Rock. I regret that I don’t hear more of them, especially on the dance floor — “father of three-year-old” and “wife needs sleep” are near the top of my list of impingements. But that would only make my list weirder, just like everybody else’s. In a crisis of consensus, everything is up for grabs. Chuck Eddy said that. The party’s not over yet. Guy said that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1988

1. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam)

2. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (Blast First/Enigma)

3. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (Elektra)

4. Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust (Columbia)

5. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury)

6. Was (Not Was): What Up, Dog? (Chrysalis)

7. Pere Ubu: The Tenement Year (Enigma)

8. Keith Richards: Talk Is Cheap (Virgin)

9. Traveling Wilburys: Volume One (Wilbury)

10. Randy Newman: Land of Dreams (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1988

1. Tracy Chapman: “Fast Car” (Elektra)

2. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (Profile)

3. Guns N’ Roses: “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Geffen)

4. Prince: “Alphabet St.” (Paisley Park)

5. Midnight Oil: “Beds Are Burning”/”The Dead Heart” (Columbia)

6. (Tie) Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype”/”Prophets of Rage” (Def Jam)
Traveling Wilburys: “Handle With Care” (Wilbury)

8. Bobby Brown: “My Prerogative” (MCA)

9. (Tie) Eric B. & Rakim: “Follow the Leader” (Uni)
D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince: “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (Jive)
The Primitives: “Crash” (RCA)

—From the February 28, 1989, issue

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1987

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

2. Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (Columbia)

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

4. U2: The Joshua Tree (Island)

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

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

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

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

9. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen)

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1987

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

2. Suzanne Vega: “Luka” (A&M)

3. Los Lobos: “La Bamba” (Slash)

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

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

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

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

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

—From the March 1, 1988, issue

 

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

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

1986 Pazz & Jop: Township Jive Conquers the World

Over at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, where an accounting firm more reputable than Dean & Poobah is totting up the Grammies even as I write, the year ends October 1, to give the electoral machinery time to rumble into action. Here at the Voice, where small is still sometimes beautiful, the year begins whenever the voters tell us it did and ends the natural way, on December 31. Yet by October 1 I knew damn well who was going to take the 13th or 14th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and though I suffered a few doubts when Peter Gabriel snuck in first at the L.A. Times, my confidence returned as I glanced over the early returns. Graceland for sure — in a small landslide, actually. And if Simon & Phiri — to let Simon’s guitarist and bandleader, Ray Phiri, stand in for the black South African backing musicians whose beat is the backbone of the star’s triumph — take the Grammies as well, which I predict they will, they earned it.

Many indicators fed my hunch, small competition and instant buzz prominent among them, but what convinced me was my direct experience of the music: opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its bicultural synthesis is striking, engaging, and unprecedented — sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so plainly beautiful. Not that I expected the universe to agree — tastes differ, many dissent from Simon’s refined literary liberalism, wimpophobes have hated his guts for years, and the electorate now includes a smattering of convinced pigfuckers who think Hüsker Dü is Julio Iglesias in disguise. Yet even sworn enemies were stopped short at least momentarily by the drive and lilt and sway of Simon’s South African band, and many neutrals were won over to his Manhattan lyrics. Graceland’s victory didn’t approach the dimensions of Born in the U.S.A.’s, or Thriller’s, or London Calling’s. But by Pazz & Jop as well as NARAS standards — by the standards of any respecters of critical consensus outside the Elvis Costello Fan Club — Simon had made what sounded like the album of the year. This was certifiable township jive, to use one of the Soweto beat’s many overlapping nicknames. But it was cosmopolitan in a New York way.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I ransacked the ballots in search of quotable tributes to this ear food and found almost nothing but dim political disputation. Not that this was altogether surprising. The fact of apartheid is intrinsic to Graceland’s aesthetic interest, especially for the P&J electorate, which leans more precipitously to the left than any comparable sampling of film or book or dance or art or (God knows) classical music reviewers. Yet at the same time rock critics are almost pathologically impatient with political orthodoxy. So maybe the recent flurry of controversy — in which Simon was blitzed by hostile questions at Howard University and criticized by the chairman of the UN’s apartheid subcommittee — got their goat. Or maybe it was just Dave Marsh, who declared Simon an opponent of the South African revolution in Rock & Roll Confidential. Maybe it was even yours truly the Dean, whose more moderate censure of Simon’s political performance has come under fire from universalist humanists. Still, I’d hoped for a higher level of discussion. Certainly the music that occasioned all the hot air would get its due. And just maybe the political horror that the music was too fucking transcendent to illuminate directly would gain new resonances as a result.

No way. You can bet the outnumbered naysayers proved somewhat smarter than Simon’s aggressively defensive champions, but you can also bet that a bilious “beneath contempt” isn’t going to get us much further than a blithe “Simon’s intentions seem to have been noble”: if it’s true that nobility is too rare a thing to waste on intentions, it’s also true that you can’t get much lower than some people’s contempt. What I missed on both sides was some rudimentary grasp of the South African reality Graceland is supposed to trivialize and exploit or extend and enrich. Musically, the old bridge-between-cultures line is supported by the 10th-place finish of what has now been my own favorite current record for about a year, the Earthworks-via-Shanachie mbaqanga compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. In 1985, with Graceland yet unborn, Indestructible was showing up on UK critics polls, and it would certainly have placed here as well, but without Simon’s album — and the accompanying press coverage, a phenomenon in itself — it sure wouldn’t have gone neck-and-neck to the finish line with R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel. (Only with the last ballot did Blood and Chocolate sneak into a virtual tie with Indestructible — and Springsteen overtake Run-D.M.C. Craig Zeller has broken my heart before. He may not vote next year unless he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.)

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Nevertheless, I’d be more inclined to see in the pleasing anomaly of Indestructible’s showing irrefutable evidence of the universal language in action, of a link to black South Africa stronger than mere analysis could ever achieve, if just one of the indignant defenses of Paul Simon’s virtue had indicated that apartheid isn’t just the Afrikaans word for segregation. It’s a system, damn it, a political system; like the bicultural music that nobody pro or con described very satisfactorily either (though once again the cons made their points more cleverly), it has specific attributes. Its strategy is to reserve for whites the economic and psychological advantages of segregation while fobbing itself off with a rhetoric of racial equality and cooperation. As far as Pretoria is concerned, Graceland is for the most part quite consonant with such rhetoric. Which is why, Bruce McClelland, it’s naïve at best to claim that “Graceland is inherently political and inherently anti-apartheid.” Right now, nobody can know that — not me, not you, not Botha, not Simon. God don’t love no ignorant, boy.

Okay, I’ll stop. I’m writing about a poll, and though Simon is emblematic enough to warrant all this attention and more, it’s context time. Perhaps I’ve procrastinated because 1986 didn’t seem to add much news value to the critics’ by now traditional dour view of popular music’s immediate past and uncharted future. Wrap-up pieces made much of the nostalgia factor in a year when MTV engineered a Monkees revival, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hosted a reissue boom, and numerous same old songs returned to the hit parade, most spectacularly “Stand by Me,” back among the living in Ben E. King’s quarter-century-old version. In fact, several respondents thought it amusing to point out the aptness of the late-night typo in which I neglected to change the “1985” of our previous letter of invitation to the “1986” of this year’s model. But both poll and biz showed 365 days worth of historical movement by me, and while the nostalgia thesis has the look of a desperate stab at a headline — it’s a rare year when the pop merchants aren’t systematically sentimentalizing the past — it might be adapted to our purposes.

Lefty that I am, I often focus these ruminations on how the pop of the present relates to past and future, and in general my conclusions are fairly clear-cut: future good, past bad. Thus I’ve always been suspicious (right, Rob Tannenbaum, with exceptions) of roots moves and critical (also with exceptions) of rock conservatism from Springsteen to Fogerty and Stones to Smithereens. Middle-aged professional that I am, I’m also a respecter of history — I love the old stuff going back way before 1955, and believe absolutely that aging (and even young) rockers can do exciting work in styles that are no longer modish or commercial. But in general I’ve reserved my sharpest enthusiasms for music that breaks new ground within the aforementioned bounds of democratic accessibility, a parameter I interpret more liberally than the most progressive bizzer and nowhere near radically enough to suit your average pigfucker. And what strikes me as I ponder both my list and the critics’ choices is that such distinctions seem to be falling apart. In fact, I descry only four unequivocally “progressive” artists in the P&J top 40, three of whom I don’t like much. There’s old prog Peter Gabriel, who broke pop with an Otis Redding rip, young progs Throwing Muses, whose singularity is indistinguishable from their awfulness, and two artists whose explorations are rhythmic, as so many of the most significant rock and roll explorations always have been: Janet Jackson a/k/a Janet Jam-Lewis (whom I’m developing a taste for, actually) and young reliables Run-D.M.C.

Everywhere else, either the past is a live issue or the future a quiescent one. Among the half dozen or so artists doing strong work in established personal styles (including Elvis C., Hüsker Dü, Ornette, the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock), only the Minutemen’s album holds out any vivid promise of significant future movement, and they’re now gone forever. Anyway, Elvis C. scored higher with a roots move, and in addition he produced the Pogues, the most coruscating of an unprecedented explosion of folkies — at least two of whom, Billy Bragg and Timbuk 3, chafe conspicuously at folk’s musical limitations. In addition we have a new wave band going folkloric (and downhill) (Talking Heads), a nuevo folk-rock band going pop (R.E.M.), and a new wave band going nuevo folk-rock (the Feelies). We have the biggest and best blues album in the history of the poll. We have mbaqanga, a folk-based style, and mbaqanga-rock, a roots move in cunning progressive disguise. We have two or three country neotraditionalists. We have unabashed homages to torch singing (Anita Baker), Sgt. Pepper (XTC), Sgt. Pepper plus Sly Stone (Prince), metal (Bad Brains), AOR (David & David), Spector/Ramones (Jesus and Mary), roots-era Clash (Screaming Blue Messiahs), and Bruce Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen). We have an overrated record by a New Zealander from El Lay and a sloppy record by some North Country anarchists who love American music and not America. We have the impressively eclectic unestablished punk-rock of That Petrol Emotion (barely beating out the avant-gone-neoclassicist Ellington homage of the World Saxophone Quartet). We have debuts by the nuevo retro Bodeans and the nuevo retro Smithereens. And we have debuts by Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.

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I trust you understand that I’m having fun with these swift characterizations — a few of the artists I’ve summed up so cavalierly, like Simon and Prince and Bad Brains, are recombining at such a furious clip that their homages qualify as syntheses if not something altogether new, and many of the others are self-starters perfectly capable of counting their winnings and moving on. Nevertheless, only Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, both spawned around the corner from Dean & Poobah on the Lower East Side, would seem blatant exceptions to the prevailing future’s-so-dull-I-gotta-look-back mood — and in typically blatant fashion, both spit in the eye of any such historical or personal consistency. I’m accused of mistreating Sonic Youth, the old farts of pigfuckerdom, who made their surprisingly belated (and at 29, modest) P&J debut with a third (fifth?) album that certainly deserved to finish higher than True Stories or Peter Case, while overpraising the sixth-ranked Beasties, the white motherfuckers of metal-rap, as rock and roll future. Actually, I don’t see where the Beasties can go from here and do see that Sonic Youth could wind up almost anywhere. But what I’m almost certain of is this — that any future progress either achieves will partake of that annoying Lower East Side sensibility known as postmodernism.

Like you, I hope, I’ve made a principle of resisting this hotsy-totsy and all but meaningless term, only recently settling on a definition that tickles my rock and roll chauvinism. My postmodern has not much use for the decrepit modernist edifice that is high art, but that goes without saying. What’s crucial is the way it simultaneously undercuts its own seriousness and reconstitutes history by taking as primary material every piece of pop junk that ever existed. This tactic will recall for rock and rollers of a certain age the pop irony we perceived in the way the Beatles dragged “Please Mr. Postman” through the guitars until it hollered uncle, as well as the multifarious recontextualizations of the New York Dolls or the Ramones’ and Blondie’s congruent visual and aural images. My postmodern is the same only more so, often too much more so — too campy, too junky, too pop. Like rock and roll three decades on, it finds history inescapable, so inescapable that its only recourse is to seize and twist it into some shape that can pass for “new.” When Sonic/Ciccone Youth tops “Papa Don’t Preach” et al. on our singles chart by sampling bits of the Madonna “original” right onto “Into the Groovey,” when the Beasties and Rick Rubin (especially Rick Rubin) hook up their def-forever electrobeats with literal Jimmy Page and Angus Wilson licks as well as a line stolen from sucker-ass Schoolly-D, ordinary notions of retro and progressive and their reassuring Hegelian synthesis, historically conscious, seem, well, dated. If these two bands represent the wave of whatever usable future the 1986 poll points to, most likely as precursors, roots will presently shrivel up and history start stretching back from when it had oughter, about 15 minutes ago. And that can’t be all bad, can it?

Needless to say, this somewhat narrow and abstract speculation won’t add much glow to most voters’ memories of 1986, and I understand why — I found the year depressing myself. The barrenness of the ordinary flush fall release climaxed a series of alarming flops from old hands and young hopefuls alike. Get Close was 82nd, and while Chrissie Hynde has come back from follow-up jinx before, this time I have more faith in Cyndi Lauper, who made just one ballot after finishing 11th in 1984. George Clinton was 121st, and neither Tina Turner, fifth in 1984, nor Aretha Franklin, ninth last year, garnered a mention. Astonishingly, neither did John Fogerty, though I suspect Eye of the Zombie would have done respectably if 1985’s 10th-place Centerfield hadn’t already taken the edge off the cosmic Creedence craving. After three straight albums in the top 10, Lou Reed was fortunate to place 106th, while Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced “comeback” finished an even more generous 102nd. The Golden Palominos got five mentions, Jason and the Scorchers four, Lone Justice two, Let’s Active one. Sade added five points to the 56th-place 1985 finish of her late-release follow-up Promise.

And though by now my trusty A/A minus total has risen comfortably above 1985’s bare 49, I did have to sweat my top 10 once infatuations with King of America and Psychocandy flagged. Last year like most years, I would have been happy to give some points to my number 13, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s live double (a December release that topped 1986 reggae albums at 51); this year 10th-ranked New Order (relegated to a fickle 92nd by their doom and/or novelty-hooked support group) would have been more at home around 13. But in the end the self-censorship movement — the warning stickers, interviews lauding “subtlety” that sounded like farina, and craven, faux-hip condemnations of psychotropic indulgences that faux-hip lifestyles had once cravenly endorsed — sharpened my hunger for the deliberately offensive, preferably within the aforementioned parameters and especially after those three jerks from Stuyvesant rubbed my face in it. Thus I found that the Rolling Stones’ hardass farewell, which earned notes of censure from PMRC bluenoses and finished a fickle 52nd with the voters, and Motorhead’s 55th-place return to the front, in which Bill Laswell added craft and speed to the old Edward Shils nightmare of “brutal culture,” hung tougher as the countdown approached. I can live with my final selection, and I will.

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Many voters complained of top-10 dearth, but then, some always do, and the statistics were ambiguous. Prorated, the top 10’s cumulative point support was slightly stronger than in 1985. And when I let my calculator do the walking down to Timbuk 3 at 34, where the pattern reverses, I find points running almost 10 per cent ahead of 1985. Now, this could indicate intense critical enthusiasm for the top records. But it could also indicate that down below 34 the voters found bubkes, at least bubkes in common, and that’s how the also-rans make it look. After WSQ Plays Duke, 42–50 went Big Black (young farts of pigfuckerdom), Madonna (whose frontlash failed to materialize), Phil Alvin, Bangles, Christmas, Van Morrison, the Woodentops’ Giant, the 3 Johns’ The World by Storm (Live in Chicago was 92nd), and Marti Jones — which I’d break down as three pros (Bangles included), two biz hopefuls (Alvin included), two marginal Brits, two Amerindies, and one jazz. After that Brits fade and Amerindies come on for a 41st to 100th place total that goes something like: pros 14, hopefuls 9, marginal Brits 6, jazz 3, black 3, country 1, miscellaneous 3 (LKJ, John Zorn, and Astor Piazzola), Australindies 3, and Amerindies — get this — 19.

That’s right — about a third of the also-rans were by American bands on independent labels (Georgia Satellites and Rainmakers counted as hopefuls): Big Black, Christmas, Bottle Caps, Leaving Trains, Violent Femmes (on Warner/ Slash, but they operate like an indie and four of their five votes came from Wisconsin), Lyres, Camper Van Beethoven (II and III), Cramps, Camper Van again, Dumptruck (30 points from co-leader Seth Tiven’s cheaty big brother Jon), Soul Asylum (Made to Be Broken), R&B Cadets, Swans, Golden Palominos, Fire Train (14 points from co-leader Phil Davis’s proud alter ego Phil Davis), Mofungo, Moving Targets, Butthole Surfers, Die Kreuzen. Now, this is a varied bunch of records; four made my top 58, several more please me, and others could yet do either. But while Robert Palmer and your nearby college-radio PD may see our result as some sort of consummation, I see it as localism and special interest out of control. In 1985, there was a healthier breakdown: pros and hopefuls about the same, Amerindies down to 13, Brits up to 10, and black — meaning anything from Kid Creole to Whitney Houston — way up to 11.

U.S.-versus-UK-wise, I think the critics have fallen into lazy habits — Amerindie boosterism is as rife now as Anglophilia was as the decade began. Counting the Go-Betweens as Australian, I put three Brits on my 1985 list. This year I have 11, not just world-citizen Stones and mid-Atlantic Elvis C. and old pro Motorhead, but marginals and eccentrics from Jon Langford’s two best bands (with a third on my EP list) to the leftish punk of New Model Army to the lefty pop of the Housemartins to the studio pop of XTC to the studio miscellaneous of the Art of Noise. And while it would be overexcitable to read a trend into every blip, I think this apparently anomalous upswing makes sense.

With all exceptions and amalgams granted, let’s divide the Amerindies into subgroups labeled pop, roots, and pigfucker. Now, I’m not sure why the best roots band extant hails from Leeds, England, rather than the good old U.S.A., though geographical distance — good for a measure of (shall we call it?) postmodernist irony, and thus covering the inevitable chops shortfall just as it did in the Beatles’ day — isn’t hurting one bit. The pigfuckers could wind up mucking about anywhere, and they’re welcome to their wallow as long as they don’t blame the universe for not joining in. But if you’re going to truck with pop values — which often means no longer modish/commercial biz values, with many roots types and by now some pigfuckers feeling the urge — you’re better off doing it right. Because commercial corruption was the great Brit disease a few years ago, its biz is now generating marginalia by the carload. It’s also providing a context in which young bands can cop a little attitude from garagelands on both sides of the Atlantic, then bring it into the studio for the processing increasingly refined musical concepts demand.

In its sorry way the EP situation illustrates the Amerindie dilemma. For the second straight year, Alex Chilton strode like a colossus over this godforsaken category, which was infiltrated as usual by album artists on holiday and major-label turkeys — Echoless Bunnyman, crumbled colossus Tommy Keene. (Keene’s debut album got two mentions. He gained undisputed possession of 10th place — breaking a glorious tie with Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Wire, and the Mekons — after receiving the sole EP vote of Craig Zeller, who claimed the catchy title number made him “deliriously happy after 101 consecutive spins.”) As a source of Amerindie bands, which was how the competition was conceived back when that was still a worthy cause, this list is stronger than 1985’s: Uzi dead, but Scruffy the Cat (Dollsy Boston pop) and Balancing Act (artful L.A. folk-rock) have evident talent, and pigfuckersymps insist I’ll understand Das Damen when I catch their act. Perked up by Brits once again (though the Shop Assistants’ debut album is already out in the hall), I’m actively enthusiastic about my own list as well. The tough verve of Land of Sugar’s white Dayton funk almost equals that of DFX2’s Emotion, one of my most played records of the ’80s — by San Diego Stonesers you never heard of who were never heard from again, possibly because they deserved no better. Which is the problem with EPs — they’re marginal by nature. Who outside of northwest Pennsylvania will make anything of the New Dylans’ copious if callow songwriting skills? Is Mimi Schneider’s Iowa folk trio the Stouthearted going to interest a general audience in rural displacement? Does the world want Berkeley’s Fearless Iranians From Hell to scrawl another Khomeini cartoon? These days, Amerindie bands of potential potential cut albums when the B-sides of their singles still suck. EPs are sports and hybrids, signs of surprising life rarely capable of procreation.

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If I can accuse the voters of stroking the Amerindies, though, I can’t accuse them of unfairness to that catchall called black. Pace Ron Wynn as usual, it was a terrible year for black popular music. Granted, my critical perspective — which is very much a white critical perspective, despite what a few pophead and pigfucker ignorami believe — biases this judgment. Granted too that Pazz & Jop’s black turnout — 13 out of a carefully updated invite of 34 (approximately, since I haven’t color-coded all of our 380 names) — was the most embarrassing of the decade. As Nelson George tells me, this must in part reflect the alienation of black music writers from the Pazz & Jop consensus — rock critics’ weakness for the rough, grotesque, and outrageous offends many of them. But George himself returned to 1985 for Sade and L. L. Cool J, and not a single voter strolled out to left field with him to shake hands with Alexander O’Neal, Paul Laurence, or Full Force. I mean, what would the black caucus have settled on? James Brown’s Dan Hartman job, catapulted to 89th by Jeffrey Morgan’s 30 points? Irma Thomas’s folk-indie Gladys Knight homage, which got the same points and two more mentions? Doug E. Fresh, tied for 100th with the third-place rap album? Bobby Womack, Steve Arrington, the misguided youth of Fishbone, all also-rans last year?

I don’t think this is a blip, either. Sure Stevie Wonder and Al Green and (let us not forget) Michael Jackson will get their share of votes next time they show their voices. Sure the electorate hears black artists even more passively and trendily than it does white artists (if five voters go for Iggy Pop, the sorely underrated Tina Turner merits equal consideration). And sure crossover will continue to throw up the occasional divertissement. But for all their overstatement, Wynn’s annual anti-crossover diatribes did come true this year, with great lover Whitney Houston leading the not-here-nor-there-nor-anywhere LaBelle-Khan-Osborne-DeBarge parade (which totalled one mention, LaBelle’s). Only thing is, Wynn’s roots futurism isn’t the solution — it’s not hostile enough to the past, encouraging the kind of up-to-date tip of the hat to the verities that has turned the respectable AOR of Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton into a morass. I prefer the more radical thesis of the Black Rock Coalition, which includes old P&J hand Greg Tate and multithreat newcomer Vernon Reid (the first voter since Lenny Kaye to have played on a charting album, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Mandance in 1982). I also agree that with crossover’s somewhat exaggerated critical disrepute having no effect on its profitability, bankrolling some mix of Clinton, Hendrix, Ornette, and the Clash isn’t going to be easy — especially if it’s rough, grotesque, or outrageous.

What can it mean, do you think, that the one place black artists made out was in the newly instituted reissue category? This was the love child of Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons, and I warned him it would be a mess, favoring the majors-come-lately who’ve discovered a cheap way to feel virtuous over the importers and indies who have kept archival music alive, pitting the Police best-of against review-copies-by-written-request-if-you’re-lucky anthologies against music that comes shrink-wrapped by the carton instead of the disc. We sandbagged best-ofs by specifying a pre-1970 cutoff date, which given the defiant support for Gumbo and The Modern Lovers and Terminal Tower — not one a best-of — probably wasn’t fair. But indeed, the 14-disc Atlantic r&b box came in third, and I suppose it would have won if the average more rock critic could afford to buy the sucker. Only two indies placed, one with a box by the romantically dead Nick Drake, the sole white finisher. And I like the results anyway.

I like the way the indie Nevilles beat out RCA’s overdue, well-publicized, and slightly disappointing Sam Cooke set. I like the beginner’s guide to MCA’s daunting Chess reissue. I like seeing Duke Ellington’s name somewhere on our charts even though my personal rule against straight jazz records prevented me from placing Money Jungle right behind It Will Stand. I like knowing that PolyGram’s complete Hank Williams series would have come in second if we’d added the votes for all four extant volumes together. And maybe most of all I like James Brown up there at number four, where he can remind a few popheads and pigfuckers that obituaries for black music are invariably premature. No comparable electorate would have acknowledged the existence of Brown’s dance groove in 1970. So if some equivalent happened in 1986, it’s still waiting for the critics to find it.

Not that I’m about to lead you there. You’d never suspect black music was in trouble to look at the first three singles on our list, crossover moves so daring and astute that without a hint of wimp-out they obliterated the competition both commercially and critically. “Walk This Way” broke Run-D.M.C. CHR (though not AOR, further proof that the format refuses to challenge its market’s presumed racism). “Word Up” was the most undeniable funk single ever, and “Kiss” reestablished Prince’s repute as a powerhouse innovator — at year’s end it was one of two gold singles released in 1986. But after that we have Janet Jam-Lewis, James Brown-Hartman, and a rap novelty by a now broken group. And though I was rooting for Gwen Guthrie (early-year releases are always forgotten by some voters) and recommend Mixmaster Gee’s metal manipulation, I can’t claim to have heard tell of much else — go go went went, house is a local disco revival, and while I’ve written down the titles of some word-of-mouth rap obscurities, the great ones rarely remain that obscure.

By acclamation and any normal standard, the oft-maligned (and oft-wrong) Chuck Eddy was on the one when he charged in November that CHR had deliquesced into pap, mulch, and worse. My own singles choices are partial because it’s been years since I had ear time for radio and I no longer club much. I would have been delighted to vote for Motorhead’s “Deaf Forever,” Simply Red’s “Money’$ Too Tight (To Mention),” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” or God knows Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” each of which meant more to me than anything below “Word Up” on my list, if I’d experienced them as singles. I doubt radio would have been much help, though — I discovered both AC/DC and Karen Finley in 45 ’tween-set minutes at the Beasties’ Ritz show, but in three weeks of vacation came across nothing more compelling on my car radio than Jermaine Stewart and “On My Own,” the year’s other gold single. Which remarkable statistic may point to what’s wrong, so let me emphasize: nobody buys singles anymore. Just because albums are now designed to contain two or more CHR-compatible hits, those hits aren’t singles as we’ve traditionally understood the concept. They’re not objects to be consumed, aural fetishes we can cherish into the ground and then call back to life in a day or a decade. They’re promotional devices, not all that different from, well, videos.

Our poll is intended to resist such promotional function, and in both categories the critics did their bit. Gabriel & Johnson earned their video landslide, and though I dislike the song so much I could never get properly worked up about the ad for it, the aural “Sledgehammer” did well enough to indicate no inconsistency. The voters generously acknowledged Madonna’s overarching cinematic métier and David Byrne’s only cinematic gift. And the political foretexts that become permissible as Reaganism’s media clout deteriorates are hailed with Bruce’s shamelessly (and instructively didactic) “War,” and, more tellingly, with the nasty anti-Reaganism of a band mentioned on one album and zero singles ballots — Genesis, whose all-powerful leader took a vague “protest” and turned it into near slander and deliberate offense. The singles chart, meanwhile, singles out misleading promotional devices. In addition to Madonna and the Pretenders, beware of Stevie Winwood (eighth, album 57th), P.I.L. (ninth, album tied for 87th), two CHR-compatible Bangles tunes they didn’t write, the most tossed-off and convincing thing Talking Heads did all year, and de facto one-offs by the Pet Shop Boys (who deserve better), the Robert Palmer who sings (who deserves worse), and Bruce Hornsby (who’s just deserving enough).

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In the comments headed “Alternative Formats,” you’ll find a dissenting and indeed abnormal standard applied to these issues — that of rock criticism’s great dissenter, proud crank, and undeconstructed postmodernist Greil Marcus. My friend in California and I disagree more than we agree, at least about music, and I somehow doubt that his daily dose of kilohertz would convert me to his philosophy of art — if I spent that much time in my car I’d install a tape deck. But where my slightly kooky and definitely doomed attempt to give every halfway promising record a fair hearing submits to the modernist assumption that music is created and perceived by individuals, Marcus’s dial-spinning honors music as social fact, and especially given his elitist tendencies I admire how persistently he subjects himself to other people’s musical will. It’s one more variation on a theme of his criticism, which often focuses on moments when intense individual expression is so difficult to distinguish from random outpouring that it comes across as the world calling — that is, when what some call the bourgeois subject approaches the verge of realization and/or disintegration.

I’m aware that such talk strikes many as bullshit; it often strikes me as bullshit, too. But only orthodox know-nothings think it’s completely off the wall, and I bring it up partly to remind everyone that there are far more abstruse and radical ways to conceive rock and roll than anything hinted at in this year-in-review. The fun I had with postmodernism, for instance, was an easy way out of a thorny, multifaceted problem, one rock and rollers are stuck with as surely as legit artistic types — what to do with your tradition of the new when it gets old. In fact, Simon Frith, who chooses his words quietly and with care, described none other than Paul Simon as “a lonely, rich American in the fragmented world of postmodernity” just a few months ago in these pages. And while that may make our pollwinner sound a little hipper than he is, it’s accurate. In fact, substitute “loquacious, embittered Englishman” and “urbane black neotraditionalist” and you’d be describing our two runners-up, each of whom confronts the paradoxes of progress at least as stalwartly as the champ.

Each pulled off a coup as big as a landslide, too. After years of humdrum domination and a slight slip, Elvis Costello fell right off the chart with the aptly titled Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, so his double return to the top 10 (with more total points than Graceland) turns a comeback into a triumph. And Robert Cray’s Strong Persuader is the poll’s all-time sleeper. I mean, blues is for aging hippies who drink too much, right? Yet despite Chuck Eddy’s paternalistic surmise that Cray is a “white-man-in-disguise,” he attracted half our black critics as well as 48 of our white boys (though only four of our 30 women) to pile up just two fewer mentions than King of America and nine more than Springsteen. Talk about exciting work in supposedly outmoded styles — this record had to knock down a lot of preconceptions to break through so huge.

Of course, the preconceptions weren’t formal — that is, what the critics already knew prepared them for Cray’s steady beat and terse eloquence. With Costello abandoning his band for the T-Bone Crew on the bigger of his two entries (which in the end I find softer, a chronic weakness of roots moves), they’re as different as two Costello records can be, but both also fall comfortably within those old pop parameters. And yet Costello — who ranks with the Mekons, John Rotten-Lydon, Lora Logic, and Rosanne Cash in Marcus’s postpunk pantheon — has always strained at assumed limits. His wordplay is so obsessive that Costello-the-subject disappears into it, and the juggled readymades of his music — Blood and Chocolate makes “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sound as primal as “Honky Tonk” — work the same kind of nasty deconstructive pranks on linear notions of history. Personally, I pay him back for his cold cool by remaining an admiring nonfan, but there’s no question that he confounds past and future and expressed and found as defiantly as any pigfucker. Cray doesn’t deal consciously with such issues, but within soul-blues’s parameters he achieves a cool so unprecedented it’s beyond modern — which isn’t to say he ain’t hot. I was dismayed at first to learn that Dave Marsh dismissed his album as not-blues and Ron Wynn preferred Anita Baker and James Brown-Hartman, but upon reflection I’m encouraged that Cray makes conservatives uneasy — in a world where the young can do exciting work in unmodish forms, I wouldn’t want to except postmodern blues.

No matter what he or she thinks of hotsy-totsy terminology, anyone who reads rock criticism lives “in the fragmented world of postmodernity.” Compulsively novel yet yoked to its roots, rock and roll is a good match for this world, and in their useful if ultimately unsatisfying ways, Elvis C. and Robert Cray and Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys (and Janet Jam-Lewis and the Pogues, but not, I’ll warrant, Steve Winwood or the Smithereens) try to help us live in that world. What attracted me to Graceland from the start was that in its details and its defining bifurcation and its significant groove it tackled this problem in a rock and roll way. As Dave Marsh has pointed out, Graceland’s limitations are summed up in its final line, “That’s why we must learn to live alone” — because there’s no must about it. Simon has said that one reason Graceland never confronts politics directly is that political art doesn’t last. Putting aside the always dubious equation of durability and quality, that’s a hoary modernist myth, proof of modernism’s submission to what some call the bourgeois subject. However dim their analysis, the way our critics intersperse the personal and the political in their annual choices reflects not trendiness but an inevitable evolution of sensibility, because the truth of this myth is drying up before our collective ears. Although ultimate satisfaction may be a dying myth itself and is certainly too much to expect of this fragmented world, today’s partial solutions are promises. They leave room to hope that the divisions Graceland adduces and arouses and fails to address can someday be part of our past — but not that the transcendent power of music alone can make them history.

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Top 10 Albums of 1986

1. Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros.)

2. The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello): King of America (Columbia)

3. The Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader (Mercury)

4. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live/1975–85 (Columbia)

5. Run-D.M.C.: Raising Hell (Profile)

6. Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (Def Jam)

7. Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen)

8. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant (I.R.S.)

9. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Blood and Chocolate (Columbia)

10. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie)

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Top 10 Singles of 1986

1. Run-D.M.C.: “Walk This Way” (Profile)

2. Cameo: “Word Up” (Atlanta Arists)

3. Prince and the Revolution: “Kiss”/”Love or Money” (Paisley Park)

4. Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer” (Geffen)

5. (Tie) Billy Bragg: “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” (Go! Discs import)
R.E.M.: “Fall On Me” (I.R.S.)
Timbuk 3: “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (I.R.S.)

8. Steve Winwood: “Higher Love” (Warner Bros.)

9. (Tie) Public Image Ltd.: “Rise” (Elektra)
Talking Heads: “Wild Wild Life” (Sire)

— From the March 3, 1987, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1982 Pazz & Jop: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome

Because jazz criticism is one of the many things I know too little about, Otis Ferguson was only a name to me when The Otis Ferguson Reader came my way last fall, and I hope his admirers will accept the compliment I intended when I claim him (for symbolic purposes, at least) as the first rock critic. Remembered mostly for his movie reviews, Ferguson also wrote extensively about the music of the swing era, and there’s something about his attitude that strikes a chord. The man was a born democrat: having worked his way through college, he refused to take on airs when the job was done. Actively hostile to any hint of sham, fad, or dilettantism, he tried to describe complex aesthetic interactions so that laymen could understand them. But he refused to compromise in the other direction either. Unlike the run of fans and/or hacks who always dominate music journalism, he loved language for its own sake, written and spoken both, which means he was committed to taking colloquial risks in a honed style — he went for contemporaneity and a feisty edge without worrying about whether he’d sound dated or stilted later. He valued music’s soul and inspiration no more and no less than its shape and meaning.

Like any sensible person, Ferguson knew you couldn’t write about American music without writing about Afro-American music — he was calling blues “America’s single biggest contribution to the form of music” quite early in the life of that cliché. But he also knew that “people who talk too glibly about racial differences always get left out on a limb, sooner or later,” and added: “When it comes to the best musicians, the matter of race is a tossup as far as I’m concerned.” Ferguson was adamant if not defensive on this point — he once took John Hammond to task for “saying ‘white musician’ the way you’d use the term ‘greaseball’ ” — partly in reaction against ’20s Afrophilia, which was often not just dilettantism but elitist European. But when it came to the best musicians he got unlikely results from his tossup, devoting 13 pages (in the Reader, $10 from December Press, 3093 Dato, Highland Park, Illinois 60035) to Bix Beiderbecke against Louis Armstrong’s one, 24 pages to Benny Goodman against Duke Ellington’s six, four pages to Red Nichols against Sidney Bechet’s two bemused mentions.

People who talk glibly about racial differences might get judgmental about these statistics, but I respect Ferguson too much for that. Anyway, he did better than many of his colleagues, and even the worst of them had alibis. White musicians were more accessible, white musicians drew more readers, white musicians had (to quote Ferguson) “melodic discipline,” and “more definite organization,” white musicians “did more to spread the fame of jazz.” All of this is credible, useful, and perhaps even true; as a naif who regards jazz as an essentially black idiom, I was inspired by Ferguson to test the spritz of MCA’s delightful recent Red Nichols reissue, and I’m glad I did. But then I turned to Sidney Bechet’s RCA twofer from the same period (“his soprano saxophone can still be heard today”), and let me tell you — Bechet blew Nichols away.

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People who talk glibly about historical parallels always get left out on a limb sooner or later, so I hope I don’t push my analogy farther than it wants to go. But I kept thinking about Otis Ferguson’s Negro problem as the ballots for the ninth or 10th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll rolled in. If Elvis Costello’s victory wasn’t exactly hot news, his margin was respectable — he got a much bigger vote than the Clash in 1981, and did better proportionally than a comparable consensus choice, Graham Parker in 1979. But no matter how big a piece the winner cut off, most voters seemed weary of how stale, flat, and unprofitable the pie had become; the dejected Britcrits at Trouser Press, for instance, declined to name a number one album this year, placing Imperial Bedroom, which topped their in-house poll, at a symbolic number two. And if I once again failed to share all this dolor, it wasn’t in the hundred-flowers bloom spirit that inspired me to list my 60 top albums a year ago; though I did find another 60 gooduns, down-the-middle sales and borderline creativity both sagged ominously enough to put a crimp in my natural rock and roll optimism. Starting in early November, however, seven of my favorite 1982 albums, every one a variation on a theme, restored a lot of my fire. And if they weren’t likely to lift the mood at Trouser Press, a journal white supremacist enough to make Rolling Stone look like a hotbed of affirmative action, George Clinton’s Computer Games, Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love, Prince’s 1999, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, Chic’s Tongue in Chic, Material’s One Down, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller made it a pretty damn good year after all.

Except in re poor Tongue in Chic, which got shut out, the critics shared my enthusiasm to a moderately unprecedented degree. Prince, Gaye, and Jackson finished 6, 8, and 15, while in 1980 Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson finished 8, 9, and 13 — with no Sunny Adé or Ornette Coleman to siphon off tokenism votes. And Adé’s showing was very impressive in itself — unknown to American critics a year ago the African rhythm king finished fourth, higher than any black artist in the history of the poll except Wonder (who won in 1976). And while Ornette’s 13th-place finish doesn’t sound all that much more commanding than Dancing in Your Head’s 15th in 1977, 1982’s sampling of 216 respondents, 67 of them from cities other than New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, should have been much harder to crack than 1977’s 68-critic in-group. It wasn’t, and for good reason: just as established critics were converted and new ones created by punk/new wave in the late ’70s, so now many young critics young and old are gradually learning to hear music that falls under the rubric of funk.

And the albums weren’t even the big story. Like “new wave,” the term “funk” exploits a serviceable vagueness; it’ll fit all the black records I’ve named if you stretch it around Sunny Adé a little. But funk in its purest form was the first cause of the pop event of the year, perched securely atop the singles list. Never in Pazz & Jop history has any record occasioned such blanket ecstasy as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.” About 75 per cent of the voters put it in their top 10s, usually at number 1 or 2; the best percentage any album has earned was This Year’s Model’s 60 in 1978, and in three previous years of singles balloting no title has made even a third of the lists. Nor was this New York chauvinism; “The Message” did even better in the boonies (as I jocularly refer to cities off the NY-LA-Boston-Frisco axis) and the ’burbs (my pet name for LA-Boston-Frisco) than in its hometown, where it was subjected to a small gay boycott (though at least three gay voters ignored the “fag” references and named it anyway) as well as NY’s all too predictable antitrendie backlash. In any other year, the 104 votes for Marvin Gaye’s polymorphous vocal-percussive tapestry “Sexual Healing” would have been a definitive pop event all by itself. In any other year, the eighth-place finish of 1982’s most influential dance record, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” would have tempted me to praise of Kraftwerk and other universalist indiscretions. In 1982, however, the sinuous synthesized skeleton against which Melle Mel and company pitted Duke Bootee’s street-surreal rhymes combined the best of Gaye’s body rock and of Bambaataa’s futuristic world-spirit — and it had a message, too.

Nor did the funk stop there. Last year “rock” by Laurie Anderson, the Rolling Stones, Kim Carnes, and Yoko Ono surrounded Flash’s “Wheels of Steel” in the top five; this year, except for the rejuvenated Pretenders, all of the five white artists in the top 10 — led by the Clash, who gained inner-city credibility while at the same time proving so middle American that more than half their 18th-place album support came from the boonies — scored with black dance records of one sort or another. In fact, this was a year in which good black radio proved more open to good white music than any white radio did to any black music: black supremacist Ron Wynn, who attributed 1982’s “vibrant, exciting music” to “the growing rift in black and white pop tastes” (with that vague word “pop” leaving room for agreement), deplored the way “white junk like Toni Basil” (pop tastes do differ) crowded out such worthies as Jerry Butler. White supremacists, on the other hand, will probably view the entire singles list as a huge liberal miscegenation plot.

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If in my mongrelizing depravity I seem to be prophesying interracial rockcrit hegemony, however, remember Otis Ferguson. Like rescued L.A. bluesman Ted Hawkins (heir to this year’s Longhair-Nevilles traditionalist vote) and former Blood Ulmer drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who finished 13 places ahead of his old boss), Adé and Coleman qualify as critics’ faves, like Aretha Franklin (in her first P&J charting ever), Prince, Gaye, and Jackson are black popsters who “cross over,” and while Gaye’s outreach is a simple little matter of genius rather than of conscious stylistic modulation, crossovers do by definition accommodate white journalists along with white everybody elses. I want, need, and love both pop and esoterica, but I’d be more encouraged if the voters shared my passion for the in-betweeners — if George Clinton (on whom word-of-mouth started late) had bested Richard Hell or even Lou Reed, also crazed old-timers recently arisen from the slough of despond; or if Grandmaster Flash’s LP (which would have made top 40 if only Tom Smucker, supposedly one of my best friends, hadn’t flued out on his franchise) had finished with Mission of Burma’s Vs. or the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses or the Fleshtones’ Roman Gods or even X’s Under the Big Black Sun, also groove albums of dubious verbal acuity. I’d be more encouraged if the black artists in the top 15 had finished even higher — in December I thought an Adé or Gaye victory conceivable. And I’d be most encouraged of all if I thought the flowering of funk was dispelling the gloom of white rock critics as irresistibly as it ought to be.

On one level the fact that it doesn’t makes perfect sense. Because most of the critics are white (though part of the story is how many good new ones aren’t), they find it easier to identify with white musicians, especially after five years of minor miracles from various punks and new wavers. But this isn’t as natural as it may seem: it’s a heritage of the old “progressive” sensibility and the radio it helped spawn. One reason I enjoy black music so readily is that as a child of the ’50s I grew up enjoying it — more than white music, and damn right I was aware of the distinction. Not that I came by funk spontaneously. Beguiled by progressivism myself — and therefore trained to get off on stuff that many young critics can barely hear at all (Donald Fagen, say, or Warren Zevon) — I had to retool my ears (at the urging of colleagues like Joe McEwen, Ed Ward, and especially Pablo Guzman) to understand how the new black music means; I had to learn George Clinton’s and James Brown’s language. After five or six years, I’m still working at it, and I suspect I won’t succeed to my full satisfaction without a lot more help from the likes of Barry Michael Cooper and Gregory Ironman Tate, who’ve breathed it all their conscious lives. But I can tell you that this language renders a lot of progressive standards not invalid (they still work for Zevon and Fagen) but irrelevant. If history is any guide, funk usages will eventually be taken for granted by everyone who listens to popular music; complaints about meaningless lyrics and indistinguishable rhythms will someday seem as off the mark as Otis Ferguson’s appeals to “melodic discipline” and “more definite organization.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anybody much good right now, because the pop future has to begin with your own pleasure in your own time. Unlike fan Tim Sommer, who berates “ethnic patronization” at least partly because funk is stealing hardcore’s thunder, or hack Blair Jackson, who signs off with cheery threats of “death to critics who think Grandmaster Flash is ‘important’ ” (somebody fly out to San Francisco and mug that biz-sucking hippie!), I think it’s healthy for young critics to force-funk themselves, as some do. Those African rhythms are famous for their je ne sais quoi, after all, and with Britishers like the Clash and Gang of Four and ABC (my conscience interjects: and the Human League and Joe Jackson?) outracing their attenuated U.S. art-funk rivals (I don’t mean you, Devo and Talking Heads) to black radio, many cool folk have decided that perhaps it’s time to look beyond the latest smart garage band. In New York this is unavoidable anyway — funk is literally in the air of one of the few American cities with a genuinely integrated street life. But the aging new wavers who are the principal funk converts still suffer from Ferguson’s Syndrome — their new pleasure doesn’t provide that essential existential satisfaction, because the language is still a foreign one.

I wonder how Ferguson, who died in World War II, would have adjusted to bebop. Would he have continued to turn out tersely emotional appreciations of the surviving swing giants, or would he have come to terms with those forbidding rhythmic changes the way Budd Johnson and Coleman Hawkins and Woody Herman did? The question matters because funk may well be changing rock and roll as fundamentally as bebop changed jazz. I’m aware that I made a similar claim for the punk forcebeat just four years ago, but one doesn’t cancel out the other. On the contrary, funk is stage two, providing the undeniable popular base that punk (and bebop) never achieved in this country — though it did in Great Britain, probably one reason the top British postpunk funkers make better pop than their American counterparts, wholehearted but never simple-minded.

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What rock and roll has always held out — more than any theme or even sound — is the pop edge, the promise that there’s a future out there for remarkable ordinary people to make. Sure it’s possible to say something new from a well-explored place — in a sense, not only Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon but George Clinton himself did just that in 1982. But because pop seizes the moment so decisively, it can be used to fixate on the past as well as ride into the future — it can serve nostalgia as well as progress. In my view, that’s just what Tom Petty (57th) and Graham Parker (50th) and Joni Mitchell (39th) and maybe even Fleetwood Mac (36th) are up to these days. And it’s my commitment to the future that makes my favorite albums of 1982 shake out more or less as follows.

1. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles) 16; 2. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 16; 3. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 14; 4. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol) 13; 5. Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 9; 6. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 8; 7. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia) 7; 8. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 6; 9. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Warner Bros.) 6; 10. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) 5

11. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: Juke Box Dury (Stiff) 12. Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.) 13. James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia) 14. Professor Longhair: The Last Mardi Gras (Atlantic Deluxe) 15. Clint Eastwood & General Saint: Two Bad DJ (Greensleeves) 16. Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 17. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 18. ABC: The Lexicon of Love (Mercury) 19. Ray Parker Jr.: The Other Woman (Arista) 20. Itals: Brutal Out Deh (Nighthawk)

21. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 22. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 23. James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder) 24. Gang of Four: Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.) 25. B-52’s: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros.) 26. Chic: Tongue in Chic (Atlantic) 27. Sweet Pea Atkinson: Don’t Walk Away (Island/ZE) 28. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: Good Clean Fun (Slash) 29. Material: One Down (Elektra) 30. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

31. The Roches: Keep On Doing (Warner Bros.) 32. Van Morrison: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.) 33. Orchestra Makassy: Agwaya (Virgin import) 34. Rank and File: Sundown (Slash) 35. Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 36. Tom Robinson: North by Northwest (I.R.S.) 37. CH3: Fear of Life (Posh Boy) 38. David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky) 39. Sound d’Afrique II (Mango) 40. Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill)

41. Devo: Oh, No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.) 42. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra) 43. Talking Heads: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire) 44. Bonnie Raitt: Green Light (Warner Bros.) 45. A Flock of Seagulls (Arista) 46. Soweto (Rough Trade import) 47. Ferron: Testimony (Philo) 48. Descendents: Milo Goes to College (New Alliance) 29. Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now (Columbia) 50. Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Majestics: Mystic Miracle Star (Heartbeat)

51. Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street (Red Star) 52. Jive Five Featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 53. Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 54. Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 55. Speed Boys: That’s What I Like (I Like Mike) 56. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Virgin/Epic) 57. Alberta Hunter: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia) 58. “D” Train (Prelude) 59. Mighty Diamonds: Indestructible (Alligator) 60. Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns: Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) (MCA)

I ought to mention that this year’s top 60 is less final than 1981’s was. Not only are Roxy Music, Mission of Burma, two Bunny Wailer imports, and other stragglers awaiting judgment, but this turns out to have been a banner year for best-ofs. I like the Ray Parker Jr. and the Billy Stewart even more than the Squeeze and the Stevie Wonder (which ran 1-3 around Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight in an informal compilation ballot we solicited), and would name John Lennon and the Bellamy Brothers and Ambient Sound’s Everything Old Is New and perhaps Shalamar and even (can it be?) Abba (behind Okeh Western Swing and the Coasters and tied with the reissued Africa Dances in the balloting). I should also announce that with an extra week to think I’d switch Pazz & Jop points and places between George Clinton and Sunny Adé; unfortunately, my ballot was due February 1 like everybody else’s. About singles I’ll say only that my firm criterion — real pleasure imported by the record heard as a single — befuddled me into omitting Flipper’s “Sex Bomb,” which I stopped playing when I got Flipper’s album. Criteria be damned, I’d now rank it number 4 anyway — a “Louie Louie” for our time:

1. Fearless Four: “Rockin’ It” (Enjoy) 2. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill) 3. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia) 4. New Order: “Temptation” (Factory import) 5. Stacy Lattisaw: “Attack of the Name Game” (Cotillion) 6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA) 7. Pretenders: “My City Was Gone” (Sire) 8. Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia) 9. Peech Boys: “Don’t Make Me Wait” (West End) 10. Flipper: “Get Away”/”The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly!” (Subterranean)

11. P-Funk All-Stars: “Hydraulic Pump” (Hump) 12. Yazoo: “Situation” (Sire) 13. Captain Sensible: “Wot” (A&M import) 14. ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury) 15. Anti-Nowhere League: “So What” (WXYZ import) 16. Gang of Four: “I Love a Man in Uniform” (Warner Bros.) 17. Stripsearch: “Hey Kid”/Emily XYZ: “Who Shot Sadat?” (Vinyl Repellent) 18. Cheap Trick: “If You Want My Love” (Epic) 19. Prince: “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.) 20. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: “Shelley’s Boyfriend” (Slash)

21. Joe Piscopo: “I Love Rock n’ Roll (Medley)” (Columbia) 22. A Flock of Seagulls: “I Ran” (Jive) 23. Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience) 24. Treacherous Three: “Yes We Can-Can” (Sugarhill) 25. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy) 26. Dangerous Birds: “Smile on Your Face”/”Alpha Romeo” (Propeller) 27. Eddy Grant: “California Style” (Ice import) 28. Althia & the Donazz: “Virgin Style” (Circle import) 29. Anne Waldman: “Uh-Oh Plutonium!” (Hyacinth Girls) 30. Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America)

I’ve had second thoughts about EPs, too. After scoffing all year I found myself smitten with loads of ’em — haven’t even mentioned my 1-2 in print till now. The EP is a confusing category, conceived by Poobah Tom Carson and me as a disc alternative to the now discontinued local band competition. And once again the winner wasn’t even a local band, but rather a marginal mainstreamer who’s already released five LPs and who with the help of his Lord Jesus Christ came up with what can only be called the most inspired California-rock of the year, wisely promoted by Warners in a budget format. And if T-Bone Burnett only converted me after I returned Trap Door to the active pile in 1983, well, the same goes for R.E.M., his drug-crazed opposite numbers from the Athens of the South:

1. Angry Samoans: Back from Samoa (Bad Trip) 2. The Waitresses: I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts (Polydor) 3. R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.) 4. Oh OK: Wow Mini Album (DB) 5. Minor Threat: In My Eyes (Dischord) 6. T-Bone Burnett: Trap Door (Warner Bros.) 7. Pop-O-Pies: The White EP (415) 8. Replacements: The Replacements Stink! (Twin/Tone) 9. Mofungo: “El Salvador”/”Just the Way”/”Gimme a Sarsaparilla” (Rough Trade import) 10. Steve Almaas: Beat Rodeo (Coyote)

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Return now if you will to my album list and we’ll ponder the future some more. First, count black LPs, not such a clear-cut task in this mongrel-eat-mongrel world. Disqualifying the English Beat and Material, I get 27, only two more than I named last year, but with a striking change in racial makeup on the cutting edge: five (as opposed to two) of my top 10 are black, as are 16 (as opposed to eight) of my top 30. Then try another parameter applicable to our theme: age. Three of the artists in my top 10 are over 40, just like me, and four more (giving Richard Thompson a break) over 35. Youth chauvinists should jeer at my old fartdom now, while they still can — it may indeed be that my chronic indifference to Elvis the C reflects my advancing years and the complacent rationalism consequent thereupon. It so happens, however, that Marvin Gaye (b. 1939) also made the critics’ top 10, and as we proceed down the two lists something strange happens. Only four more over-40s, including two superannuated (not to mention dead) New Orleans pianists whom I classify as rock and rollers just to be ornery, appear in my top 40; on the critics’ list you’ll find seven more. And where I list seven over-35s in all, the critics come up with a total of nine. Old farts abound.

Fascinating figures, and I mean to have them both ways. On the one hand, they make hash of the ancient canard that rock and roll is strictly for the young — if not literal teenagers then at least untrammeled striplings. The reason outmoded “progressive” standards can rejuvenate pushing-40s like Richard Thompson and Lou Reed — who share 1982 comeback honors with Bryan Ferry (b. 1945) and George Clinton (b. 1940), and may they and others like them prosper for decades to come — as well as suiting such 35-niks as Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon is that they (artists and values both) still actually do (or anyway, can) progress. Richard and Linda’s final album really is their loudest and clearest. Lou’s most contented and apparently conventional album really is (with the aid of Robert Quine and black bassist Fernando Saunders) his supplest. And Avalon, which finished higher than any Roxy Music album since 1975’s Country Life, combines the funk feel Ferry introduced on Manifesto in 1979 with the English electrosheen of his own heirs’ synth-pop for the most unabashedly romantic music this ironic romantic has ever made.

But as much as I admire many of the other oldster albums the critics selected — Morrison’s and McCartney’s and Fleetwood Mac’s and (to be nice) Mitchell’s — they do carry a rather nostalgic collective weight; they recapitulate the past and do what they can to ignore the future. Such encumbrances don’t even touch Adé and Gaye and Coleman and Shannon Jackson, whose mean age must be 43 or 44, because these men are working a tradition — significantly, a specifically musical rather than cultural tradition — that’s just begun to flower. And if I’m doubly partial to George Clinton, it’s not because he’s been in the vanguard of that tradition for so long that he could coast for five years and still be on the one. It’s because he’s also a master of such supposedly Caucasian specialties as stance and persona and pop mind-fuck — and because the humility and vulnerability of his comeback album, an album directly inspired by New York dance radio in general and his heirs Flash and Bambaataa in particular, are sharper, deeper, funnier, warmer, and more irreverent than Lou Reed’s or Warren Zevon’s.

I’m aware that Imperial Bedroom also has its formally progressive rep, but when the best line any of my normally loquacious correspondents can feed me on the album of the year is Roy Trakin’s “tongue-twisting puns for the post-Porter generation,” things are obviously desperate. I know, it’s all about emotional fascism; I know, it’s even got a lyric sheet. Try reading the damn thing — the words are almost as hard to follow on paper as in the air. I say it’s Elvis at his fussiest and I say the hell with it. In fact, like the headline-scrounging old commie fart I am, I much prefer (and was rooting for) the album that handicapped as its chief rival: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. A risky, eloquent, and successful pop mind-fuck, Nebraska cut Reagan to bits with a dignity that screamed no joke and broke AOR without a hook or a trap set. Only problem was, it was — and I use this term advisedly — boring. It was boring even if every one of its 800,000 owners played it obsessively for months on end, which I doubt. It was so monochromatic that even as it screamed no joke it whispered no exit — and maybe no future. It may have been a pop mind-fuck, but it wasn’t quite a pop event, because the very terms of the mind-fuck impelled Springsteen to negate the rock and roll hope he’s always traded in. Next time I hope he puts it all together.

But meanwhile we must take our quest for the future to the only place any sane rockcrit fan would expect it to end — ye olde new wave. As per tradition, numerous debut albums grace our list, and as per neo-orthodoxy, quite a few of them aren’t from England, new wave’s commercial center: New York’s Marshall Crenshaw and Fleshtones (and Laurie Anderson?), San Francisco’s Flipper, Austin’s Rank and File, L.A.’s Dream Syndicate, Boston’s Mission of Burma, and (on the EP chart) Athens’s R.E.M. I like all of these artists, some a great deal. I find Marshall Crenshaw’s pop touch surer and more graceful than that of such top-10 debut-LP predecessors as the Go-Go’s (10th in 1981), the Pretenders (fourth in 1980), the Cars (ninth in 1978), and maybe even the B-52’s (seventh in 1979), and I hope he gets another record into the poll someday, something none of the aforementioned have yet managed. I’m crazy about Flipper and on Rank and File’s side, and I hope that over the next year they gain more in musicianship than they’re certain to lose in conceptual panache. But I sense in every one of the others an insidious postgarage formalism in which hooks and a certain rough emotionality, even sloppiness, are pursued as ends and signify only themselves. That’s why I call them groove bands — they’re more interested in a sound than in what a sound can say. Granted, they do share an aesthetic project — they want to jolt the white rock and roll of the pre-arena era into self-conscious musciality. That’s why I like them. But it’s not exactly what I mean by a commitment to the future.

I can hear my more apolitical white readers snorting even now at the Dean’s latest integration tract. But this isn’t a moral plea — it’s a prediction, not just about critics but about the shape of the popworld. Sure I’ve been an advocate of black pop approximately forever; I dreaded Ferguson’s Syndrome before I ever heard of the man, and I’ve always fought it (in myself as well as others) on the general historical principle that, in the end, black music will out. But that never meant that I believed rock was essentially (as opposed to originally) a black idiom, and it never turned me off good new white rock and roll — it just prepared me to hear great new black albums (and singles, and more singles) as they arrived. In 1982 they arrived in profusion, as did an unprecedented array of successful white imitations and modulations, and while I wouldn’t expect a precise repeat in 1983 — Gaye and Michael Jackson will no doubt be silent, reggae is unlikely to be held to a novelty single — I do sense something seismic happening. In 1978 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll announced a “triumph of the new wave” that seemed certain to crash against an immovable, monolithically profitable record biz; in 1982 the biz was in a panic and new wave looked like one of its only hopes. In 1982 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll suggests (somewhat more tentatively) a reintegration of American popular music in the teeth of the most racist pop marketplace since the early ’50s, and I’m betting that by 1986 some kind of major commercial accommodation will have been achieved. If Sunny Adé can’t be king of MTV, maybe Prince can be prince.

What remains for critics black and white isn’t to praise every half-assed funk crossover black or white. I mean, Men at Work finished a very modest 66th and the Stray Cats got three mentions. But the white critics are going to have to give up a lot of their prejudices — against populism and chic and conspicuous consumption, against homiletics and sexual posturing, and perhaps (although of course this doesn’t mean you) against black people themselves. Even harder, they must learn how to hear how lead basslines and quintuple rhythms and cartoon chants and harmolodic abrasions and party rhetoric can make meaning and reshape time. And hardest of all, they must feel the ways in which funk’s pleasures really are their own — as human beings, as Americans, as rock and rollers. Meanwhile, the black critics, who will almost certainly multiply, have a lot of explaining to do. They’d better insist that the music they love really does make meaning, and get hip to how white music means as well — perhaps even get an inkling that rhythms natural and unnatural aren’t the only way to a better life. In short, rock critics are going to have to stop settling for fandom and/or hackdom and turn into critics for real. And maybe those who didn’t bargain for anything quite so heavy should get off the bus right now.

Oh lordy — it could be the end of us all.

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Selected Ballots

RAJ BAHADUR: Devo: Oh, No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.) 19; Joe Jackson: Night and Day (A&M) 18; Paul McCartney: Tug of War (CBS) 13; Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (Columbia) 12; The Jam: Dig the New Breed (Polydor) 11; The Who: It’s Hard (Warner Bros.) 7; The Jam: The Gift (Polydor) 5; The Chieftains: Cotton-Eyed Joe (Island) 5; Shoes: Boomerang (Elektra) 5; Roxy Music: Avalon (Warner Bros.) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: New Order: 1981-1982 (Factory); Gang of Four: Another Day Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Hi Sheriffs of Blue: Hi Sheriffs of Blue (Jimboco); R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.); Konk: Konk Party (99).

CAROL COOPER: Explainer: “Lorraine” (Sunburst); Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill); Kurtis Blow: “Tough” (Mercury); Imagination: “Just an Illusion” (MCA); Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (CBS); Vanity 6: “Nasty Girls” (Warner Bros.); Kid Creole and the Coconuts: “No Fish Today” b/w “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy” (Sire/ZE); Sharon Redd: “Beat the Street” (Prelude); Isley Brothers: “The Real Deal” (T-Neck); Barry White: “Change” (Unlimited Gold).

BLAIR JACKSON: I don’t listen to singles — I think the artform sucks.

GREIL MARCUS: The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 20; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 20; The Mekons: The Mekons Story (CNT import) 20; Bunny Wailer: Tribute (Solomonic import) 10; Jive Five Featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 5; Au Pairs: Sense and Sensuality (Kamera import) 5; Flipper: Album: Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 5; Jeff Todd Titon/Fellowship Independent Baptist Church of Stanley, Virginia: Powerhouse for God (University of North Carolina Press Records) 5; Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 5; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 16; Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 15; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 15; Steve Winwood: Talking Back to the Night (Island) 12; David Lasley: Missin’ 20 Grand (EMI America) 7; Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul: Men Without Women (EMI America) 6; the English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 5; Bettye Lavette: Tell Me a Lie (Motown) 5; Richard “Dimples” Fields: Mr. Look So Good (Boardwalk) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 15; Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA) 14; Flipper: Album: Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 13; Trouble Funk: Straight Up Funk Go in Style (JAMTU) 13; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 11; King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 9; Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 7; Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 5; “Live” Convention “81” Bee-Bop’s #1 Cut Creators (Disco-O-Wax) 5.

KIT RACHLIS: King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 15; The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 30; Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (CBS) 5; Fleetwood Mac: Mirage (Warner Bros.) 5; Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 5; David Lasley: Missin’ 20 Grand (EMI America) 5; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 5; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 20; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 5; Robert Wyatt: Nothing Can Stop Us (Rough Trade) 5.

GREGORY IRONMAN TATE: Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 10; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 10; The Time: What Time Is It? (Warner Bros.) 10; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 10; James Blood Ulmer: Blackrock (Columbia) 10; Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill) 10; Bad Brains: Bad Brains (ROIR cassette) 10; David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette) 10; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 10; Aswad: New Chapter in Dub (Mango) 10.

RON WYNN: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill); The Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience); Aretha Franklin: “Jump to It” (Arista); Zapp: “Dance Floor” (Warner Bros.); Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy-Boy); Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia); Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America); Junior: “Mama Used To Say” (Mercury); Stevie Wonder: “Do I Do” (Tamla).

LESTER BANGS: 1. Robert Quine Orchestra: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia) 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige) 3. Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla) 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We’re Back (Factory) 5. The Clash: Rappin’ with Bert ’n’ Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame) 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic) 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve) 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA) 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Brides & Everything (Egregious 2-album set) 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

Top 10 Albums of 1982

1. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Imperial Bedroom (Columbia)

2. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal)

3. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia)

4. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango)

5. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor)

6. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.)

7. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.)

8. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia)

9. Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.)

10. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra)

Top 10 Singles of 1982

1. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill)

2. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia)

3. The Clash: “Rock the Casbah” (Epic)

4. Prince: “1999”/”How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.)

5. Soft Cell: “Tainted Love”/”Where Did Our Love Go?” (Sire)

6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA)

7. Pretenders: “Back On the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

8. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy)

9. (Tie) ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury)
Aretha Franklin: “Jump to It” (Arista)
The Human League: “Don’t You Want Me” (A&M)

— From the February 22, 1983, issue

 

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

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1981 Pazz & Jop: The Year the Rolling Stones Lost the Pennant

Early in November, as disconsolate as most of my colleagues about the run of rock and roll in 1981, I disclosed the results of the eighth or ninth Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll to anybody who happened by my desk. “Tattoo You in a landslide,” I announced, looking over the fatal piece of graph paper in my mind’s eye as I shook the writer’s cramp out of my mind’s hand. “No other consensus is possible. New wave, punk, whatever you want to call it, is in complete disarray. Sandinista!s a mess, Trust is underrated, nobody likes Flowers of Romance. The only record I’ve played a lot myself is Wild Gift —except for my rap records, I mean — but X will never go over at the dailies. Anyway, Tattoo You has hooks, not like Emotional Rescue or something. And this is the most reactionary year in the history of rock and roll. The Kinks, J. Geils, Rod Stewart, all those guys put out good product again. None of it means shit, of course, but at least they’re paying attention to craft, writing songs you can remember five minutes later. When the votes start coming in from the Midwest it’s gonna be old school tie — world’s greatest rock and roll band rakka-rakka-rakka. They can’t miss.”

This news occasioned considerable dismay at the Voice offices. Were we going to put them on the cover after resisting the greatest media blitz since Wendell Wilkie like the cool guys we are? No way. Space for the poll was cut and the awards gala canceled. When Poobah Tom Carson and I got around to mailing out the actual ballots, we were lackadaisical, making only token efforts to update addresses and find new names.

But soon things got strange. Reviewing the year’s albums, I found that my top 10 pool was expanding from a scant half dozen to the usual lucky 13 or so. Records I’d admired and then put away, like Red and Solid Gold, kept sounding better, as did former in-a-good-year-this-would-be-top-20 candidates like Wha’ppen? and Talk Talk Talk. David Byrne and Human Switchboard were just beginning to sink in, and it wasn’t until January that a late mailing from Englewood introduced me to a great 1981 album. I didn’t expect Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 to sweep past Rickie Lee Jones and U2 in the hearts of the electorate (well, maybe U2), but it sure made it less awkward for me to divide my points — 19 or 20 of them could now go in one place. At the same time my list of also-rans got longer and longer — counting five or six imports and a couple of cassettes, I’d have 60 A and A minus long players by poll time, a new record. Then, as the early ballots came in, a quick tally confirmed the strangest turn of all: Elvis Costello was leading the Stones two-to-one.

Well, whew — we hadn’t been scooped by People, Rolling Stone, and the Soho News after all. But once I’d chastised myself for selling my own poll short I began to wonder where my story was. How would I dispose of the contumely I’d been storing up for Paul Slansky, Jann Wenner, and Geraldo Rivera, or justify reprinting the wonderful Greil Marcus parody in which Mick denies that the Stones have “something new” planned for their 1981 tour (“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve always done. And then we’re going to do it again. Forever.”)? Instead I was stuck with good ole Elvis C., critics’ darling and hepster’s cherce. Trust was indeed the best E.C. since his poll-topping This Year’s Model in 1978, but how was this latest triumph of the new wave going to look? Pretty predictable, right?

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But not as predictable, I realize in irrefutable retrospect, as the actual winner: the Clash’s sprawling, flawed, reached-but-not-grasped three-record set Sandinista!, all but one point of its modest margin provided by the votes it received as an import in 1980, when the grand, fine-tuned, consolidated-if-not-synthesized two-record set London Calling proved the most overwhelming lollapalooza in P&J history. Somewhat more surprising was the runner-up: X’s Wild Gift, with votes from daily reviewers in En Why and El Lay and Boston and Dayton and Detroit and Minneapolis too, as well as from 50 or so of the counterculture pros, hobbyists, freelancers, and semiemployed lowlifes who dominate rock criticism as they always have. Trust finished a very close third, with more mentions than Sandinista! or Wild Gift (and precisely as many as last year’s fourth-ranked Pretenders). Although first-half ballots indicated that the Stones would trail Prince and Rick James (both of whom were on the world’s greatest etc.’s tween-set tape at the Garden and one of whom was beset with catcalls when he opened for the world’s etc. in Los Angeles), Tattoo You finished a firm fourth, followed by Rickie Lee Jones’s Pirates (which I’ll try not to mention again), East Side Story by Squeeze (a dubious band which came into its indubitable own), Dreamtime by Tom Verlaine (hipster’s choice), Controversy by Prince (who I bet got some votes people wish they’d given [1980]’s ninth-ranked Dirty Mind, which finished 43rd this year but didn’t qualify as “late-breaking” the way Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall did last time), Rick James’s Street Songs (grass-roots album of the year), and the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (lightweight-and-proud album of the year).

Before I explain how I’ve always known Sandinista! would win, however, I must explore in some detail the common observation that, as Kristine McKenna of Los Angeles put it, “It was a LOUSY year for albums. I only felt strongly about two that came out this year. An amazing year for singles — easily came up with a list of 30 that totally killed me.” After several months of pondering this notion and its many equivalents, I’ve decided that I don’t agree. It was a great year for albums. But most critics who offered their comments said something similar, and this year’s general enthusiasm for the singles voting (initiated in 1979) proved that they meant it.

For the new poll we divided the singles category in two to reflect the proliferation of EPs — extended-play collections of three to eight songs that list at between $3 (for seven-inchers) and $6 (what the majors charge for 12-inch 15-to-20-minute “mini-albums”). I don’t trust EPs, especially as marketed by the bigs, who are not above duplicating/remixing forthcoming album cuts or played-out singles in their pursuit of the cute little new-wave buck; on a cost-per-minute basis, EPs don’t give value like a good LP. But they’re the ideal way for an undercapitalized company to get music out there, and most local bands don’t have an album’s worth of material anyhow. The winner was the Specials’ “Ghost Town,” an augury of Britain’s anti-police riots, which was all over the radio when Punjabis and 4 Skins inaugurated the hostilities last July; it came out here in an eerie remix that got 20 votes as a single, but since 24 voters liked the B-side (“Why?”/”Friday Night Saturday Morning”) enough to put the three-song disc on their EP lists, that’s how we slotted it.

The industry still classifies the Specials’ label as an independent, but I call Chrysalis a major. Running a surprisingly strong second, though, was Never Say Never, by 415 Records’ Romeo Void, a San Francisco band whose It’s a Condition finished 17th among the LPs. (I suspect people of voting strictly for the title cut, an outburst of metasexual venom that’s induced me to stand around the Ritz with my coat on, but I’ve never connected with the album, so what do I know?) And of the remaining nine finishers, only Lene Lovich and the Pretenders (whose follow-up album came in a dismal 87th) cracked an indie-dominated field. It’s no surprise to see three bands from New York — 99’s ESG, American Clave’s DNA (Ar-to! Ar-to!), Lust/Unlust’s Individuals — and three from Boston — Ace of Hearts’s Lyres and Mission of Burma, Shoo-Bop’s Peter Dayton — on the list. EPs speak to local loyalties, and Boston and New York are where the critics are. I just wonder what happened to L.A., source of three of my top 10, including the Descendents’ “Fat” E.P., which tied for 15th with seven votes, none of them from Los Angeles.

Which brings us to what’s supposed to be action central: the singles. In a way I do agree — I played my “street” (new code for black) 12-inches, especially my favorite rap records, more obsessively than anything to come my way since The Clash was an import. But not everybody sought the same action. Kristine McKenna was drawn to English dance music, Vince Aletti to some “street”-Brit synthesis. Despite the EP boom Ira Kaplan still got into lots of American independents; Tim Sommer concentrated on punk/oi/hardcore. Roger Glass listened mostly to black radio in Washington; Richard Riegel and the two daughters who helped him out on his list made do with AOR or A/C or AM or FM or whatever they’re calling unlistenable crap in Cincinnati these days, and with a little help from Laurie Anderson he got by.

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Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” one half of a dead heat for top single, was the pop event of the year — or rather, the other pop event of the year (what we counterculture pros call the alternative). Billed as an EP because its two sides run 8:12 and 5:55 (here at P&J we define as singles all discs comprising two songs, aural performances, or whatever), “O Superman” came out initially on One Ten, whose chief endeavor is an exhaustive new wave discography called Volume, and was already a phenomenon when John Peel and Rough Trade turned it into a British chart-smasher. After that Warners completed its pursuit of performance art’s pride and took the record over. A real new wave fairy tale, and stay tuned for the sequel. But novelty records either get you or they don’t, and though I’ll take Anderson’s paranoid whimsy over Napoleon XIV or Little Roger & the Goosebumps, it so happens that I prefer “Double Dutch Bus” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” In fact, I also prefer its other half. The Rolling Stones’ greatest anthem in over a decade, “Start Me Up” is truer and braver than the increasingly rhetorical “Jumping Jack Flash” or the increasingly self-serving “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll,” not to mention the increasingly racist “Brown Sugar.” But this is true not least because its central conceit — Mick as sex machine, complete with pushbutton — explains why the album it starts up never transcends hand-tooled excellence except when Sonny Rollins, uncredited, invades the Stones’ space. Though it’s as good in its way as “Street Fighting Man,” how much you care about it depends entirely on how much you care about the Stones’ technical difficulties. So I found myself rooting for “O Superman.” “Start Me Up” may have been the more compelling aural performance. But “O Superman” was the more compelling pop event of the year.

Needless to say, I started rooting only when convinced that “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” would be held to third (assuming it outlasted Kim Carnes’s pop event). “Wheels of Steel,” the skeptic’s (and aesthete’s) 12-inch, is a mix rather than a rap, segueing bits of Chic, Queen, Blondie, three Sugarhill productions, and what sounds like a Flash Gordon serial into an ur-novelty that struts rap’s will to reclaim and redefine popular culture. Though it finished 12 votes behind the leaders, it got four more votes than last year’s winner, “The Breaks,” a showing that typifies a year when more of the poll-topping singles could be heard on WBLS than WNEW, and in dance clubs than on the radio — a year when impecunious white journalists went out and bought Frankie Smith (tied for 12th) and the Funky Four Plus One (ninth) as if they imports, which in a sense I suppose they were.

For me, rap was only the tip of the joint. If the audacity of the new black dance music and its alternative (note term) economy didn’t reach far enough to constitute a genuine pop event, it certainly resembled one. That a dance hook from Tina Weymouth & Co. (sixth) inspired two rap covers is no less heartening than that Rockpool chose to work Taana Gardner (tied for 12th). Of course, the end of the year saw a new surge of Brit dance-synth whizzes like Pete Shelley and Soft Cell (tied for seventh); the new funk’s alternative economy is even less idealistic than others that have come and gone; and all this tentative critical crossover occurred in a year when there were often only two or three black singles in the national top 20, a shocking retrogression to 1954 that’s as much the fault of “progressive” radio (and journalism) as of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, barriers seem to be falling.

But as long as I’ve waited for those barriers to come down, my deepest musical pleasure this past year was the simple if time-consuming process of not missing any gooduns. This wasn’t just a matter of establishing quick contact with late releases from Black Flag and Bohannon and Al Green, of finally landing copies of Z. Z. Hill and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, of listening too long to David Lindley and Swamp Dogg. It also involved reevaluating a lot of records I’d adjudged just-fine-thanks and then cramming into my shelves. And while Johnny Copeland dropped down toward the bottom of my list and Aretha Franklin sounded more confused than her best album in a decade warranted, most of this music showed unexpected depth. The second side of Red gripped me almost as hard as the first, and without a “Youth of Eglington” to grab hold; the teeth Shoes have added to their charming formula nipped at my cerebellum; I remembered almost every song on Sly & Robbie Present Taxi; I winced with renewed amazement at 1981’s most powerful music, the four songs that begin side two of Season of Glass. Never before have I sat down at the end of January with so many albums from the previous year so firmly imprinted in my head.

And so, to the lists:

First the EPs. Voters got to name five; I’m listing 10:

1. Descendents: “Fat” E.P. (New Alliance) 2. Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.) 3. Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip) 4. DNA: A Taste of DNA (American Clave) 5. Propeller Product (Propeller) 6. Panics: “I Wanna Kill My Mom”/”Best Band”/”Tie Me Up, Baby!” (Gulcher) 7. Bebe Buell: Covers Girl (Rhino) 8. Specials: “Ghost Town”/”Why?”/”Friday Night Saturday Morning” (Chrysalis) 9. Peter Dayton: Love at 1st Sight (Shoo-Bop) 10. Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts).

Then singles. I enjoyed 40 or 50, but only 25 totally killed me, with R.E.M. pending:

1. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill) 2. Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End) 3. T. S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage) 4. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill) 5. Killing Joke: “Change” (Editions E.G. import) 6. Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force: “Zulu Nation Throw Down” (Paul Winley) 7. Bits & Pieces: “Don’t Stop the Music” (Mango) 8. Medium Medium: “Hungry So Angry” (Cachalot) 9. Liliput: “Eisiger Wind” (Rough Trade import) 10. Black Flag: “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy)

11. The Treacherous Three: “The Body Rock” (Enjoy) 12. Scritti Politti: “The ‘Sweetest’ Girl” (Rough Trade) 13. Yoko Ono: “Walking on Thin Ice”/”It Happened” (Geffen) 14. Teena Marie: “Square Biz” (Gordy) 15. Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus” (WMOT) 16. Depeche Mode: “New Life” (Mute import) 17. Pete Shelley: “Homosapien” (Genetic import) 18. Kim Carnes: “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI) 19. Trickeration: “Rap, Bounce, Rockskate”/”Western Gangster Town” (Sounds of New York) 20. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones) 21. Spoonie Gee: “Spoonie Is Back” (Sugarhill) 22. Chron Gen: “Reality” (Step-Forward import) 23. Brother D. & Collective Effort: “How You Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” (Clappers) 24. Denroy Morgan: “I’ll Do Anything for You” (Becket) 15. Luther Vandross: “Never Too Much” (Epic).

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And finally, the albums, all 60 of the gooduns I’ve found so far because I want to make a point:

1. Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 (Sugarhill) 19; 2. X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; 3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 13; 4. Sunny Ade: The Message (Sunny Alade import) 12; 5. English Beat: Wha’ppen? (Sire) 9; 6. David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 9; 7. Gang of Four: Solid Gold (Warner Bros.) 6; 8. Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk (Columbia) 6; 9. Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 6; 10. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 5.

11. Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 12. UB40: Present Arms (DEP International) 13. Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (Private Parts): The Bar (Lovely) 14. Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15. The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) 16. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (Geffen) 17. Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.) 18. dB’s: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 19. The Blasters (Slash) 20. Al Green: Higher Plane (Myrrh)

21. Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 22. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 23. Gregory Isaacs: Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 (GG) 24. Sly & Robbie Present Taxi (Mango) 25. Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM) 26. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Bad Reputation (Boardwalk) 27. Shoes: Tongue Twister (Elektra) 28. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 29. Let Them Eat Jelly-beans! (Virus import) 30. Penguin Cafe Orchestra (Editions E.G.)

31. Elvis Presley: This Is Elvis (RCA Victor) 32. Tom Tom Club (Sire) 33. Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 34. Shannon Jackson & the Decoding Society: Nasty (Moers Music import) 35. C81 (Rough Trade/NME import cassette) 36. Teena Marie: It Must Be Magic (Gordy) 37. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) 38. Marvin Gaye: In Our Lifetime (Gordy) 39. James Blood Ulmer: Free Lancing (Columbia) 40. Lucinda: Happy Woman Blues (Folkways)

41. Aretha Franklin: Love All the Hurt Away (Arista) 42. Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 43. Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 44. Z. Z. Hill: Down Home (Malaco) 45. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 46. Sir Douglas Quintet: Border Wave (Takoma) 47. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M) 48. David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 49. Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia) 50. Bohannon: Alive (Phase II)

51. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 52. Warren Zevon: Stand in the Fire (Asylum) 53. Mofungo: End of the World (unlabeled cassette) 54. Garland Jeffreys: Escape Artist (Epic) 55. John Anderson: 2 (Warner Bros.) 56. Johnny Copeland: Copeland Special (Rounder) 57. Muddy Waters: King Bee (Blue Sky) 58. Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 59. Smokey Robinson: Being with You (Tamla) 60. Basement 5: 1965-1980 (Antilles).

Somewhere hereabouts you will find Lester Bangs’s ballot, a rather less sanguine document which I’ve reprinted in toto because I think it’s inspired, provocative, funny, and dead wrong. I dissent with special emphasis, of course, from “the lie that anybody else finds it vital” etc., even though the prevailing critical mood is more or less (less, but with Lester that’s a given) as he describes it. Kit Rachlis, editor of the wonderful Boston Phoenix music section and a critic I value as much as I do Bangs, took it more temperately and from a different historical angle: “[This] is not to say that there haven’t been any good records — I have no trouble naming 30 — only to say that there’s not a great record in the bunch, no record so fierce and reckless and nimble that it will affect listeners just as strongly in five or 10 years as it does now.” Lester says nothing gets him off now as much as the music of the past did (and does); Kit says nothing gets him off as much as it should now because it won’t get him off (as much as it should) in the future. Both assume what has always been the underlying aim of rock criticism even more than of rock and roll: to transform the thrill-seeking impulses of adolescence into a workable aesthetic if not philosophy if not way of life.

If it sounds like I’m making fun, then I’m making fun of myself (good policy for rock critics even more than rock musicians). I certainly fell for punk, new wave, whatever you want to call it, the basic appeal of which (at least for critics) was the gift of eternal life, or at least the ancient promise of Danny & the Juniors: “Rock and roll is here to stay.” And now new wave is here to stay. But it’s been five years since punk failed to conquer America (or Britain either, truth be told). There are in fact a whole new bunch of punks out there, and we’ll be hearing from them (though I can’t say I find much demographic significance in Tim Sommer’s fierce prediction that “within weeks” the fans of Heart Attack, a moderately nifty Great Neck hardcore band, will “far outnumber” the critics supporting Grandmaster Flash and Prince, who got 44 and 30 mentions respectively). Meanwhile, what’s going on for the rest of us is a consolidation, and if we’re lucky a reaching out. By definition this isn’t a thrill-packed project, and its disappointments and uncertainties can be daunting. So Lester, an ace critic because he takes everything hard, is bitterly disappointed because “almost all current music is fraudulent” and “worthless” (and also because his friend Richard Hell, never a model of fortitude, hasn’t thought up a title for his unreleased album). And Kit, an ace editor because he puts everything in context, is downcast because no record released in 1981 has (will have) the impact and staying power of 1980’s Dirty Mind or 1979’s Into the Music (by Van Morrison, in case you forgot, which would be too bad) or 1978’s Pure Mania (by the unjustly neglected Vibrators, though for impact and staying power I’ll take Parallel Lines myself).

It’s plain as the light on your stereo that the voters went for Sandinista! to fend off such uncertainty and disappointment. Most critics I know, Kit included, love a lot of it (my January recommendation is “Rebel Waltz”), but find it frustrating to approach even one side at a time, much less as a whole. With 199 ballots counted this year and 201 last, it got only two-thirds the points of London Calling, averaging under 13 where London Calling was over 15. Yet there are those, Lester included, who much prefer it, for the incontrovertible reason that it takes risks — a whole side of dub, Tymon Dogg, Mikey Dread, the very size of the thing, even the title. And sometimes it gets away with them — who would have thought that the Clash could come up with a “street” record like “Magnificent Dance,” a triumph that consolidates, reaches out, and thrills all at once?

But in the end I remain unconverted. For political art I’ll take Red Crayola, more sophisticated if less soulful, or Gang of Four, ditto but with a more significant groove, or the (English) Beat, apparently the opposite but don’t bet against their smarts, or for that matter Al Green, pushing the same message as the former Robert Zimmerman and supposed new wavers U2 and making me like it. And for risks and what Lester calls vitality I’ll take the folks at Sugarhill, both the profiteers who’ve put together the funkiest house band since Stax-Volt and the aural graffiti artists who come in boasting and jiving as if the American dream retains its magic only in places like the South Bronx, where it’s been ravaged altogether. Talk about significant grooves — the most possessed punks never had more spirit or imagination, and here’s hoping (not necessarily expecting) that the rappers will grow in wisdom eventually. Still, I’d be hard put to claim that Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 is on a par with London Calling or Dirty Mind (though I’d rank it with Into the Music and Parallel Lines). It really wasn’t a year for instant greatness — it was a year for consolidation and reaching out.

Consolidations take time to sink in. Moondance and Layla, as far removed from Aftermath and Rubber Soul as we are from The Clash and Marquee Moon, didn’t reveal themselves immediately as great albums. Real good, sure; great, who knew? It took years — and it could happen again. No less than three of the Pazz & Jop top 11 — four if you count Dreamtime — confront a theme native to r&b and country music. You can’t call it marriage because there’s no sign that the couples who carp and coo through Who’s Landing in My Hangar? or flay and fuck through Wild Gift want to make it legal or permanent. But they don’t want to just split, either, and their best advice might well be found on Trust, Elvis C.’s most mature, musical, and morally assured album. He’d probably warn them not to seek so many thrills, and they’d probably nod yes and go after a few more in spite of themselves, because that’s rock and roll. Trust certainly lacks the punchy immediacy of This Year’s Model, but no one can measure its lasting impact. Real good, sure; great, who knows?

And if real good is where Trust (and my other sleeper, Wha’ppen?) should end up, so be it — I’ll still reach out. Popular music seems as fragmented as in the dog days of 1975 — nothing is certain, good records are nowhere and everywhere. But things have changed utterly. While major-label cutbacks continue, more discs are produced by more companies than ever before. Some of these new labels are staffed by laid-off bizzers who actually like music, more by novices who succumbed back when punk was failing to conquer America. All work with acts that in flusher times the biz would have taken a flier on. Their costs (and expectations) are so low that CBS’s flop looks like Impoverished’s smasheroo (when an indie album sells 10,000 copies it is said to “go vinyl”). And it is these labels that make the difference between dog days and cool nites.

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It’s become almost redundant to point out how few of our critics’ top 40 go gold — 14 last year, seven this. Among white artists, only the Stones, the Police, and — ’scuse me — Rickie Lee Jones qualify, with Tom Tom Club on the way, though in black music, where aesthetics and economics are still in some kind of alignment, Rick James, Prince, and Luther Vandross all have major hits. But the failure of many conglomerates and established “independents” to even crack the list is something new. Polygram, MCA, RCA, Arista, and Chrysalis all placed in 1980 and were shut out in 1981, with WEA (which includes Sire, Island, Geffen, Rolling Stones, and Asylum as well as Warner-Reprise) up slightly and Columbia/Epic down one. Meanwhile, independents — some traditional (Boardwalk), some major-affiliated (Mango and I.R.S., which distributes Faulty), some in one-off deals (ZE and EG), and some completely autonomous (Slash and 415) — scored 10 times, a gain of four, with imports up from two to four (including two by the dB’s, whose domestically unsigned status is the shame of New York). My own list of 60 includes 21 indies and six imports (three of them once again by American artists).

The flood of marginal product makes the boundaries of criticism vaguer. In the ’70s I used to try and hear everything, and in my way I still do, but no longer with even the theoretical expectation of success. There are still domestic ’81s I haven’t acquired (U. Utah Phillips, Lockwood & Shines, T.S.O.L., Circle Jerks), imports are completely impossible (don’t own Repercussions or The Mekons yet), and that’s only albums. Moreover, I’m on most mailing lists, which even at the majors is an accomplishment — free-lancers now buy or trade for at least half the records they like, and I’ll bet that most of the voters haven’t heard half the albums on my list. That’s what’s so remarkable about Rick James’s showing. Motown is notoriously stingy with review copies, and James isn’t a safe fave from the ’60s like Stevie or Smokey or Marvin Gaye. He’s cheap and he’s flashy and critics heard his album the way everybody else did — after buying it because they liked the singles on the radio. Another pop event, and more power to all concerned (except Motown’s publicity department).

But marginal capitalism obviously works to disseminate as well as to soften the collective focus. In fact, with everybody making their own shoestring records and undertaking their own shoestring tours, the concept of the local band has become cloudy if not totally overcast in just three years. The Blasters, 30th on the album list, won our competition with 14 votes, while X — who swept the category last year, whose album almost won this year, and whose label status is identical to the Blasters’ (though one hears Elektra is on the case) — only got four, three more than Ernest Tubb, Clifton Chenier, and Steve & Eydie. For the record, Glenn Branca’s seven votes made him the surprise New York winner (his album came in 51st), with the dB’s second at six and the Bongos, the Raybeats, DNA, and Grandmaster Flash tied at five. Mission of Burma, Romeo Void, the Suburbs, R.E.M., and Rank & File (former Dils now located in Austin) also impressed, and I’d like to hear D.C.’s Trouble Funk. Los Angeles’s Hornets Attack Victor Mature won the newly established Poly Styrene Best Name Award, with Phil ’n’ the Blanks (Chicago), Little Bears from Bangkok (Seattle), the Better Beatles (Lincoln, Nebraska), and the Fibonaccis (L.A.) close behind. But though in the past high-ranking locals have often ended up making good records, and though new American bands took a leap among the critics (from four up to 11) even whilst the new wave mainstream sucked up N.M.E. blather, I’m not confident that the process will continue forever. Localism means just that — rock and roll dialects don’t always translate, and when they do what is said can seem derivative or limited.

But to say music is derivative is not to say it lacks “vitality” or “authenticity,” and to say its impact is limited is not to say that it goes nowhere. The original winners of the 1981 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll have inspired a lot of loose talk this year about rock and roll as professional entertainment rather than insurrectionary culture. But almost no one asked why the soundtrack to this talk had so much more impact than comparable albums by such veteran professional entertainers as Muddy Waters and Doug Sahm — which was that the Rolling Stones used to pass themselves off as creators of insurrectionary culture, and very likely believed it, since it was true. Seekers after insurrectionary culture shouldn’t let professionalism get them down — it comes with the territory. At times when greatness fails to announce itself, they should hand up their John the Baptist costumes and get down to the job of figuring out which professionals have a bead on how to transform thrills into a way of life. It’s a problem that breaks into a hundred problems, and there are thousands of answers.

Selected Ballots

VINCE ALETTI (alphabetical): Laurie Anderson: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog” (Warner Bros.); Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis import); Bo Kool: “(Money) No Love” (Tania import); Clash: “Magnificent Dance” (Epic); Coati Mundi: “Me No Pop Eye” (Antilles/ZE); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End); the Quick: “Zulu” (Pavilion); Strikers: “Body Music” (Prelude); Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love” (Sire).

TOM CARSON: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 15; Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 15; Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 15; Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15; The Swimming Pool Q’s (DB) 5; David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 5; Suburbs: Credit in Heaven (Twin/Tone) 5; English Beat: Wha’ppen? (Sire) 5; Pretenders II (Sire) 5.

TOM CARSON: Yoko Ono: Walking on Thin Ice — For John (Geffen); Romeo Void: Never Say Never (415); Descendents: “Fat” E.P. (New Alliance); Propeller Product (Propeller); Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip).

TOM CARSON: R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” (Hib-Tone); “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Rick James: “Super Freak” (Gordy); Babylon Dance Band: “When I’m Home”/”Remains of the Beat” (Babylon Dance Band); Bob Dylan: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (Columbia); Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus” (WMOT); Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” (I.R.S.); Replacements: “I’m in Trouble”/”If Only You Were Lonely” (Twin/Tone); Billy Idol with Gen X: “Dancing with Myself” (Chrysalis).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 25; dB’s: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 20; Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 15; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 10; Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 5; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 5; Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 5; Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M) 5; Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 5.

JOHN FOSTER: John Gavanti (Hyrax) 30; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 10; David Thomas & the Pedestrians: The Sound of the Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrian (Rough Trade) 10; Killing Joke: …What’s This For? (Editions E.G.) 10; X: Wild Gift (Slash) 9; Dark Day: Exterminating Angel (Infidelity) 8; Zounds: Curse of Zounds (Rough Trade import) 8; Furors: Juke Box Album (Hit Man) 5; Eugene Chadbourne: There’ll Be No Tears Tonight (Parachute) 5; C. W. Vrtacek: Victory Through Grace (Leisure Time) 5.

NELSON GEORGE: Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 20; Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 15; Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Black President (Arista import) 10; Chaka Khan: Whatcha’ Gonna Do for Me (Warner Bros.) 10; Ray Parker & Raydio: A Woman Needs Love (Arista) 10; Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly: Live in New Orleans (Capitol) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia/ARC) 10; Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 5; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA) 5; Curtis Mayfield: Love Is the Place (Boardwalk) 5.

ROGER GLASS: Quincy Jones: “Just Once” (A&M); Grover Washington, Jr.: “Just the Two of Us” (Elektra); Grace Jones: “Pull Up to the Bumper” (Island); Barbra Streisand: “Guilty” (Columbia); Smokey Robinson: “Being with You” (Tamla); Denroy Morgan: “I’ll Do Anything for You” (Becket); Mike and Brenda Sutton: “We’ll Make It” (Sam); Rita Marley: “Sin Sin” (Tuff Gong import); Skyy: “Call Me” (Salsoul); T.S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage).

PABLO GUZMAN: Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 20; Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections (Arista) 20; Devo: New Traditionalists (Warner Bros.) 10; Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 10; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 10; Jerry Harrison: The Red and the Black (Sire) 10; Eddie Palmieri (Barbaro) 5; Police: Ghost in the Machine (A&M) 5; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) 5; Was (Not Was) (Island/ZE) 5.

IRA KAPLAN (alphabetical): Cramps: “Goo Goo Muck”/”She Said” (I.R.S.); Cyclones: “You’re So Cool”/”RSVP” (Little Ricky); Fleetwood Mac: “Farmer’s Daughter” (Warner Bros.); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Vic Godard and Subway Sect: “Stop That Girl” (Oddball import); Grace Jones: “Pull Up to the Bumper” (Island); Kinks: “Better Things” (Arista); R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” (Hib-Tone); Skeletons: “Trans Am”/”Tell Her I’m Gone” (Borrowed); Voggue: “Dance the Night Away” (Atlantic).

GREIL MARCUS: Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.) 20; David Lindley: El Rayo-X (Asylum) 20; Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 15; Neil Young: Reactor (Reprise) 10; The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 10; Joy Division: Still (Factory import) 5; Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.) 5; The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) 5; Au Pairs: Playing with a Different Sex (Human import) 5; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Mekons: Die Mekons (Pure Freud import); Descendents: “Fats” [sic] E.P. (New Alliance); Vivien Goldman: Dirty Washing (99); Romeo Void: Never Say Never (415).

KRISTINE MCKENNA: James Brown: “Rapp Payback” (Polydor); Passions: “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (Polydor import); Bob Dylan: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (Columbia); Cure: “Primary” (Fiction import); Human League: “Hard Times” (Virgin import); Heaven 17: “Fascist Groove Thing” (B.E.F. import); Psychedelic Furs: “Dumb Waiters” (CBS import); Spandau Ballet: “Chant Number One” (Chrysalis); Foreigner: “Urgent” (Atlantic).

JON PARELES: (unweighted): David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette); Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.); Ronald Shannon Jackson: Eye on You (About Time); Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.); Glenn Branca: The Ascension (99); Congos: Heart of the Congos (Go Feet import); Was (Not Was) (ZE); Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.); King Crimson: Discipline (Warner Bros. EG); Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia).

RICHARD RIEGEL: Rick James: “Super Freak” (Gordy); J. Geils Band: “Centerfold” (EMI America); Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis); Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime” (Sire); Kinks: “Destroyer” (Arista); Yoko Ono: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (Geffen); Rick Springfield: “Jessie’s Girl” (RCA Victor); David Johansen: “Here Comes the Night” (Blue Sky); Pat Benatar: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (Chrysalis).

DOUG SIMMONS: Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts); Minor Threat (Dischord); Mission of Burma: Signals, Calls, and Marches (Ace of Hearts); S.O.A.: No Policy (Dischord); Unknowns: Dream Sequence (Sire).

TIM SOMMER: Flipper: “Ha Ha Ha” (Subterranean); The Cure: “Primary” (Fiction import); Misfits: “London Dungeon” (Plan 9 import); Tenpole Tudor: “Swords of a Thousand Men” (Stiff); Black Flag: “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy); Exploited: “Dead Cities” (Secret import); the Gas: “Ignore Me” (Polydor import); Secret Affair: “Dance Master”/”Do You Know” (I Spy import); APB: “Chain Reaction” (Oily); Business: “Harry May”/”National Insurance Blacklist” (Secret import).

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LESTER BANG’S BALLOT

Because of the realities of the situation and a simple respect for music itself I am compelled to state in response to your poll that 1981 was in my view such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums, much less 10. As you know, I always vote in these things strictly on the basis of how much I actually listen to the record, as opposed to how “significant” it might be. What I did this year was what almost everybody else, certainly including critics, did: listened to old music, when I listened at all. Because almost all current music is worthless. Very simply, it has no soul. It is fraudulent, and so are the mechanisms which perpetuate the lie that anybody else finds it vital enough to do more than consume and file or “collect” (be the first on your block). New Wave has terminated in thudding hollow xeroxes of poses that aren’t even annoying anymore. Rap is nothing, or not enough. Jazz does not exist as a musical form with anything new to say. And the rest of rock is recycling various formuli forever. I don’t know what I am going to write about — music is the only thing in the world I really care about — but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud. I haven’t made this decision without some soul-searching, but I feel that I can best serve the purposes for which I became a music critic in the first place by filing a protest ballot, with the following exceptions:

ALBUMS: 1. Jody Harris & Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity) 30; 2. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: the album Richard recorded last spring and never got around to putting out. 20; 3. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 10; 4. Public Image Ltd: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) 5; 5. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern) 5.

SINGLES: 1. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); 2. Ramones: “We Want the Airwaves” (Sire); 3. Hank Williams Jr.: “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” (Elektra); 4. Roseanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache” (Columbia)

EPs: 1. A Taste of DNA (American Clave).

LOCAL BANDS: 1. DNA; 2. The Bloods; 3. Robert Quine.

P.S. Perhaps it will help to explain if I list the other albums that would have been in the running for my “Top 10”: Stones, Iggy’s Party, and Miles Davis, which in various ways manifested varying degrees of contempt for their audience so palpable they were ultimately unplayable; Ramones’ Pleasant Dreams and the Byrne-Eno album, which just didn’t work somehow; and John Lee Hooker’s Live Alone Volume 1, which is really all old stuff anyway.

and

Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll Ballot 1981

LESTER BANGS: ALBUMS: 1. Jody Harris/Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity)30; 2. “Velvet Underground 1966” (bootleg) 20; 3. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Richard Hell & the Voidoids Now (Richard recorded it last spring but never got around to releasing it) 15; 4. The Clash: Sandinista (Epic) 5; 5. Public Image Ltd: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) 5; 6. The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 5; 7. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern) 5; 8. John Lee Hooker: Live Alone Vol. 1 (Labor) 5; 9. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 5; 10. Iggy Pop: Party (Arista) 5.

SINGLES: 1. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); 2. Joy Division: “Atmosphere” (Factory 12-inch); 3. The Mekons: “Snow” (Red Rhino import); 4. Hank Williams Jr.: “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” (Elektra); 5. Roseanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache” (Columbia); 6. Ramones: “We Want the Airwaves” (Sire); 7. Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis); 8. Afrika Bombaataa: “Zulu Nation Throwdown” (Paul Winley 12-inch); 9. That Charlie Daniels single that goes “blah blah water, she’s the devil’s daughter, she’s hard and she’s cold and she’s mean, blah blah blah, blah blah to wash away New Orleans”; 10. Richard Lloyd: “Get Off My Cloud” (Ice House).

EPS: 1. DNA: “A Taste of DNA” (American Clave); 2. The Angry Samoans: “Inside My Brain” (Bad Trip); 3. Dead Kennedys: “In God We Trust, Inc.” (Alternative Tentacles).

LOCAL BANDS: 1. DNA; 2. The Bloods; 3. The Angry Samoans.

and

FOLK AND ROCK
ALBUMS I LIKED THIS YEAR
By L. Bangs

1. Quine & Harris: Escape (Infidelity) 30; 2. The Clash: Sandinista (CBS) 10; 3. Public Image Ltd.: What the Hell’s the Name of that Fucker? (Warners) 5; 4. Beck Bogert & Appice (Epic) 5; 5. Beck Bogert & Appice Live (Japanese Epic) 5; 6. Grateful Dead: Dead Set (Artesia) 2; 7. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Second Album Richard Never Got Around to Titling or Releasing 2; 8. Stevie Nix: Rat Poison (Chump Change) 2; 9. Rolling Stones: What’s in the Can, Charlie? (Mango) 2; 10. Muammar Qaddafi: Live on Hee Haw (Shelby Singleton) 2.

and

Just to save some time, here’s NEXT YEAR’S TOP 10

1. Robert Quine Orchestra: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia); 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige); Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla); 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We’re Back (Factory); 5. The Clash: Rappin’ with Bert ’n’ Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame); 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic); 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve); 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA); 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Bridges & Everything! (Egregious 2-album set); 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

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Top 10 Albums of 1981

1. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic)

2. X: Wild Gift (Slash)

3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia)

4. The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones)

5. Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.)

6. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M)

7. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.)

8. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.)

9. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy)

10. Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.)

 

Top 10 Singles of 1981

1. (Tie) Laurie Anderson: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog” (One, Ten, Warner Bros.)
Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones)

3. Grandmaster Flash: “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill)

4. (Tie) Kim Carnes: “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI America)
Yoko Ono: “Walking on Thin Ice” (Geffen)

6. Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love” (Sire)

7. (Tie) Pete Shelley: “Homosapien” (Genetic import)
Soft Cell: “Tainted Love”/”Where Did Our Love Go?” (Sire)

9. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill)

10. Prince: “Controversy” (Warner Bros.)

— From the January 27–February 2, 1982, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1980 Pazz & Jop: The Year of the Lollapalooza

As we know, many voters found 1980 a confusing year. When Pazz & Jop gossip began a few months ago, various critics complained about their top 10s — after three or four inescapable lollapaloozas, 20 or 30 possibilities came to mind. Although different critics naturally heard different lollapaloozas, the poll did end up with three clear leaders, each more than 100 points (274 more in one case) ahead of its nearest rival: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, and — easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history — The Clash’s London Calling. Then there’s a cluster of four, then a cluster of two by artists who almost certainly would have done better if they weren’t black, and then the pack. The top three are the lollapaloozas, the next six inspired also-rans, and the rest varying amalgams of excellence and special interest.

Insofar as my personal take on 1980 is confusing, it’s because I spent the first nine months of the year trying to get a fix on the previous decade for a book-length Consumer Guide. As a result, I was only dimly aware of current music — after London Calling and Crawfish Fiesta in early January, no record really imprinted itself until October, although Public Image, the Brains, Gang of Four, the Pretenders, and Hassell & Eno all made dents. So I’ve spent the last three or four months force-feeding, which isn’t the method I prefer — popular music is meant to be lived with. This may have distorted some of my findings — I’m committed to a top 10 prepared two weeks ago for the balloting, and already I’d probably drop the Jacksons a few places and give five of the Clash’s points to Talking Heads and Prince. Still, I had my lollapaloozas, too — two from the collective top three and a third from the next six. But the more I listened the fonder I became of the top 10 also-rans as well, and in the end I found more than 40 A-quality records all-told. My force-fed conclusion: for quality, a good year, much like 1978 and 1979.

As our 201 1980 respondents learned late in December, the Board of Poobahs broadened eligibility this year. In the past we’ve limited the poll strictly to U.S.-manufactured (“released,” as we say) albums from the year in question. But this year both imports and “late-breaking” 1979 LPs were eligible, a change that had worked well when we introduced singles balloting in the previous poll. As a result, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall appears in our top 40 for the second time, Pink Floyd’s The Wall sneaks in for the first, and two imports — Joy Division’s Closer and Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth — also make the list. My own top 40 also reflects these changes:

1. The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 25 2. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 15 3. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) 12 4. Tom Robinson: Sector 27 (I.R.S.) 12 5. Wanna Buy a Bridge? (Rough Trade) 9 6. Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (Editions E.G.) 7 7. John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy (Geffen) 5 8. Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 5 9. Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator) 5 10. The Jacksons: Triumph (Epic) 5.

11. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 12. Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 13. Alberta Hunter: Amtrak Blues (Columbia) 14. Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (Reprise) 15. Chic: Real People (Atlantic) 16. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 17. The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 18. Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 19. Poly Styrene: Translucence (United Artists import) 20. Si Kahn: Home (Flying Fish ’79).

21. The Psychedelic Furs (Columbia) 22. Pretenders (Sire ’79) 23. LPJE: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 (Latin Percussion Ventures, Inc.) 24. The English Beat: I Just Can’t Stop It (Sire) 25. Pere Ubu: The Art of Walking (Rough Trade) 26. Pere Ubu: New Picnic Time (Chrysalis import) 27. John Prine: Storm Windows (Asylum) 28. Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 29. Rockpile: Seconds of Pleasure (Columbia) 30. Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns (Stiff import). 31. X: Los Angeles (Slash) 32. Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson: 1980 (Arista) 33. Steel Pulse: Reggae Fever (Mango) 34. Michael Hurley: Snockgrass (Rounder) 35. The Undertones: Hypnotised (Sire) 36. The Suburbs: In Combo (Twin/Tone) 37. The Clash: Black Market Clash (Epic Nu-Disk) 38. Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 39. T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma) 40. Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (ZE).

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No Room in the In: the Brains, Junie. Wait Till Last Year: XTC (Drums and Wires), the Brides of Funkenstein (Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy), Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke…). Alternative disciplines: Arthur Blythe (Illusions), Steve Reich, Dollar Brand (African Marketplace), Big Youth (Progress), Henry Cow, Michael Mantler. Judgment reserved: Joy Division, Al Green, Bunny Wailer, Pylon, Sandinista!

My album choices are somewhat eccentric — four of my top 10 finished toward the bottom of the Pazz & Jop top 100, and 13 of my top 40 didn’t make the top 100 at all. But this is the kind of thing that happens to hermits — my singles list is positively weird. I didn’t get to go out dancing much in 1980, and listened to the radio only on vacation. (When I could stand it, that is — commercial broadcasting has really regressed. I’m hanging a red ribbon out my window till PIX comes back.) I’ve always believed that singles transcended consensus and objective judgment — there are so many that those you love aren’t just good, but enter your life. Here are 10 that affected mine:

1. Pylon: “Cool” (Caution) 2. The Beat: “Twist and Crawl” (Go-Feet 12-inch import) 3. Diana Ross: “Upside Down” (Motown) 4. John Anderson: “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” (Warner Bros.) 5. Joy Division: “She [sic] Lost Control” (Factory 12-inch) 6. Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Tamla) 7. Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket” (Sire) 8. The Slits: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Antilles) 9. Lenny Kaye: “Child Bride” (Mer) 10. Suzanne Fellini: “Love on the Phone” (Casablanca).

The top of the singles poll is pretty weird, too, in its way — and exciting. When “Rapper’s Delight” tied for 22nd last year, who would have figured that a rap record would take it all 12 months later. I like other rap records even more than “The Breaks,” but there can be no doubt that it was Kurtis Blow (later for Deborah Harry) who took a genuine (New York!) street form to all of the people some of the time. Almost as remarkable (later for Deborah Harry) is the passionate support of Joy Division, who — unlike the Pretenders, last year’s import champs — did it with little radio. As for Deborah Harry, I figured “Call Me” for a shoo-in — she’s even got a Spanish-language disco disc out on Salsoul. But after that I think the singles list gets boring — commuters enjoying favorite album cuts outnumber the voters who live for all the one-shots that make 45-rpm so speedy these days. Other noteworthies include this year’s domestic-indie champs, the Bush Tetras of Gotham’s own 99 Records; John and Yoko; destined-to-be-mythic one-offs from the Vapors (the exotically slanted “Turning Japanese”), Lipps, Inc. (the tract-disco “Funkytown”), and Martha and the Muffins (the post-surf “Echo Beach”); imports from the Jam and the Pretenders (again); indies from Pylon and the Dead Kennedys; is-it-an-indie-or-import from Joy Division; and almosts by Richard Hell, Suicide, Delta 5, the English Beat, and, er, Queen.

For the second year, voters were also asked to list three local bands, defined as groups without major-label affiliation that gig regularly in their hometown areas (which need not be the voter’s — Token Uptown Poobah Dave Marsh threatened to vote for Fela Ransome-Kuti, and that would have been fine with me). Here I indulged my own subjectivity once again by honoring my fondest club memories of 1980 with no attempt at balanced long-term assessment: thank you to Material (at CBGB in February and the late lamented Tier 3 in July), DNA (at Irving Plaza in January and CBGB in November), and the Babylon Dance Band (at Trax in December).

Since about half the Pazz & Joppers live in New York, the local band category favors this locality, especially given its mushrooming (if clouded) club scene. Last year, though, Austin’s Joe “King” Carrasco (whose debut album placed 70th in 1980) finished a surprising second, and this year Los Angeles’s X (also a favorite last year) was the overwhelming winner — 26 votes to 10 for New York’s Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Boston’s Human Sexual Response. Working Poobah Debra Rae Cohen (who voted for X herself) thinks New York is too factionalized to champion one act, although Poobah in Absentia Tom Carson’s theory that the action is now elsewhere also has its merits. In any case, only four other New York bands — the Bush Tetras and the Nitecaps with eight votes, the db’s [sic] with six, and the Dance with four — made much of a showing. Other names to remember include Los Angeles’s Blasters (eight), Wall of Voodoo (four), Go-Go’s (four), and Falcons (four); Boston’s Mission of Burma (eight), Peter Dayton Band (five), and Stompers (four); Minneapolis’s Wallets (five) and Curtiss A (four); Kent, Ohio’s Human Switchboard (five); San Francisco’s Romeo Void (four); and Lawrence, Kansas’s Thumbs (four).

But what’s most interesting about the local band competition brings me back around to the crux of the poll, the LP ballot. Not only did X’s album — on Slash, outgrowth of an L.A. punkzine — come in 16th, but the two runners-up also had minor-label albums, Kid Creole on Antilles (77th) and Human Sexual Response on PVC, a domestic arm of import biggie Jem. Other locals with Indie LPs include the Blasters, the Human Switchboard, Curtiss A, and Thumbs. And while three indie albums made our top 40 in 1979, this year two imports brought the total to six. The indies finished higher, too. In short, as the big corporations opt out of marginal music, small entrepreneurs figure out how to make money off it (X’s Los Angeles is up to around 50 thou with Jem distributing, and the band tours a lot), and journalists spread the news. In short short, to reprise an old theme: avant-garde pop.

This is the time, then, when I should begin analyzing the two critical camps into which our increasingly enormous electorate is divided — the avant-gardists versus the traditionalists, the radicals versus the conservatives. With myself, of course, firmly on the side of the former, a/k/a The Good. But while I was certainly an avant-garde radical type five years ago, before there was a punk/new wave and a ditto press, I’ve since been outflanked by youngsters who wouldn’t think of putting old farts like the Clash and Talking Heads on their lists. Anyway, my tastes aren’t always even on the respectable left — The River and Double Fantasy aren’t my chart-toppers, but I prefer them to Entertainment! and Crazy Rhythms and The Art of Walking, enjoyably significant though I think those pop experiments are. And just exactly how does one categorize Triumph? Or for that matter Crawfish Fiesta and Amtrak Blues?

I mean, there are other ways to run it down. How about formalists versus expressionists, for instance? Now which side are you on? For, in general, those of us who were championing the Ramones (81st!) in 1976 have recently found ourselves aligned with “progressives” who, until the post-punk expansion, were amusing themselves with old Soft Machine records. Granted that their tastes have improved and ours broadened (or vice versa, if you prefer), I’m not entirely comfortable with this alliance. I don’t sympathize with the blues-and-country limitations of those who delve no further into “new wave” than Rockpile and the Pretenders, who seize upon every reworking by the Stones and the Who and Van Morrison as manna from rock ‘n’ roll heaven. But I also dissent from the affectlessness, the mannered despair and/or passion of so many rock vanguardists.

If these generalizations seem a mite broad, take them as hints and consider Triumph and Crawfish Fiesta again. One indication of how rich and basic black popular music is, how essential it ought to be to anyone who claims to like rock and roll, is the way black performers confound our already contradiction-ridden categories. Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson are committed formalists — they revel in music-for-its-own-sake above all. But without second-guessing themselves they also employ form to express (or simulate, doesn’t matter) the most elementary (which doesn’t mean simple) human emotions. To dismiss such artists as “corny” or “commercial” — the usual racist commonplace — is to misapprehend their context, tradition, and aesthetic aims. And what kind of vanguardism might that be?

One way of making sense of this mess might be to refer (gingerly, I hope) to auteur theory. Say Smokey and Stevie and maybe Van Morrison and John Lennon and Ray Davies are the equivalent of Ford and Siegel and Hawks — intentional artists, sure, but unselfconscious even when they’re pretentious. Ambitious craftsmen who think about their place in history — Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley — are more like Preston Sturges (when they’re good) or John Huston (who offers more than meets the eye but can still be a real jerk). All the new guys, meanwhile, are like, how about that, Godard and de Broca and Bourguignon. La nouvelle vague, they used to call it.

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To extend the metaphor, you could say that each of the two latter groups has produced its Allens and De Palmas, too, and while away the tween-sets trying to figure who’s who. The question then becomes — where’s Francis Ford Coppola? I think 1980 was when various contestants made their bids. No more tightly controlled genre pieces for these boys; they were going for grand, sweeping — perhaps even popular! — statements. The rhythmic expansiveness of what just two years ago was a resolutely stiff-necked music — John Lydon’s reggae immersions, Talking Heads’ Africanisms, the Clash’s excavations in every rock and roll style — is one sure sign. Even more convincing that three of the top five LPs were doubles: London CallingThe River, and Second Edition. Not counting last year’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, you have to go back to the ’76 and ’75 winners — Songs in the Key of Life and The Basement Tapes — to find another two-album set in the Pazz & Jop top 20. Clearly, a new generation of artists has achieved enough commercial stability and artistic scope to think big. It’s like 1968 or 1969 all over again, with the hubris of the new hierarchy kept in check, I hope, by their less than hegemonic control of the marketplace. And if the Clash and PIL and Talking Heads are (very roughly speaking) our Beatles and Stones and Byrds, can Van Morrison and Randy Newman be far behind? Presumably, they’re not far behind at all — which is as good a reason as any for me to devote the rest of this annual wrap-up to a rundown of the albums the critics chose as the best of 1980.

40. Pink Floyd’s The Wall: Nothing like a big single to attract belated attention to a struggling young band — “Another Brick in the Wall” got four votes and catalyzed enough album points to push this late-1979 release into the bottom slot. I take the song so seriously myself that I may go for my doctorate in social psychology.

39. Diana Ross’ Diana: Chic album of the year on the strength of “I’m Coming Out,” an all-purpose sell-the-gays hit that received four votes in the singles competition, and the tenth-ranked “Upside Down,” a good time for sure. Not since Lady Sings the Blues has Ms. R. been forced into such a becoming straitjacket. But I still prefer Chic’s own Real People, where Rodgers & Edwards get to, well, express themselves.

38. Joan Armatrading’s Me Myself I: The perennially unclassifiable London-based West Indian singer-songwriter meets Instant Records honcho Barry Gottehrer (Blondie, the Strangeloves) for her hardest music ever. The title tune is to narcissism as “Brown Sugar” is to racism, which serves somebody right.

37. John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy: The only rockcrit-estab Voice-Phoenix-Stone types to vote for this besides co-fantasts R. Christgau and C. Dibbell were John Swenson and Martha Hume (cohabiting, though not with each other). The single finished high, however, so maybe more tastemakers will catch on after “Beautiful Boy” and “Watching the Wheels” top the charts.

36. Graham Parker’s The Up Escalator: By most accounts, the latest from last year’s victor-by-consensus is the downer of the year, following up on everything pinched in his singing and mean-spirited in his vision. But it’s hooky — “the hummable Graham Parker,” Tom Carson called it — and for some that’s apparently enough.

35. Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes: Mother Maybelle’s most famous granddaughter and Nick Lowe’s most famous wife has been touted as the next Marshall Chapman since she surfaced in 1978, and here she comes up with the nasty, compassionate songs to justify it. Producer Lowe puts the likes of “Cry,” “I’m So Cool,” and “To Drunk (Too Remember) [sic]” into musical shape.

34. Arthur Blythe’s Illusions: Due more to demographics than to narrowing tastes — this is a rock critics’ poll, despite its silly but immutable name — jazz fared worse in this year’s P&J than in 1979, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys placed an unprecedented 29th and LPs by Mingus, Ulmer, Davis, Blythe, Coleman & Haden, Old and New Dreams, and Monk also finished in the top 100. In 1980 the Art Ensemble’s Full Force came in 91st and Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition 54th, and unless you count Weather Report (82nd) or, no kidding, George Benson (62nd), that was it — except for the more avant-garde of Blythe’s two 1980 offerings (his In the Tradition also got two mentions). In 1979 I voted for Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which had a lot of witty, almost danceable things to say about body rhythms. Illusions didn’t make my list, mainly because it hit me as a “pure” jazz statement — the best I heard all year, a bracingly concise all-hands-in-top-form synthesis. Special plaudits to cellist Abdul Wadud, bassist Fred Hopkins, and guitarist Blood Ulmer. P.S.: Ulmer’s Are You Glad To Be in America? came out as a rather thin-sounding Rough Trade import in 1980; I eagerly await Artists House’s American mix.

33. Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves: This met with scorn from skeptics but was welcomed affectionately by Young’s admirers — only Neil would make a deliberately minor record about war and peace after four successive masterworks about himself. Not all of his admirers voted for it, though — me, for instance. And those who did gave it about 10 points per ballot — last year’s second-ranked Rust Never Sleeps averaged 13.

32. The Specials: Ska is/was a reactionary fad in England — white kids turning on to the black music of a time safely past. In America it’s just another Anglophile exoticism, and not a bad one — integrated bands are always an up. The Specials are on the catchy, jokey end of the continuum, their beat rapid and insistent but light, their politics liberal. The follow-up, More Specials, steepened their pop proclivities and was hailed for its brazen irony by some, but only two voters mentioned it.

31. Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta: The first blues album to make the poll was cut shortly before the death of the man who passed New Orleans piano from Jelly Roll Morton to Allen Toussaint. Part-time producer and full-time entrepreneur Bruce Iglauer deserves double thanks — it’s the best music ’Fess ever recorded, and it’s earned him the esteem he’s always deserved. The secret of the album isn’t so much standout tracks like “Big Chief” and Fats Domino’s “Whole Lotta Loving” but its jaunty, bow-legged gait, which ’Fess didn’t develop sailing the seven seas.

30. The Iron City Houserockers’ Have a Good Time (but Get Out Alive): Springsteen has always had imitators — take a bow and pose for the trades, Johnny Cougar. Joe Grushecky is more like a slightly self-conscious soul brother, shorter on talent but close to the roots. It’s poetic justice that the critics prefer him to Blondie (“Now they’re playing your song in all those places/They won’t let me and Angela in”), but I still prefer Autoamerican (three mentions).

29. Lydia Lunch’s Queen of Siam: I’ve walked out on three different bands led by this dame, but she’s come up with a funny, sexy little record, exaggerating her flat Cleveland accent into a hickish, dumb-and-dirty come-on and playing her foolish nihilist poetry for laughs. Pat Irwin’s big-band atonalisms are interesting in themselves and suit Lydia’s city-of-night shtick perfectly. And “Spooky” is the cover of the year.

28. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta: Not to be confused with 1979’s 35th-place Reggatta de Blanc, except perhaps by yours truly. Jon Pareles said it all in his January 14 Riff, including my main point: De do do do, de da da da.

27. Van Morrison’s Common One: As somebody who considers Moondance an apotheosis and has never gotten Astral Weeks, I think this is his worst since Hard Nose the Highway — sententious, torpid, abandoned by God. I know lots of Astral Weeks fans who agree. But Morrison has a direct line to certain souls, and they still hear him talkin’.

26. T-Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay: Having put the omega on Alpha Bandmate Steve Soles (Soles does show up in the credits, but — unlike the ever-adroit David Mansfield — not as a band member), the Christer who’s reputed to have pointed out the Way to Bob Dylan turns his attention to benighted rationalists like me and I hope you. On John Fahey’s Buddhist blues label. Since no Alpha Band record ever did much in this poll, grand Burnett is succes d’estime and pray that he’ll take on the Moral Majority next time — he’s got the guts. P.S. Dylan’s Saved didn’t make a single ballot.

25. Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth: I’d call this modern romance — two brothers, a girl, and a rhythm machine — the cult music of the year, only it doesn’t have the requisite high points-to-voter ratio (cf. Closer, Queen of Siam). Maybe that’s because its cult likes not getting excited about something. Call it cult Muzak of the year — quiet, tuneful, passing weird. Me, I prefer Hassell & Eno.

24. Squeeze’s Argybargy: Poppophiles Glen [sic] Tilbrook and Chris Difford don’t settle for have-fun fall-in-love fear-girls. They pen short stories worthy of early Rupert Holmes, and with a beat. Next title: Herkyjerky.

23. Smokey Robinson’s Warm Thoughts: To me, this was the biggest surprise of the poll, not because I don’t agree that he’s come back, but because I thought the turnaround was 1979’s Where There’s Smoke…, which received zero votes last year. My guess is that a groundswell began with “Cruising [sic],” the late-breaking single off that album and his biggest since “Tears of a Clown.” The follow-up LP is, well, slower — make-out rather than dance music, a more songful version of 1975’s unmoored A Quiet Storm.

22. Joy Division’s Closer: A controversial band, due mostly to the mysterioso torments of singer-lyricist Ian Curtis, who committed suicide from the apex of a love triangle last spring. I only began to hear the band when I ignored Curtis and concentrated on the other musicians’ dark, roiling, off-center rhythms. And now Curtis sounds pretty good to me.

21. The English Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It: Known simply as the Beat in England, and rightly so — their ska is deep and driven. The bassline on “Twist and Crawl” (10 votes b/w “Hands Off She’s Mine”) moved more feet than anything Bernard Edwards came up with in 1980. Electoral-politics song of the year: “Stand Down Margaret.”

20. The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue: You can tell this is an ordinary Stones album because it finished so far out of the money. World’s greatest rock and roll band, y’know.

19. David Bowie’s Scary Monsters: Bowie’s best-received LP since Station to Station is also his hardest-rocking since Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane, and the first time I’ve been fully convinced that his fascination with fascism is a species of repulsion. Wish I could say I liked the thing — he’s always tried to sing like a mime, ornate and overstated, and after a decade he’s really learned how.

18. Dire Straits’ Making Movies: If any rock and roller aspires to auteur status it’s Mark Knopfler, and among those with a taste for his rather corny plots this establishes his claim. Me, I’d rather hear him work on somebody else’s stories — his guitar has emerged from Eric Clapton’s shadow into a jazzy rock that muscles right past Larry Carlton and ilk. Steely Straits, anyone? Or would that be Dire Dan?

17. The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms: Out-of-towners provided nine of the 19 mentions but only 72 of the 219 points for this New York cult band, and as a longtime cultist I go along with them: I can see listing this, but only near the bottom of a top 10. The band’s minimalist raveups have a body that doesn’t come fully alive on record — at least not this record, which is exciting in a disturbingly abstract way. Of course, that’s probably how these so-straight-they’re-cool weirdos want it.

16. X’s Los Angeles: Combining raw tempos and abrasive lyrics with sawed-off Chuck Berry guitar lines, the punkest album of the year almost justified the desperate stupidity of the rest of the band’s ingrown scene. But I was taken with this comment from L.A. critic Jay Mitchell: “Their death and gloom aura is closer to the Eagles, which is to say it is all Hollywood.”

15. Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure: Solo LPs by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe finished 13th and 14th in 1979. In 1980 the ace revivalists joined forces and dropped a place. Hmm. To me, this one proves Lowe’s conceptualist bravado, not his voice, is what stamps his albums. Another collection of good rock n’ roll songs in Edmunds’ neoclassicist manner, neither as slack as its detractors claim nor as meaningful as rock n’ roll loyalists wish.

14. Peter Townshend’s Empty Glass: Townshend has said the only reason this isn’t a Who record is that it wasn’t time for a Who record, which may be his way of apologizing for not being able to sing like Roger Daltrey. On his earlier solo ventures, the reflective, lyrical mood suited his light timbre. Here he tries to voice urgency and anger, with results that nonbelievers find whiny. Who fans, rock’s oldest and most steadfast critical fraternity, find the gap between aspiration and achievement touching and apt.

13. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall: Nothing like four big singles to attract belated attention to a struggling young man — why else did eight new voters regard this 18th-place 1979 finisher as a 1980 album? I hope that when “Heartbreak Hotel” and two or three others make their mark, the Jacksons’ Triumph (83rd this year) will repeat the trick.

12. Steely Dan’s Gaucho: Another painstaking step toward the cocktail rock they’ve sought for almost a decade — after half a dozen hearings, their most arcane harmonies and unlikely hooks sound comforting, like one of those electro-massagers that relax the muscles with a low-voltage shock. Craftsmen this obsessive don’t want to rule the world — they just want to make sure it doesn’t get them.

11. Peter Gabriel’s Peter Gabriel: The first man of Genesis came back even stronger than Mark Knopfler after hitting a sophomore jinx with Peter Gabriel, on Atlantic. His post-progressive art-rock minidramas won support from formalists and expressionists both, fulfilling the debut promise of Peter Gabriel, on Atco. Personal fave: “Biko,” a different kind of Africanism.

10. Gang of Four’s Entertainment!: This suffers a bit from Feelies syndrome — the tense, zigzag rhythms sound thinner than they do from a stage, where the Gang also get to make their chanted non-melodies visible. But the band’s progressive atavism is a real formal accomplishment — by taking punk’s amateur ethos up a notch or three without destroying its spirit, they pull off the kind of trick that’s been eluding avant-garde primitives since the dawn of romanticism. And if you want to complain that their leftism is received, the same goes for your common sense.

9. Prince’s Dirty Mind: Although the vocals are love-man falsetto, the metallic textures and simple drum pattern are as much Rolling Stones as Funkadelic. And where the typical love man plays the lead in “He’s So Shy,” Prince is aggressively, audaciously erotic. I’m talking about your basic fuckbook fantasies — the kid sleeps with his sister and digs it, sleeps with his girlfriend’s boyfriend and doesn’t, and stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church. I mean, Mick can just fold up his penis and go home.

8. Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July: “Side two is the perfect example of an artist doing his job and doing it well. With fun and grace at that,” saith the surprisingly quotable Jay Mitchell (never heard of him myself), who didn’t vote for it. I didn’t vote for it either, but I just played side one and found it only a little less of the same. Except for the all-embracingly pan-Afro-American “Master Blaster,” there’s no great Stevie on this album, but between his free-floating melodicism and his rolling overdrive, his hope and his cynicism, he seems more and more like the best thing the ’60s ever happened to. Sure outlasted Jerry Garcia, didn’t he?

7. Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!: When this Stax-based 20-song loss leader failed to take either critically or commercially, I thought Costello had blown it — no shock to me, but obviously a major disappointment to Mr. Costello, his many believers, and the Columbia Broadcasting System. But while Get Happy!! fared somewhat worse than any of his other albums in Pazz & Jop, it received such strong and varied support that I’m now convinced of the opposite — that Costello’s craft and commitment bespeak the kind of staying power that keeps some critical faves in the running till they finally break through on sheer persistence.

6. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Doc at the Radar Station: Beefheart is a genius and an utter original, but that doesn’t make him the greatest artist ever to rock down the pike — his unreconstructed eco-freak eccentricity impairs his aesthetic as well as his commercial outreach. But never before have his nerve-wracking harmonies and sainted-spastic rhythms been captured in such brutal living color — if only he’d had saved some melodic secrets for side two, this might be the undeniable masterpiece he’s always deserved.

5. Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition: In which former three-chord savage John Lydon reveals himself as yet another arty primitivist — a sharp, sophisticated one. PIL reorganizes the punk basics — ineluctable pulse, attack guitar — into a full-bodied, superaware white dub with disorienting European echoes, an ideal counterpart to the civilized bestiality of Lydon’s vocal drama. Much of this music is difficult, and some of it fails, but just about all of it makes me stop and listen. And “Poptones” could have been my single of the year.

4. Pretenders: It’s dumb to put them down as pop — pop hasn’t come this far yet and I’m not sure it ever will. They get on the radio, sure, but their structures are too open-ended (compare the anal-compulsive neatness of Squeeze or Elvis C.) and their passions too out-front. And no matter where they get their hooks, they have their own melodic style. Admittedly, though, Chrissie Hynde is a little thin in the soul — even her nastiness doesn’t sound as if there’s much behind it.

3. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light: In which David Byrne conquers his fear of music in a visionary cross-cultural synthesis, clear-eyed and rather detached yet almost mystically optimistic. One song celebrates a young terrorist, another recalls John Cale at his spookiest, a third turns failure into a religious experience. Yet when Byrne shouts out that “the world moves on a woman’s hips” — not exactly a new idea in rock and roll — it sounds as if he’s just discovered the secret of life for himself. Which he probably has.

2. Bruce Springsteen’s The River: All the standard objections apply — his beat is still clunky, his singing overwrought, his sense of significance shot through with Mazola Oil. But his writing is at a peak, and he’s grown into a bitter empathy. These are the wages of young romantic love among those who get paid by the hour. Maybe he’s giving forth with so many short fast ones because those circles of frustration and escape seem even more desperate now.

1. The Clash’s London Calling: Oh yeah, and then there was the Clash. If this was the Year of the Lollapalooza, the Clash was the Lollapalooza of the Lollapaloozas. Their triple-LP, Sandanista!, finished 55th as an import and is sure to come in a lot higher next year, and they also put out a 10-inch “EP” that had 34 minutes of music on it. But this was the biggest one, supported by all but the bared-teeth brigade and the shameless sticks-in-the-mud. It generated an urgency and vitality and ambition (that Elvis P. cover!) which overwhelmed the pessimism of its leftist world-view. And it was good for an actual hit single. I mean, what else is there?

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Selected Ballots

BILLY ALTMAN: Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 15; T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma) 15; The Cars: Panorama (Elektra) 15; Public Image, Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 10; Creedence Clearwater Revival: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (Fantasy) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 10; Joan Jett (Blackheart) 10; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5; Squeeze: Argybargy (A&M) 5.

LESTER BANGS: Public Image Ltd.: The Metal Box/Second Edition (Virgin import/Island) 30; Otis Rush: Groaning the Blues (Flyright import) 30; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5; The Sex Pistols: The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (Virgin import) 5; The Clash: Black Market Clash (Epic Nu-Disk) 5; The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue (Rolling Stones) 5; Captain Beefheart and His [sic] Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 5; Ramones: End of the Century (Sire) 5; Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (Ze) 5; Sid Vicious: Sid Sings (Virgin import) 5.

LESTER BANGS: Au Pairs: “Diet”/”It’s Obvious” (021 import); Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (Migraine EP); Mars (Lust Unlust EP); The Mekons: “Snow” (Red Rhino); The Clash: “Bankrobber” (CBS import); Lipps, Inc.: “Funkytown” (Casablanca); Ramones: “I Wanna Be Sedated” (RSO); Was (Not Was): “Wheel Me Out” (ZE/Antilles); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories”/”Another” (Virgin import); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99).

TOM CARSON: The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 20; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 20; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 12; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 9; Peter Townshend: Empty Glass (Atco) 9; The Brains (Mercury) 9; David Bowie: Scary Monsters (RCA) 6; Ramones: End of the Century (Sire) 5; Iron City Houserockers: Have a Good Time (but Get Out Alive) (MCA) 5; The Rossington Collins Band (MCA) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): S.O.S. Band: “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” (Tabu); Queen: “Another One Bites the Dust” (Elektra); George Benson: “Give Me the Night” (Warner Bros.); Rod: “Shake It Up (Do the Boogaloo)” (Prelude); Cameron: “Get It Off” (Salsoul); Gayle Adams: “Your Love Is a Life Saver” (Prelude); Gene Chandler: “Does She Have a Friend?” (20th Century); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury); Teena Marie: “Behind the Groove” (Gordy); The Brothers Johnson: “Stomp!” (A&M).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 14; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 14; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 14; Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (Factory import) 12; Arthur Blythe: Illusions (Columbia) 10; The Brains (Mercury) 7; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA) 8; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 7; The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”/”Atmosphere” (Factory 12-inch); Delta 5: “You” (Rough Trade import); Robert Wyatt: “At Last I Am Free” (Rough Trade import); Pylon: “Cool”/”Dub” (Caution); Suicide: “Dream Baby Dream” (Red Star); The Rolling Stones: “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury); NRBQ: “Me and the Boys” (Red Rooster); The Jam: “Going Underground” (Polydor import).

BARRY MICHAEL COOPER: Junie: Bread Alone (Columbia) 15; Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 15; Devo: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros.) 12; Herbie Hancock: Mr. Hands (Columbia) 12; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 8; Al Green: The Lord Will Make a Way (Myrrh) 8; Cameo: Feel Me (Casablanca) 5; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5.

MIKE FREEDBERG: Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) 15; Change: The Glow of Love (Warner Bros.) 15; Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 15; Geraldine Hunt: No Way (Prism) 10; Diana Ross: Diana (Motown) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Faces (Columbia) 10; George Benson: Give Me the Night (Warner Bros.) 10; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 5; Teena Marie: Irons in the Fire (Gordy) 5; Cameo: Feel Me (Casablanca) 5.

VAN GOSSE: Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Generation X: “Dancing with Myself” (Chrysalis 12-inch import); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury 12-inch); The Tamlins: “Baltimore” (Taxi 12-inch import); Pylon: “Cool”/”Dub” (Caution); Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Christine” (Polydor import); Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Dub)” (Motown 12-inch import); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99); Split Enz: “I Got You” (A&M); Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Israel” (Polydor import).

JOHN PICCARELLA: The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 15; Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 12; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 12; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 9; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 8; Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (Reprise) 8; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 8; The Psychedelic Furs (Columbia) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 15; Image Publique S.A.: Paris Au Printemps (Virgin import) 15; Iron City Houserockers: Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive) (MCA) 15; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 15; Carlene Carter: Musical Shapes (Warner Bros.) 15; X: Los Angeles (Slash) 5; Roxy Music: Flesh + Blood (Atco) 5; Black Uhuru: Sensimilla (Mango) 5; Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (Warner Bros.) 5; Dire Straits: Making Movies 5.

GREIL MARCUS: The Beat: “Twist & Crawl” (Go-Feet import 12-inch); J. Geils Band: “Love Stinks” (EMI America); Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Refugee” (Backstreet); Blondie: “Call Me” (Polydor 12-inch); The Clash: “Train in Vain” (Epic); Red Crayola: “Born in Flames” (Rough Trade import); The Beat: “Stand Down Margaret (Dub)” (Go-Feet import 12-inch); Delta 5: “You” (Rough Trade import); Tommy James: “Three Times In Love” (Millenium); Anemic Boyfriends: “Guys Are Not Proud” (Red Sweater).

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 30; Donna Summer: The Wanderer (Geffen) 17; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 12; Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 10; Van Morrison: Common One (Warner Bros.) 8; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 8; J. Geils Band: Love Stinks (EMI America) 5; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 5; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 5; Peter Townshend: Empty Glass (Atco) 5.

JON PARELES: Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (ZE) 20; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 10; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 10; Steve Reich: Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (ESM) 10; David Bowie: Scary Monsters (RCA) 10; Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 10; The Cars: Panorama (Elektra) 10; Laraaji: Ambient #3 Day of Radiance (Editions EG) 10; Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 5; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 5.

JON PARELES: Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Happy House” (Polydor import); Glenn Branca: “Lesson No. 1” (99); NRBQ: “Me and the Boys” (Red Rooster); The Dance: “Dance for Your Dinner” (ON import EP); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99); Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Rod Stewart: “Passion” (Warner Bros.); Paul Simon: “Late in the Evening” (Warner Bros.); The Method Actors: “This Is It” (Armageddon import EP); Colin Newman: “B”/”Classic Remains”/”Alone on Piano” (Beggars Banquet).

ANDY SCHWARTZ: The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 22; X: Los Angeles (Slash) 13; Joan Jett (Blackheart) 13; The Decline of Western Civilization (Slash) 12; Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (Ze) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 8; Echo & the Bunnymen: Crocodiles (Sire) 7; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 5; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 5; Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM) 5.

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Top 10 Albums of 1980

1. The Clash: London Calling (Epic)

2. Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia)

3. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire)

4. Pretenders: Pretenders (Sire)

5. Public Image, Ltd.: Second Edition (Island)

6. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin)

7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia)

8. Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla)

9. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.)

10. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.)

 

Top 10 Singles of 1980

1. Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury)

2. Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import)

3. Blondie: “Call Me” (Chrysalis)

4. (Tie) The Clash: “Train in Vain”/”London Calling” (Epic)
Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket” (Sire)

6. Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Tamla)

7. John Lennon: “(Just Like) Starting Over”/Yoko Ono: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (Geffen)

8. The Vapors: “Turning Japanese” (United Artists)

9. Lipps, Inc.: “Funkytown” (Casablanca)

10 (Tie) Diana Ross: “Upside Down” (Motown)
Bruce Springsteen: “Hungry Heart” (Columbia)

— From the February 9, 1981, 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 MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

Categories
Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Dying to Entertain Us: Celebrities Keep ODing on Opioids and No One Cares

When mid-century matinee idol Rock Hudson appeared alongside Doris Day at a press conference in July 1985 looking glassy-eyed and skeletal, the scattered members of the early AIDS activism movement cautiously rejoiced.

“We were thrilled, in a really kind of awful way, because we thought maybe this is it, maybe this is AIDS,” says David France, director of How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the influential New York City–based AIDS activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) that would form in 1987.

Early AIDS activists such as France certainly weren’t celebrating the prospect that Hudson might suffer from a highly stigmatized disease and face a swift and horrific death. Rather, in their desperation, as they watched fast-increasing numbers of their friends and lovers suffer such a fate, they had been praying for the power of celebrity to finally thrust AIDS into the national conversation.

They got their wish. After Hudson disclosed he had AIDS later that summer, the nation finally woke up to an epidemic that had been ravaging gay communities in major urban areas. During the short remainder of Hudson’s life, the beloved movie star and friend of first lady Nancy Reagan took to the activist pulpit, praising the sudden surge of public interest in tackling the burgeoning epidemic.

“That death began research,” France recalls of Hudson’s passing in October 1985.

The next year, the notoriously parsimonious President Ronald Reagan allowed a significant increase in the National Institutes of Health’s budget — for research into AIDS, a disease about which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists had first sounded the alarm five years earlier.

Flash forward three decades: Thanks in large part to a massive, sustained governmental investment, currently to the tune of more than $26 billion in annual federal dollars, the U.S. HIV epidemic is now increasingly being brought under control. At the same time, several city and state governments, such as those in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City and State, have waged expensive, multifaceted campaigns to help control their own local epidemics.

Consequently, HIV is effectively crossing paths with the contemporary opioid epidemic, as that particular scourge follows a devastating upward trajectory and the governmental response remains woefully inadequate.

According to CDC estimates, the number of new annual transmissions of HIV declined by 14.8 percent between 2008 and 2015, from 45,200 to 38,500, while during that same period annual deaths among people diagnosed with AIDS declined from about 16,000 to 12,800; approximately 1.1 million people now live with the virus. Meanwhile, at least 2.1 million U.S. residents have an opioid addiction, according to government estimates, with those recently struggling with the condition including a long roster of boldfaced names: Macklemore, Demi Lovato, Rush Limbaugh, Cindy McCain, Matthew Perry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eminem, Charlie Sheen (whose 2015 disclosure about his HIV status led to soaring testing rates), Courtney Love, and Steven Tyler. Some 42,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2016, a rate that has soared fivefold since 1999. During the current century, opioids have already cut short the lives of more than 350,000 Americans, including such celebrities as Glee’s Cory Monteith.

This year, the federal government is ponying up some $27 billion for overall drug control efforts, including $16 billion for enforcement and interdiction and $11 billion for treatment and prevention. Much of this spending is earmarked for tackling the opioid epidemic. But public health experts believe such figures remain paltry given the scope of the opioid crisis, particularly because of insufficient support for what an increasingly widespread consensus says should be at the core of the U.S. response: evidence-based addiction treatment.

“We’re spending too little to address the epidemic, and you get what you pay for,” Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, says of the federal government’s “anemic” efforts so far. Looking to the future, he says, “Treatment costs are going to be enormous, but so is the cost of inaction.”

***

In April 2016, the legendary musician Prince died of what was eventually revealed as an accidental overdose of fentanyl, the extraordinarily powerful synthetic opioid painkiller that has swept through the U.S. drug supply in recent years. Eighteen months later, the same drug killed singer Tom Petty. Both entertainers fell prey to opioid use disorder the same way many Americans do: They were prescribed painkillers in this class — or in Prince’s case, he apparently got at least one physician to write prescriptions for him in someone else’s name — to treat chronic pain resulting from workplace-based physical trauma. For Prince, who had weathered long-term hip pain, dancing in heels for decades was his rarified version of a factory worker’s repetitive strain injury. Petty had recently concluded a nationwide tour he carried on with despite a hip fracture, on top of knee issues and emphysema.

These men’s awesome celebrity notwithstanding, the overall reaction to Prince and Petty’s overdoses — and to the opioid-driven losses before them of such other popular performers as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger — has amounted to nothing much when it comes to awakening Americans to the scope of the national crisis. By comparison, Rock Hudson’s death, as well as Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 that he had HIV, utterly jolted the national conversation about that epidemic.

Melissa Moore, deputy state director in the New York office of the national advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, reasons that Americans are disinclined to file a celebrity overdose in the same mental folder where they place personal worries that addiction, or HIV, may hit them where they live. Such drug-driven deaths are “looked at as a part of the fast and quick lifestyle of celebrities that isn’t for an average person,” Moore says.

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The public’s perception of the HIV and opioid epidemics — which do, of course, overlap given that injection drug use is a major risk factor for HIV transmission — have historically diverged in various other key ways. “People aren’t shocked by drug deaths or overdoses in a way that they are about a new and emerging infectious disease that they don’t understand,” says Kenyon Farrow, the former U.S. health policy director at the ACT UP offshoot nonprofit Treatment Action Group.

While AIDS was brand new during the Reagan era, the nation’s ebbs and flows of mass addiction to opioids date back more than 150 years. Today’s epidemic was brought on in part by excessive prescription of opioid painkillers after Purdue Pharma brought OxyContin to the market in 1995 and then aggressively promoted the drug as a pain-relieving godsend that boasted a low risk of addiction.

The current crisis actually represents history repeating itself. Following the Civil War, the United States saw a surge in the prescription of opioids such as morphine, codeine, and heroin, in part for battle wounds. The advent of modern chemistry in the early nineteenth century had given rise to the synthesis of such drugs, and the advent of hypodermic injection use for medications later that century fanned the flames of the epidemic. By 1900, 1 in 200 Americans were addicted to opioids, about the same rate as seen today.

Better training of the younger generation of physicians — older doctors were notorious for overprescribing opioids for a wide swath of conditions, from pain to diarrhea — helped contain that early epidemic, as did a series of major acts of Congress passed between 1890 and 1924 that progressively taxed opium and eventually banned its importation, required manufacturers to identify the components of medicinal products, and ultimately regulated opioids.

During the first few decades after World War II, addiction to opioids — particularly heroin — largely afflicted inner-city populations, in particular New York City’s. Throughout this period, occasional entertainer overdoses helped remind the general public of the dangers of opioids. Hank Williams, who suffered chronic pain due to a spinal condition, accidentally overdosed on morphine in 1953. During the post-counterculture era, heroin was behind the deaths of Janis Joplin and John Belushi.

***

Today, the stigmas associated with each epidemic powerfully mediate how people react to news of either HIV or opioid addiction. These involve not only deeply ingrained attitudes regarding race and class, but also by the question of whether individuals are seen to have brought HIV or addiction on themselves, and the perceived degree to which free will dictated their high-risk behaviors.

Early HIV activists moved mountains to combat the hostile attitudes society initially levied against those living with the virus. Media reports of celebrities such as Magic Johnson or Ryan White, the HIV-positive boy whose harsh discrimination at the hands of his middle-American town propelled him into the national spotlight, helped lend humanity to those living with the virus. White, in particular, seemed custom-made to inspire a more caring attitude toward people with AIDS: a sweet-faced boy who had contracted HIV “blamelessly” through hemophilia treatments and whose poetic last name, in tandem with his pale skin tone, projected a nonthreatening image of angelic purity to the nation’s racial majority.

Stigma toward those with HIV is generally driven by two main factors: fear of contagion, and judgment about what stigmatized behaviors an individual may have engaged in to contract HIV, including various forms of condomless, non-missionary-position, non-heterosexual sex, as well as injection drug use. Sex between men is, of course, much less stigmatized today than in the 1980s, when it was still illegal in half the states. But ignorance still abounds about how HIV is and is not transmitted, and that ignorance certainly drives people’s fear of contact with those living with the virus.

The predominantly white face of the opioid epidemic has helped drive a more forgiving public reaction to that crisis — a fact that invites painful historical parallels, given the harshly punitive response to people of color affected by the the heroin scourge of the 1960s and 1970s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

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Additionally, the American public may be more sympathetic toward those addicted to opioids because they tend to perceive the epidemic as largely driven by doctors prescribing painkillers to individuals with legitimate medical conditions. The truth is, most of those who misuse opioid pills obtain them without a prescription. Additionally, droves of those who initially became addicted to prescription painkillers have migrated to heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to obtain.

All this said, drug addiction remains one of the most highly stigmatized human conditions, a fact that significantly limits the ability for celebrity narratives to help inspire the nation’s reaction to the opioid epidemic.

“Katie Couric getting a colonoscopy and everyone going to check their colon is not the same as Katie Couric coming out and saying she struggles with heroin addiction,” says Kassandra Frederique, New York State director at Drug Policy Alliance. “Celebrity can only carry you so far when it comes to stigmatizing behaviors.”

***

Perhaps the most crucial difference between the AIDS and opioid epidemics lies in how each has inspired troops of activists to fight for the respective causes. David France notes that, compared with today’s population of individuals addicted to opioids, gay men provided a much richer pool for potential activist foot soldiers during the 15-year crisis period of the AIDS epidemic, because such men were often either facing death themselves or thought they were.

“My study of ACT UP has led me to believe that self-interest was [AIDS activism’s] major component and major driving influence,” France says.

By comparison, those addicted to drugs like heroin or Vicodin, France argues, may not see overdose as a clear and present danger — and so may be less inclined to fight for their lives and those of others by, say, joining an activist movement or howling at their elected representatives. Additionally, the everyday lives of those in the throes of addiction may be so chaotic or otherwise compromised that these individuals lack the wherewithal to commit themselves to activism and political organizing.

Oftentimes, however, family members are indeed motivated to advocate for change. According to France, it’s such moms, sisters, daughters, and nieces who contact him pleading him to make a documentary about the opioid crisis. 

“But they’re also not leaving their ordinary life to go full bore in the opioid movement,” he adds.

The comedian Russell Brand is one of the rare celebrities who has a history of opioid addiction and has thrown himself into advocacy work — although his is quite a problematic voice. In Brand’s 2012 documentary on addiction treatment, he is sharply critical of opioid substitution therapy such as methadone or buprenorphine. In the face of competing scientific evidence that supports such medically based treatment as an effective, if imperfect, means of reducing the risk of opioid-use relapse and overdose, Brand clings stubbornly to the abstinence-centered dogma of Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous as the preferred route to fighting the opioid crisis.

Celebrated photographer Nan Goldin, who suffered a recent bout of active opioid addiction that took hold after she was prescribed OxyContin for chronic wrist pain, has waged a vociferous and creative activist campaign against the Sackler family, the wealthy owners of Purdue Pharma. Calling for nonprofits to refuse donations from the highly philanthropic dynasty, she has orchestrated colorful, headline-grabbing protests at various art institutions, including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing.

Having started her own opioid-addiction-related advocacy group, Goldin is among those pushing for a massive, multipronged federal investment in combating the opioid epidemic, to the tune of $100 billion over the next decade. Called the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, or CARE, the proposed legislation is not as pie-in-the-sky utopic as the extraordinary price tag may make it sound. Importantly, CARE is modeled after the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, itself a multipronged federal program that passed with bipartisan zeal in 1990 — during a Republican presidency — and which has been reauthorized enthusiastically ever since. Today, that legislation provides about $2.3 billion annually in vital healthcare-based response to the HIV epidemic.

Repeating the success of the Ryan White Act on the opioid front would require a massive advocacy movement in the coming years. Longtime activist Jennifer Flynn Walker, director of mobilization and advocacy at the Center for Popular Democracy, argues that with a continued accumulation of grassroots organizing against the epidemic, such a corps of foot soldiers could harness the publicity generated by a future celebrity overdose and channel it into considerable progress.

“If Prince died next year, I think you would see the same kind of response,” she says, referring to the kind of impact that Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson had on the HIV movement, with “everybody going wearing overdose ribbons to the Oscars.”

If Walker is right, the next famous person to overdose on opioids could yield a tipping point. “The celebrity death,” she says, “only becomes the watershed moment because there was the base organizing happening first.”

Categories
Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Janelle Monáe Is Coming for the Throne

Spring is a season of blooming flowers and new beginnings. Or, if you’re Janelle Monáe, spring can be a time to don Georgia O’Keeffe–esque vagina flower pants. In the video for her newest single, “Pynk,” Monáe hops around in these pants — the head of her rumored girlfriend Tessa Thompson poking through the layers of pink, labial fabric — and sings, “Pink like the tongue that goes down…maybe/Pink like the paradise found.”

The single, released on April 10, is a barely tongue in…um…cheek ode to the female body and female sensuality. All four of the songs (“I Like That,” “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane”) released so far from Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, which drops April 27, are undeniably, hip-gyratingly sexy. But they also demonstrate that Monáe has significantly evolved as an artist since her 2013 album, Electric Lady. Monáe, in an album full of musical references, is staking a claim to the pop throne with her idols by her side.

The four new singles show more maturity than her 2015 release “Yoga,” which was sexy, fun even, but wasn’t layered — it had the same swagger as the new songs, but none of the depth. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now,” Monáe recently told the New York Times.

Monáe’s earlier work discussed sexuality but didn’t explore it. The songs were eye-winking, surface-level pop hits. On Dirty Computer, Monáe treats sexuality with the nuance it deserves, which situates her work alongside other seminal sexual pop artists such as Prince, Madonna, even Beyoncé.

For example, the most prominent sound on “Make Me Feel,” released in February, is the tongue click, a playful, sexual, silly sound — the sonic equivalent of a wink. But for Monáe it is so clearly more than that.

That tongue click connects her to Miriam Makeba, who recorded the traditional South African wedding song “Qongqothwane,” whose title translated to English means “knock-knock beetle” and refers to a dark beetle making a clicking sound by slamming its belly against the ground. Westerners refer to the song as the “clicking song” as a result of the clicking in the lyrics and in the background.

Clicks are not sounds that have been adopted into the English language, but rather, these sounds have originated, been kept alive, and are used today in African language and in African-inspired diasporic art. A click is certainly not a sound found in the white pop that has dominated the Top 40 in the 2010s. 

In addition to its historical importance, the clicking tongue sound is undeniably seductive.

For example, the sound popped up in Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album B side “Blow,” a song clearly about cunniligus. In the song, Beyoncé sings: “I’m-a lean back/Don’t worry it’s nothing major/Make sure you clean that/It’s the only way to get the/[click] Flavor.” There’s very little subtlety in incorporating a sound that can only be made with the tongue in a song so explicitly about oral sex. It’s sexy.

Monáe seems to reference that same idea in “Make Me Feel.” She uses the tongue click directly after lines like “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you” and “Should know by the way I use my compression.” That’s anything but subtle.

Monáe’s four recent singles are stacked with references, too. The bassline on “Make Me Feel” aligns closely to the bassline on Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines.” “Pynk” recalls the funkiness of the Go-Go’s. “I Like That” is an R&B anthem with elements of Nina Simone and Tammi Terrell. All share the spirit of Prince’s warbling synthesizers and production.

“Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds,” Monáe told Annie Mac of BBC’s Radio 1. Prince’s DJ Lenka Paris noted in a now-deleted Facebook post that Prince provided the bouncy synth line that traces through the clicking in the background of “Make Me Feel.” The obvious love story, and the use of magenta and deep blue light (coined “bisexual lighting”) in the video of that song aligns with Prince and the Revolution’s 1986 single “Kiss.”

No sound on “Make Me Feel” appears accidental. A great musician pays tribute to their heroes by showing admiration in a song. Any creator aims to reach a level of maturation where they can integrate all of their inspirations into one harmonious concept, where one sound doesn’t dominate the other. Monáe has done it. “Make Me Feel” is its own song, with its own catchy hook that has its own fun. Even if you miss one of the dozen or so historical references in the song, “Make Me Feel” is a certified banger nonetheless.

Each of the four new singles has an element that unites it with “Make Me Feel.” “Pynk” has the same background bubbly synth line. “Django Jane” has the same swagger. “I Like That” is just as buoyant, with a Prince-inspired rap squeezed in. These songs of self-empowerment and self-confidence are perhaps an indication that Monáe is about to truly, fully come into her own.

On “I Like That,” she compares herself to “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” But in 2018, America might finally be primed for Monáe’s queer, well-deserved major breakthrough into mainstream pop.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.