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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692608″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692586″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1991

1. Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC)

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

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

4. U2: Achtung Baby (Island)

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

6. Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh (Capitol)

7. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo)

8. Metallica: Metallica (Elektra)

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1991

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

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

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

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

5. Metallica: “Enter Sandman” (Elektra)

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

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

10. EMF: “Unbelievable” (EMI)

—From the March 3, 1992, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1983 Pazz & Jop: Who Else? A Goddamn Critics’ Band, That’s Who Else

Only rock critics will understand how such a thing could be, but for a while there it looked as if R.E.M.’s Murmur — known jocularly among skeptics as Mumble — might actually outdistance Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. This dire possibility reflected the ambivalence with which the most happening year in American pop since whenever filled those who make their livings (or at least cover their expenses) writing about rock and roll. Quintuple platinum or no quintuple platinum, rock critics found 1983 an overwhelming year in all the wrong ways. To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: “There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean).”

I know exactly what he means. Since the passion for music-that-matters defines rock criticism, every year voters worry that it’s becoming extinct. And since “matter” is as subjective a concept as “boring,” for some of them it does become extinct, whereupon they either start faking it or find a more remunerative vocation and play their old records a lot. But never before has the nay-saying reached such a pitch, and never before have I been so disinclined to explain it away. For years I’ve cited the continuing abundance of excellent albums, which many nay-sayers now readily acknowledge, as a healthy alternative to any perceived dearth of — how shall we say it? — intense significance. But while the flow in no way abated in 1983, I noticed an unwelcome new pattern in my listening — it was rare that I played any album for pleasure once I’d reviewed it, and even rarer that such pleasure went deeper than the aural surface. In fact, if I’d followed Lester Bangs’s dictum and arranged my list in strict order of turntable time, my top 10 would have comprised tuneful groove albums from Gilberto Gil to Neil Young. More specific modes of signification just didn’t sing to me.

I still believe that if more voters had more access to more music they might feel better about things. No doubt narrow-minded trend-hopping pseudointellectual sloth — epidemic among rock critics, as any empty-headed out-of-it antiintellectual good-for-nothing could tell you — contributes to this problem. But have a heart — so do time and money. Most critics are now semiprofessionals who buy or if they’re lucky trade for many of the records they hear, while those who remain on the mailing lists often work in offices where any noise louder than the muffled clickety of word processors is frowned upon. I was struck by the experience of Utility Poobah Steve Anderson, who got to know two of his top 10, Womack & Womack’s Love Wars and the Local Boys’ Moments of Madness, only because I slipped him my extra copies. How was he to figure out on his own that he’d take to those and not to the Blasters’ Non Fiction or Hilary’s Kinetic, which I also gave him? Worse still, how is he to guess which of a confusing, ill-reviewed bin of reggae or hardcore or funk or Brit-hit records to take a flier on? Full appreciation of democracy’s pluralistic bounty requires a pluralistic affluence which most rock critics are too marginal to enjoy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692489″ /]

And marginality gives rise to ambivalence like nobody’s business — cultural marginality even more than economic marginality. Early rock journalism was a subsistence living at best, but at least in the ’60s it was on the inside of a collective experience which combined pop reach and profitability with defiance of the so-called mainstream. The broad thrust of rock criticism ever since has been to sustain that paradoxical synthesis as popular rock and roll became the mainstream — hence what I like to call semi-popular music. But it’s been so long since pop reach and profitability seemed a natural part of rock and roll that for many younger critics (and musicians) the whole idea of, to choose a telling instance, vital top 40 radio seems like an insupportable contradiction. And these days it probably is. Yet ponder this mixed message. Not surprisingly in the absence of albums-that-matter, Pazz & Jop’s oft-heard singles-are-better-than-albums plaint swelled this year into a deafening unison chorus. And not very surprisingly, given the shape of the year, the singles list was dominated by biracial top 40 smashes rather than the customary indies and imports and new wave airplay hits and black dance records. What does seem strange is that for the first time more than half of the top 25 also appeared on the top 40 albums — the ones that don’t matter. In other words, the classic pop process in which music is tested by massive exposure and validated by public pleasure didn’t end up making our voters feel good. It didn’t instill in them that sense of pop community which rock criticism was invented to analyze and celebrate.

I accept in part the common sense explanation for this statistical oddity — that with singles where the action is, the best we can expect is half-assed albums with great singles on them. Indeed, lots of nay-sayers apply this analysis to Thriller itself. Of course, like incorrigible art-rocker Michael Bloom (“If I never hear ‘Beat It’ again it’ll be too soon”), some voters aren’t fans at all; about a quarter of the 207 P&J respondents weren’t sufficiently impressed with the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles to list him in albums, singles, or videos, all of which he topped. And while a 75 per cent response is phenomenal anyway — only “The Message” has ever equaled it — one doesn’t expect that the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis would have encountered even that much resistance at the time of, say, Rubber Soul. By now the natural orneriness of rock and rollers has been all but institutionalized in predictable patterns of reaction and polarization — Boston Rocker readers recently ranked Michael just below Quiet Riot and Duran Duran on their go-away list. I think Jackson’s achievement holds up so well critically that I wonder whether some of the scrupulously well-reasoned debunking to which he’s being subjected doesn’t have a lot of kneejerk in it — if it doesn’t signal a willful refusal of any pop community at all.

Not that I’d claim Thriller as the best LP of 1983 myself — it’s uneven enough that I suspect its biggest supporters of trying to bolster their dreams of pop community by ballot-stuffing. In fact, I ranked it 30 in 1982, and then exercised my option of upping it to 6 as a “late-breaking” 1983 album. (Thriller might have won even bigger if our rule — which allows any record receiving at least half its previous year’s total to carry that total over, with the earlier points subtracted when the same critic lists a record two years running — had been clearer.) For me and the voters, something similar happened in 1980 after MJ broke five singles off 1979’s Off the Wall, though back-to-back comparison with Thriller quickly destroyed my attraction to the fashionable minority theory that Off the Wall is the superior album. I do truly hope Michael isn’t planning to wed Brooke Shields on MTV in an all-out chart push for “The Lady in My Life.” But for me every Thriller hit except “P.Y.T.” has thrived on massive exposure and public pleasure, including “The Girl Is Mine” (which I’ll take over “Michelle,” Rubber Soul fans) and “Thriller” itself. In fact, “Thriller” is the rare song that’s improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of showbiz power for Michael (and his fans) and the not-quite-a-joke scariness of “the funk of 40,000 years” for (Michael and) his (white) fans.

One sign of how lukewarm Pazz & Joppers felt about albums this year is how few points they alotted the ones they liked — a mean of 10.6 (and a median of 10.0) in the top 15, as compared to 11.3 in 1982 (when the scarcity of albums-that-matter also occasioned much gnashing of teeth) and 10.9 in the two previous years. But Jackson averaged 13.1, and R.E.M. was right behind at 12.8, a remarkable index of collective enthusiasm in albums with so many mentions. For some critics, in other words, Murmur was a semipop event the way Thriller was a pop event. And significantly, only 29 named both albums.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692487″ /]

While willing to grant that my failure to make a deep connection with R.E.M. may be generational (see Managing Poobah Tom Carson’s explication de texte), I’m with the Jacksonites — choosing Murmur as a Pick Hit over the Blasters’ amazingly durable Non Fiction was my personal miscall of the year, and as I relisten dutifully all that happens is that Murmur slips further down my list. A “consistent and enjoyable” record, sure, steeped in pop usages ripe for rehab from its hooks to its guitars, from Mitch Easter’s deceptively offhand textures to Michael Stipe’s deceptively inarticulate soul. But what it has to say (assuming Carson’s not explicating through his hat) defines it irrevocably as a critics’ record, not just in the know-nothing way that term is used to dismiss disquieting innovations, but in its central preoccupations. That is, Murmur’s subject is the dilemma of cultural displacement to which the broad thrust of rock criticism addresses itself, and while I take this dilemma seriously, I go back far enough to crave pop outreach nevertheless — even when the central preoccupation of the music involved is the glamour and danger of the star system, which is in a sense the dilemma’s obverse and in a sense its cause.

Which brings us, yes it does, to video. I didn’t spend much time pondering my decision to substitute a video poll for last year’s rather inconclusive compilations competition; I just wanted to give traditionalists and retro-rockers a full franchise by opening the album vote to reissues. (The 16th-place, 19.8-points-per-mention finish of Jerry Lee Lewis’s import-only 12-disc Sun Sessions box, virtually unavailable as a promo, was some show of strength; The Jackie Wilson Story came in 68th, The Best of Slim Harpo 74th, and Big Maybelle’s Okeh Sessions 95th.) But the voters gave the video option a lot of thought, as their quoted outpourings only begin to suggest, and a full one-third declined to participate for reasons ranging from regretful ignorance to indignant avowals of the ineluctable modality of the audible. This negative fervor seems fishy to me; beyond all the sociopolitical analyses and perception theories, many of which I go along with, I smell turf war. I’ve already stated my own objections to videos in general and MTV in particular, but I like some and even learn from a few. Anyway, if displaced adpeople are going to use rock and roll to power their shitty little movies, I want to provide the most demanding rock and rollers with a chance to give them what for.

The voters did just that, selecting not songs but audiovisual artifacts — the top five were also top-25 singles, but in radically scrambled order, while only one of the remaining selections even finished among the top 40. What’s more, MTV’s effect on the rest of the poll was negligible — the only artists the critics might have underplayed without it are the Eurythmics (oh well), Eddy Grant (lose some, win some), and (mustn’t forget him) Michael Jackson. Basically, that’s a plus — I go through all this because I believe that people who convert their musical perceptions into written discourse have a special role in keeping the music honest. But there’s also a sense in which it’s a minus — just one more example of how unremarkable the results were. I mean, Men at Work’s Cargo surely deserved a mention or two.

In the end, I don’t blame the poll’s conservative drift on the voters so much as on the year. With three of eight albums repeating from 1982, it was the worst year for black artists since 1978, which given the singles list should signal Stevie Wonder to get hopping and George Clinton to move his release schedule up to October or so. It was also a terrible year for women, with Exene Cervenka, Annie Lennox, and the recrudescent Linda Ronstadt (come back, Ol’ Blue Eyes, all is forgiven) the only finishers, though Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, and Yoko Ono are already righting that for 1984. Blacks and women would have done better if the list had gone down to 50 thusly: UB40’s 1980-83, Divinyls, Moses, Culture Club’s Kissing, Jett, Midnight Oil, Ramones, ZZ Top, Green, Plimsouls. Offsetting the strongest finish in almost a decade by Mr. Bob Dylan, who admittedly made his strongest album in almost a decade but still hasn’t made me like it, was the heartening shortfall of expedient work by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and overpraised work by the Police.

Of somewhat more concern is the relative paucity of rookies — not first-time old-timers like Tom Waits and Paul Simon, but fresh blood. I count maybe seven up-and-comers, the fewest in many years, with Aztec Camera, Culture Club, and the Replacements the only ones that inspire much hope in me; this is what happens when young avant-gardists hang in there, I suppose, but it portends hardening of the arteries nevertheless. Even more distressing is what happened to independent labels. Except for Twin/Tone — home of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s irrepressible Replacements, the biggest and most gratifying surprise of the poll — and Richard Thompson’s Hannibal operation, only the reissue specialists at Charly/Sun and the gloom merchants at Factory/Factus fully qualify. The continuing semi-independence of Mango (where the marginal finish of 1982’s fourth-ranked Sunny Adé, whose Ajoo also finished 90th, makes the juju king look more like a critical novelty than is flattering to him or the critics) and Slash (where the Violent Femmes, though maybe not the Blasters, would have done just as well without Warners) is better than nothing, I guess, but I’m worried about what the latest pop explosion could mean for the visibility of the alternative capitalists who provided me with more than two dozen of my favorite 1983 albums. Trickle-down theory has never held much appeal for me.

Independent labels from the Brill Building manqué of New York dance music did gain one on the singles list, weathering the contemporary-hits blitz just as the Lyres’ good little Ace of Hearts garage-band simulacrum did. And aided by a time rule designed to favor rookies and indies (which disqualified well-supported “mini-LPs” by the Style Council, Roxy Music, and U2), both categories made big noise on the EP list, with Los Lobos and Let’s Active the T-Bones and R.E.M.s of the year and the powerful outreach of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (whose record has been picked up and improved by EMI America) a promise of Flying Burritos to come. Since the EP is speed-rock’s natural medium, I’m also pleased that this year two hardcore-identified items finished in the symbolic money.

I could go on, believe me, but I’d only be objectifying my own feelings, which more than usual are in no special harmony with those of the electorate. This is only appropriate. My pet metaphor for P&J ’83 takes its cue from the surprising showings of Reed and Richman and Thompson and Dylan and Newman and Parker and Waits and Simon, not to mention X’s John Doe and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and the Blasters’ Dave/Phil Alvin. Every one of these artists has the lineaments of what in 1969 or so began to be called a singer-songwriter; since it’s known by now that songwriters (and singers) are most effective when they conceive music as well as melodies (and words), they work closely with bands, but they’re still basically expressing themselves, giving private responses a form that’s musical before it’s either collective or public. I wouldn’t sign off before offering up my own hard-earned lists — longer than ever this year to underline my continuing faith in pluralism. But I want to leave as much space as possible for other voters to give their private responses public (and in total context even collective) form. It won’t keep the music honest by itself, but maybe it’ll help a little.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

2. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.)

3. Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire)

4. X: More Fun in the New World (Elektra)

5. The Police: Synchronicity (A&M)

6. U2: War (Island)

7. Lou Reed: Legendary Hearts (RCA Victor)

8. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Jonathan Sings! (Sire)

9. Richard Thompson: Hand of Kindness (Hannibal)

10. Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (Epic)

2. The Police: “Every Breath You Take” (A&M)

3. The Pretenders: “Back on the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

4. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (Tommy Boy)
Prince: “Little Red Corvette” (Warner Bros.)

6. Eddy Grant: “Electric Avenue” (Epic)

7. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic)

8. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (Sugarhill)

9. Run-D.M.C.: “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.s” (Profile)

10. Talking Heads: “Burning Down the House” (Sire)

— From the February 28, 1984, 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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692487″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692485″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692483″ /]

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)

[related_posts post_id_1=”692481″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

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.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings Living NYC ARCHIVES Theater VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

ELECTRIC COMPANY

While not everything on Richard Thompson’s new Electric fits the title, more than enough does to justify its underlying power-trio impetus. Based in Los Angeles, the British guitarist-songwriter has been honing his approach to what he calls “anglocana” since 1967, when he galvanized the seminal folk-rock group Fairport Convention with his Celtic-overdrive approach to electric guitar. A few perfect albums later—including Henry the Human Fly, Shoot Out the Lights (with former wife Linda Thompson), and his Grizzly Man score—Thompson continues to mine Britain’s folk roots for ass-kicking hey-nonny-nonny as well as darkly amusing social studies such as “Stuck on the Treadmill” and heartfelt paeans like “My Enemy.” Drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk fill out his self-described “power wimp” trio tonight.

Tue., Feb. 5, 7 p.m., 2013

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

Richard Thompson

Having practiced, practiced, practiced for four decades in the folk collective Fairport Convention, with ex-wife Linda, and on his own, English folk-rocker Richard Thompson is now playing Carnegie Hall. The classical institution’s website calls him “one of the greatest guitarists of all time,” likely because of how he plays his homeland’s traditional melodies alongside blues music in equal measure. But the real reason Thompson is a legend is because of his effortless, confessional songs and the way he innately knows when to dig into a heavy part or to pull back for some lighter reflection: something he shares with Carnegie Hall’s best classical performers.

Sat., March 19, 10 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Sam Bush+Solas

The mandolin king of modern bluegrass—or Newgrass, if you must—plays the diminutive instrument in a percussive, jazzy, and yet highly emotive style while naturally reflecting its Bill Monro-vian legacy. Bush and band are powerhouse performers, too. America’s best Irish band, Solas, plays plenty of jigs and reels; they also reinterpret dark gems by Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, and others with a remarkably light touch.

Wed., March 10, 8 p.m., 2010

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Phosphorescent

Matthew Houck, the indie-folk artist who goes by Phosphorescent, writes incandescent odes to Americana in the vein of Richard Thompson, Neil Young, and the artist to whom he’s most often compared, Will Oldham. Recently, however, the rusty-haired singer has been dwelling in others’ songs. His last album, To Willie, contained 11 covers of songs by the original redheaded stranger, Willie Nelson, which he coated in reverb and not much else. With Tune-Yards and Mike Bones.

Sat., Sept. 5, 9 p.m., 2009

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Hearing Silence

This was the year I sorta became a Quaker. “Sorta” means I went to two worship services in five weeks and started thinking seriously about whether I was a pacifist. It also means I’m lousy at getting out of bed on Sunday mornings. God didn’t enter into it, exactly; God was and is always there. It’s a matter of self-definition and, perhaps, self-discipline.

Quakers practice silent worship. Silence is a damn valuable thing for someone who listens to music for both business and pleasure. I do believe that one can listen to too much music; one needs a palate-clearing from time to time. But silent worship is hard work for someone who is attuned to listening, to seeking patterns. We’re supposed to be waiting on the Spirit, but so far I’ve been most impressed by the way the chairs in the meeting room creak and groan softly.

I’ve always been suspicious of the power of music. I’ve seen Christians felled like dominoes by the power of a heart-wrenching soprano, only to recant later. I’ve caught myself swaying or tapping a toe to some song whose lyrics, upon reflection, scare the crap out of me. My favorite song in first grade, which we sang in a very liberal Maryland school under the guidance of our hippie teacher, was “Marching to Pretoria.”

Sometimes I struggle mightily to separate mind from heart—especially when it comes to the music of Richard Thompson, which touches me in a very individual way. Other times, I just succumb. I did a lot of succumbing this year: to the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band at New Orleans JazzFest; to shows by Dar Williams, Nanci Griffith, and Herman’s Hermits, none of which I expected to like; to the rebel jug band Asylum Street Spankers performing a children’s show at the Floyd World Music Festival in Virginia. And to maybe 16 Thompson shows; I tend to lose count.

I don’t go to Quaker services for silence. I go because in that silence is the ever present possibility, a space for revelation.


Churchton, Maryland

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Technology THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Werner Herzog’s Bizarre and Hypnotic Film

Front-loaded with multiple Best Doc awards, Werner Herzog’s bizarre and hypnotic film is actually the work of two men, two competing visions, two dialectical agendas: Herzog’s scrupulous, pragmatic love-hate for the unruly natural world, and the self-portrait of Timothy Treadwell, the amateur conservationist and budding tele-zoologist who was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in 2003. A failed actor, ex-surfer, and soul-searching recovered drinker, Treadwell found meaning by installing himself as the “guardian” of Alaskan bears for 13 long summers in Katmai National Park. Videotaping the animals—and himself, for hundreds of hours talking to the camera as if he were in fact taping a television show—Treadwell is a bedazzling non-celebrity, but it’s not merely the disconnect between Treadwell’s Mutual of Omaha
naïveté and the potential for feral disaster that gains momentum as Herzog’s film progresses. It’s clear that Treadwell, self-sanctifying in the woods with only a lens to talk to, identified more with the bears than with the society that had exiled him, and his mission in the wilderness is persistently constructed as a Discovery Channel series that was never green-lit but got shot all the same. Grizzly Man is many things, including a much more resonant and complex portrait of TV-poisoned narcissism than Tarnation. The DVD comes only with a featurette about the music (by Richard Thompson)—the film is already its own Herzog audio track, one supposes—but in case the Herzog doc jones has got you good, New Yorker has released some of his short films to DVD, including his aghast mediation on Midwestern livestock auctioneers How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976) and the legendary climb-up-an-active-volcano death wish La Soufriére (1977).

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Listings Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Craft and Lies

Pick Hits

AMY RIGBY
Little Fugitive
(Signature Sounds, P.O. Box 106, Whately MA 01093)

Trying to be hardheaded, I ask myself how the soul-horned “It’s Not Safe” or the wan “Always With Me” would sound on an album by someone similar I don’t care for—Aimee Mann, or Gillian Welch. The answer is that a differently arranged “It’s Not Safe” would be a highlight for either, and that the mournful “Always With Me” is there for mood and pace. A cover sticker quotes the claim that she’s as consistent as Richard Thompson or John Prine, but Thompson hasn’t been her match lyrically for decades, and Prine, bless his heart, has recorded one album of new material since 1995. It really is quite simple—no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby’s realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996. She’s the best, plus a fine singer in an apt doing-the-dishes mode. Not counting the heart-tugging “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” my current fave is “So Now You Know,” in which a beloved tells her perfect man how she was once a slut. “Year of the Binge” could be about the same woman. Who almost certainly isn’t Rigby—when would she have had the time? But the mod ex-housewife knows her well.

BALKAN BEAT BOX
(JDub, 111 Eighth Avenue 11th Floor, NYC, 10011)

Former Gogol Bordello horn man Ori Kaplan moves in with Big Lazy’s Tamir Muskat, the Israeli-born drummer who faced down Gypsy punk Eugene Hutz in J.U.F. last year. Everything else is friends and programming, with a party feel more relaxed than expected despite the fact that their CVs assuredly include weddings. The drumbeats remain edgily electronic. But the bass lines propelling the dance, and the horns and vocals flavoring it, are sweeter than in Gogol Bordello or Big Lazy—with a discernible sensuality putting flesh on the fun. Ethnically, and politically, the idea is that Morocco and Bulgaria are one place—a lie longing to become a dream. A MINUS

AMADOU & MARIAM
Dimanche à Bamako
(Nonesuch)

No Malians more eagerly downplay their nation’s sun-slowed intensity than this Parisian couple, so it was a good idea to introduce them to Manu Chao, whose breakthrough concept gentled up international sounds into reggae lite with brains. Though the pair’s warp and weave are softened as a result, the beat remains theirs, and though they’re less brainy than Chao, there’s bite in their ineluctable Malian-ness. For social content, they take on the danger truck drivers pose to giraffes, hippopotamuses, elephants, chickens, and children. A MINUS

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS
Mercurial
(Spanks-a-Lot, P.O. Box 49799, Austin TX 78765-9799)

At their most forced when Christina Marrs plays up the sex angle—”Mojo Working,” “Sugar in My Bowl”—and their most audacious when they mix genres big-time, as in the (uncredited) “interpolations” (as they say on hip-hop albums, where money might change hands) of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Two Steps” into “Hick Hop” and Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” into “Tight Like That,” this nouveau jug band from Austin T-X outdoes itself on three punkier covers: a letter-perfect “Dance This Mess Around” (B-52’s, kidz), a modernized “TV Party” (Black Flag), and, best of all, a gun-toting “Paul Revere,” complete with “Beastie Boys Boogie” coda. B PLUS

GABY LITA BEMBO AND ORCHESTRE STUKAS DE ZAì
Kita Mata ABC
(RetroAfric, P.O. Box 26072, London SW10 0YA England)

Although ’80s soukous is obviously sleeker, only those who know early rumba will get how uncouth and just plain pop this unjustly unrenowned ’70s act was. Full-band choruses are deployed—”You-you-you-you-you-you-you.” Whistles are blown, scripted jokes exchanged. Sometimes the guitars teeter where they should ripple, sometimes they go veryfast, and I read where one showboat admired the way Jimi played with his teeth. Teens especially loved them. But a ball was had by all. A MINUS

BLACKALICIOUS
The Craft
(Anti-, c/o Epitaph, 2798 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood CA 90026)

There’s no more accomplished crew in alt-rap, and though that can make their messages seem slick sometimes, on this break with UniMoth their booming beats, lucid raps, and articulate rhymes are technically miraculous. The Lifesavas, George Clinton, and ally-for-life Lyrics Born—whose deep rapid-fire takes the quick-lipped Gift of Gab to Mount Sinai—vary the flowetry better than Floetry, and most tracks offer what we outside of hit radio call hooks. With “World of Vibrations” and “The Craft” bookending metathematically, high points include the uplifting “Supreme People,” “Your Move,” and “The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown” and two songs about women. “Powers” describes a queen, “Side to Side” a skank. Musically, both gals get respect. A MINUS

BRAKES
Give Blood
(Rough Trade, Chelsea Hotel, Room 103, 222 West 23 Street, NYC, 10011)

The singer from British Sea Power joins three even lesser U.K. alt-rock notables in 16 short-and-shorter ditties about their scenester lives. Some observers classify these ditties “country-punk,” while other crankily insist they’re “anti-folk,” proving mainly that nobody knows what to make of simple little guitar-band songs on a scene where everyone’s busy refining his or her artistic vision. But if you believe as I do that the alt-rock subculture means more than almost any individual alt-rocker’s vision, they’re an up. Four bohemian fellas with a sense of humor who relate actively to their friends and lovers, despise Dick Cheney, and get wasted some—the last of which they’ll cut down on. A MINUS

CANTANKEROUS
(Tommy Boy, 120 Fifth Avenue, 7th Floor, NYC 10011)

Like the Lords of Acid after the cops broke up the party, these masked dancehall-industrial Brits sing about sex and money as if they’d as soon kill a rich guy as hear him squeal. I say “guy” because “Shove my nigger-loving pussy in your inbred mouth” doesn’t sound like a lesbian domination fantasy to me. And this is only the EP, with an album due in January. Can they keep up the pace? Depends on how angry they are—in a world where there’s always more to be mad about. A MINUS

THE ROLLING STONES
A Bigger Bang
(Virgin)

I’m obviously not to be trusted, since when I finally pulled out my vinyl on Dirty Work, which nobody else likes, I still loved its booming Steve Lillywhite Charlie, its studious chicken-scratch Keith, its bitterness and cynicism and spiritual desperation. On this one desperation is in remission. But despite its lack of an anthem to replace “Start Me Up,” it certainly beats Tattoo You or anything else going back to Exile except Some Girls. Long the weak link, Mick—come on: Keith and Charlie are gods, Ron is for sound effects, and Darryl Jones is an improvement—once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his “vulnerability,” but I’m touched that he cares enough to lie about it. Together with clear evidence of prolonged cooperation between or among the principals (meaning two-man songwriting and a living groove, respectively), the effort suffices to provide or simulate the mattering considered so crucial in veteran bands. It also helps that the opener really rocks. As for the anti-Bush song, duh. Next time they should vet their corporate sponsor instead. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

COLDPLAY
X&Y
(Capitol)

Tunewise, this is the craftiest of their well-crafted albums. Conceived as a boy group, showing girls who long to believe it that not every guy is a jock, a thug, a lothario, or a male-bonded mook, they might even have their uses. Conceived as a pop alternative to U2 and Radiohead, however, they’re an argument for death metal. Precise, bland, and banal, their sensitivity emotionless and their musicality never surprising, they’re the definition of a pleasant bore—easy to tune out, impossible to care for. B


Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

HUSTLE AND FLOW
(Atlantic)

What the fools who claim Djay’s crunk success isn’t credible don’t mention is the reason—he’s too smart and too nice (Djay feat. Shug, “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp”; Juvenile feat. Skip & Wacko, “Body Language”; Djay, “Whomp That Trick”).

BETTY LAVETTE
I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise
(Anti-, c/o Epitaph, 2798 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood CA 90026)

Well-culled material sung harder than necessary, which was probably the idea (“Sleep to Dream,” “How Am I Different”).

BABYFACE
Grown & Sexy
(Arista)

Pretty smart for a love man, less so for a deposed record exec who worships Curtis Mayfield and toured with Vote for Change (“Sorry for the Stupid Things,” “Good 2 Be in Love”).

BANTU FEAT. AYUBA
Fuji Satisfaction
(Piranha, Carmerstr 11, 10623 Berlin, Germany)

Europeanized Islamo-Yoruba Afrobeat strives to please (“Fuji Satisfaction,” “Oya”).

NYBOMA
Nyboma & Kamalé Dynamique
(Stern’s Africa, 71 Warren Street, NYC 10007)

Early-’80s soukous by one of Quatre count-’em Quatre étoiles (“Doublé Doublé,” “Amba”).

TRANSPLANTS
Haunted Cities
(La Salle/Atlantic)

Gangsta punk revisited, broader musically and narrower lyrically (“Gangsters and Thugs,” “Crash and Burn”).

MIKE DOUGHTY
Haughty Melodic
(ATO, 157 Chambers St., 12th floor, New York, NY 10007)

A clever solo artist who once led a great band (“Busting Up a Starbucks,” “American Car”).

THE WITNESSES
Tunnel Vision
(Howler, 31 Union Square West Suite 9A, NYC 10003)

It’s only rock ‘n’ roll and they execute it (“I Should Not Have to Ask,” “Panic Attack”).

GO BETTY GO
Nothing Is More
(Side One Dummy, Box 2350, LA CA 90078)

Chicana punks rise above the tough act (“Laugh Again,” “Unread”).

DOVES
Some Cities
(Capitol)

Battling banal balefulness, they cop from “Heat Wave” and warm up (“Black and White Town,” “Some Cities”).

THE DANDY WARHOLS
Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars
(Capitol)

What they get for assuming psychedelia, futurism, and the drone are the same thing (“Down Like Disco,” “All the Money or the Simple Life Honey”).

HORACE X
Strategy
(Omnium, P.O. Box 7367, Minneapolis MN 55407)

Comfier in its ska-polka pan-everythingism, and less galvanizing (“She Want,” “Strategy”).


Choice Cuts

R. KELLY
“Trapped in the Closet Chapter 2,” “Trapped in the Closet Chapter 4,” “Trapped in the Closet Chapter 3,” “Trapped in the Closet Chapter 1,” “Trapped in the Closet Chapter 5”
(TP.3 Reloaded, Jive)

NIKKA COSTA
“Till I Get to You”
(Can’tneverdidnothin’, Virgin)

THE INCREDIBLE CASUALS
“I’ll Do Anything”
(Nature Calls, Iddy Biddy)

CHRISTINE LAVIN
“One of the Boys”
(Folk Zinger, Appleseed)


Duds

CRIME MOB
(Crunk Incorporated/BME/Reprise)

MIKE DOUGHTY
Skittish/Rockity Roll
(ATO)

EMBRACE
Out of Nothing
(Lava)

KHALED & FRIENDS
Ya-Rayi
(Wrasse)

PAUL MCCARTNEY
Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard
(Capitol)