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

2001 Pazz & Jop: Not Just Your Old Man’s Takeover

Want to know something else that happened September 11? Sure you do. The Voice’s since-downsized Web radio station first “aired” a show we’d recorded five days earlier to coincide with the release of what I’d dubbed, without the slightest originality or hesitation, “Album of the Year”: Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft.” Less than two plays into my late-August advance, as the debut “single” “Po’ Boy” came up again at track 10, I’d become convinced Dylan would win the 28th or 29th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Songful, funny, rocking, pro-life, it was to his runaway 1997 winner Time Out of Mind as, say, PJ Harvey’s Stories of the City was to Is This Desire? Moreover, there was no competition — no Stankonia, no Car Wheels, no Miseducation, not even a Play or 69 Love Songs. Before it had moved copy one, it was a bigger shoo-in than “Get Ur Freak On.”

So please, enough with the dumb idea that the world-gone-wrong events of “Love and Theft” ’s release date induced critics to overvalue a putatively prophetic album. “Love and Theft” was always going to win big, and it did — by most measures, bigger than any album in poll history. How did I know this? Because there is such a thing as aesthetic quality, and on “Love and Theft” it runneth over. Whatever guff musos put out about Dylan’s crack road band, this quality is overwhelmingly verbal. The old-school licks and phrasing would mean bubkes if they didn’t set off and flesh out his best lyrics since whenever. Like the Avalanches, Dylan loves sampling, which modernists called collage. He just takes different liberties with higher-grade readymades — folk, pop, and literary word-bits and music-bits reassembled into something unprecedented that would mean much less if it wasn’t also trad. It’s an old man’s record, absolutely. The old man is ready for death yet still feeling his oats. He fears apocalypse less now that his end is nearer. He thinks this is a hoot. The funnier it seems, the madder he gets about apocalypse. But the fear, somehow, is gone. And as you listen, so is yours.

If this achievement doesn’t move you, that’s your privilege. But I have no patience with claims that it just isn’t there, especially combined with mealymouthed remembrances of Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. Never one who ran on Dylan time, I’ve had a lot of fun making such comparisons lately, and gee, Blood on the Tracks did sound grand. Bringing It All Back Home, too. But song for song, joke for joke, vision for vision, risk for dare, their superiority to this year’s winner seemed marginal. Other favorites — Freewheelin’, New Morning, The Basement Tapes — merely held their own. And I was surprised to find that from the unyielding contempt of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the world-weary wind of “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 sounded a little too punk for its own good. I preferred the old man.

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Which old man, it is relevant to note, is only a year older than the one who’s writing his 28th or 29th Pazz & Jop disquisition. At two months shy of 60, I’m very nearly the oldest voter reporting. So maybe I’m just prejudiced, right? Statistically, there’s something to this. With the majority of the record 622 respondents declining to supply demographic info, I didn’t know most ages. But after a lot of e-mailing to my A–C folder and some careful guesswork with D–G, I estimated that where Dylan’s supporters constituted 38 percent of the electorate, among critics 40 and over (about a third of the voters) he pulled 55 or 60 percent. This is a sharp tilt. Note, however, that Dylan still got the preponderance of his points from the under-40s who dominate the poll base, and note too that the gender tilt was steeper. If I’m reading first names right, only 19 women voted for Dylan. The next three finishers — the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes — were far behind Dylan’s 234 mentions at 158, 120, and 106, but all three attracted as many or more women. In an all-female Pazz & Jop, Mr. It Ain’t Me Babe, now d/b/a Mr. I Never Slept With Her Even Once (what, you think he’s Mr. Singing Love’s Praises With Sugar-Coated Rhymes?), would have had some competition.

In an under-40 poll, on the other hand, Dylan would still have won handily. If this doesn’t seem self-evident, that’s because you forgot that his competitors would lose out too. You think arthritis sufferers while away their buyouts listening solely to retrofitted bluegrass and Leonard Cohen. In fact, the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes got about a sixth of their mentions from 40-and-over lifers. If the callow had been as kind to older artists, Cohen, the youngest of whose 20 doddering supporters was 34, would have outrogered the turgid Tool. (41-50, as anyone who checks our highly searchable online list can determine: song-challenged Mary J. Blige, $180-list-and-too-dead-to-enjoy-it Charley Patton, 65-year-old Buddy Guy, Spoon’s career album if you call that a career, garage-punk Brits Clinic, Rick Yorn’s brother, emo-punk Brits Idlewild, Madonna’s brother-in-law, the Ben Folds One, and 67-year-old Cohen.) In fact, the rest of the top 40 is anything but old-guard. In our 2000 top 20 alone loomed 40-and-over perennials U2, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Madonna, and Steely Dan, plus late bloomer Aimee Mann, with more below. After Dylan, the only senior citizens in the 2001 top 20 are ninth-place Lucinda Williams and, out of nowhere or everywhere, 40-year-old world-ska ambassador Manu Chao. Below find comeback-of-the-year New Order, Guided by Voices’ retarded Robert Pollard, and two more new old guys: country-rock vets Alejandro Escovedo and Rodney Crowell edging belatedly onto our list. On the cusp, weirdly, is the Pazz & Jop album debut of all-ages crusaders Fugazi, led by pushing-40 Ian MacKaye. (Note: Full classification of the Langley Schools Music Project had not been completed at press time.)

Instead we get a new generation of standard bearers. Beyond the Strokes and the White Stripes, there’s a good complement of striplings: well-groomed ingenue Alicia Keys, sampledelic cheeze whizzes the Avalanches, serious-as-art-rock Cannibal Ox, cunningly childish Moldy Peaches. But no fewer than nine finishers fall into a remarkably narrow grouping of 30-ish professionals (the youngest 29, the oldest 33) hitting our chart for the second or third time: Jay-Z, Basement Jaxx, Gillian Welch, the New Pornographers’ Neko Case, the Pernice Brothers, Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Macy Gray, and the Old 97’s. Fold in slightly younger repeaters Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright, Gorillaz featuring 33-year-old Damon Albarn, and former bubbling-unders Weezer, the Coup, and Low scoring Pazz & Jop debuts with their third, fourth, and fifth albums (but exclude System of a Down and the dull Tool, both too old, not to mention arty in the wrong way), and you have a cohort coming into its own. I don’t love all these artists and neither do you. But I like most of them. And I do respect them all. They’re never crass or stupid, at least not at the same time. They’re trying for something.

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Gillian Welch and Daft Punk are about as different as semipopular musicians can be. One is a DIY trailblazer, the other shoots crap in the major-label casino; one fetishizes the authentic, the other the artificial. But though the authentic one may be a little less honest, she’s no less forthright about her immersion in craft. She has an idea of what the world is like and what kind of music ought to sound good there, and she commands skills to match, which she’s sharpening. Welch says that while she and David Rawlings remain an acoustic duo, her self-released Time (The Revelator), which came in 14th (previous finishes: 23 and 33), comprises “really tiny rock songs” rather than her patented Appalachian simulations. And damned if she isn’t telling some kind of truth — it’s considerably less studied, austere, and sanctimonious-by-omission. Daft Punk are two ironic-mais-oui French DJs who pushed Homework onto the bottom of our 1997 top 40 behind an ingratiatingly clever synth-funk dance novelty (and 25th-place P&J single) self-referentially entitled “Da Funk.” Going all-out for airplay, which in dance music is as big a statement as Elvis citations are in folk music, they led the 25th-place Discovery with an irritatingly catchy synth-voice pop novelty (and 13th-place P&J single) imperatively entitled “One More Time.” Their faux pop became actual pop.

Me, I blame Welch for the O! Brother Old-Timey Strip Mine and refer privately to Daft Punk’s hit as “Please, Not Again.” Both artists pursue an aesthetic so ideologically that it narrows their music. But both deserve props just for having a vision, and though others in their cohort may be less self-conscious about it, so do they. Moreover, all have shown an ability to improve on whatever it is they do — which, because critics don’t just pump fave styles but signs of progress, attracts voters who happen to like that thing. An audacious pop album is some kind of wonder whether it sells at Jay-Z or Basement Jaxx or Old 97’s or New Pornographers or Pernices levels, while a competent one is a bit of a bore. Compare the shortfalls of marginal cohort candidates (many miss the 29-33 demo) Folds at 46th, Mercury Rev at 59th, Le Tigre at 77th, Maxwell at 87th, Garbage at 95th, Travis at 98th, Built to Spill at 118th, and (run out of town, the hussy) Shelby Lynne down at 142nd, all of whom — except for Le Tigre, who tried to piggyback more politics onto their vogue and got spanked for it — spun their wheels trying to assure their market share or drove off the road trying to expand it. And note that all of these, Le Tigre once again excepted, got twisted up playing by major-label rules.

The cohort is bedrock, a respectable foundation of artists with a future — some pop and some semipop, some quarterpop and some less. In 2002, it’ll get bigger. But its members aren’t about to change history. So towering over the entire 2001 list is the only genius in sight. With PJ Harvey and OutKast sitting out, Neil Young laying low, U2 at the Super Bowl, and R.E.M. 51st, well — achievementwise, statuswise, who’s even close? Lucinda Williams, maybe. Beatmaster to the stars Timbaland if he keeps it up for 10 years — although, lyrically, James Brown is James Weldon Johnson by comparison, Jay-Z Shakespeare. Speaking of whom, nominating Jigga is carrying this black-male-pride bit perilously close to Clarence Thomas territory, and da judge just signed an injunction to keep him out. Other observers tender faith in some promising pup or other, but though Ryan Adams, Alicia Keys, and/or Rufus Wainwright might have the stuff to take it to the next level, the conceptual effort alone would put them in mortal danger, a risk Adams kisses on the tuchis every time he opens his yap. As for the world’s greatest rock band, fifth-place Radiohead, they made the world’s greatest rock album in 1997 and it didn’t even beat Time Out of Mind. You want a credible challenge to Dylan’s hegemony-that-isn’t, your only resort is the most distant runners-up in poll history — two young bands and one 36-year-old perennial.

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Like everybody but our results page, I think the White Stripes made a better record than the Strokes. But not so’s they earned a free ride, and not so’s the Strokes deserve the drubbing they get for…what? For being white male guitar-bearing counterparts of Alicia Keys and her not-quite-superb major-label album with a sound people were waiting for and looks to match. Like Keys, the Strokes give teenpop glamour a tough undercoat — the hip hop sass salting Keys’s sweet intonation, the punk static pebbling the Strokes’ repetitious rush — and get playa-hated for choosing triumphant accommodation over doomed combat. The various ripoff charges are beyond silly; obviously the Strokes are working a tradition, and just as obviously they sound like no one but themselves. In this they resemble the former blues duo that came in fourth. Both bands end up far from their “roots,” and both are sonically thin by design — much thinner than Dylan’s guys recycling singer-with-backup riffs that coalesce as you listen up. As in much lo-fi, this thinness is a raised finger – guitars matter so much, it says, that we’re reducing them to an ugly essence. But it also begs out of any competition with the big guys. And it provides both with a ready path to progress. Soon the Strokes will shit-can their megaphone and try to think of something to say; soon the White Stripes will send their bills to V2 while continuing to unfold new wrinkles in human relations in 100 words or less.

Some believe Is This It and White Blood Cells represent an alt-rock rebirth, which would be nice. Unless you count materialistic old Spiritualized, the guitar-based hopefuls our college-radio types are always singling out number only three this year, and all are so specialized they make my teeth hurt: slowcore cohort candidates Low, Elephant 6 surrogates the Shins, and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who remind me less of the Jesus and Mary Chain than of the Screaming Blue Messiahs, another dark, catchy garage band whose enduring historical value is as a Pazz & Jop trivia question. B.R.M.C. are traditionalists like our runners-up, with commitment where they have spark. Low and the Shins are eccentrics. You can say that’s good — they defy sociology, ignore category, assert identity, blah blah blah. But that leaves me free to opine that, like Steely Dan’s showbiz kids, they don’t give a fuck about anybody else — and that, partly for that reason and partly because they play too slow, I don’t give a fuck about them either. Culturally as well as musically, they don’t make enough noise. The Strokes and the Stripes, antithetical though their outreach strategies are, both mean to resonate.

Still, Nirvana is so 1991, and guitar bands have long been and will long remain one option among many. Take as a sign our surprise No. 3, who slowly and eccentrically brought off as unmoored an album, groovewise, as has ever hit our chart. Every year I scoff at the shortfall of “techno”/”electronica”/”post-rock,” but in 2001 the Swan Girl of the Oscars helped turn it into a mainstream critical taste — as an option, not the future. Vespertine is oceanic, impressionistic, classically influenced — the kind of album I can’t stand. But its clicks and tinkles and desultory eroticism won me over, perhaps because Björk, like Tyorke, is better off outside the box of rock songform. Desultory to less pleasurable purpose were Björk’s countrymen Sigur Rós, recurring like that dream where you forgot your homework. The rest of our electronica finishers, however, took rock songform as a puzzle to be solved, with the top-20 Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, and Avalanches the payoff. Pomo’s answer to the Archies were our first virtual finishers, and (just like Blur) took hooks too much for granted. Basement Jaxx’s insanely catchy Rooty knew better. But Australia’s Avalanches scored the breakthrough — the long-promised new-songs-from-old-songs trick, in which untrackable samples are stitched together until they mesh into compelling music that never existed before. Unfortunately, the music in question is string-section disco.

Pazz & Jop dance albums are something of a contradiction in terms. The album aesthetics we calibrate, high on lyrics and hard on filler, are a rock thing — dance is the realm of the single and the mix. In 2000, we expanded our singles tally partly in hopes that a few club records would slip in. But it hasn’t worked. Although the old irritation of fave album cuts (which as a DJ I got to declare singles myself in 2001) is down to Stephen Malkmus’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” the now pervasive pop-versus-rock polarity — featuring dance-pop, teen-pop, rap-pop, r&b-pop, the inevitable rock-pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop — isn’t much better. I’m always pleased to see African Americans up top — Keys’s fourth-place “Fallin’ ” and Jay-Z’s third-place “Izzo” swamped by the most dominant single of our computerized era, “Get Ur Freak On.” Missy Elliott’s Timbaland tabla was a world-beat coup rivaling Manu Chao’s in a year that cried out for more of them (Cachaito and Rachid Taha, 55th and 71st, were top 10 for me, and Manteca’s Franco comp would have headed my list if it had seemed fair to put 30 years of genius up against one). But on Elliott’s good but flawed album — as on Destiny’s Child’s, Mary J. Blige’s, Blu Cantrell’s, and Craig David’s — I found songs trickier and deeper than the smash. Bidding to “penetrate pop culture,” in Jay-Z’s words, these r&b artists actually do what antipop ascetics rail against so automatically. They strive for acceptability by sacrificing idiosyncrasy and reiterating clichés, and so evade an essential part of the pop challenge. This tactic can get you great ear candy. But in today’s corporate environment it’s become compulsory.

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A vivid example is the penetrating perpetrator of the hip hop album of the year. The main reason we never get enough hip hop voters is that they don’t need us — why should the alpha dogs worry about propelling late-released Ghostface Killah (91st) and De La Soul (54th) past Low and the Shins? I don’t think The Blueprint got shortchanged as a result, though. As ear candy and public fact it has serious charms, and who can resist a line like “Sensitive thugs, y’all need hugs”? But its cavalcade of hooks is smarmy and proud — a Puffy album with flow and gangsta cred (attention NYPD: “Still fuckin’ with crime ’cause crime pays” may hold up in court!). Compare the edgy samples and ’tude of 1999’s Vol. 3 and it’s like pitting Nelson Riddle’s Sinatra against the Don Costa version. As the most accessible hip hop album since Mama Said Knock You Out, The Blueprint sure beats The Chronic, but it bodes ill for the genre’s mainstream — countless wannabes will try to duplicate Jigga’s formula, and none will succeed. The underground, leached by the usual puritanism and fertile anyway, has more jam, with the complication that it now nurtures as many up-and-coming white artists as black. Another hope is that some bud among the profusion of r&b also-rans, many of them debuts — down to 100, Bilal, India.Arie, Don Costa’s girl Nikka, Res, Angie Stone, and Maxwell — will develop material nobody can deny. Final respects to 73rd-place Aaliyah, who died proving it was possible.

I’m grateful I can care, and grateful too that Aaliyah, whose garish funeral was one of many media phenomena that seemed to grow more grotesque after the WTC carnage, can now accrue dignity on the strength of a good album. This was a shitty year before it got so much shittier, and one way it was shitty was that it was subpar musically. I don’t have much doomsayer in me, and my basic belief is that in my lifetime a musical economy has been created that nothing can destroy. Good music has become such a spiritual necessity that no amount of corporate brutality can prevent people from producing, distributing, and consuming it. Nevertheless, I note that the Dean’s List, my annual catalog of recommended albums, shrank markedly in 2001, falling below 80 for the first time since 1997. Maybe it’s because for two weeks there I didn’t listen much — one more productivity hit. Or maybe the doomsayers are right, and fewer talents and lucky stiffs can afford the indie/DIY career option, which accounted for 15 or so of the voters’ top 40 albums and two thirds of the Dean’s List. That a cohort has learned to work around the moneychangers doesn’t mean we should thank capital for providing the opportunity.

The only finisher to confront this fact rather than allude to it was an overachiever on the scale of Vespertine. Ignoring its withdrawn WTC-bombing cover with the ingrained impiety that makes rock critics the permanent no-accounts of cultural journalism, the voters awarded eighth place to the Coup’s Party Music, which in its endless verbal dexterity and revitalization of an old-fashioned groove resembled “Love and Theft” more than anything Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch will ever record. There’s a lot of bluff on this record, and some bullshit too, though less than in most Dylan. But people know it — at S.O.B.’s in November, Boots Riley’s unsubstantiated claims that we were murdering babies in Afghanistan were far less warmly received than the off-kilter funk of his assaults on the rich and the racist. Riley is one of the few artists in rock’s whole history to make effective music out of the inhumanity of capital. It’s poetic that he got respect for it in the year that reminded or convinced many of us that other brands of inhumanity are probably even worse. One nuclear bomb they’re gonna blow it all away, as the New York Dolls once told us on Mercury’s dime. But every time we struggle for better music, and all of us do, we’re reminded that we have no business letting capital be.

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Top 10 Albums of 2001

1. Bob Dylan: “Love and Theft” (Columbia)

2. The Strokes: Is This It (RCA)

3. Björk: Vespertine (Elektra)

4. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

5. Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol)

6. Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway)

7. Jay-Z: The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella)

8. The Coup: Party Music (75 Ark)

9. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Poses (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 2001

1. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “Get Ur Freak On” (The Gold Mind, Inc./Elektra)

2. Gorillaz: “Clint Eastwood” (Virgin)

3. Jay-Z: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (Roc-A-Fella)

4. Alicia Keys: “Fallin’ ” (J)

5. (Tie) Coldplay: “Yellow” (Nettwerk America)
Pink: “Get the Party Started” (Arista)

7. Eve featuring Gwen Stefani: “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (Interscope)

8. Mary J. Blige: “Family Affair” (MCA)

9. Weezer: “Hash Pipe” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ryan Adams: “New York, New York” (Lost Highway)
Daft Punk: “One More Time” (Virgin)

—From the February 19, 2002, issue

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

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

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

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

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

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

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

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

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

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

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

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

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

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

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

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

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

 

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NO HOLDS BARD

Depending on his ever-changing constellation of collaborators, director Robert Wilson’s exquisitely visual theater can get lyrical, abrasive, or dreamy. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Wilson’s acclaimed 2009 staging, has an especially high-voltage creative team: poetry by William Shakespeare, music by Rufus Wainwright, and acting by Germany’s historic Berliner Ensemble. To celebrate the fourth centennial of the sonnets’ publication, dramaturg Jutta Ferbers selected 25 poems from 154 in the canon; Wainwright created an original score that ranges from cabaret to rock, classical, and medieval music. Famously, some of the Bard’s poems express desire for men as well as for women. Wilson extends that fluidity on stage, where women play the male characters and men perform as women. That should make for a sublimely re-gendered reverie of cupids, queens, and “Dark Ladies.”

Thursdays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 9. Continues through Oct. 12, 2014

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GOOD VIBRATIONS

Every generation needs a great songwriter, and there’s a fine argument to be made that Rufus Wainwright is ours. The son of folk legends Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus, along with his sisters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, was born with storytelling capabilities and exquisite musicianship in his blood. Sixteen years after releasing his self-titled debut, Rufus looks back on his heavily lauded and still young career with a best-of compilation titled Vibrate and an upcoming U.S. tour kicking off at Town Hall, the home to many tribute shows Rufus and his sisters have hosted in honor of their late mother. With Lucy opening the show, “The Best of Rufus Wainwright” is another kind of family affair, and like the ones the Wainwright family tend to host, it’s as much a celebration as it is an ode to great artistry.

Tue., April 15, 8 p.m., 2014

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Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You is a Wainwright Family Sing-Along

The miracle of Rufus Wainwright’s voice—that it can be at once so strong and so tender—is also the miracle of Wainwright’s family, both in temperament and talent, right back to the singing and songwriting of Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna. A song like Kate’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino” unfolds like a map of plaintive, universal feeling, even as the exact destinations it charts it are wholly specific to her. That song and a host of other sun-touched folk numbers from the late Canadian singer receive stirring treatment in Lian Lunson’s Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You, a stirring performance film documenting a Town Hall tribute concert organized by the Wainwrights and Anna McGarrigle in 2011, a year after Kate’s death. Those three singers put the songs over beautifully, each reading a highlight; often, tears slick their cheeks. Guests Norah Jones and Emmylou Harris are likewise fine, and Jimmy Fallon, despite some nervous schtick, capably handles “The Swimming Song,” that pluckish gem originally by Loudon Wainwright III, Kate’s ex-husband. The film is both celebration and elegy, a sing-along and a cry-along, a cathartic moan and a perfect bliss-out. If you somehow manage to stay dry-eyed through the concert numbers, the end should set you bawling: a recording of Rufus and Martha as kiddos, singing a French-Canadian Christmas carol—the last piece of music that the family ever got to play for Kate McGarrigle.

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I am an Opera: Smooth Operatic

“I’m not really an opera,” says dynamic performer Joseph Keckler at the start of his tantalizing song cycle–cum–multimedia one-man show I am an Opera. “I just said that to intrigue you.” Joseph, you tease! If not nearly as overblown as an opera, he certainly exemplifies what would happen if you took Julian Casablancas and gave him Rufus Wainwright’s opera jones and piano chops, a striking basso profundo, and Adrien Brody’s fantastic nose. This charismatic mop-top delivers an off-handed, clever mise en scène combining Laurie Anderson and Nature Theater of Oklahoma technique: While interacting with giant video projections and supertitles, Keckler sings, in three languages, a classical pastiche whose text describes a (possibly autobiographical) bad trip on shrooms in familiar colloquial jargon: “I was re-becoming a teen goth.” He’s most successful when he exploits his Warholian deadpan; the tension between the bombast of his singing and the inconsequence of his tale create a high percentage of what’s charming about the piece. The man himself handles the rest, with magnetism and poise so high that he seems (like Wainwright) to have been born onstage. By singing a finale cloning Antony & the Johnsons, though, he makes it clear that earnest isn’t his best mood, his falsetto’s less fun than his bass, and that rock ballads don’t suit him as well as cheeky arias. Somehow it all works as long as he follows the Lieder.

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With the Help of Mark Ronson, Rufus Wainwright Learns to Dance

The Gramercy Park Hotel self-consciously mixes the styles of Old World Elegance and New York Hip with a below-the-surface warm simplicity, making it the perfect place for Rufus Wainwright. Classy and charming one minute, cool and imperious the next, Wainwright is tucked away in a two-room suite upstairs, promoting his new album, Out of the Game (Decca). Surrounded by a squadron of PR people, two days’ worth of whiskers gracing his leading-man good looks, the pop star seems jet-lagged but happy.

He should be—his Game is incredibly winning. Neither pitch-black like his Songs for Lulu nor overly complex like his more ornate, orchestral albums, this disc is radiant with the glow of ’70s influences: David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, a soupçon of Philip Glass strings here, some gorgeous choruses there. Producer Mark Ronson keeps things moving and grooving, coaxing from Wainwright some of the least mannered vocals of his career and steering clear of those slurry syllables that once made him sound like Cole Porter on cough syrup.

“I know it’s ridiculous that someone named Rufus took so long to get funky,” Wainwright says, chuckling. “But this time, I think I have.”

Despite its pop polish, the album is compelling for the reason Wainwright’s work so often is: He deals with the dangerous, dark, complicated stuff but often juxtaposes it against light, lovely, pastel melodies. Such paradoxes are present in two of Game‘s most poignant tunes, “Welcome to the Ball” and “Candles.” Both are about the 2010 death of Wainwright’s beloved mother, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, yet there’s a lovely, letting-go aspect to them. I ask about the air of acceptance and beauty these tunes betray.

“I think her death is woven through the whole record,” Wainwright says, fidgeting comically in his chair. “But unlike Lulu, where it’s death, loss, abandonment, the tone is different. Yes, my mother died at a young age. Yes, it’s very tragic. That being said, she had an incredible life. She left behind an amazing catalog of songs.

“‘Candles’ shows how much I miss her,” he continues. “After my mother died, I went to Notre Dame and lit a candle for her. And asked for some sort of direction. What I received is: ‘You need to have a sense of gratitude. About being alive.'” A fey, sardonic chuckle follows. “Of course, there are also moments of real sadness that pop out. Thank God! I don’t want to be a mutineer and betray my usual romantic self.”

The new record is Wainwright’s least fussy, most radio-ready album ever and full of 1970s influence to boot. Why?

“Well, Mark [Ronson] lived with the demos for quite a while before we recorded. I was off locking horns with the classical-musical establishment [while preparing the opera Prima Donna] and writing lieder [German art songs]. Getting back to working on pop songs was a nice change of pace. As for the ’70s? Well, there’s some ‘Young Americans’ in there, some ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’ And the cynical, playful feel of it? That’s my love of Harry Nilsson.”

When I suggest I hear some echoes of Glass in the strings, Wainwright’s face lights up.

“You do!” he says. “We figured if we were going to use people from the ’70s, we should tap the classical side, too.”

Ronson, for his part, found the experience the polar opposite of his often angsty relationship with Amy Winehouse. Calling from Paris, the retro-soul man confirms that producing his pal was lovely.

“The time frame was unique for me,” Ronson says. “I listened to Rufus’s demos for a year before starting the record. What initially seemed daunting was several tunes had time signatures that were complex. I began as a DJ, so groove is very important to me. I needed time to figure out how [Ronson and those young, yet mysteriously old-school funksters the Dap-Kings] could make the stuff flow. Luckily, Rufus was off doing his opera, so I had time to arrange things.”

Ronson agrees that the ’70s had a big impact on Out of the Game, then mentions one of the decade’s most maligned musicians.

“One of my favorite tracks on the record,” he says, “is the [dance-music-damaged track] ‘Bitter Tears.’ I decided it needed some Vangelis-style synths. Luckily, Rufus thought it really worked well.” (Think Blade Runner, not Chariots of Fire.)

Back in the hotel room, I ask Wainwright about his colorful family situation. He is fully committed to and ready to marry his fiancé, the Toronto-based arts director Jörn Weisbrodt, as soon as the two can find the time to do the ceremony right—and in New York. The couple has a daughter, Viva (who lives with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca). Do the lads, I ask Wainwright, expect to be held up as Exhibit A in the ongoing culture wars? Two artistic cats, ultimately married, with a girl born to them by the daughter of yet another great, depressive bohemian? It seems, at the least, complicated—if not incendiary.

“Well, I’ve always found myself in that battleground, so I’m ready for it,” Wainwright says. “But it’s interesting. I don’t think gay marriage is like straight marriage. We’re still in the process of defining it. It’s going to be its own entity and take a while to figure out. There’s lots of baggage and 2,000 years of oppression to deal with. It’s like the civil rights days now. Exciting, but hard and scary, too.”

Wainwright stands, staring straight ahead. His thoughts turn round and round: from music to mother, from lover to daughter. And ultimately, to the evanescent nature of life. He wraps a multicolored, maestro-like scarf around his neck, zips his leather jacket, readies to ride the elevator down to the chi-chi hotel lobby.

“One of my favorite tracks on the record is ‘Barbara,'” he says. “Though it’s got an upbeat groove, it was inspired, partly, by the folk song ‘Barbara Allen.'” I nod, knowing the sad tale of a dying young man who summons his love to his side. She is so callous when she’s with him that a few months later, out of grief, she dies, too. A briar grows from her grave, a rosebush from his. The two ultimately grow together.

“Yes, my song is about how everything passes, love fades, we ruin love, and we turn into ghosts, you know? In the song, I mention the trees. The trees bear silent witness to it all. They see everything we do. They survive us. I love that idea—that, you know, no matter what happens in our crazy little lives? The trees will remember.”

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Vicious World

Rufus Wainwright’s rich melodies and saucy delivery have long been inviting to jazzers—Dave Douglas took a shot at “Poses” way back in ’02. Tonight the septet Vicious World jumps in the deep end, dedicating itself to arty spins of the dramatic songwriter’s nuggets. A trombone glides through “Natasha,” a clarinet leads “Peach Trees.” There’s more chamber decorum than there is unfettered swing, but somehow the improv breathes freely and new perspectives are unearthed. 

Sat., Aug. 27, 8 & 9:30 p.m., 2011

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Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy

Maybe it’s the oomph of the tuba. Maybe it’s the growl of the trombone. Something gives the trumpeter’s four-horn and drummer squad an exclamatory feel, even when they are operating in a whisper. When they choose to let loose, it’s groove city, and when they turn the polyphony inside out, formulas are scrambled. Last summer at Newport, they made hay with everything from a Lester Bowie homage to a Hank Williams sob story. New tunes have been added for this Vanguard hit, bur cross your fingers that the Rufus Wainwright nod make the cut.

March 23-27, 9 & 11 p.m., 2011

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Rufus Wainwright

A special performance to benefit Celebrate Brooklyn, baroque-pop singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright will perform the songs of Judy Garland with piano accompaniment. Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, has rightfully praised Wainwright’s renditions of her mother’s work, done most famously at Carnegie Hall in 2006. Tonight, he’ll face a more personal familial verdict— his opener is his father, Loudon Wainwright III, who won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album this year.

Tue., July 20, 7 p.m., 2010