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

2002 Pazz & Jop: Party in Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2002

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

2. Beck: Sea Change (DGC)

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

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

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

6. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia)

7. The Roots: Phrenology (MCA)

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

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

10. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (Elektra)

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Top 10 Singles of 2002

1. Missy Elliott: “Work It” (Elektra)

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

3. Nelly: “Hot in Herre” (Universal)

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Tweet: “Oops (Oh My)” (Elektra)

—From the February 12–18, 2003, issue

 

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

 

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

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

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

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

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

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

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2000

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

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

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

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

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

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

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

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

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

—From the February 20, 2001, issue

 

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

 

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

1997 Pazz & Jop: The Year of No Next Big Thing

Because the 24th or 25th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the biggest-and-bestest ever, it tempted me to come out shilling for our big fat turnout and shiny new machines. Because the winner was in doubt well into the computerized tally, his margin of victory the smallest since…Blood on the Tracks? — no no no, Born in the U.S.A. — it beckoned the frustrated sportswriter in me. But I run this thing because I like being a rock critic. My boyish delight in the charts doesn’t do as much for my cardiovascular tone as my adult pleasure in the kid music I call rock and roll. And this year, its kiddie and grown-up quotients soared in parallel, with confusing consequences for the art-in-itself critics supposedly monitor.

If one generalization can apply, which it never can, try this: a terrible year for the rock “vanguard.” Yet though nobody this side of MTV would mistake a grizzled popcult booster like me for an avant-gardist, I wasn’t wild about the myriad shapes the tried-and-true assumed. An admirer of our winner, Bob Dylan’s darkly traditionalist Time Out of Mind, I nevertheless prefer Blood on the Tracks and seven or eight of its predecessors. I am underwhelmed by second-place Radiohead, an arena-rock band that could do with smaller gigs on its touring schedule and fewer on its hard drive, as well as most of the electronica-flecked hedgers and retro-fretting folkies-in-disguise waving guitars further down the list. Topping a platter of pop-’em-in-your-mouth singles, meanwhile, is a teenybopping bonbon said to be as addictive as “I Want You Back,” but though I’ll certainly take Hanson’s milk-fed cheer over Radiohead’s bulimic paranoia of convenience, I still like my chocolate bittersweet (and my symphonies not at all). Only in hip hop, saved from self-destruction by a song and dance man rather than the wizards of Shaolin, are the year’s old-fashioned pleasures big enough fun, and that’s ignoring a consumerism so corporate it inspires nostalgia for dookie gold.

If anything summed up rock’s foreshortened horizons, however, it was the twin pop events of the year, the more undeniable of which was the resurgent singles chart, where in 1996 a mere 34 voters (out of 236) made the Quad City DJ’s our winners. In 1997, as the electorate exploded to 441 (previous high: 308), the Middle American “MMMBop” attracted a much healthier 96 full-time fans, followed by the Brit-hits “Tubthumping” and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — the first time black artists have ever been shut out of the top three. But the renewed respectability of pop evanescence peaked with the Spice Girls. Grown from the DNA of En Vogue, Elastica, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they got a free ride from Alanis-haters turned Fionaphobes by making no attempt to conceal their inauthenticity, thus rendering it moot. Though I think “Wannabe” is a great record, I have my reservations about how eagerly pop intellectuals suck up this amusing pseudofeminist scam. The problem isn’t politics, even if their movie defines girl power as bearing a baby — a female baby with her dad on the lam. It’s that they’re not good enough. Since none of them (including my favorite, Baby) dazzles as a singer or comedienne, and since the run of their material is bland Eurovision crapola, their deepest pleasures are ipso facto convolutional: femme-friendly respite from feminist puritanism along with people-friendly respite from rockist puritanism. And if in the end they ain’t all that, well, what else you got?

The answer many critics embraced was an overwhelmingly male-defined imaginary world somehow untainted by political incorrectness. Declaring it a pop event may seem cheeky. But at its distribution level it enjoyed phenomenal exposure and spin control, and it was named by more Pazz & Joppers than “MMMBop” itself, only the second time a No. 1 reissue has outdrawn a No. 1 single (the first was Robert Johnson over Deee-Lite, 1990). Just as the Spice Girls address a pop present that assumes no pop future, asserting the significance of the trivial more fiercely and playfully than any academic culture vulture, Harry Smith’s dazzlingly repackaged Anthology of American Folk Music addresses a pop present that has longed for permanence since at least 1823, when the obscure Brit songwriting team of Henry M. Bishop and John Howard Payne penned the 19th century’s greatest hit, “Home Sweet Home.”

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I love the Anthology myself — it’s not all as transcendent as is hoped, but it keeps opening up. As everyone should know by now, the old songs it canonized in 1952 are hardly unbesmirched by commerce. They were recorded for sale to subcultural markets circa 1930, not unlike indie-rock today. Nor are they especially homey, or sweet. Selected by one of the signal bohemians of our era, they’re the opposite of parlor music, many of them surreal, dislocated, and/or violent tales of what this year’s winner summed up in the title of his 23rd-place 1993 album: a World Gone Wrong. And so, while inspiring the so-called folk revival, they also presaged rock and roll, which first revved up their social utility and then claimed their themes. In 1997, many rock and rollers — seeking formal solace in a world gone wrong and around too long to take techno-utopianism literally — felt a need to access their ingrained knowledge.

As it happened, Bob Dylan — who has now put 15 albums on our charts since Pazz & Jop began in 1974 or 1971, more even than Neil Young (14) or Prince (13) — had been on this trail all decade, certainly since his folk albums of 1992 and 1993. In 1997, he not only got it right but scored his greatest PR coup since he fell off that motorcycle. I don’t mean to belittle an illness we’re blessed he survived, but I’m convinced that Time Out of Mind is in no intrinsic way “about death.” Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated — even if “The end of time has just begun” reminds me all too acutely of how the minutes crawl when the love connection is broken. The mortality admirers hear in it is their own, mirrored in a vocal mask half sage and half codger, in the nakedness of the one-syllable words the artist affects and the weary music that backs them. The timelessness people hear in it, on the other hand, is what Dylan has long aimed for — simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received. In a year when the rock “vanguard,” in both its struggling electronica and barely breathing post-rock cough cough modes, vowed to break the bonds of lyrics and verse-chorus-verse, only callow ideologues could simply ignore Harry Smith’s and Bob Dylan’s arguments for history. And many felt the Spice Girls and Hanson were an evolutionary outcome of this history.

Of course, only naive zealots believed songs, singing, and the four-four were actually on their way out. But with Nirvanamania grinding into schlock as Britain’s acid house fissure spread in all directions, it did seem as if the infinite palette of computerized sound was about to work some permanent changes on the collective ear, not just of critics but of workaday consumers. And pollwise, at least, the failure of “electronica” stops with the term itself. Despite no-shows by Tricky and DJ Shadow, both certain to return in 1998, the Chemical Brothers plus Roni Size plus Prodigy plus Daft Punk add up to the largest number of techno artists ever to chart, with Björk and Portishead and Stereolab and Primal Scream and Radiohead down with the program. But while our 16 U.K. finishers (counting Björk and Stereolab but not full-time Frenchmen Daft Punk), the most since 1980 and the second most ever, include all of the above, they also include, in descending order of technophilia, U2, Cornershop, Spiritualized, the slackly electronica-associated Beth Orton, the Verve, Supergrass, Blur-not-53rd-place-Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian.

In short, as we should have known from Blur-versus-Oasis as well as common sense and casual observation, Britain’s techno revolution was, gee, less than total. Not only did it leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by a high-concept readymade, but it produced numerous partial converts and the usual complement of rebels, skeptics, and go-it-aloners, including guitar bands aplenty. So Brits took over a new-blood function that Pazz & Jop has long vouchsafed Amerindies. This year adds to a U.S. honor roll that includes X, R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sleater-Kinney two minor bands on major labels: Ryan Adams’s Whiskeytown, led by a dulcet young hook merchant with “left to pursue a solo career” embroidered on the seat of his jeans, and Doug Martsch’s much meatier Built To Spill, a stubbornly domestic project of no discernible commercial potential. And although the four U.S. quasifolkie chart debuts include tuneful if depressive Elliott Smith and expressive if depressive Richard Buckner, the other two are showbiz hopefuls: Fiona Apple, Lilith Fair’s answer to Alanis, and Ron Sexsmith, a thoughtful cutie-pie who wants to give Tim Hardin his shot at the brass ring.

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The real change, however, is that excepting genius-from-nowhere miniaturists Belle and Sebastian and in their peculiar way Blur, who elected to escape the shadow of Oasis and the Kinks by aping Pavement, the British newcomers don’t truck with Amerindie’s antistar niceties. They’ve been in the papers too long. Back when Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce was Spaceman 2 or the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft wandered lonely as a cloud or Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh thought music was just a hobby for him, they could pretend they were ordinary chaps who didn’t care how many records they sold. But these days they’ve all joined the pop race, where they seem no less at home than U2 or Radiohead — there’s little sense of strain in the ambitious sprawl all achieve. Where Amerindie’s musical commitments are conceived as means to counterculturalism, in Britain the children of acid house control the radical rhetoric. So no matter how stoned or alienated or hedonistic these guitar bands are, they respect rock tradition and accept a pop system they’re dedicated to beating. For them, vanguard is barely a concept anymore.

And the way our electorate heard the year, it wasn’t much of a concept stateside either. Among the fanzine rumors and local heroes who placed down to 120 or so last year, a feat requiring the support of some half dozen voting weirdos, were five newly anointed cult bands: Tortoise (post-rock hack-hack), Smog (dim solipsism), Cat Power (anti-chauvinist low-affect), the Lilys (amplified watercolors), and the Sun City Girls (postskronk imperialism). But my disdain isn’t the point — the point is that a few people who think critically about music credited their obscurantism. This year, although Ben Folds continued to pump out puddle-deep ironies as the putatively country-rock Geraldine Fibbers abstract-expressed themselves all over creation, the only newcomers with the slightest insurgent vibe were two sets of well-schooled L.A. popsters: star-crossed biz babies That Dog and up-and-coming self-promoters the Negro Problem. There were also below-40 repeaters both avant (Smog, Helium, Sea and Cake) and neoclassicist (Flaming Lips, Luna, Waco Brothers, Superchunk), as well as new solo artists (Jim White and Edith Frost the not-very-strangest, Ben Harper and Robbie Fulks most likely to succeed). But for the nonce the wellspring of out-there young American bands has dried to a trickle.

These disparities were so abrupt — not just the Amerindie falloff, but the 16 Brits, way up from five in 1996 and eight in 1995 — that I suspected some demographic anomaly. Since we’d not only computerized but greatly expanded and updated our rolls from dailies, weeklies, and magazines nationwide, we added 259 voters who hadn’t participated in 1996. (Note that every record with a mention, every critic’s ballot, and an extra comments file are posted at www.villagevoice.com.) It seemed conceivable that the new voters would gravitate toward major-label mailings and hence the U.K. But when we tallied up a minipoll of the 182 repeaters, the U.S.-U.K. distribution remained stable. The most meaningful differences involved hip hop, where — despite much improved representation from name writers at the hip hop mags, which now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the music press — we failed to attract the kind of second-string reviewers who in the alt world flock to Pazz & Jop. So in an even better poll the Notorious B.I.G. would have finished top 10 and the top 40 would have made room for Common, the thinking B-person’s cherce, and most likely Rakim, the elder statesman returned. Such other high hip hop also-rans as Timbaland and Magoo, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, the fast-spinning Return of the D.J., Vol. II, and New York turntablists X-Ecutioners might also have contended. (In the real world, 41-50 went: Octagon, Foo Fighters, Common, Arto Lindsay, Return of the D.J., Chumbawamba, Timbaland, Paul Simon, Mike Watt, Rakim.)

But otherwise our results compute. Redoubling our electorate certainly wouldn’t change the collective opinion of America’s rock critics in re the indie/alternative scene long identified as rock’s avant-garde, which is that it is at best in the doldrums — a finding I report with no outrage and little regret. What else could anyone have expected? Lo-fi to low-affect, abstinent to self-abusing, withdrawal has been the Alternian strategy since whenever the gatekeepers concluded that the wages of Nirvana was Smashing Pumpkins. That’s why Sleater-Kinney is such a miracle — loyal citizens of Alternia’s most Olympian stronghold, on Kill Rock Stars yet, they’re nonetheless possessed by the need to hammer out music that explodes its own boundaries and everyone else’s. But putting aside your favorite exception (I have mine), they’re alone. No Alternians remotely like them combine the guts and the talent to come down from the mountain or up from the basement. You think Smog or Cat Power want to be — hell, are willing to be — loved like Sleater-Kinney? Much less Oasis? They don’t even want to be loved like Pavement or Yo La Tengo.

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If there’s no point whining about this logical turn of events, there’s also no reason to worry it’s a life sentence. In pop, there are no life sentences; we’re lucky there are two-year bids. Within months, at least in theory, Courtney or Madonna could redefine the game, and so could someone we don’t know exists, someone of any race, gender, creed, or nation of origin. But let me put it this way — it won’t be Liz Phair, it won’t be Polly Jean Harvey, and barring miracles on top of miracles it won’t be Sleater-Kinney. Nor will it be Pavement or Yo La Tango, who peaked artistically with their 1997 albums and were rewarded with, wow, critical acclaim, as well as, holy moley, viable careers, neither guaranteed permanent — old masters now, they’ve already reached out with as much common touch as they’ll ever have at their command. I’ll reserve some stray hope for Cornershop, whose formally pop collection of sublimely simple multicultural jingles just poked its nose into Billboard’s album chart. But the dream of an alt nirvana where aesthetes take over rock and roll, which like most nirvanas always seemed a little dull anyway, has played itself out.

My own favorite albums of the year, easy, were by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, and — my heart’s prize, a fragile, lyrical, sly, beatwise, embarrassingly beautiful cross-cultural appropriation — Arto Lindsay. Bohos all, New Yorkers and Olympians, every one on an indie even if Matador’s sleeping with Capitol, and who was I trying to kid? Could I really argue that the average record buyer was crucially poorer for his or her indifference to these distinct and exquisite fellow spirits of mine? Well, maybe Sleater-Kinney, but not the others — they’re too specialized, too rarefied, even if Alternians regard them as gauchely obvious by now. And although except for Arto all these bands continue to command broad critical respect, the Brits who trailed and in the case of Radiohead led them represent, well, an alternative.

U2 have always put on too many airs to suit me, guvnor. Through studied hip and good intentions, through stylistic permutations that barely inflect their deliberate tempos, careful riffs, and tortured magniloquence, they epitomize a crucial strain of rock pretension — working-class strivers bent on proving they’re not common. Pseudoironic title aside, Pop was a disappointment bizwise, moving a paltry 1.3 million after Achtung Baby and Zooropa totaled over 7, and also pollwise, where it scraped in at 31 after the albums just named charted top 10. But these shortfalls are relative. Pop was also the 50th biggest album of 1997 — in the U.S., which is not U2’s major market — and outsold all but six Pazz & Jop finishers (Notorious, Badu, Prodigy, Wu-Tang, and Apple, plus 1996’s late-breaking Sublime). As for Pazz & Jop, I had hoped the wan, overworked, serious-as-taxes contraption wouldn’t chart at all. But eventually I figured why fight poetic justice. Except for Cornershop, all the U.K. guitar bands to crash our top 20 — the Verve, Spiritualized, and above all Radiohead — take their cues from U2.

It’s not as if grandiosity has been monopolized by the quondam British Isles in our poll — after all, one of the dozen things that made Nirvana great was the pretensions they fulfilled. But these bands are more seignorial about their angst than any Yanks of consequence except Smashing Pumpkins — strictly in U2 mold. In fact, I just thought of this, maybe that‘s the mold dumber-than-mashed Richard Ashcroft can’t break out of in “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as inane a single as ever has snared the voters’ ears — that symphony is just like life only catchier, you see, catchier than any damn U2 hit too, as is my own proud pleasure by this asinine band, “The Drugs Don’t Work.” Although Jason Pierce’s drugs worked so swimmingly for so long that some applaud him for discovering love L-O-V-E, Spiritualized retain more functioning cerebral tissue. They’re also the least U2-like of the three, superimposing the droning circle games of Spacemen 3 onto rock melodrama, and for all their ex-junkiedom are refreshingly short on the fatalism pawned off as wisdom by the Verve and depressive if impressive Radiohead.

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Admittedly, few crits lie down for Thom Yorke’s pained critiques of conformist humans and unmanageable machines. The band’s brains, they agree, are in its sonics, which achieve what U2 brags about — an electronically textured, augmented, and otherwise fucked-with guitar sound that occasionally even I find gripping, as on “Electioneering,” which has the shortest lyric on the album. But in addition to the words I take exception to Yorke, who is a better singer than Stephen Malkmus the way Mariah Carey is a better singer than Mary J. Blige. Good pipes are the refuge of fools, the kind of fools the critics mean to speak for if not be this year — better the broad gestures deployed by high-handed rockers, they’ve decided, than the straitened circumstances affected by lo-fi snobs. But though I accept the principle, I can’t get with the fact, and this is probably generational. The specious notion that punk was ’50s rock and roll revisited does contain a kernel — like punk, the music I grew up loving was fast, short, lively, and good for a laugh. The music many critics in their thirties grew up loving, however, wasn’t punk, not at first — it was AOR, which was slow, long, turgid, and somber. U2 made their mark on late AOR because they shared its penchant for the grand aural trademark, and to anyone weaned on AOR they and their progeny sound natural in a way they can’t to me. Maybe being old ain’t so bad after all.

Since Pazz & Jop often has predictive power, I’m warning you to watch out for the Verve, tuneful saps who in their escapist-murk phase were counted arty enough for Lollapalooza’s second stage; they will certainly outsell Radiohead as well as Spiritualized and may surpass U2. I only wish I could see how this will make the world a better place. For some reason, human beings need tunes — they order time, yoke beauty and logic, trigger the smile reflex, help you buy stuff, something. But tunes are also the refuge of fools. While classical folk believe they’re only worthy when “developed,” I ask merely that mine pack some extra charge. Whatever gets you high, but for me that didn’t happen to be “MMMBop,” an ebullient piece of product without the, I’m sorry, social vision of “Tubthumping,” which finally triggered my hum reflex the day after we voted, and would now be my No. 3 single.

Nos. 1 and 2 were nonfinishers — Puff Daddy Inc.’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and B-Rock & the Bizz’s “MyBabyDaddy,” both of which access ingrained knowledge too shamelessly to suit Pazz & Joppers. “Missing You” you know — the B.I.G. tribute is the r&b “Candle in the Wind” at over 3 million sales, and didn’t hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November. “MyBabyDaddy” sold 700,000 without approaching the same level of ubiquity, and I loved its nutty deep-South hook before I had any idea what the song was about, which — as in Spice World, of all things — is raising a baby (female, but that’s muffled and incidental) with its dad on the lam. Thus it transforms a supposed national tragedy into a wild joke, a fact of life, and a party-shaking Miami bass track. And although the sample isn’t the hook, which is all in Kittie Thomas’s “Ghetto Gul” drawl, it’s as dependent on the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” as “Missing You” is on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Well, big deal. Puffy’s sample is a recontextualization as humane as MC Hammer’s with “Super Freak” in 1990, when I voted for “U Can’t Touch This,” which also rescued a tune human beings can use from a mean-spirited blowhard (a feat attempted less warmly and boldly on John Waite’s 1984 “Missing You,” which jacks Sting’s cadence but not his exact notes). And though the main thing both producers want to do is amass bills in large amounts, a side effect is to connect kids who think “Rapper’s Delight” is a Redman song to a vast tradition every music lover should take pride in.

So with the Verve getting respect, I must second Carol Cooper’s “It’s Nation Time!” As you might expect in a year when singles rooled, 1997 gave up massive black pop. From turntablist magicianship to Puffy’s steals (which aren’t always that blatant, not unless you’re a bigger fan of Bill Conti and Eddie Holman than I am), from Timbaland’s Tidewater dub to the sonic overkill of the Wu (who can only benefit from the artistic competition), hip hop has survived gangsta without disrespecting its downpressed defiance. The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more “Tyrone”s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants, and I’m a total convert to down diva Mary J. Blige (85th) and very-round-the-way girl Missy Elliott. While such counterparts as Maxwell and D’Angelo have yet to produce a “Tyrone” of their own, the sheer quantity of male singing talent is enough to make a choir director try A&R. Janet Jackson gave better content than superstars with far deeper throats. And if I were to name a 1997 album with the reach and grab and surprise of true vanguard pop, I’d go along with Spin, which challenged its alt-identified readership by putting the Notorious B.I.G. on its year-end cover. Life After Death is poetic, brutal, realistic, catchy, and forward-looking, and I very much doubt Bob Dylan has ever heard it — although Thom Yorke is working on ripping it off right now.

Tolerance lectures get us no further than pleasure lectures, and I’m not delivering any. You want to hum “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” I can’t stop you — sometimes I can’t even stop myself. Until the rules are changed by Courtney or Missy or Tjinder or Ben Kweller or some now anonymous kid whose dad just lost his kurta in Jakarta, my special favorites in the pop race will probably flow out of the same ingrained African American tried-and-true I’ve been quaffing from since doowop and Fats Domino. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have any intention of abandoning a single tendril of the many-fingered eclecticism that put a record 78 albums on my A list this year. Art-in-itself doesn’t equal culture in the hungriest and most daring of times, and this is neither. But it can keep you going till the game changes. And if the game never changes, then it will just have to keep you going anyway.

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Top 10 Albums of 1997

1. Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind (Columbia)

2. Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol)

3. Cornershop: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

4. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

5. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador)

6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

7. Erykah Badu: Baduizm (Universal)

8. Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave)

9. Björk: Homogenic (Elektra)

10. Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Matador)

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Top 10 Singles of 1997

1. Hanson: “MMMBop” (Mercury)

2. Chumbawamba: “Tubthumping” (Republic/Universal)

3. The Verve: “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (Virgin)

4. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

5. Blur: “Song 2” (Virgin)

6. Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha” (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Block Rockin’ Beats” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Erykah Badu: “On and On” (Universal)
Smash Mouth: “Walkin’ on the Sun” (Interscope)

10. The Notorious B.I.G. (Featuring Puff Daddy and Mase): “Mo Money Mo Problems” (Bad Boy)

—From the February 24, 1998, issue

 

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

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

1996 Pazz & Jop: Don’t Believe the Gripe

Let’s see now. Hem, haw. It was the worst year for music since, er…1995.

Guess that won’t do, will it? Well, how about — gripe, mumble — it was the worst year for guitar bands since… That’s a peg, I suppose. Since when, though? Make it 1990. It was in 1990, according to a widely cited Billboard article, that for the first time in the post-Beatle era not a single “rock” album hit No. 1, although due to the failure of vaginas to remind Billboard of Jimi’s axe, appropriately arranged efforts by Bonnie Raitt and Sinéad O’Connor failed to qualify. Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the groundbreaking rappers M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice enjoyed their long, silly No. 1 runs. And soon an unknown band from Seattle would usher in a new boom cycle for both the music business and electric guitars. Which brings us to the 1996 bust. Which was real. Right?

Right. The 1996 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll extends the 1995 trend in which the disruptive mix-and-match sampling techniques originally naturalized by hip hop made more waves than the guitar-powered aftershocks of grunge. And this aesthetic development had a commercial correlative. As the Times was so shocked to report, 1996 was indeed the year in which new rock product by such designated sure shots as R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Hootie & the Blowfish failed to attract consumers in the vast numbers the industry had projected, or wished, inspiring much millenarian blather in its retail sector. Of course, as anyone who read Billboard was aware, retail was showing signs of pie-eyed overexpansion and overdue shakeout even during the boom. Moreover, the headlined downturn wasn’t in revenues per se, which continued to rise slightly, but in the steep growth curve of recent years, an unnatural trajectory many attribute to recycled CD catalogue. And anyway, plenty of voters would argue that what’s bad for the music business is good for music. Still, I take the slumplet seriously, not just because I suspect that the diminished seed money it portends is a bad thing, but because after working all my life to get respect for popular music, I believe popularity is a good thing. Decades of Iron Butterflys, Osmonds, Journeys, and Celine Dions have yet to spoil my delight in the risk and mess it entails.

Pazz & Jop generally takes a healthy interest in sales, honoring hits of quality more often than not, and although Johnny Huston huffs that the widely acclaimed winner of our 23rd or 24th poll isn’t “the King of America,” merely “the 100th-highest-selling album artist of the year,” the going-on-platinum sales of Beck’s Odelay put it in the black even by today’s advance-bloated standards. Nevertheless, we believe we’re onto something that abides after profits have turned to fertilizer: truth and beauty, justice and pleasure, Art, the Mattering. Few of us are disquieted by the far scanter sales of the 1995 winner, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, or the drastically lower 1993 numbers of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and we’re kind of proud that Hole’s now-platinum Live Through This had barely reached gold when the ballots went out in 1994. So whether or not Polly Harvey’s music is ever taken up by the so-called mass audience, we believe it will be remembered as intensely as that of her superstar stablemates in U2, who are also admired by a good chunk of the electorate (and will still be after their designated sure shot, hopefully entitled Pop, fails to save Strawberries from Chapter 11 in 1997). And we know from experience that the poll is an excellent if hardly foolproof indicator of potential fan appeal.

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Yet if some sort of sea change toward soundscape feels like what’s happening, when I got all right-brained and examined the numbers, what they presaged for guitar bands began to seem pretty complicated. To start with, definition is tricky. We clearly can’t limit the concept to “alternative” when artists like Guns N’ Roses and Richard Thompson live off it. [File Under Prince] has to count even if Guy and Tony Toni Toné and the once seminal guitarist Curtis Mayfield do not; latter-day honky-tonkers like Dwight Yoakam and Jimmie Dale Gilmore qualify even if Rick Rubin–era Johnny Cash is as folk as Ani DiFranco and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Amy Rigby counts the way Bonnie Raitt does, and so does Iris DeMent, by just a hair this time; austere Gillian Welch does not. And folkie-with-a-sampler Beck, resented in some quarters for putting new juice in a white fanboy form, obviously presents a big problem. But if I’m wrong to rule that Odelay and Mellow Gold aren’t guitar-band albums, for reasons I’ll explain later, that has no effect on my conclusion, which is that Gibson and Fender needn’t downsize quite yet.

In this decade, the worst poll year for guitar bands was the aforementioned 1990, which was also a good one for rappers somewhat more durable than Hammer and Ice — the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 18th that year and 87th this, and Digital Underground, whose best-remembered contribution to the hip hop weal will probably end up Tupac Shakur, two crews now victimized as much by their audience’s appetite for fad and progress as by any dropoff in their own abilities. But ironically, as the saying goes, 1990’s 19 sets of axemen — sole women: the Kims Gordon and Deal on bass, Georgia Hubley on drums — were led by a triumphant Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Ragged Glory inspired our cover line: “Guitars: Live and Memorex.” Subsequently, guitar bands have charted a high of 27 finishers, in 1992, and a low of 23, in all three Pazz & Jops since 1994, which was also the year of Green Day and Soundgarden and a top five that went Hole-Pavement-R.E.M.-Nirvana-Young. And the numbers remain stable when you focus on futures. Narrowing the definitions to favor classic garage-band configurations, filtering out the varied likes of Rigby, the Mavericks, and the eternal Alanis Morissette, you find that seven previously uncharted guitar units made our top 40 in ’94, nine in ’95, and eight in ’96.

This bean-count bears out what ought to be obvious: not only won’t the dominant musical sound of the second half of the 20th century disappear overnight, but that magic twanger is likely to enjoy a maturity so active it will seem oppressive to the prophets of electronica, already impatient for a historical moment that’s sure to take a form they can’t predict. The gender barrier is permanently breached; for the nonce, it’s much higher in techno. And partly as a result, although the simple pressure of history (including technological change) is the biggest factor, the guitar band’s aural profile will continue to expand and evolve, just as the horn section’s did between Sousa and Ellington, and just as guitars themselves have since 1955, when Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and not so many others turned Chicago blues into pop, through the ’60s, when guitars actually took over, through metal and punk and more metal and grunge and, whatcha wanna bet, more metal after that. And through plenty of other stuff, too.

But a closer look at the beans reveals that the electronicats aren’t just whistling “Born Slippy.” For starters, there’s funny stuff going on with Pazz & Jop’s rookies. Anomalously in an era when baby bands hone their skills with indie farm teams before going national, most of 1995’s scored with debut albums, as the irrepressible biz-wise opportunists of Foo Fighters, Garbage, and Elastica concocted professional pop from the grunge aesthetic/moment and Uncle Tupelo bifurcated into down-to-earth Wilco and miasmic Son Volt. Maybe the opportunists are career artists, as they say over in A&R. But the careers in question seem pathologically dependent on catchy singles, a malady almost as fatal (you die of the cutes, humming uncontrollably, Day-Glo puke, it’s awful) as the dread Alternian texturitis (for those who desire a dignified death). And in 1996, with our singles chart sporting a fresh crop of alternanovelties, Eels and Primitive Radio Gods where once Filter and the Presidents of the U.S.A. stood, all but two of our album newcomers reversed the pattern of the previous years by squeezing in on the low end, 24-29-34-35-38. This suggests some combination of diminished critical interest and attenuated talent pool. Whatever you think of Robert Schneider’s weirdo brainchildren, you have to admit that Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control lack the ambitious sweep of the opportunists. Don’t you?

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So then. Perhaps it’s time to ac-cent-tchu-ate the progressive. Having debuted at No. 2 in 1995, the bummed-out mixmaster Tricky wasted no time placing a still bleaker follow-up and his Nearly God guest-victim project in the top 20. Easier on the soul and meatier for the right side of the brain was Endtroducing…DJ Shadow, U.S.-released mid-November by a young Californian so out of step Stateside that he had to go to London to get a rep, which finished all the way up at fourth after barely creasing premature competing polls. With Goldie polishing his Metalheadz and L. T. J Bukem shunted over to a P&J compilation chart I hope isn’t embryonic forever, these two artists represented the legible edge of soundscape in 1996. Tricky was felt and phantasmagoric, Shadow in control of the kind of macrostructures rarely noticed by the voters, who end up depending as much on songs as Alanis and Gwen — a pop predilection that is the secret of their oracular powers. Whether Tricky and Shadow have a growth curve in them remains to be determined. But simply by taking electronica to a recognizable formal conclusion, they gave lots of nonspecialists the touch of strange they craved while preparing them for further developments.

And after that there’s, well, there’s Stereolab seventh and Everything but the Girl 12th. These finishes thrilled my advisers, and I was gratified if hardly surprised by the forward motion they signified. I just wish I was convinced it wasn’t lateral motion. Early proponents of the alternaesthetic in which texture fills in for tune, EBTG have been around longer than, I don’t know, Screaming Trees, and Ben Watt’s drum ’n’ bass doesn’t enliven Tracy Thorn’s sad croon any more decisively than his protoloungecore used to. So it isn’t that history has caught up with them, it’s that they’ve finally found their retro-with-a-twist niche, and could they have cocktail onions with that? As for the blithe Marxists of Stereolab, I’m down with their newfound knack for splitting the difference between class war and Wrigley commercial, but weightwise it turns them into Fountains of Wayne with a chick singer and longer songs. Once again no future, except perhaps in its synthy wink at the triviality it embraces with such post-Fordist savoir-faire, a fun quality few of us would call — and though I hate to put it this way, what else can I say? — revolutionary. P.S.: Something similar goes for their culture-bending sisters in Cibo Matto, who signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood.

It’s not my (primary) purpose to make fun of an honorable record I don’t happen to care for and a likable one that wears its limitations on its insert. I’m just trying get a grip on the latest death-of-rock rumor, which I’ll call the fifth — 1959 (“the day the music died”), 1968 (nobody believes me now, but it was the talk of the town; Esquire assigned a story, then axed me when I came up with the wrong answer), 1977–79 (disco), 1990 (see above), and 1996. This is a conservative count, of course— every year, every month, artistic malcontents broadcast obituaries for whatever genre isn’t ringing their chimes or providing the wealth and fame they know to be their due. So at this late date I trust my skepticism is understandable. It could actually be, as is oft conjectured, that mindless pop pap — not the Cardigans, but poor Gwen Stefani — has already replaced dire pseudoalternative bellyaching in the hearts and minds of the 18–24s the biz dotes on. But that isn’t what we care about. If Nirvanamania was a fluke, well, who expected anything better after Kurt died? Having survived Journey and Michael Bolton (on the same label, yet never seen on the same stage at the same time!), we can certainly survive No Doubt, and even Celine Dion. The question is what music will get us through — if any.

As it happens, I haven’t been much of a “rock” guy myself of late. Looking over a decade’s worth of top 10s, I find that, up till this year, only in 1994, with grunge rampant and hip hop and Afropop losing savor, did more than half my faves qualify; usually the figure has been three or four. Although this year’s six-by-just-a-hair — Rigby, Fluffy, Sleater-Kinney, DeMent, Los Lobos, Nirvana — all got to me immediately, the basic guitar-band format has become so familiar that even the ones I end up enjoying (Girls Against Boys, Sebadoh, the glorious Imperial Teen) can take forever to show me their tricks. Since I disdain the marginal differentiations fanzines are created for, demanding nothing less than true sonic distinction — which often just means astutely produced tune-and-voice combos like Sebadoh’s or Fluffy’s, but sometimes inheres in interplay like Imperial Teen’s, and when the right lyric grabs me by the earlobe I come back for more — you’d think stuff would sink in faster. But for me as for most people, diminished expectations do turn into self-fulfilling prophecies over time. And it’s that formal satiety — often combined with the nervous compulsion to maturity that afflicts not-so-recent college grads as their liaisons turn into relationships and their jobs evolve willy-nilly into careers — that leaves smart young-adult rock and rollers hungry for new. Thing is, this is as true of artists as of fans. Sometimes they’re merely worried about their continued marketability. But they didn’t become musicians to get bored.

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With that in mind, ask yourself how many of P&J’s 23 rock acts seem comfortable with the accepted parameters of the form. Musicmeisters R.E.M. and tastemeister Joe Henry working New South neotraditionalism; guitarmeister Richard Thompson on his half-acoustic little double-CD and songmeisters Wilco claiming every parameter they can think of on theirs; reformed country phenom Steve Earle and unretiring grande dame Patti Smith; Sheryl Crow cognizing aural dissonance; Rigby and DeMent with bigger fish to fry; and grunge patriarchs Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, whose big-rock moves are the most conventional pieces of music in this year’s top 40. And while quite a few of these artists mean to break molds (with virtuosity, passion, whatever), the list of those who already have only starts with [File Under Prince]: Sleater-Kinney storming the castle like Nirvana before them; Sebadoh and Imperial Teen playing Marco Polo in the moat; Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control throwing poop on their toy songs; arena-ska Sublime and rap-metal Rage Against the Machine; Jon Spencer avant-travestying da blooze; popmeisters Pulp reigning over a United Kingdom in which dance beats come as naturally as wanking; and the magisterial old cross-culturalists of Los Lobos sampling rhythms and styles live as well as sounds and atmospheres DAT. Obviously these groupings array themselves on a continuum, not in polarity, with the daring of individual transgressions subject to dispute. But to me they make clear that as it generated the inevitable epigones and deracinations, Nirvanamania opened things up even further than outside forces would have opened them up anyway.

And then there are the artists for whom a received form is a shot in the arm, mother’s milk, life itself. Distinguishing between emergent culture, the shock-of-the-new malcontents crave, and residual culture, the old-fashioned staples they resent, Raymond Williams pointed out that the residual is often antihegemonic, affirming values the arbiters up top have cost-cut to pieces. This mechanism is regularly activated when the disenfranchised seize their expressive destiny, as in the P&J counterpart to all the women who took over Billboard’s charts in 1996: the three lesbians and one housewife who staged two of the most startling rushes in P&J history — third-place Sleater-Kinney and eighth-place Amy Rigby, who handicapped to come in around 20th and 35th on their tiny labels. Compared to Nirvana’s, Sleater-Kinney’s moldbreaking seems midcontinuum, their less disruptive chops knocking down everything in the music’s path on the strength of a resolve whose steadiness never diminishes its intensity; while all Rigby wanted from her producer was articulate settings for her naturalistic lyrics and tunes, which is all he provided. People who just don’t get these records attend to the instrumentation and say what’s the big deal. But rather than political correctness or some such canard, what propelled them so high was reliable usages imbued with new needs — an urge to grow up without blowing up, an urge to hold fast without getting stuck to the floor. And each of these was conveyed by the one musical element no inanimate device has yet generated: the human voice.

Voices are almost as personal in the reception as the production, and on both ends too many alt types so detest Michael Bolton that they’ve learned to do without what are narrowly designated strong ones. Voice is why Iris DeMent improved her 1994 showing on a robust album cynics found preachy, and because it’s so personal, it’s also why devotees love Cassandra Wilson’s midnight drift and I don’t. The poll honors a few great voices — [File Under Prince] again, and having wearied of poor Eddie Vedder, some would now add Mark Lanegan — plus, as always, a great many canny singers. But it’s our two dark horses who make me wonder whether pipes could be making a comeback with a constituency deeply suspicious of their penchant for corn. Corin Tucker’s power contralto (underpinned by Carrie Brownstein’s power screech) is why so many skeptics quickly get Sleater-Kinney, and as a guy who kept playing Rigby’s record well after he could sing along with the year’s sharpest lyrics, I can attest that it isn’t her words that carry the music, but how warmly they quaver around proper pitch.

What strikes me about Rigby and Sleater-Kinney is that they resist the trend in which four of the five top albums (counting Los Lobos’s Tchad Blake connection) are sample-dependent: the most purportedly direct musical-emotional expression up against self-consciously recombinant bricolage. I wish I wasn’t obliged to point out that such alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive: Shadow topped my list, Rigby ran a strong second. And the finest thing I can say about our sweeping winner is that he doesn’t think anything excludes anything. I don’t count Beck as guitar-band, even though he fronts one on stage and plays the appropriate instruments in the studio, for the simple reason that he wants out the way [File Under Prince] wants in. His legal ID says folkie, but he manifests no more and no less fealty to that niche than to alt-rock, hip hop, or avant-garde — or, let us not forget, biz.

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Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight — as critics’ polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the ’90s) hadn’t been equalled since the ’80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck’s written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold — not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness [of] the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don’t know what to make of them — I infer that, like myself, many of the winner’s more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning — it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother’s milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.

Yet because I respect Beck, enjoy Beck, and like Beck, I have little doubt that he’s humane enough to rectify this absence. I know the prophets among us think his samples are far too jokey and catch-as-catch-can, a rockist insult to the whole-universe soundfields they can hear with their body’s ear in the latest techno subsubgenre, and they’re onto something — hearing, seeing, feeling Spring Heel Jack spin in October was a trip I hope to repeat. But the predictive power of the utopian folderol rock and roll has been fending off since the ’60s is so risible by now that I refuse to waste space on the argument. Extreme states of consciousness are for extremists, and one reason popularity is such a good thing is all the mad visions and overpowering emotions ordinary music lovers get to put to ordinary use. I hope Tricky and Shadow’s growth curve leads us all the way up the mountain, where wizards unknown await. But most of those you read about in the funny papers are apprentices at best.

I began 1996 with dire predictions about the future of music, and I take exception to (or maybe just don’t get) much of this year’s top 40 — e.g., the pleasantly pleasureless Gillian Welch; the politely literary Joe Henry; the archly boho Cibo Matto; Maxwell expiring of Afrocentric texturitis in that midway spot on the poll reserved in past years for such dance/r&b as Lisa Stansfield, Seal, En Vogue, Tony Toni Toné, and (here’s a clue) D’Angelo; the Roots proving that good intentions aren’t enough even if you throw in a human beatbox; and, saints preserve us, future Sleater-Kinney tourmate Jon Spencer. But many of these are what I call Neithers rather than Duds, and it could have been a lot worse. The deadly Tortoise foundered in a 41–50 that went Lovett–Dr. Octagon–Reed-Chesnutt-Germano–Girls Against Boys-Tortoise-Metallica-Cardigans-Fluffy (!). Aimee Mann was 74th, Dirty Three 87th; there were only two votes for Grant Lee Buffalo. The winner in the sadly unenthusiastic singles balloting was at least a dance ditty as dumb and wondrous as “Macarena” itself. And with the inability of the biz to repackage its history in perpetuity causing as much financial distress as Pearl Jam’s refusal to make videos, at least the uncanonical surprise winner of our reissues ballot is a galactic titan. Thank heavens for Sun Ra — he could have been Esquivel.

I was encouraged too by the return of political complaint — Iris DeMent and Zach de la Rocha, Lauryn Hill and Corin Tucker — and note once again that the quality and effectiveness of the ideas matter less than the felt need to express them. This is Art, folks. One would like it to have social consequences and is certain that one way or another it will, but Art is where those consequences begin. That’s why, in the end, I find I don’t much care whether the biz booms or busts. If it booms we get some kind of ’60s-style mass mess, with crazies and communicators expanding and compromising their reinvested emotions and their glimpses of the next world; if it busts a narrower subculture addresses the same issues in much the same way Amerindie did in the ’80s. There’s worthy music down both forks — a futurism that isn’t suckered by folderol counterbalanced against an eagerness to reconstitute traditions it would be dumb to throw out with the bongwater. Not what I dream, not what you dream, but what is? For a holding action in what could have been a dismal time, it will definitely keep me hanging on.

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Top 10 Albums of 1996

1. Beck: Odelay (DGC)

2. Fugees: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (Chainsaw)

4. DJ Shadow: Endtroducing…DJ Shadow (Mo Wax/FFRR)

5. Los Lobos: Colossal Head (Warner Bros.)

6. Steve Earle: I Feel Alright (Warner Bros.)

7. Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra)

8. Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch)

9. Tricky: Pre-Millennium Tension (Island)

10. Pulp: Different Class (Island)

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Top 10 Singles of 1996

1. Quad City DJs: “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” (Atlantic/Big Beat)

2. (Tie) Beck: “Where It’s At” (DGC)
Smashing Pumpkins: “1979” (Elektra)

4. (Tie) Oasis: “Wonderwall” (Epic)
Pulp: “Common People” (Island)

6. Busta Rhymes: “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” (Elektra)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Setting Sun” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Beck: “Devils Haircut” (DGC)
Blackstreet: “No Diggity” (Interscope)
Primitive Radio Gods: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (Ergo/Columbia)

—From the February 25, 1997, 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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‘Sounds of Ether’

Invented in 1919, Léon Theremin’s keyboardless electronic instrument has been used by serious composers (Copeland, Ives, Bernard Hermann), rockers (the Beach Boys, Pixies, Sleater-Kinney), and everyone in between. Tonight, five expert thereminists—Améthyste, Kip Rosser, Cornelius Loy, Dorit Chrysler, and Rob Schwimmer—demonstrate their various styles, which range from romantic and dreamy to dramatic and unearthly.

Wed., Dec. 12, 9:30 p.m., 2012

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The Corin Tucker Band

The Sleater-Kinney member who isn’t in Wild Flag has been touring in a van with her bandmates—Seth Lorinczi (Golden Bears), Sara Lund (Unwound), and Mike Clark (Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks)—and their kids. If that isn’t enough to whip a stage full of senseless rage, nothing is. Her walloping sophomore album, Kill My Blues, is miles beyond its confessional predecessor, too.

Thu., Sept. 27, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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‘Fred Armisen’s Playlist Live!’

When we saw Fred Armisen last month at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, he partnered with Sleater-Kinney/Wild Flag guitarist Carrie Brownstein to make the magical world of Portlandia come to life. Tonight at Union Pool, the man who contributed drums to Les Savy Fav’s Let’s Stay Friendsshows off his music side, offering up solo covers of some of his favorite tracks.

Sun., Feb. 12, 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 26, 8 p.m., 2012

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WAVE IT HIGH

Some projects Carrie Brownstein has engaged in since Sleater-Kinney stepped out of the indie rock spotlight in the summer of 2006: beginning a blog for NPR, co-writing and co-starring in IFC sketch-comedy show Portlandia, and starting a book, the last of which she wouldn’t discuss when the Voice profiled her earlier this year because to do so would make her “feel guilty about not working on it.” Still, what she’s doing instead—that is, leading a three-chord supergroup pulling in former members of Helium, the Minders, and her old drummer, Janet Weiss—is nothing to feel ashamed about, and tonight that foursome play Bowery Ballroom with Eleanor Friedberger opening.

Sat., Oct. 15, 8:30 p.m., 2011

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Adrian Sherwood and Wild Flag Show The Kids How It’s Done

Thursday night, as the free-cocktail-stained chaos of Fashion’s Night Out was just starting to descend upon lower Manhattan, I clambered up the stairs into a third-floor classroom at Dubspot, the 14th Street haven for aspiring DJs and producers. The occasion was a master class by Adrian Sherwood, the British music impresario known for his work in the boomy, reverb-filled genre of dub; the class was part of the Dub Invasion Festival, a 10-day celebration of the genre’s past, present, and future. (Events, including a master class taught by the UK dub producer Mad Professor, continue around the city through Friday.)

In the digital-music age, when MP3s can zip across communication lines with the speed of a lively Gchat conversation, it’s easy to believe that music just appears, the result of a certain combination of commands being typed into a computer. The word “remix” is especially prone to this sort of bias; remixes have become the sort of kudzu of the blog age, with up-and-coming artists doing their best (or, in the case of some, their worst) to the Hype Machine’s most wanted in hopes of catching a snatch of those artists’ search-engine mojo.

But watching Sherwood make over a reggae track in his own, hyper-reverbed image was—even from the weird catty-corner angle offered by the overflow room where I sat—both refreshing and hypnotic. His craft consumed him, even though he was performing in front of a classroom and a camera and not at a cavernous club; he bobbed and weaved with the song’s rhythm as he fiddled with his mixing board’s faders and knobs. A camera had been set up above the mixing board, so his hands were projected on the wall behind him. Watching each tweak and turn made the effects they produced seem even more grand—amplifying an insides-rattling drumbeat, fading up the track’s vocals so they sounded like they’d landed in the mix from another planet, dropping everything out except a single, repeated, eternally echoing note. His mini-lectures on what, exactly, he was doing straddled the line demarcating the technical (describing the effects he used, the mathematics behind some of his delays) and the passionate (discussing his collection of sound effects CDs, telling the producers in the audience that it was crucial to “get your own arsenal of sound”) in such a way that his love for and knowledge of the music he was working with filled the room.

A similar sense of vitality courses throughout the self-titled debut by Wild Flag, made up of ex-members of left-of-the-dial lifers Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders; it’s tempting to call the supergroup’s career up to this point a master class in turning the slightly moribund genre of “indie” into something that can still thrill and surprise, even with the basic three-chords-and-a-chorus formula intact. The foursome’s just-released album (Merge) is, in large part, a love letter to the power of music; in the opener, “Romance,” they sing as one, “We love the sound, the sound is what found us/ The sound is the blood between me and you.” It’s the sort of vow that, were this fifth grade and the promise-makers were on a playground, they’d seal by engaging in a high five with spat-upon hands.

Guitarists Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) and Mary Timony (ex-Helium) approach their instruments in ways that are compatible while not being absolutely similar—Brownstein turns punk into a pealing, chaotic rollercoaster ride, while Timony’s approach has a bit more languor to it, filling the songs on which she takes lead with long, bending notes plucked on a single string. Backing it all is Janet Weiss, Brownstein’s former Sleater-Kinney bandmate and a one-woman clinic in the art of keeping time while seeming absolutely spontaneous. The result is a collection of songs where the choppy, dreamy prog of “Glass Tambourine” can exist within a few tracks of the pogo-inducing “Short Version” and still come off as a cohesive, energy-rush-inducing whole.

I’ve seen Wild Flag twice so far; they played a show at the Rock Shop this spring and opened for Sonic Youth at the Williamsburg Waterfront this summer. Both times they melded their consummate professionalism—all four members have been playing in college-radio-beloved bands since the ’90s—with a roaring enthusiasm that stretched all the way to the back of the room, causing even those back-of-the-crowd lingerers who had grown up with the principals’ earliest seven-inches and compilation appearances to feel like the gray hairs and balky knees that they’d accrued over the past 15 years had somehow dropped away. The album doesn’t quite capture the brio of those shows (perhaps the deluxe edition will come with a vial of sweat that can be easily tossed around whatever room is being used for the listening party), but it still brims with enough enthusiasm and confidence to show the next generation what can happen when experience and, yes, romance collide.

The Dub Invasion Festival continues at various venues around the city through Friday; Wild Flag plays The Bell House on October 15 and the Bowery Ballroom on October 18

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Carrie Brownstein, Renaissance Grrl

It’s understandable if you’re still not over Sleater-Kinney. Those jagged guitar riffs that interlocked like checkerboard squares . . . those drum fills that reject any description other than “awesome” . . . those impassioned dual vocals that aroused your ire against a callous world . . . it’s only natural that we all got so attached. A nation of punk connoisseurs openly wept in 2006 upon news of the trio’s extended hiatus. But imagine how singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein felt.

She found other pursuits, of course—she spent several years doing anything but playing music. She worked for an advertising agency. She taught obedience at the Humane Society. She started a book, which she doesn’t want to talk about, “because it just starts to make me feel guilty about not working on it.” (Suffice it to say it’s a musical treatise on “technology, community, and the notion of fandom.”) She wrote the blog “Monitor Mix” for NPR, in which she heroically attempted to enjoy Phish and mused about working in an office where people say things like, “Let’s rock” before heading to meetings. (She’s always been a bit of a rock critic. “Entertain,” from Sleater-Kinney’s swan song The Woods, was basically four crushing-riff minutes of Brownstein yelling at all other bands to try harder.)

She also joined forces with Saturday Night Live comedian Fred Armisen, a former drummer in Chicago punk band Trenchmouth. Being a fan, he invited Sleater-Kinney to an SNL after-party in 2002; years later, they concocted a series of Web videos based in a feminist bookstore (Brownstein was a bit of a drama nerd before she discovered punk) and recently debuted the affectionate hipster-lampooning series Portlandia on IFC. It’s entirely possible that “Put a bird on it” has already entered your daily lexicon.

(Those surprised by Brownstein’s comedy chops just didn’t see the right Sleater-Kinney show: say, when she debated the relative merits of Tool versus Madonna onstage at Coachella 2006. Singer-guitarist bandmate Corin Tucker looked appalled that Brownstein went with Tool. Then again, “Corin was always appalled by something I would say onstage. In a jokey way.”)

All of this may leave you worried that she has abandoned music for good. Not so. “I don’t think I could ever be done with music, because it’s informed so much of my life—it’s really the lens with which I view the world,” she says by phone from her home in Portland, occasionally interrupted by the sound of her dog playing with a squeak toy. “But to me, music has to have an urgency, and it has to come from a place of desire and want and passion, and if I’m not in that place with music, then I have no desire to play it.”

Two years ago, director Lynn Hersh-man Leeson asked Brownstein to write instrumental songs for her feminist artists documentary !Women Art Revolution. So she called Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, along with her friend Rebecca Cole, a bassist and classically trained pianist, formerly of S-K opening acts the Minders. As soon as the new songs were recorded, Hershman asked for vocals. Which was problematic. “Originally, she had not wanted vocals on the songs,” Brownstein explains, “so I wrote them in a way that I could not sing over.”

Enter her friend Mary Timony: solo artist, perpetually underrated guitar-slinger, and former leader of ’90s haze-rockers Helium. “The first time I met Carrie was in 1994 or -5, at the Mercury Lounge in New York,” Timony recalls. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who’s as good a performer as her. It really blows my mind.” In 1997, their bands toured the U.K. together, and “we really hit it off. I think we would go dancing after every show.” The pair stayed friends, and even collaborated on a studio-only project called the Spells, which released one EP, Age of Backwards, in 1999.

Now they had a new project. “So all of a sudden, it was this band, and all of a sudden, it dawned on us, like, ‘Oh, we could actually do this. This could be an interesting band,’ ” Brownstein says. “So we started writing. But it was always an audition in the beginning.”

Justifiably, she worried about Supergroup Syndrome, wherein the members are “friends, or they’re great musicians in their other bands, and they come together, and it’s just not greater than the sum of their parts.” It took many “auditions” to assuage her fears, fears that only subsided when the band dubbed WILD FLAG played their first live show in Olympia last November. “I think we all come from a place where just because you have credentials or it looks good on paper, that doesn’t mean that you’re a good band,” she says. “It’s still about chemistry, it’s still about learning how to play together. You really should try to earn the things you get, and to feel like you have to prove something.”

So Timony, who’d grown tired of making solo albums, would fly out from D.C. for a week at a time for the intense, hours-long writing sessions. The group got rid of amps and pedals from their old gigs and discarded early songs that sounded too much like “this formula of one part Mary Timony, one part Sleater-Kinney,” Brownstein explains, acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding that with S-K’s actual drummer involved, but then again, “it’s hard to play in a band with Janet Weiss and then not play in a band with Janet Weiss.”

It would be unfair to go into deep critical analysis of a new band based on shaky YouTube bootlegs, so let’s just briefly note that WILD FLAG songs like “Future Crime” and “Arabesque” showcase an appealing blend of hard-driving rhythms, Mysterian keyboard wooshes, and overlapping gang vocals. After a run of shows this spring, they plan to record their debut album live in the studio (“We’re not going to obsess over overdubs or anything like that”) with producer Chris Woodhouse, with an eye toward releasing it this August on Merge Records. Sleater-Kinney remain close friends, by the way, but Corin Tucker’s appearance on Portlandia is the closest that fans will get to a reunion for a while. “I definitely feel like that is in our future,” Brownstein says. “But it’s not even in the realm of possibility right now.”

She’s moved on. You should, too. “We’re touring a bunch, and if people show up because they like Sleater-Kinney, we’ll weed them out,” Brownstein concludes. “We want people to come to our shows because they like WILD FLAG.”

WILD FLAG play the Rock Shop on March 5, and Radio City Music Hall, along with Superchunk and Bright Eyes, on March 8 and 9