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What We Do Is Secret: Your Guide to the Post-Whatever

OVER A DECADE ago, the punk movement tried to harness all the discon­tent in rock into an explosion, and failed. Instead, it institutionalized the edge. The marginal music of today is any number of second thoughts removed from punk’s ini­tial headlong impulse. The audience for it mainly consists of kids to whom 1977 and all that is somebody else’s distant past.

What most limits bands now is that whatever they do, it can’t ever be entirely new. The punk era’s improvised network of small clubs, indie labels, and college radio has become a sort of permanent infrastructure, like Taiwan or the folk cir­cuit. That makes for one kind of predict­ability, but the real gridlock is in the concepts. The current scene comes up with all sorts of moves, but all of them end up as just one more convolution of a radicalism that’s become a genre, dealing in extremes that have become constants.

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Punk, reacting against the ’60s, actual­ly tried to extend them, by reclaiming rock itself as an insurrectionary force. What’s happened instead is that the scene has become the repository for a set of concepts — “subversion,” “rebellion,” “counterculture,” “underground,” even “youth” — that no longer plausibly apply to rock or pop culture in general. The link between those formulas is that they all depend on a certain dynamic of opposi­tion. They don’t make any sense when they get abstracted — isolated as values for their own sake. In pop, ideas usually get downgraded to being avant-garde only after they’ve stopped having any popular currency. By now, the scene’s insistence that rock matters can’t register as any­thing more than an anachronism.

Rock and roll’s assimilation into the cultural norm was inevitable, but one side effect of the Reagan era has been that popular culture in general is also now establishment culture. You can’t associate pop with any sort of disenfranchisement when its headquarters is the White House. It’s grown increasingly difficult to pretend that rock now functions in this society any differently than movies or TV or Broad­way do. That hardly means that the form’s sewed up, but even at its most earnest or bravura or plain clever — Springsteen or Prince or Madonna — it’s mature show­biz, and that’s all. If one characteristic of the ’80s has been the inability of any alternative to Reaganism to build up any get-go, that’s partly because the places where we traditionally look for expres­sions of opposition have all been ab­sorbed — not coopted; don’t be silly — into the status quo. John Cougar Mellencamp may have thought that the White House had misunderstood “Pink Houses” when they wanted to use it as a Reagan cam­paign jingle. In some ways they knew better than he did.

But the Reagan homogenization has left those who still identify with rock-as-rebel­lion curiously bereft. Even they know that their rebellion isn’t going anywhere­ — their music isn’t ever going to reach an audience any larger than the one it has now. Punk conceived of itself as speaking to a mass audience: it meant to incite the millions. Hardcore signaled the end of that daydream — it self-destructed from the paradox of being militant about resig­nation. Hardcore was punk’s first total dead end, and therefore noteworthy: the dead end as milestone.

In almost every way, the scene has been stuck ever since then. What’s curi­ous is that the audience, which listens to this music like it was the blues, seems willing to accept that. But the bands aren’t. They keep on trying to come up with new formal solutions to what’s basi­cally a problem of content — as if finding more complicated ways of offending or disturbing or challenging will somehow get them around the fact that the very ideas of offensiveness, disturbance, and challenge have grown corny. Too many of them keep flailing away at a brick wall as if sheer dint of effort and restatement will turn it back into the open door it used to at least seem. The most interesting bands flail away too, but more as though there weren’t any important differences be­tween open doors and closed ones, be­cause mattering doesn’t matter.

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Which bring us, more or less, to Sonic Youth.

They formed in ’81, in other words at just about the minute it became obvious that all the most revelatory possibilities in their kind of music had been pretty thor­oughly exhausted. There may never have been another band that’s stayed together for so long while remaining fundamentally confused about what it is they want their music to do, and made a style out of the confusion. I also just love the fuck out of them, but you probably knew that. They answer my question — “Why on earth would anybody still be trying to milk something out of an attitude/sound so obviously hackneyed, used up, etc., etc.” — with a better one: “What on earth are we supposed to be doing instead?”

Sonic Youth aren’t the only ones, of course. Over the past few years, a whole slew of bands have been crawling up in search of a First Principle like so many chiggers. Some of what they share is for­mal — no-swing rhythms used either to make spaces for stray noise, or else front and center as the noise itself. Other links are historical: the hardcore scene as an example to be rued, rethought, or ig­nored, and more generally punk itself as (unwanted) tradition and legacy. But what connects them most is that they’re all defined by the absurdity of trying to make an insurrection out of legacy — of contriv­ing rebel rock at all at this late stage of the game.

I still think that Sonic Youth stands apart, because they’ve gone the furthest toward redefining the post-everything im­passe so that it’s not constraining. Also because they’re just plain better — which is interesting, because in this context, that never used to be a deciding criterion. But let’s look at the impasse first.

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PUSSY GALORE was originally based in D.C., where the dropout option of choice among affluent white kids has never been “I wanna be black,” but to become imitation white trash. The loca­tion also meant that they germinated un­der the sway of the most high-minded ascetic the hardcore scene ever pro­duced — Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, whose idealism impelled him to winnow false values from the hardcore ethic until, to his apparently quite genuine despair, the integrity he was left with consisted of nothing. but strictures. (One late commu­nique, from an ’86 letter in Boston’s Forced Exposure: “I suspect we’re all fooling each other.”)

The austerity’s what the men and wom­en in PG reacted against. With “Fuck Ian MacKaye” as an early slogan, they set about turning the music back into irre­sponsible crap again. The image their rec­ords call to mind is a kid shuffling around with his pants down sloppy around his ankles — which pretty much sums up not only their sound but the band’s subject matter, theme, and concept of Nirvana.

Musically, they’re really good. And that’s very funny, because their records really sound lousy. So far as chops go, Jon Spencer may be even more of a prim­itive than he wants to be, which is saying a lot. What PG assert is the right to be not just punk-amateurish but pointless­ — mulching the most available collective-­unconscious roots riffs into a sometimes dawdling, sometimes hectic lurch, es­chewing conventional rock drumming for garbage-can clanks and bangs. When you hear the stumblebum vocals on a Pussy Galore tune that don’t match up with the tempos for shit, or slabs of my-first-guitar noise going nowhere in all directions, chopped together, or left dangling, you’re hearing a sound that knows it can’t mean what it once did but can’t find anything else to mean.

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What you notice especially with PG, since they like clutter but revile subtlety, is how indiscriminate post-everything punk is about its sources. Elvis, Black Sabbath at their ‘lude-rock worst, the Dead, TV themes, and punk’s own earlier noise/beat aggro formulations all get strung out/along with equal affectless­ness, not as “Let’s-reclaim-rock-by-fuck­ing-with-it,” but, “We’re fucked up, and all this junk’s already here anyway, and so what?”

The “so what?” is — as always — the best thing about this stuff. Its emergence suggests a long-overdue acceptance of marginality. After so much ideologically correct self-denial, “so what?” allows re­combinations and rediscoveries ranging from any number of grungy splatter bands getting back into the stately delights of ’60s slow-burn guitar baroque to, at the benign-poppy end, Jad Fair carrying ado­lescent swoon-mooniness to heights of mewling delirium Gordon Gano never dreamed of.

The scene’s predictably at its worst when it doesn’t accept marginality — that is, when it tries to represent what by now can only be a more or less oddball prefer­ence as if it’s still, or anyway ought to be, a cultural imperative. That “ought to,” after all, is the real, old folkie fallacy: asserting that this is the authentic sound of youth rebellion is as spurious as insist­ing that folk music is the true music of the people.

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Pussy Galore indulge this. They also dramatize its contradictions, maybe more than they mean to. They cancel them­selves out. PG used to be famous for their rude vocabulary — their championing of it enshrined on their Groovy Hate Fuck LP, with examples like “Teen Pussy Power” and “Cunt Tease” shouldering aside more familiar hardcore-style plainspeech, e.g., “Kill Yourself.” I heard PG’s-fuck-fuck liturgy as a great rip on the lowest-of-the-­low indignities of teenage sexuality­ — namely, how much, when sex is mostly just the words, you gotta howl them. But also as a typically snarled up punk acting­out of longing/envy/frustration at Big Daddy ’60s (punk brought Freud into rock and roll like nobody’s business), mimicking the let-it-all-hang-out of sexual liberation with a fury that undermined it as anything but rhetoric: a joke that re­sented being a joke. It wanted to be a revolution.

The band expanded its purview (past “fuck,” I mean), and made its garbled call to an already-fucked new countercul­ture a whole lot harder to miss, on Pussy Galore, Right Now! Here, the collapse of youth revolt into revolting youth makes for just about irresistible post-everything noise; on “New Breed,” while the band pumps out its rattletrap shorthand for one of those classic garage-rock misunder­standings of a blues progression, verses of scurrilous-sounding gibberish got capped by Spencer’s slurred, self-satisfied decla­ration, “That’s what the new breed say.”

PG’s music still keeps faith with the belief in rock as the music of youth rebel­lion that their wreckage of it acknowl­edges, and perversely celebrates, as ter­minally lame. Bottoming out in the dregs of rock and roll, obsessed by the aware­ness that their most subversive feelings only make sense as burlesques, the most compelling clatter they make evokes not the nonexistent abyss they’d probably all race each other to jump into, but simply the refutation of their own reason for being. (New board game: let’s play Find-the-Edge.) Where Pussy Galore end up is parodying subversiveness itself — which would be no problem for them or their audience if either was just in it for the yocks. And they aren’t.

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One fallacy that PG are hardly immune to — and it’s how a lot of post-everything saves itself from sounding outright post­humous — is a mystification of rock, and/or youth, that would probably send John­ny Rotten crawling off in search of a grave to turn over in. The Cramps were the first punk-era band to explicitly cater to this hyperbolic version of alienation, hallowing their rockabilly primitivism as innately primal, and teen culture as the welling-up of eternal forces persecuted by society. Now, not only does the same sort of rhetoric keep surfacing as a defense of marginality, but the shock/shlock routines that both spoofed and reinforced the Cramps’ dumbest pretensions are being updated, to the same end but with no discernible improvement, by several post-­everything bands, notably Madison’s Kill­dozer — although Killdozer’s music, clanky guitar drone that sounds spacy and hostile at once, deserves better.

It’s a way of making the music seem more forbidden than it actually is: if we can’t be popular, we’ll be cabalistic. (Old Germs album title: What We Do ls Secret.) A sort of midnight-movie Jacobinism is the de rigueur tone in the current fanzines. “Seems like there’s some sort of conspiracy out there against real rock and roll,” one zealot wrote in Forced Exposure a while back — although Conflict‘s Gerard Cosloy, whose ‘zine is usually more sensi­ble if no less absolutist, did snort at that one in his next issue. The yahooing only ended up raising a more serious problem­ — as far as this stuff does still have somethi­ng to say to the larger culture so obliviou­sly swaddling it, it’s reactionary.

From the moment Joey Ramone first held up the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign, one theme of Stateside punk was a reinvention of white culture as a minority culture. Which had the advantage, mainly, of being mind-blowing — any notion that unlikely was bound to open up new connections, metaphorical leaps, and risks. Even so, the punk hunt for a white way of being downtrodden has turned out like a lot of visionary jolts — great wakeup call, lousy habit. Especially now that its parti­sans aren’t breaking out but digging in.

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Punks were rightly wary of the me-tooism in white hipsters’ borrowings from black and other minority cultures. The point was to find something belonging only to them. But what you hear instead by now, in something like the deliberately immobile clanking of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking LP, is a sound whose only point is the exclusion of other cultures’ music. Such know-nothingism hardly puts boosters as much at odds as they suppose with Reaganism, which among other things has been the WASP establishment’s last slab at preserving its cul­tural dominance. Reagan himself has also derived his style from the code and em­blems of white hipster cool. The man asking “whaddya got?” is now the voice of authority. Many of us who used to find our own alienation expressed in that code have grown alienated from the code itself.

Calling that attitude radical has cut the scene off from every alternative to Rea­ganism — alternatives that have also, ironically, achieved a lot more pop authority than punk ever did. Hip hop is so much in the swim of things that it can supply the beats for McDonald’s commercials and still sound like fighting words on the air­waves — where its provocativeness has the added benefit of reaching people who are actually provoked by it.

Big Black was the brainchild of Steve Albini, frequent ‘zine polemicist and one­-man scene think tank. As a polemicist on vinyl, he scored brilliantly at least once­, on Big Black’s reworking of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” backed with Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore.” Not only did you hear the two as white-roots brothers-in-arms; you heard both as adumbrations of the Sex Pistols. But once he declared “this is our music,” he apparently couldn’t find anything much for said music to express.

Albini isn’t stupid, but doing it cleverly only makes you more aware of just how ad hominem his whole agenda is. Among other things, Songs About Fucking has to rank as one of the great misnomers of all time; the end of punk’s old antisex jitters has been more than welcome, but sex, like youth, is purely a rhetorical quantity. (I know a shoe fetishist who cried because he had no shoes, until he saw a foot fetishist who had no feet.) At least the rhetoricians in Pussy Galore also revel in infantilism for its own sake; the worst thing about Albini is that even his wee­-wee is ideological. I got pretty heavily into the yawn-stifling stage once I heard the name of his new project: Rapeman.

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Post-everything splinters rock in search of a form that can contain unimaginable antipodes of urgency and knowingness, at once acknowledging that everything’s lame and plowing the shards into a new charge. But in these wised-up times, even in cultural circles less convoluted than the one Pussy Galore chase their tails in, too much knowingness might flat-out preclude subversion — even when subversion’s the goal. And that’s still nothing compared to how burned-out post-everything looks when knowingness is the goal. Redd Kross are like a PG-rated version of PG, which means they mostly don’t sound the least bit like them. They really rock, ap­plying a seemingly inexhaustible battery of Ramones formalisms to revitalize Woodstock-era shlock the same way their predecessors revitalized Herman’s Her­mits. The difference is that this time it stays shlock, and it’s meant to; the themes that fester in PG’s graffiti — how to relate to a future that’s become a past, and that you’ve already seen through anyway — get smoothed out, slicked up, played for sim­pers. And that really does sound like the end of the line.

And isn’t, quite. Noodling around the scene, somewhere past the “so what?,” are intimations of what inevitably has to come after post-everything — artlessness, or innocence. There’s Dinosaur Jr.­ — whose music has more than a few points of similarity with Redd Kross. But while formally aware and resourceful, they aren’t formally self-conscious; they’re just trusting the sound to communicate what­ever they want it to. Beyond that, there’s Seattle’s Soundgarden — who came out of this scene without even noticing how ter­minal it was, and set about reinventing a post-everything metal as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sound­garden may even qualify as genuine music-of-youth; Led Zep ripped to shreds is the formal move, but they’re so earnest they’re like Grand Funk with talent.

But even the fucked-up stuff has more going for it than you’d expect. Sure it’s in crisis; it wears itself out obsessing over bankrupt ideas when it isn’t just being truculent about them. And that makes its contortions real involving — like watching Houdini going into the river, inside a safe and six pairs of handcuffs, and trying to figure out how to breathe down there. But past that, there’s the unavoidable truth that all this jammed-up slop, no matter how hung up on over-convoluted formal problems it seems from the sidelines, is to its fans simply descriptive of their own real-life crisis. To them it doesn’t sound theoretical at all. It’s not impossible that this music could someday achieve some kind of equanimity, most likely by aban­doning its fixation on progress and set­tling down to being, if not rock and roll as anybody knew it, then some bizarre sort of terminal postrock blues. But even if it just goes on grabbing for more no­where — well, hey, welcome to the wacky world of high culture. Where were you al the end of the century?

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IN SOME ways, I feel more affinity with these bands than I do with Sonic Youth. The other post-everythings work off of attitudes that I think of as more or less indigenous — that is, mainly deriving from rock, with few if any precedents further afield, and mainly relating to the audience rock invented. SY unmistakably partake of an artier avant-garde tendency that I always instinctively, usually pejora­tively label as European — even though I know that as a pretension it can be as home-grown as those great sad sacks the Doors, and can also feed into music as great as that of those European sons the Velvets.

And yet what screws up so many other post-everything bands is wrestling with the illusion that their chosen form, or anyway their slant on it, can be indige­nous to anybody but themselves. By con­trast, because SY evoke a more highfalu­tin’ genealogy even when they’re indulging their Madonna and Iggy fixa­tions, everything they do sounds perfectly natural — even down-home. Maybe they could be described as the most unpreten­tious pretentious band in the world.

Which didn’t stop them from seeming, at the outset, like the most limiting sort of avant-garde band. Being on the cusp be­tween the last of the no-wave scene and the frankly snobbish downtown hybrids that replaced it gave SY — guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, guitarist Lee Ran­aldo, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, and Bob Bert (now of Pussy Galore, and re­placed in SY by Steve Shelley) on drums — a raft of suspect associations. Glenn Branca and Lydia Lunch — my. They weren’t coming to rock from the outside as Branca did, but they did sound as if they related to the form almost as abstractly. And while they weren’t ever the pain in the ass that Lydia found so many innovative ways of being, they did sound almost as taken with the arty angst that caterwauls about alienation just be­cause it’s so cool. The combination can be deadly, and it’s still what you hear on SY’s ’83 Kill Yr Idols EP: cut-and-dried howls of impeccably discordant anguish.

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I can’t explain exactly why it’s different now, because the band’s music hasn’t changed drastically since then. Their sig­nature remains guitar buildups and con­vergences that choke in frustration before they can ever become rave-ups. But it’s got something to do with SY gaining enough self-assurance to be uncertain. Over time, their own ambivalence about using those same old signifiers for alien­ation made their music heartfelt. They stayed avant-garde, but without the fatal signature of avant-gardism: that slowly-I-­turned framing noise, audible in every­body from the Swans to Henry Rollins, which continually announces that you’ve never heard such sinister and terrible truths before. On SY’s later records, when the band thrashes around with one more of Moore’s stymied impulses toward violence, or Gordon yowls or murmurs her way through another of her Nico-ish self-as-object dissociations, they know it’s not news. It’s mundane — they’re weary.

From another angle, that means that SY relate to avant-gardism as if it were the frowsy pop junk of their formative years — which of course for them, as for so many of us, is exactly what it is. The more clashing and disjunct a song of theirs is, the more they play it as if it were snaggly, scruffy garage-rock. Their satu­ration in the most forbidding noise goes so deep that all difficulty dissolves, replaced on one hand by matter-of-factness, and on the other by an almost goofy romanticism — boy, how they love being in this band. And at the same time, they’re willing now to express their affinities with more familiar, less forbidding noise. Cov­ering the Ramones on the B-side of their recent “Master = Dik” 12-inch showed just how at ease they’ve become — it was the scene’s first-ever acknowledgment of punk as its oldies music.

SY comes at you all in pieces, and maybe they have to. The scattered effect is partly due to the LP format seeming vaguely ill-suited to their sensibility. Of their last three albums, only last year’s Sister — preceded by Bad Moon Rising in ’85, and Evol (love backwards, also evolve cut short: their best title) a year later — doesn’t feel incomplete. They’ve never put out any official vinyl that matches the amazing live double-LP boot­leg This Time, The Last Time, and Here’s to the Next Time — which melts down the distinctions between avant-gardism and pure rock fury to the benefit of both, and also gives you continuum like you’d never believe.

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On one level, SY’s outlook is daunt­ingly narrow. But on another, what’s most striking about them is that their work amounts to a virtual summation, and recapitulation, and reaffirmation, of all the concerns that have obsessed the self-con­scious fringe of rock since well before 1977. Here, once again, not exalted but simply dealt with, are all those old dual­ities of anomie and self-dramatization, hostility and longing, that search for one kind of insanity as a means of staving off another. Here also, jumbled as attic bric­a-brac, is the whole formal tool kit of put-ons, assaultive ironies, cross-references, crossed-circuits, and short-circuits instantly inherited by anyone who decides that rock is everything and inadequate simultaneously.

So who should they remind you of? Darned if I know, but after playing This Time and Live ’69 back-to-back one night, this scene’s equivalent of Dylan comparisons — “to be avoided whenever humanly possible,” Christgau used to say — became impossible to avoid. Still, I don’t particularly mean the Velvets-as-­music, much less the Velvets-as-pinnacle. When the influence does show up in Sonic Youth’s sound, it’s unmistakably derivative, because it’s a tradition now — so many of their songs shudder, stutter, and veer off from turning into the last two minutes of “Sister Ray.” Almost as often as they veer off from turning into each other — and as usual, the band knows it. The link I mean is the act of making a kind of music so unfashionable that the unfashionability becomes freedom. It’s so far removed from anyone else’s moment that it can’t do anything but create one for itself.

What SY ultimately do with the tradi­tion is to make it, of all things, wholesome. Which sounds strange, I know, but consider their voices first off. No matter how artily outre or chaotically near-psy­chotic or fierce their songs get, the people singing them sound steadfast, almost artless; not in a way that contradicts their material; but one that affirms their loyalty to it — as if the dopiest thing they could do would be to exaggerate its abnormality, make it sound more unprecedented than it actually is. When Moore sings the line “We’re gonna kill all the California girls,” in “Expressway to Yr. Skull” (a great move on Evol, a great song on This Time), he neither simply plays the Man­sonism straight, nor tips it as a crazy put-on. He does both, but he’s wistful.

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The band’s latest record, Daydream Nation, both extends this synthesis and makes it more explicit than you’d expect. The album’s a tidy compendium of SY’s familiar obsessions and equally familiar double takes on those obsessions, along with more relaxed acknowledgments of (i.e., borrowings from) the efforts of their companion bands out there in the post­-everything nothingness than you’d have thought them capable of. The oddest thing, though, is that with no loss in astringency they now sound almost … pop­py: the guitars head straight into that vortex of brittle drone where punk, HM, Branca, and the Surfaris all become utter­ly, unutterably indistinguishable, while even Gordon’s my-voice-chopping-against-the-beat dirges now sound as if they have actual hooks, even if the real hook is that voice’s suddenly reassuring familiarity. I’m not sure they were even trying to be accommodating, but there’s no way for them to be difficult anymore. Here’s a slogan for the ’90s: in the future, everyone will be ahead of their time for 15 minutes.

Which is a kind of answer to the post-­everything predicament — most likely not a final one, but certainly the one that makes the most sense right now. This form really is used up, that’s all. There aren’t going to be any more discoveries along this line, and neither is there much point in playing all manner of formal games to try to make what’s now old sound new, or what’s now familiar sound forbidden. But even if revelation is out of the question, this music can still go on speaking to its minority audience like the tradition it is, just as mature showbiz speaks to the majority — as a constant if not an upheaval, and as a dialogue instead of a challenge. And if nothing else, as our old friend art for art’s sake — even if that ends up as the biggest difference between it and rock and roll. ♦

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Boys Are Smelly: Sonic Youth Tour Diary, ’87

BEFORE PICKING up a bass I was just another girl with a fantasy. What would it be like to be right under the pinnacle of energy, beneath two guys crossing their guitars, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and male bonding? How sick, but what desire could be more ordinary? How many grannies once want­ed to rub their faces in Elvis’s crotch, and how many boys want to be whipped by Steve Albini’s guitar?

In the middle of the stage, where I stand as the bass player of Sonic Youth, the music comes at me from all directions. The most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you. Manipulat­ing that state, without breaking the spell of performing, is what makes someone like Madonna all the more brilliant. Sim­ple pop structures sustain her image, al­lowing her real self to remain a mystery —­is she really that sexy? Loud dissonance and blurred melody create their own am­biguity — are we really that violent? — a context that allows me to be anonymous. For my purposes, being obsessed with boys playing guitars, being as ordinary as possible, being a girl bass player is ideal, because the swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget about being a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.

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We’re the Archies!

PEOPLE WHO CAN’T even be­lieve we have an audience are always curious about who they are. Maybe half the crowd who shows up in New York are real fans: noise buffs, death rockers, yup­pies who have never heard a Sonic Youth record but know who Lydia Lunch is, rock writers, fanzine moguls, and sexual mis­fits, each and every one of them dressed in black. In L.A. everyone is more power­-shag. In other cities audiences are youn­ger, mostly 14- and 15-year-olds from areas that have cable (MTV’s 120 Min­utes), get exposed to us, and, unlike col­lege students, have nothing better to do. New Yorkers familiar with Sonic Youth never consider us a teeny-bopper band, but that just goes to show how provincial New Yorkers really are. They should get out of the city more often and see the world.

A lot has changed though since Sonic Youth began in ’81. Cofounder and gui­tarist Thurston Moore named a show he was booking Noisefest. That’s where we met guitarist Lee Ranaldo and the band came together. The festival’s name was a joke, inspired by the owner of Hurrah who had said he was gonna close the club because all the bands just sounded like a bunch of noise. Nobody even knew what a noise band was. I wondered if people would be disappointed in Europe, the eas­iest place for New York bands to get gigs, because we didn’t fit the image. Next to our friends the Swans, who were very loud and had a percussionist who pounded metal, we were total wimps.

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Every Night, A Different Gig

LYLE HYSEN, drummer for Das Damen, a New York band with a Deep Purple-like zest for guitar curdle and in­tricate song structures that frame a tragi­comic persona (if comedian Richard Lew­is were a band, they’d be it), told me about this vision he had that would change the face of indie rock. Instead of the band going on the road, from city to city, the audience would tour. For instance, they could do the Midwest. Head out to Minne­apolis and see the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Run Westy Run. Get back on the bus and drive to Madison for Kill­dozer, Die Kreuzen, and the Tar Babies. Just think, every night a different gig.

You’d be better off than the typical small touring band. There’d be no endless bickering about where-what-when to eat, all that draining decision-making. The tour manager would take care of every­thing, so you could just concentrate on watching the bands play. If the bus broke down, well, maybe you’d miss a gig, but it’s not your responsibility.

Personally, I like to know that a band has suffered by the time they get onstage. Like the first time Redd Kross toured. Out of some 30 dates they did six. They drove out of L.A. in some crappy station wagon they bought with a record company advance, and they had big suitcases filled with their gear — high-heeled sneakers, spangled bell-bottoms, poly-coated blouses — and everything got all messy and wrinkled, but a half dozen times they shimmied onstage and played their hearts out.

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Richmond, 9/14

I NEVER FEEL like we’re really on a tour ’til we hit Richmond. The wide streets feel different, slow and empty, and then I know we’ve left NYC/New Jersey/Philly/Baltimore/DC That turnpike shit is the ugliest anywhere.

“Mom, I Gave the Cat Some Acid” was the funny industrial rock song by Happy Flowers we covered tonight when we played with them. They covered Sonic Youth’s “Catholic Block” and wailed all over us, ’cause they’re so fucking cute. There were a couple guys from Fishbone hanging out, trying to be funnier than anyone else. One guy was trying to im­press me, telling me what neighborhood he comes from in L.A. He said that he could be making a lot of money selling crack, but he preferred to play music. I really felt like saying to him, “Yeah, so fucking what, I’m a girl and here’s my ghetto pal.”

Chapel Hill, 9/15  

THE CAT’S Cradle was packed and too hot to remember anything. The last time we played in Chapel Hill, ’82, it was the old Cat’s Cradle, which was filled with the kind of dreariness that comes from redneck bars.

That was our first tour, us and the Swans. Yeah, we thought we were hot shit. (We had a record out and had played CBGB, the Mudd Club, and Danceteria.) It was raining and sad as hell, and the headlining Swans played their set to six jeering cowboys. Chapel Hill is one of the hippest places on earth to play, but in 1982 we were too underground or some­thing. Mike Gira, the leader of the Swans, introduced a song amid giggles and chants for “Freebird” by saying, “This next song is about getting buttfucked by a cop,” or something to that effect. We stood around waiting to see if Harry Cros­by, then the English bass player for the Swans, who was as drunk as anyone, would feel the need to defend their honor. But nothing happened, a fitting end to a stupid evening.

All 10 of us piled into the van, and the Swans fought among themselves. Morale was very low, tempers short, and our expectations not as high as Mike’s, which is why they scream at one other. One night Mike and his drummer started strangling each other and calling each other “Dickhead” and “Asshole.” Meanwhile everyone else is crammed around them trying to mind his or her own business, being really cool.

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Atlanta, 9/16

ON THE DRIVE from Athens to Atlanta there’s this great snow-cone stand run by a six-year-old who offers a million different flavors — poppy seed or corn dog. for instance. We’ve totally given up on Athens, where we played twice and nobody came. The first time was the night Gira jumped off the stage and pushed someone who was pogoing. Mike thought the guy was a poser who was making fun of him. In reality he was a nerd, and Mike had never seen a nerd before.

We played at the Metroplex in Atlanta. As wholesome as Athens likes to think it is, Atlanta is self-consciously decadent. For instance, when my bass amp broke during the set, I felt pressured to go through the motions, pretending that sound was still blasting out, dry-humping as it were. Someone in the audience shouted, “Play some fucking noise, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Stop complain­ing that the PA isn’t loud enough.” This is the kind of expert who will later review the show, complaining that no one stuck a drill up his butt.

Anyway, Atlanta used to have a super bad reputation as an evil punk scene, lots of kids hanging out and slashing the tires of touring bands, a real pit. Thurston tried to discourage his sister, Susan, from com­ing to the Metroplex. He must’ve thought we were gonna suck, or that he had to protect her. Thurston is really hung up about having to protect women, must be his upbringing. (Thurston and I even had a Catholic wedding.) He told Susan she’d be raped and murdered if she came. A handsome redhead, 30, the mother of four, she ignored him and appeared at the club with a camera around her neck, gasping to their cousins, “God, I’m the only nerd here!” Someone asked Susan for her autograph.

We stayed at her house and awoke to food flying around the room and babies crawling all over us. I know many people think we indulge in twisted sex and ingest massive amounts of drugs on tour, and of course we do. But I’ll always remember Susan, standing in the driveway with the kids and waving good-bye.

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Texas, 9/17  

ON OUR WAY to Dallas, we just melt, sleep, and nag our drummer Steve Shelley about driving too slow and Thur­ston for driving too much like he plays guitar. Lee Ranaldo is holding his movie camera out the window again, and Terry Pearson our sound man is ripping thru another rock ‘n’ roll autobiography. He can read one in 10 minutes. Suzanne Sasic is also with us.

Suzanne is our T-shirt vendor and runs the lighting board. Tomboyish, but with long red hair, she wears spurs and keeps her money in her boots. Her penchant for wearing glitter and silver combined with her almost translucent skin are other rea­sons we call her our goddess of light. Suzanne and I sit in the last row of the van and complain about something or oth­er or just voice our opinions in general. No one ever listens to us. It’s so far back, what with the windows open and stereo blasting, that we have to shout to be heard. “Turn that shit off.” “Stop the car I have to pee.” Thurston complains that we’re always mumbling.

Suzanne has a diet that’s a challenge to accommodate. She won’t eat anything green, except guacamole, and will only eat the middle of various foods like pan­cakes and cheese omelettes. (She hates the egg part.) Spaghetti, chocolate, and orange juice are staples. I’m writing this as a warning for all the boys across the country who write to ask who the vixen with the devastating eyes is. Does she care? No, she’s a heartbreaker. Just send obscure vinyl, After Eights, and forget the rest.

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Buffalo, 5/9

THERE ARE these kids here — the Neurotic Family Production Company­ — who have an inscribed cake (“SONIC LIFE”) made for us every time we play one of their shows. Last time we played there with Das Damen, and they’re going, “You guys suck, I can’t believe they made you a cake.”

The nicer the promoter, the better the food, the worse the gig is usually, except New York gigs, which don’t need any reason to suck. Our shows in Europe tend to be less exciting for this reason.

Switzerland 6/9

MISJUDGING the drive from Paris, we’re about six hours late for a live radio broadcast at one of those state-of-the-art radio stations. I like to think it was Car­los’ s fault, our booking agent/tour man­ager in Europe. Carlos is a tall, gangly, soft-spoken friend of ours who came into the job of booking bands through social work. (Holland gives government subsi­dies to its rock clubs.) When we’re togeth­er our stereotypes of one another become more pronounced; he is the self-righteous, hard-working, Dutch manager, and we’re the spoiled, self-centered, American rock assholes. In Europe, we’re almost always late. In America we’re pretty self-­sufficient.

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The most fun thing about having Carlos around is listening to the way he tries to shame us. “I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” he’ll say, rolling his head from side to side. He has met or heard about every wasted performer on the European circuit, and he still thinks we’re bad when we want to slop for bangles and candy. We find it essential to stop everywhere to exercise our right as Americans to spend freely. To tour is to shop. This drives Carlos crazy.

Anyway, we get to the radio station in Geneva very late, but they still want us to play, which is unfortunate. Carlos is disappointed in our attitude. We started complaining about having to do the show when we found out we weren’t getting paid. And it’s the same old story about how we’ll end up with a high quality live recording, but we already know it’s gonna be lame because it’s a dead room and we’ll be playing in front of five Swiss people bobbing their heads and smiling politely.

So of course they have a great spread of pâté, cheeses, and smoked ham. We feel like slobs surrounded by this plush equipment and stark beige environment, quiet as a bomb shelter. From the first note it’s a disaster. Thurston starts whispering obscenities over the intro to “Cot­ton Crown.” We feel like jerks, so pretty soon Thurston is swearing new lyrics to all the songs, and no one stops us. (Some of this session did end up on the B-side of Master=Dik.)

Switzerland was the only place I ever had my ass bitten by someone in the audience. I’d turn my back, and the guy would jump up and bite me, and I’d have to fight him off. When he kept doing it Thurston kicked a glass in his face. It really destroyed the mood.

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Boston, 10/18

THERE WAS A point when I start­ed getting sickened by the violence on­stage. Thurston’s fingers would swell up all purple and thick from banging his guitar. Usually I never know what’s hap­pening on stage, I would just see guitar-like objects whizzing through the air out of the corner of my eye. A couple of times Thurston pushed Lee into the audience, as the only way to end a song, but that was harmless fun.

At our first gig in Boston about four years ago, Conflict editor Gerard Cosloy, Forced Exposure‘s Jimmy Johnson, and this idiot fan named Billy were just about the only ones there. During the first sbng Billy picked up this broken drum stick that had flown onto the floor and threw it back. It speared into my forehead. At first I thought it had bounced off Thurston’s guitar. Shocked, I didn’t know whether to cry or keep playing, but then I just felt incredibly angry. It took a long time to resolve that incident, ’cause it really made me feel sick, violated, like walking to the dressing room after a set, having some guy say, “Nice show,” then getting my ass pinched as I walk away.

I blamed it on the music for awhile, because it did draw fans who really want to see you hurt yourself. It’s not that I don’t share similar expectations; there’s beauty in things falling apart, in the dan­gerous (sexual) power of electricity, which makes our music possible. But what was once a hazy fantasy has since clarified itself. I don’t want my blood to be entertainment.

When we most recently played the Channel in Boston, some kid threw a handful of firecrackers in my face. I threw down my bass and left the stage, and so did the rest of the band. We figured out what happened and went back on to finish the set, while the bouncers were throwing the kid out. I was actually beginning to feel sorry for him, probably a misplaced Aerosmith fan.

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Naugatuck, Connecticut, 10/24

THERE’S NOTHING like Nauga­tuck on a Saturday night. It was just about the last gig on the tour. The club is next to a Chinese restaurant in a shopping plaza. River’s Edge could have been filmed here. I’ve never seen so many metalheads cruising the roads. They make perfect sense, though, when you look at the barren trees, the discount store, all this desolation and quietness — you want to crank up something really loud and ugly. I couldn’t help wondering what the girls did while the boys were off playing with Satan. Maybe they also crave elec­tricity, swirling around their heads, through their legs.

I know what they feel like. When Iggy Pop came onstage in Naugatuck (or was it London?) to sing “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Lee and Thurston were ready to rock. I was amazed that he was so profes­sional. He expressed the freakiness of being a woman and an entertainer. I felt like such a cream puff next him. I didn’t know what lo do, so I just sort of watched.

Secret Message

THIS GUY writes me letters. He tells me up front he’s been hospitalized for mental disturbances several times and asks that I stop sending messages to him through our music. Guys like this take over your whole life if you give them even a smidgen of attention. So if you read this, baby, stop sending those letters. ♦

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

1992 Pazz & Jop: Between Rock and a Hard Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1992

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

2. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)

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

4. PJ Harvey: Dry (Indigo)

5. Beastie Boys: Check Your Head (Capitol)

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

7. Sugar: Copper Blue (Rykodisc)

8. Sonic Youth: Dirty (DGC)

9. Tom Waits: Bone Machine (Island)

10. Basehead: Play With Toys (Imago)

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Top 10 Singles of 1992

1. Arrested Development: “Tennessee” (Chrysalis)

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

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

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

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

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

8. U2: “One” (Island)

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

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

—From the March 2, 1993, issue

 

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

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

1990 Pazz & Jop: Hard News in a Soft Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

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Top 10 Albums of 1990

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

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

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

4. Sonic Youth: Goo (DGC)

5. Living Colour: Time’s Up (Epic)

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

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

8. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia)

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Soho: “Hippychick” (Atco)

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

—From the March 5, 1991, issue

 

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

 

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

1988 Pazz & Jop: Dancing on a Logjam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1988

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

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

3. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (Elektra)

4. Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust (Columbia)

5. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury)

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

7. Pere Ubu: The Tenement Year (Enigma)

8. Keith Richards: Talk Is Cheap (Virgin)

9. Traveling Wilburys: Volume One (Wilbury)

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—From the February 28, 1989, issue

 

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

 

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Thurston Moore Turns a Reflective Page at Rough Trade NYC

For Thurston Moore, 2014 was a year of wild oscillations. The former Sonic Youth frontman and alt demigod released The Best Day, some of his best-received solo work in years. But the record came out only a few months after the messier parts of his divorce from fellow demigod Kim Gordon came to light, namely an extramarital relationship. He started being referred to as an adulterer (notably, in the same breath as Courtney Love was deemed possibly “mentally ill” in a New York Post headline). Pitchfork called him “the most famous — and, in some circles, most reviled — divorcé in American indie-rock.” Jezebel simply called him a dick. 

Suddenly, it was Team Gordon or Team Moore, as though we wanted to reduce the complexity of a personal and artistic partnership spanning three decades to a reality show format. But reduce we did, and it seemed like the entire internet was Team Gordon. Even so, these tongue-lashings seem to have had a less-than-crushing effect on Moore. “A lot of that existed in the virtual world, but on the street, not so much…it’s almost exclusively by people I don’t know who they are. But when I go out on the street, it’s not presented to me at all,” he told the Wall Street Journal in October of 2014.

That attitude could be a symptom of sycophants and privilege isolating Moore — or it could be that a good fraction of the histrionic outrage tirelessly pumping through our internet tubes mostly exists in the minds of those crafting that outrage, and that most people are more concerned with the music than re-enacting the Salem witch trials.

The latter, thankfully, proved to be true of Moore’s talk Tuesday night at Williamsburg’s Rough Trade NYC, where he was promoting Stereo Sanctity, a comprehensive selection of his poems and lyrics. There were no pitchforks or angry internet-townspeople — in fact, the event was spectacularly uneventful: Before a modest midweek crowd, Moore chatted with his old buddy and sometime bandmate Steve Shelley about the intersection of music and poetry. Pretty boring stuff, really, for those hoping for a soundbite to perpetuate the “predictable dickhole” narrative, and deliciously boring for those interested in anecdotes about used bookstores and unsung poets.

Moore, dressed in a brown blazer and still sporting his babyface, was personable and professorially intelligent. He took the crowd through the stories behind Stereo Sanctity more or less chronologically, beginning with his childhood in Connecticut. The first lyrics he ever wrote were for imaginary bands, of which he was the only member. One was called Parthenon, another Lling Ston, a riff on Rolling Stone. Moore was still a teenager, and he was obsessed with music publications. He sent away for Richard Hell’s work after seeing an ad in Rock Scene that simply said “Call Hell” and gave a phone number. He read Patti Smith’s poetry in Creem. Artists like those fostered the idea in him that poetry and music could collide — not in a Dylanesque way, but out on the fringe, dangerously. Smith would put quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke in her pieces; Moore would go ask someone in a bookstore who that was.

These publications also served as “signals from New York.” Moore and another friend thought, “Let’s go see what that is,” so they left Connecticut and ended up at Max’s Kansas City. The first gig he saw was a dual bill of the Cramps and Suicide. “Suicide was assaultive, Alan Vega cutting himself with broken glass,” Moore recalled.

Moore would stay in New York, of course, forming Sonic Youth. He remembers thinking about lyrics for the band as a combination of the Ramones and Smith. The lyrics from “I’m Insane,” from 1985’s seminal Bad Moon Rising, were culled from the backs of wonderfully trashy pulp novels Moore collected. “They were one of the only things I could collect, because they were pennies on the pound,” Moore said. “Rowdy farmhands, full of sex and violence, really salient books.”

Another track on Bad Moon Rising came about as a misheard song lyric. Moore was listening to Black Flag’s Damaged and thought he heard “society as a hole” instead of the actual “society’s arms of control.” Mondegreens have always been a thing for Sonic Youth: At one of their first shows, a journalist misheard “I trust the speed, I love the fear” as “I take lots of speed, drink lots of beer.” “That was the opposite of what I was going for,” said Moore, getting a big laugh. “That’s why I’m glad to have all the lyrics collected in this book.”

Some of Moore’s lyrics were labored over; some were written “three hours before recording.” They have always been among the very best in music, and having them collected in this fashion is lovely. Moore finished the talk by saying that every song you write eventually comes true.

If one is to preach empathy, one also has to be emphatic toward those who engineer outrage. As Nitsuh Abebe put it in New York magazine, Kim and Thurston’s dissolution was like “thousands of indie-rock fans simultaneously learning that their parents were getting divorced.” Dad had cheated on Mom, and people were angry. But last night Moore betrayed no hint of a man embittered by anger. Instead he was thoughtful, reflective, and honest. Perhaps we should, once again, take a page from his book.

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Lee Ranaldo & the Dust

There are many sides to former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo: noise harrier Lee, alt-rock balladeer Lee, experimental sound-sculptor Lee, notepad-burnishing poet Lee. On his two recent LPs for Matador – the first solo, the second billed alongside backing band The Dust – we’ve borne witness to classic-rockin’ Lee, an untucked purveyor of casual axe wizardry who doesn’t shy away from sparkling feedback but isn’t necessarily interested in upending the rock’n’roll paradigm. Hardcore SY traditionalists have been vocal in their disappointment, but to these ears, the end of the Yooth find Ranaldo more intrinsically himself – in an unabashedly Grateful Dead sense – than he’s ever sounded.

Sat., Sept. 27, 9 p.m., 2014

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KIM POSSIBLE

At worst, she was pigeonholed as the “token girl” in the band. At best, she’s been recognized as a feminist and rock ’n’ roll trailblazer. At weirdest, she was the designer of an Urban Outfitters clothing line geared toward “cool moms” (Mirror/Dash, 2009). But many don’t know about Kim Gordon’s stake in art and academia, which is pretty extensive. Her new critical essay collection, Is It My Body? (Sternberg), spans 36 years of writing and presents itself as a tomboy manifesto. Tonight, the founding member of Sonic Youth presents her book alongside one of its featured subjects: conceptual artist Raymond Pettibon, who in 2013 transformed the David Zwirner Gallery into his own personal studio in order to display work in the place it was created. At the release party for Pettibon’s To Wit (Strand), he and Gordon discuss his career and the project, followed by a Q&A and book signing.

Wed., June 25, 7 p.m., 2014

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Ten Out-Music Carol Covers: A Very Avant-Garde Christmas

‘Tis the season, as they say, to make merry — to spike and quaff egg nog, to unearth crates of broken ornaments, to wrap overpriced boxed sets in radioactive tinsel. It is also the season, unfortunately, to suffer through traditional and more recent versions of Christmas carols you were already sick and tired of way before puberty.

With that in mind, Sound of the City is proud to present a brief survey of some unusually discordant and avant-garde versions of yuletide standards — and fellow-traveler originals — that are guaranteed to alienate everybody in your family into clearing out early. Just think: You’ll have all the Heavenly Ham and pumpkin pie to yourself. Our list of jams appears after the jump.

10. Charles Ray Experience, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
The levels are all over the place on this one, like some idiot put Charles Ray in charge of archiving old analogue tape after hours at CBS Records and went a little batty all by his lonesome. On the other hand, this is insanely great.

9. Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”
You won’t find this one on any Andy Williams or Burl Ives holiday platter, and there isn’t anything especially paradigm-upsetting or experimental about it. But know this before daring to hit play: this elemental piano plea will come closer to making you cry as sugar plums slam-dance through your head than five dozen drunken rounds of “Jingle Bells” could ever hope to.

8. The Silber Sounds of Christmas Compilation
Flickers of that familiar holiday melancholy surface on this comp, but the participants, generally, are in pursuit of demonic noise. (A few succumb to more conventional tendencies; their entries are almost like intermissions.) To wit: Sailor Winters’ “What Child Is This?” sounds like Armageddon, Upsidedown Stars’ take on “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” is a pure doom-metal dirge that has virtually nothing to do with the original, or My Ambient Nature Girl’s distressed, burnt-treble run at “Handel’s Messiah.”

7. Offthesky, “Oh Holy Night”
Christendom’s soaring, choir-favored anthem gets the frosted ambient treatment in a version that pays its melody pitch-shifted lip service at best but is evocative, transportive, and spine-tingling nonetheless.


6. The Polyphonic Spree, “Silver Bells”
Because the world needs more wildly psychedelic Christmas pop that begins whorled and awkward before cinching perfectly, then blooming like an entire poppy field in April.


5. Snowden, “Christmas Time Is Here”
There’s something oddly come-hither about how a) these guys don’t sound at all excited about Christmas while b) the sonics backing their in-the-roundelay vocals sound like a gathering snowstorm, complete with the percussive equivalent of jackboots crunching snow.

 


4. John Zorn, “Blues Noel”
This is what I’ve always imagined a Saturday Night Live Band after party gig on New Year’s Eve must sound like.

3. Dungeon Broads feat. Jacob Berendes, “Oh Christmas Tree”
This version gets a mite Henry Jacobs, with a dual-channel stare down: someone laying into a respectable version of the standard on one side but gradually losing the plot, while whoever is on the other side struggles mightily to master studio equipment. I’d really like to be a guest a Christmas party, in full swing, where the DJ is brave enough to slip this one into the mix,


2. John Fahey, “Christmas Medley”
There’s nothing quite like John Fahey’s guitar playing: those range-y, rambling licks, resonant and large-hearted, fragile and staunch. The joke here is that only a handful of the tunes in this seemingly endless playlist, plucked from his career, are actually Christmas carols, but if you’re curled up before a roaring fire with a favorite beverage of choice and a loved one, you’ll be way, way too becalmed and bewitched to quibble.


1. Sonic Youth, “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope” (Martin Mull)
Yep, it’s true: Sonic Youth covered a Christmas carol, and once you’ve experienced their turbulent version of “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope,” it’s clear why it was the best possible semi-standard for them to lay waste to. Ol’ Saint Nick never seemed quite this debauched before, and likely hasn’t since. Thurston Moore’s sneering, corporate rock rejoinder is a cherry-on-top bonus: “Merry Christmas, David Geffen.”

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DYNAMITE DUO

In December 2012, this paper put Brooklyn indie-punk duo Hunters on the cover and declared the group was bringing “scuzzy collision rock back to Brooklyn.” In the story, former Smashing Pumpkins member and Hunters buddy James Iha recalled the first time he saw the prickly pair: “They went off like an explosion in the corner 
of the room.” That show was at a small Chinatown art gallery. Tonight, they play Glasslands, which is bigger than an art 
gallery but still small enough to feel the group’s sonic aftershocks. Earlier this year, Hunters released their self-titled debut, which contains 10 catchy post-art-rock cuts that recall the frenzy of similarly indie-minded co-ed groups like Sonic Youth and X. With Audacity and Big Ups.

Sat., Nov. 30, 8 p.m., 2013