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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1977 Pazz & Jop: Pazz & Joppers Dig Pistols — What Else Is New?

A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual wrap-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies — a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop — if it wasn’t saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it’s actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll of rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?

Despite my feckless promises, selection procedures were shoddier than ever in 1977. Because I spent most of December puzzling over current trends in British youth culture, letters of invitation were mailed out in a last-minute flurry. Together with fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Ken Tucker, I resorted to last year’s list, eliminating obvious dropouts (like R. Meltzer, who claims to have given up criticism for the joys of performance) and adding a few new guys. This process was complicated by my loss of the 1976 addresses; several late entries claim to have received their ballots on due date minus one. So I admit to haphazard panel selection as well as the usual bias of rock critics toward rock and roll. I swear I’ve never met 25 of the 68 critics who were tallied this year, but since I favor Riffs contributors and rely on the advice of editors and publicists, a certain in-groupishness is also inevitable. About two-thirds of the voters are from New York, including several who weren’t in 1976 — they keep immigrating. And as usual, I regret the paucity of critics of black music (in the world as well as in this poll), although it was country music that really got the shaft this year, with only four artists mentioned more than once.

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If it ever came down to making this all fair and official, though, I’d be in a quandry, because there’s lots of people who write about records who don’t belong in this poll. At many dailies, the rock beat is less prestigious (and steady) than the obit page for good reason, while a lot of what passes for record and concert criticism at the weekly leisure-time handouts now running amok all over America is obviously nothing more than a means to freebies. I’m sure I’ve overlooked dozens of serious people who work not only at listening to music but at thinking about it, which is even rarer. But I’m sure too that I’ve excluded hundreds of dunderheads by means of my arbitrary haphazardness. I apologize to the workers, request the dunderheads to leave me alone, remind everyone that this is still the weird old Village Voice, and insist that the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll actually represents what the best rock critics think.

As you’ve probably gathered already, what they think is Sex Pistols. As you probably haven’t guessed, this both surprised and disappointed me. I was rooting for Fleetwood Mac. For one thing, as you can ascertain by perusing my personal top 30 below, I think Rumours is a (slightly) better record than Never Mind the Bollocks. But I also think it’s remarkable historically. As 1978 began, it had been number one in Record World for 32 weeks and seemed quite certain to become the best-selling album of all time, passing not only Frampton Comes Alive!, the Rumours of 1976, but all-time biggies like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Tapestry. More remarkable, Rumours is honest, courageous, even formula-defying music — so much so that when Greil Marcus reviewed it here he predicted that its toughness and passion would cost it millions of customers craving the sweetness of the group’s breakthrough LP, Fleetwood Mac. Most remarkable of all, it’s still possible to listen to it. Oh, a few sorehead radio addicts like Tom Smucker may add some comment like “docked a point for being sick of it,” but the fact remains that this seems to be the most durable pop music ever put on plastic. It’s not going to change anybody’s life, but rock and roll is supposed to be about pleasure as well as all the heavy stuff, and I’m glad that in this year of the punk Fleetwood Mac was here to remind us of that.

I must admit, though, that there was another reason to root for Rumours: credibility. If a popular favorite had won, it might have convinced a few skeptics that all this punk stuff is not, to use the popular expression, hype. What rock critics are supposed to gain from their hype has never been clear to me: Since death by boredom is not something the industry really believes can happen to itself, and since record sales are better than ever, publicists would much prefer we bury the troublemakers and throw our support to manageable hard-rock professionals like the Dingoes and the eponymous Eddie Money. In fact, punk might conceivably destroy the all-too-comfortable symbiosis between rock journalism and the rock industry. Not that it’s anywhere near as cozy as conspiracy theorists imagine — even in the best of times relations are marred by habitual disrespect on both sides. But critics are a source of some small status, a perquisite of the easy life that is treasured in this traditionally disreputable biz, and have helped to support and eventually break more than a few unusual but tasty acts, Fleetwood Mac among them. If punk should prove modestly profitable, as seems quite possible, then the symbiosis will continue undisturbed. But if it should prove unprofitable and yet refuse to roll over and play dead, and if critics should continue to support it — a scenario that also seems plausible — then I wouldn’t be surprised if some big companies began to take the same neglectful attitude toward low-rent journalistic recalcitrants as a label like Motown, which has been notoriously stingy with review copies and information for as long as I’ve been writing about rock and roll.

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But all that is the future. What we have now is a critics’ poll in which the top three albums feature not only newcomers but rank amateurs. Last year, when the Pazz & Jop top 30 included nine debut albums as opposed to six this year, the big winners were Graham Parker and Kate & Anna McGarrigle — new names, to be sure, but in each case backed by a reliable contingent of veterans. In contrast, no member of the Sex Pistols or Television has ever played on an LP before. The anonymous backup musicians on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True may have, but only their producer knows for sure, and Costello’s tour band, the Attractions, has no professional credentials whatsoever. Neither do any of 1977’s other new bands: Talking Heads, the Jam, Mink DeVille. If you want to know why old rock and rollers hate punk so much, there it is — these know-nothings are pogoing right over them.

At least as far as the working press is concerned, and there is the next difference. The 1976 Pazz & Jop top 30 included 15 commercial blockbusters: Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie, Bob Seger (which hit in 1977), Dr. Buzzard (ditto), Boz Scaggs, Boston, Thin Lizzy, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, and Linda Ronstadt. This year, the critics rejected albums by Mitchell, Stewart, the Cult, Scaggs, Thin Lizzy, and Dylan while Bowie ceased to bust blocks, leaving only seven best-sellers: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman (heavy sales among leprechauns), Jackson Browne, James Taylor, the Beatles, and Linda Ronstadt (who with the failure of Eno’s Discreet Music is now the only artist to have made the last four Pazz & Jop polls, usually in the bottom five). And barring a punk breakthrough of proportions much larger than I think likely — although every night I gaze at the image of Maureen Tucker over my bedroom door and pray that I’m wrong — the only potential 1978 biggie I spy lurking amid this year’s works of art is this year’s sleeper, Cheap Trick. More and more, rock critics see themselves as guardians of an aesthetic of insurrection, and fuck what people are going to buy.

This phenomenon bespeaks neither cliquishness nor desperation. It is positive. The Sex Pistols actually did better out of town than in New York, proportionally, and Television scored remarkably high among critics who could never have seen the band live; the New York cult artists turned out to be Talking Heads, supposedly CBGB’s easiest crossover, and Garland Jeffreys, who almost outdistanced a coasting Randy Newman as singer-songwriter of the year. And although only two more critics voted this year than last, the top albums had much stronger support. The four highest-ranking 1977 albums all earned more points and more mentions than last year’s winner, Songs in the Key of Life, which got 292 votes from 25 critics. On the other hand, the consensus on lesser albums this year was more quirkish and arbitrary than ever; where only 11 points separate 1977’s bottom 10 there was a 23-point difference in 1976.

Some oddities. Of last year’s nine debut acts, only one, the Ramones, came in higher this year; both Parker and the McGarrigles dipped, Dwight Twilley and Jonathan Richman finished out of the running, and four artists — the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Boston, Dr. Buzzard, and Warren Zevon — produced no follow-up. Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head — “cosmic as they come” (Richard Riegel), “funnier than Funkadelic” (Tom Smucker) — was the first album by a jazz artist ever to make the poll. The Eagles would have placed had not their Hotel California been released December 6, 1976. The surprise finisher was the Chicago hard rock band Cheap Trick, which released two albums in 1977; the debut got a few votes, and the follow-up, In Color, a brilliantly executed if rather content-free compendium of pre-punk Anglophile moves, finished third among out-of-town critics and enjoyed support from New Yorkers as well. Genesis’s Peter Gabriel, the Persuasions, James Taylor, the Beach Boys, and Kraftwerk (disco crossover of the year) are veteran artists who placed for the first time. So is Al Green (hooray! finally!). And so are the Beatles (welcome aboard, lads). Finally, the number 31, 32, and 33 records deserve recognition: Blank Generation, by Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Ahh…the Name Is Bootsy, Baby!, by Bootsy’s Rubber Band; and Hard Again, by Muddy Waters.

With a few exceptions — like Charley Walters, who acknowledges that maybe he doesn’t “truly like real rock ’n’ roll,” and Ira Mayer, whose deepest sympathies are with folk music — the mood among this year’s Pazz & Joppers was exultant. For once, we had trouble keeping records off our lists rather than coming up with ones it wasn’t embarrassing to include. I find myself strangely unmoved by Elvis Costello, often suspecting that he is “New Wave” for people with good taste (I prefer the term punk just because it is so hackneyed, inexact, and declasse). But last year Costello might have made my top 30 on sheer, calculable quality. Instead, I have to apologize to Elvin Bishop, Eno, Cachao, Townshend-Lane, and all the others who have given me intense pleasure in 1977 but couldn’t hold up against the competition. My biggest regret was the rule banning imports; I would have given about 24 points to The Clash, my favorite album of the year, and other Pazz & Joppers indicated similar enthusiasm. As it was I agonized forever over my top 10; I could have gone as far as number 18, Muddy Waters, without blushing, and settled on Al Green at 10 because The Belle Album is the finest record in years from the man who may turn out to be my favorite artist of this decade. Dancing in Your Head is great work, I know, but this is a year to celebrate rock and roll. Let’s hope the same is true 12 months from now.

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And so, me own top 30, with Pazz & Jop points appended where appropriate:

1. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) 13. 2. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire) 13. 3. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees (Warner Bros.) 13. 4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.) 13. 5. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 12. 6. Andy Fairweather Low: Be Bop ’n Holla (A&M) 10. 7. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors (MCA) 8. 8. The Beach Boys: Love You (Brother/Reprise) 7. 9. Ramones Leave Home (Sire) 6. 10. Al Green: The Belle Album (Hi) 5.

11. Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (Horizon). 12. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol). 13. Philip Glass: North Star (Virgin). 14. Iggy Pop: Lust for Life (RCA). 15. Bizarros/Rubber City Rebels: From Akron (Clone). 16. Ray Charles: True to Life (Atlantic). 17. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire). 18. Muddy Waters: Hard Again (Blue Sky). 19. Asleep at the Wheel: The Wheel (Capitol). 20. George Jones: All-Time Greatest Hits Volume 1 (Epic).

21. The Jam: In the City (Polydor). 22. Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness (Warner Bros.). 23. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M). 24. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Stick to Me (Mercury). 25. Iggy Pop: The Idiot (RCA). 26. David Bowie: Low (RCA). 27. Bette Midler: Live at Last (Atlantic). 28. The Joy (Fantasy). 29. “Wanna’ Meet the Scruffs?” (Power Play). 30. James Talley: Ain’t It Somethin’ (Capitol).

And my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few sample ballots below:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Barnes, Michael Bloom, Jon Bream, Georgia Christgau, Richard Cromelin, Steve DeMorest, Robert Duncan, Ken Emerson, Joe Fernbacher, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Russell Gersten, Jim Girard, Jim Green, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Peter Knobler, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Jon Marlowe, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira A. Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Michael Rozek, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Russell Shaw, Don Shewey, Gary Smith, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark Von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Tim White, James Wolcott.

VINCE ALETTI: Cerrone: Love in C Minor 10; Love & Kisses 10; Donna Summer: “Once Upon a Time…” 10; The Emotions: Rejoice 10; Loleatta Hollaway: Loleatta 10; Teddy Pendergrass 10; C.J. & Co.: Devil’s Gun 10; Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 10; Jean Carn 10; Peter Brown: Fantasy Love Affair 10.

LESTER BANGS: Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation 30; Peter Tosh: Equal Rights 15; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 10; Iggy and the Stooges: Metallic K.O. 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 5; Ramones Leave Home 5; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 5; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 5; The Saints: I’m Stranded 5; Suicide 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Ray Charles: True to Life 15; Johnny Pacheco: The Artist 15; George Duke: Reach for It 15; Caldera: Sky Islands 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All ’n All 10; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 10; Willie Colon: Angelitos Negros 10; Steely Dan: Aja 5; Willie Colon and Ruben Blades: Metiendo Mano 5; Nona Hendryx 5.

TOM HULL: Iggy Pop: Lust for Life 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! 14; Blondie Chaplin 12; Kevin Ayers: Yes, We Have No Mananas 12; Hirth Martinez: Big Bright Street 12; Bob Marley & the Wailers: Exodus 10; Ramones Leave Home 9; Tony Wilson: I Like Your Style 6; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 15; Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors 15; Al Green: The Belle Album 15; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Rock ’n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 10; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 10; The Jam: This Is the Modern World 5; Bryan Ferry: In Your Mind 5; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5.

JOE MCEWEN: Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! 20; Mink DeVille 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All ’n All 10; The Manhattans: It Feels So Good 10; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Al Green: The Belle Album 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 10; The Heptones: Party Time 10; Ray Charles: True to Life 5; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 17; Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer 12; The Beach Boys: Love You 12; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 12; Merle Haggard: A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today 9; Al Green: The Belle Album 9; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 8; Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness 7; Mary McCaslin: Old Friends 7; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 7.

CHARLEY WALTERS: Yes: Going for the One 14; Genesis: Wind and Wuthering 12; Steely Dan: Aja 10; Dave Edmunds: Get It 10; David Bowie: Low 10; Gentle Giant: The Missing Piece 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 10; Tom Newman: Fine Old Tom 8; Steve Hillage: Motivation Radio 8; Talking Heads: 77 8.

Top 10 Albums of 1977

1. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)

2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia)

3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra)

4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.)

5. Steely Dan: Aja (ABC)

6. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire)

7. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire)

8. Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.)

9. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M)

10. Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic)

— From the January 23, 1978, issue

 

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

   

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

1975 Pazz & Jop: It’s Been a Soft Year for Hard Rock

As per tradition, let me open this discussion with my own personal top 30 for 1975, arrived at with more travail than seems healthy to me.

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” 24. 2. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” 11. 3. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” 10. 4. James Talley: “Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love” 10. 5. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. Toots and the Maytals: “Funky Kingston” 8. 7. Elton John: “Rock of the Westies” 8. 8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” 8. 9. Patti Smith: “Horses” 6. 10. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 5.

11. Roxy Music: “Siren.” 12. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run.” 13. Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Nuthin’ Fancy.” 14. Neil Young: “Zuma.” 15. Eno: “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” 16. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross. 17. “Fleetwood Mac.” 18. Amazing Rhythm Aces: “Stacked Deck.” 19. Gary Stewart: “Out of Hand.” 20. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: “Nightingales & Bombers.”

21. Terry Garthwaite: “Terry.” 22. Loudon Wainwright III: “Unrequited.” 23. John Prine: “Common Sense.” 24. Randall Bramblett: “The Other Mile.” 25. “K.C. and the Sunshine Band.” 26. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame.” 27. Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here.” 28. Al Green: “Al Green Is Love.” 29. The Meters: “Cissy Strut.” 30. Leon Redbone: “On the Track.”

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A lot of my colleagues are feeling beamish with power these days; this has been a good year for rock and roll, they tell me, burping contentedly after trying to fit 13 records onto their 10-place ballot for this year’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. I disagree, and I think Pazz & Jop illustrates why. Look carefully at the results for a moment; I did not choose the figure 13 arbitrarily. Roughly speaking, that is where the critical consensus stops short. Not that any of the 38 participating critics chose from precisely those 13 records on which the consensus arrived. But those were the possibilities that dominated our collective mind; with the inevitable exceptions (especially vehement on Patti Smith, who is not much appreciated outside of New York, at least not yet; more weary and widespread on Roxy Music, who understandably leave many listeners cold, and the Who, whom even admirers of the present LP suspect of moribundity) people who apply aesthetic standards to “rock” agree that all 13 are “good records” of one sort or another.

In contrast, consider the next three finishers. Paul Simon’s staunchest fans will admit that “Still Crazy” represents a slip — the controversy is over how big a slip. “Red Headed Stranger” is a cosmic cowboy cult record. And while “Fleetwood Mac” is very, very pleasant, as my own list attests, it most certainly garnered its votes as “good listening” rather than “good art.”

Since rock criticism is determinedly hedonistic, that distinction still doesn’t go down with some participants, who insist that what they listen to is identical to what is good. Lester Bangs voted for “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” and “Metal Machine Music” because he played them more than he did “Blood on the Tracks”; Vince Aletti omitted “Al Green Is Love” because he filed it away after admiring it a few times. But more than ever the results represent a kind of balance. What mattered was not only what we’d been playing, but also how much a record had to give when it did reach our turntables.

Which brings us back to the lucky 13. Look at the titles again — a rather limited selection, wouldn’t you say? Two each from Bob Dylan (numero uno), Roxy Music (critic’s band), and Neil Young (genuine comeback, hooray). An album by numero uno’s band. Old faves the Who, new faves Steely Dan. Token blackness from two of the three single-artist reggae LPs released in America in 1975, one of them a compilation stretching back more than half a decade for its goodies. And two critic’s records, one an enormous — frightening, I’d say — commercial success, the other as yet unproved among people in general. Charley Walters — who voted for “Diamond Head,” by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera — looks over his list and experiences some disquiet: “It makes me feel as though I spent the entire year listening to Dylan and Roxy.”

In 1974, the top 13 were not so sharply demarcated from what came below, and there were really 13 of them: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Band, Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, New York Dolls, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, the Raspberries.

Admittedly, part of this year’s narrowness reflects nonoutput by Newman, Wonder, the Stones, and Browne, all of whom will be back. But it also reflects the death of Parsons and the break-up of the Dolls (now semi-reunited and looking for a contract) and the Raspberries (a fluke anyway, I suppose — leader Eric Carmen’s solo album of this year received just one mention). And it reminds us of how badly Joni Mitchell (two mentions), Linda Ronstadt (also two mentions, albeit such enthusiastic ones that she placed number 26), and Eric Clapton (one mention for his studio LP, two for his live) let us down this year. Two fine LPs from Neil Young don’t quite compensate for all of that.

Of course, I could be reading too much into this. A certain ebb and flow is to be expected, and I have no doubt that some of the artists who were disappointments in 1975 will surprise me pleasantly in 1976 or 1979. But there’s more reason for my gloom; you can find it in the point values I assigned in my own Pazz & Jop ballot: “The Basement Tapes” 24, “Tonight’s the Night” 11… There were 12 albums vying for my top 10, but only one of them had the earmark of greatness — the same album that also dominated the Pazz & Jop consensus by a wide margin. This album was never intended to be an album at all, which is fine with me — I’m not much of a studiolator myself. But it has to be just a little depressing to people that the accident occurred in 1967.

I made the counterargument myself when the set appeared last summer: it would have been the best of 1967, too. I think so. But it is significant how utterly “The Basement Tapes” dwarfs even the most courageous music to come out of this year, this time. “Tonight’s the Night” and “Horses” — both uncompromising records — sound puny and desperate in comparison. They lack the utopian edge, that hint of cultural possibility, that gives the realism of “The Basement Tapes” its agreeably wry flavor. Realism is narrower now, more personal, and so 1975 produced 13 “good records” by 10 artists plus a lot of (often excellent but nevertheless) personalized taste.

This fact embarrasses critics a little, I think — Jerry Leichtling told me he omitted “The Basement Tapes” to make his list more contemporary, and others commented that they didn’t want to list two records by one artist. Which is to say, the consensus could have been even broader. As I compiled it was not clear for a while which of the top four would pull ahead. I was surprised and gratified by Patti Smith’s strong showing (which came almost entirely from New York in what is purposely a New York-dominated poll — a late vote from Larry Rohter of the Washington Post would have put Springsteen back in second) and slightly embarrassed by Springsteen’s. But I was worried by both, because the two records seem to me to typify the inevitable insularity of criticism.

Taking a lead from MIT prof and former Rolling Stone reviewer Langdon Winner, who came out of semi-retirement in the Real Paper to point out that “Born to Run” represents the formalization of all rock’s rebel precepts, I have to believe that neither Springsteen’s sense of history nor his saving vulgarity contributes as much to his popularity as the subliminal promise of aesthetic safety he offers. And while the acceptance of Patti Smith signifies the receptivity of rock’s critical establishment to music that is genuinely avant-garde in roots and intent, that does not obliterate two objections: one, that Smith’s avant-gardism is second-hand, semi-realized, or both — I’m not convinced that many of the critics who like her work are qualified to judge how vanguard it really is; and two, that the popular appeal of Smith’s music may be limited to those who want to think of themselves as avant-garde, critics included. I’m not saying I believe this myself; I don’t think I do. But the possibility remains, and I think it’s much too early to declare “Horses” any kind of masterpiece. The victory of “The Basement Tapes” represents the bitter truth about a year that was equivocal at best; I’ll always settle for that.

This was a bad year for black music, especially on albums; if I’d contacted more critics specializing in black music — next year I will — I’m sure the Harold Melvin album would have done even better, but after that it’s Earth, Wind & Fire, the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac. It was also an excellent year for country music, with four albums making the top 30 as opposed to one last year. In the case of each fringe I think this is largely a matter of care in making the albums inconsistent at best, while country artists are just beginning to catch on to the great “Sgt. Pepper”/Otis Redding album-as-work-of-art tradition.

Pazz & Jop was expanded this year; due to my own bad organization, I didn’t reach as many critics as I would have liked. Critics who don’t know a lot of other critics are the best corrective to critical cliquishness, though a certain penchant for the obvious does tend to result as well. Last year 24, this year 38, next year 52? And maybe someone named Brenda to help me with the tabulations.

Meanwhile, thanks to all voters, plus a few sample ballots below if there’s room: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Patrick Carr, Georgia Christgau, Ben Edmonds, Ken Emerson, Danny Fields, Ben Gerson, Toby Goldstein, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Lenny Kaye, Jerry Leichtling, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, John Morthland, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Wayne Robins, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

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Other Critics Pick Their Hits

PATRICK CARR: 1. “Red Headed Stranger” 20. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 15. 3. Delbert McClinton: “Victim of Life’s Circumstances” 15. 4. “Natty Dread” 10. 5. “Dreaming My Dreams” 10. 6. “Horses” 10. 7. Allen Toussaint: “Southern Nights” 5. 8. Robert Palmer: “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” 5. 9. Bad Company: “Straight Shooter” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

VINCE ALETTI: 1. Silver Convention: “Save Me” 10. 2. Donna Summer: “Love to Love You Baby” 10. 3. Smokey Robinson: “A Quiet Storm” 10. 4. “To Be True” 10. 5. The O’Jays: “Family Reunion” 10. 6. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 7. “The Salsoul Orchestra” 10. 8. Barabbas: “Heart of the City” 10. 9. “The Trammps” 10. 10. Bohannon: “Insides Out” 10.

TOM SMUCKER: 1. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame” 20. 2. Evie Sands: “Estate of Mind” 20. 3. “Prisoner in Disguise” 15. 4. “Stacked Deck” 10. 5. Pink Floyd: “Man Shakes Hands With Man on Fire” 10. 6. Commodores: “Caught in the Act” 5. 7. “Horses” 5. 8. “Red Headed Stranger” 5. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5. 10. The Miracles: “City of Angels” 5.

LESTER BANGS: 1. “Horses” 30. 2. The Dictators: “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” 20. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 15. 4. “Born to Run” 5. 6. David Bowie: “Young Americans” 5. 7. Lou Reed: “Metal Machine Music” 5. 7. “That’s the Way of the World” 5. 8. Kraftwerk: “Autobahn” 5. 9. “Country Life” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

ED WARD: 1. Elvin Bishop: “Juke Joint Jump” 22. 2. “Dreaming My Dream” 20. 3. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 4. Asleep at the Wheel: “Texas Gold” 10. 5. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 7. 6. Man: “Slow Motion” 7. 7. “Tonight’s the Night” 7. 8. “Out of Hand” 6. 9. “Natty Dread” 6. 10. Betty Wright: “Danger High Voltage” 5.

GREIL MARCUS: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 17. “Katy Lied” 15. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 4. “Got No Bread…” 12. 5. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 6. “Siren” 10. 7. “Funky Kingston” 5. 8. “Natty Dread” 5. 9. “Tonight’s the Night” 5. 10. “Born to Run” 5.

GEOFFREY STOKES: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 23. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 12. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 11. 4. “Horses” 10. 5. “Funky Kingston” 10. 6. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 8. 7. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 8. 8. “Stacked Deck” 7. 9. Tut Taylor: “The Old Post Office” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5.

FRED MURPHY: 1. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 2. “Revelation” 10. 3. Natalie Cole: “Inseparable” 10. 4. Labelle: “Phoenix” 10. 5. The Pointer Sisters: “Steppin’ ” 10. 6. “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan” 10. 7. Isaac Hayes: “Chocolate Chip” 10. 8. The Isley Brothers: “The Heat Is On” 10. 9. “To Be True” 10. 10. Roberta Flack: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” 10.

JAMES WOLCOTT: 1. “Horses” 18. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 13. 4. “The Who by Numbers” 12. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 10. 7. “Katy Lied” 7. 8. Elton John: “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” 7. 9. Born to Run 5. 10. “Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1” 5.

FRANK ROSE: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 2. “Horses” 14. 3. “Funky Kingston” 13. 4. “Born to Run” 13. 5. “Zuma” 11. 6. Ronnie Lane: “Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance” 9. 7. Joni Mitchell: “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” 8. 8. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 7. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6. 10. “The Basement Tapes” 5.

JERRY LEICHTLING: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 13. 3. Marlena Shaw: “Who is this Bitch Anyway?” 12. 4. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 5. “Katy Lied” 10. 6. Jan Hammer: “The First Seven Days” 10. 7. Melissa Manchester: “Melissa” 9. 8. Larry Coryell: “The 11th House: Level One” 8. 9. Leon Redbone: “On the Track” 6. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

LENNY KAYE: 1. “Physical Graffiti” 10. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 10. 3. “Blow by Blow” 10. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 5. “Natty Dread” 10. 6. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebels: “The Best Years of Our Lives” 10. 7. Albert Ayler: “Witches and Devils” 10. 8. “Beserkley Chartbusters” 10. 9. “Horses” 10. 10. “Siren” 10.

CHARLEY WALTERS: 1. “Country Life” 13. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. Phil Manzanera: “Diamond Head” 12. 4. “Physical Graffiti” 11. 5. “Siren” 11. 6. “Katy Lied” 10. 7. “Blood on the Tracks” 9. 8. “Hummingbird” 8. 9. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” 6.

JANET MASLIN: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Still Crazy After All These Years” 15. 3. “Katy Lied” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 5. Bee Gees: “Main Course” 10. 6. “To Be True” 8. 7. “Born to Run” 8. 8. “Ian Hunter” 6. 9. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6.

PAUL NELSON: 1. “Born to Run” 13. 2. “Zuma” 13. 3. “Red Headed Stranger” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes: 13. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 13. 6. “Tonight’s the Night” 9. 7. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 9. 8. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 9. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 5. 10. Elliott Murphy: “Lost Generation” 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1975

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” (Columbia)

2. Patti Smith: “Horses” (Arista)

3. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run” (Columbia)

4. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” (Columbia)

5. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” (Reprise)

6. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” (ABC)

7. Roxy Music: “Country Life” (Atco)

8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” (Island)

9. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” (Capitol)

10. The Who: “The Who by Numbers” (MCA)

— From the December 29, 1975, 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 earlier this year.

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1976 Pazz & Jop: Critics Cheer Debut Albums

Like a second-grader who can’t wait to give his mother her potholder for Christmas, I will as usual proceed immediately to the most important order of business, a personal list of the 30 finest American-release LPs of 1976 (with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10). I made this list with my very own ears and brain; body and feet pitched in occasionally as well, and the hands typed.

1. Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones: Have Moicy! 15. 2. Eno: Another Green World 15. 3. The Wild Tchoupitoulas 12. 4. David Bowie: Station to Station 11. 5. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin Wind 11. 6. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life 10. 7. Kate & Anna McGarrigle 8. 8. Ramones 8. 9. The Modern Lovers 5. 10. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Night Moves 5.

11. The Rolling Stones: Black and Blue. 12. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends. 13. Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees. 14. Hi Rhythm: On the Loose. 15. The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time. 16. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment. 17. Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia. 18. Phoebe Snow: It Looks Like Snow. 19. Gasolin’. 20. Arlo Guthrie: Amigo.

21. George Jones: Alone Again. 22. Al Green: Full of Fire. 23. The Stills-Young Band: Long May You Run. 24. Billy Swan. 25. Al Green: Have a Good Time. 26. James Talley: Tryin’ Like the Devil. 27. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune. 28. Elvin Bishop: Struttin’ My Stuff. 29. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Back My Bullets. 30. Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver.

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Industrially speaking, this is an odd list — six, maybe eight of these records made top 10 in the trades, while none of the first three even cracked top 200. But reference to the more prominently displayed list on this page indicates that maybe it’s not so odd. There you will find the 1976 edition of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, compiled (with the invaluable assistance of Stephen Holden) from the ballots of 66 rock critics nationwide. The point of bringing in so many opinions (there were 38 last year and 24 in 1974) was to mitigate the cliquishness that is inevitable in this sort of survey, and a broadening of taste did result: best-sellers like Jackson Browne, Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan, and Rod Stewart did especially well among new and out-of-town participants, while certain “critics’ records” — Warren Zevon, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Kate & Anna McGarrigle — started to drop precipitously once the veterans had been tallied, as did Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, still a “New York record,” and watch out America. Nevertheless, I find that nine of my top 10 albums ended up in the Pazz & Jop top 15. Apparently, people who make it their business to think about the records they listen to are reaching comparable conclusions everywhere.

To my mind, those conclusions didn’t end up as pessimistic as has often seemed likely this past year. It’s clear that critical tastes and ideas have a tendency to spread and prevail — Blue Oyster Cult and Steely Dan, while always commercially self-sustaining, got valuable early support from well-known critics. It’s also encouraging that eight of the present top 30 are debut albums (there were five in 1975 and three in 1974). Critics’ faves may never dominate the charts — note, though: Average White Band finished 16th in 1974, before “Pick Up the Pieces” broke the group; Fleetwood Mac did the same in 1975, long before anyone imagined it would turn into the best-selling LP in Warners history; this year number 16 is the aforementioned Dr. Buzzard — but it seems clear that valuable extensions of what I like to call semi-popular music will continue to be available, however briefly.

Two artists dominated the poll this year, and two others deserve special mention. Songs in the Key of Life is flawed and excessive, hence controversial among critics, but the consensus is that Stevie Wonder has overwhelmed his own capacity for foolishness. His vote this year transcends tokenism; as Tom Smucker commented: “I never liked any of his other albums. I voted for this because it reminded me of Pet Sounds.” But if this was the year of Stevie Wonder it was also the year of Graham Parker. In 1975, Bob Dylan (whom see, limping in at 26) finished first and fourth; in 1976 Parker did almost as well, polling a total of 449 points (for two albums) to Wonder’s 292. Whether this critical juggernaut will translate into sales can’t be certain, but I’m taking bets. Because of rock’s pervasive sexual politics, the odds aren’t quite as impressive for Kate & Anna McGarrigle, whose debut album actually beat Wonder’s among veterans of 1975’s Critics’ Poll, and whose poor sales can be blamed at least partly on the birth of Kate’s second child, who canceled their promotional tour single-handed. Finally, this was the year Jackson Browne graduated from cult status — not only is his album a huge seller, it also placed third on 22 out of 66 votes, whereas Late for the Sky finished eighth on six out of 28 votes in 1974.

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With the possible exception of Linda Ronstadt and Jeff Beck fans, critics aren’t as easy on their perennial favorites as is sometimes suspected. In fact, only 11 of the 29 artists on this year’s list made previous ones; relatively familiar and well-respected names like Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Arlo Guthrie, and Blue Oyster Cult are new. But for me the most important function of this annual poll isn’t to reassure those hardy music professionals who manage to improve upon mediocre music, however essential they may be to the continuing health of the music, as to single out wonderful records that are all too likely to disappear. This year, three from the often courageous but lately disappointing Island label are especially noteworthy. The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a party record of primitive New Orleans rock and roll that rewards close listening, although it is recommended that you stand up while concentrating. I have never played it for anyone who hasn’t found it delightful, and it is still available at better retailers. Eno — who together with Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, and Steely Dan is the only artist to have made all three polls — is finally beginning to win across-the-board critical support, but he is not selling and he is no longer with Island as a solo artist. Another Green World is not rock and roll, but even though Tom Hull describes it as “the only music to date to qualify as furniture,” it’s not Muzak either. It is melodic, electronic, and modular, without many lyrics, and people who hate the very idea of “progressive rock” (like me) are addicted to it. Seek it out now. Finally, there is Richard & Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, an uneven (in my opinion) but bracingly abrasive folk-rock album, sort of a hard version of the best Fairport Convention. If you long for a song as righteously nasty as “Positively 4th Street” — that would be “Hard Luck Stories” — rush out to the best record store you know right now, and good luck, for Island, unaccountably, has already cut it out, even though another Richard Thompson album is due for release shortly.

Now let me perform a similar service for a few of my own neglected favorites. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends is genuine country-rock, a collaboration between the Nashville scion (always an excellent singer himself) and Southern rock musicians like Toy Caldwell, Charlie Daniels, Chuck Leavell, and Pete Carr that is much, much more than a studio jam exploitation. Hi Rhythm’s On the Loose is one of the wackiest soul records of all time, far more compelling and significant than either of the two predictably expert albums released by boss man Al Green this year, and I bet it’s soon impossible to find even in black neighborhoods or King Karol. Finally, there is my numero uno, Have Moicy!, which I’m told is available at Music Inn on West 4th Street and I know for a fact is hawked for four bucks by Peter Stampfel at the Unholy Modal Rounders’ weekly Tuesday night gig at Broadway Charly’s. This record includes 13 songs and I love every one of them; just when you worry that Peter’s gonna drive you up the ceiling, Hurley or Jeffrey Fredericks cools you out. It’s on a small folk label called Rounder, and although I would estimate that no more than 15 of the 66 critics polled have even heard it, it finished a tragic 31st in a 30-place poll. I promise this is the last time I mention it unless I can think of another excuse.

I doubt there’ll be space for any individual lists this year, but my thanks to all participants:

1974 veterans: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Emerson, Vernon Gibbs, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Kit Rachlis, Wayne Robins, Frank Rose, Bud Scoppa, Geoffrey Stokes, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

1975 additions: Georgia Christgau, Peter Herbst, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Meyer, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Tom Smucker, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters.

1976 freshpeople: Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Lauren Agnelli a/k/a Trixie A. Balm, Billy Altman, Anonymous, Michael Barackman, Ken Barnes, Jon Bream, Jean-Charles Costa, Walter Dawson, Steve Demorest, Joan Downs, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore, Jim Girard, Patrick Goldstein, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Steven Levy, Bruce Malamut, Jon Marlowe, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, R. Meltzer, John Milward, Teri Morris, Kris Nicholson, Richard Riegel, Joe Roman, Michael Rozek, Susin Shapiro, Ariel Swartley, Timothy White.

Late ballots: Colman Andrews, Patrick Carr, Matt Damsker, Peter Knobler.

Top 10 Albums of 1976

1. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)

2. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)

3. Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)

4. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)

5. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)

6. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)

7. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)

8. Ramones: Ramones (Sire)

9. Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)

10. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)

— From the January 31, 1977, 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 earlier this year.

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White Denim

This lightning-hot Austin quartet combines crunch, virtuosity, and X-factor in equal parts. One of the more exciting live bands to come down the pike in recent years, Denim seems to have embraced Wilco’s successful post-jamband strategy of dishing out copious classic rock with an avant-garde tinge. Their most recent album tips its fedora to Steely Dan, Dukes of Stratosphear, and Paul McCartney. With two guitar pyrotechnicians on hand, they spark, smolder, and explode onstage.

Fri., Feb. 28, 7 p.m., 2014

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IN FLIGHT

Choreographer David Parsons is known for his crowd-pleasing spectacles; his signature piece Caught features a dancer completing more than a hundred leaps in less than six minutes, each one “caught” by the flash of a strobe light to give the illusion that the dancer is flying. Parsons Dance now returns to the Joyce with three programs, including three world premieres, two by Parsons (a duet titled Portinari and a still unnamed group piece set to the music of Steely Dan) and one by the delightful Monica Bill Barnes titled Love, oh Love. And, of course, all three programs will include his masterwork Caught.

Jan. 26-Feb. 6, 2011

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Sondre Lerche

This little Norwegian dude’s been making top-shelf pop-rock records in a number of modes for nearly a decade now, but his latest, last year’s Heartbeat Radio, might be his best and most eclectic yet: It’s got one song with an old-school hip-hop beat, one with creepy film-score strings, and one with a sweet Steely Dan guitar solo. Onstage, Lerche ladles out charm and talent in equal measure.

Tue., March 23, 9 p.m., 2010

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Umphrey’s McGee

Prog rock’s double-clutching precision smashes headlong into the jam-band clan’s never-ending now. This Chicago sextet boasts a bottomless vocabulary of riffs they fit together on the fly into Lego-like structures of architectonic scope yet somehow polish to a Steely Dan sheen. Some pretty fine rock anthems sandwich their chrome-plated improvisations, throwing in the occasional Wilco and Whitesnake cover for a breather. With Eric Krasno & Chapter 2.

Thu., Feb. 25, 7 p.m., 2010

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Suicide Threats and Midlife Crises at Steely Dan’s Beacon Run

One evidently satisfied customer of Friday’s just-finished Steely Dan show addresses his three-foot radius on the 72nd Street subway platform: “Just straight music. No fancy crap.” He has just left a half-gilded room—the Beacon Theatre—where the lighting changed four times a minute and every other song concluded with 10 seconds of noodling. A room where the guitarists favored chords that appeared to require six fingers.

Steely Dan’s music—stubbornly perfect jazz-rock played by the ablest hands money can buy—is not particularly simple. Nor is it particularly friendly. Donald Fagen’s lyrics, for those who care to listen over the licks and fills, are usually about losers redeemed only by other losers, if at all. The music is vain in its complexity. It knows that it’s the smartest thing in the room.

This doesn’t seem to bother the fans, who respond dutifully and without subtlety. On hearing the opening piano figure to “My Old School,” the woman next to me is seized, ejected from her chair, instantly on her feet and already in mid-clap, gyrating. The moment has selected her. Tonight, it’s what she exists for.

At the beginning of the show, part of which is dedicated to a top-down performance of 1976’s The Royal Scam, the woman’s husband leans over to her and says, “The Royal Scam. You have to understand, this was sixth grade for me.” I look at the man and try to imagine him, 12 years old, staring at the album’s cover: a gothic cartoon of a wan Wall Street hustler curled up under a sky blotted out by clouds thicker than firesmoke, the surrounding skyscrapers crowned with the heads of snarling monsters. What does a 12-year-old make of that? What does a 12-year-old make of the insular, jagged music on the record, or the permanent sneer in Fagen’s voice? And why did he choose it over the buttered baked potato of AC/DC?

Nearby, a young dude in a ball cap, maybe 25, reacts to the onstage presence of Larry Carlton—the Grammy-winning guitarist and Dan collaborator, whose tight, flared pants are the male musicians’ only concession to sexuality—like he’s 90 minutes into a mescaline dose fit for two. On hearing the first notes of “Aja,” he stares at his hands and begins shaking. “OH, YEAH,” he screams, rising from his seat. “OH, YEAH!” As the song reaches its great pasture in which the players will solo, I can hear him begging from the edge of delirium: “GIVE IT TO LARRY!”

Steely Dan is in the midst of an eight-show run here; the following night’s show is dedicated to Internet requests. Apparently, enough demands have come in for each track from 1977’s Aja that the band plays it top-down, followed by a smattering of hits comparable to Friday’s post–Royal Scam set. Aja is a pivotal album in Steely Dan’s catalog—maybe their most famous, maybe their most innovative, not necessarily their best. Early Steely Dan songs, despite expert handling, have a rootsy, approachable quality to them. Not folk music, exactly, but something closer to folk than what they arrived at on Aja: ass-puckering precision, sweatless funk, soul music forged in Los Angeles labs. At the same time, Fagen, whose lyrics had always been cynical, started to sound just a little sympathetic. If there’s one incandescent character in Steely Dan’s lyrics, it’s the alcoholic saxophonist spiraling through darkness on “Deacon Blues”: “I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I play too long”—a sob story that I sometimes actually sob at.

Fagen—who has a cold and sings like it—thanks everyone for coming, but doesn’t smile once in two hours. There’s a can of Coke on top of his keyboard. Next to it, a box of tissues in a leopard-print cozy. Co-founder Walter Becker shivers, Jello-like and expressionless, but in the heat of the music, he appears to be working in private math. Fagen twists and lurches, crushed by unseen forces. As showmen, they’re distant and uncomfortable: They’re too busy slaving to their art to socialize. After Becker sings “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” on Saturday night, Fagen mutters an aside about how Becker’s father does live in New York City, and how that’s funny. Or something like that—his voice is reduced to a hum under the applause. “The fathers of life are the joys of art,” he says by way of conclusion. “What?” asks the guy behind me. Someone next to him screams, “PLAY ‘KATY LIED,’ ” which is actually an album by Steely Dan, not a song.

It’s not clear how all these people found entrance to this music, or how it got so popular in the first place. Many of the male fans in the audience appear to be the kind of guys who would have given Fagen and Becker wedgies in grade school. Sometimes, I think fans of the Dan—I’m including myself here—listen selectively, and are more than happy to ignore the possibility that the band is talking over our heads. But I guess that if they were, we wouldn’t hear them at all.

In an early episode of the online comedy series “Yacht Rock,” Fagen is portrayed as a guy who wears turtlenecks in hot weather and speaks in grunting half-words that Becker has to translate for other people—the joke being that Becker and Fagen may be cranky aliens from the backside of the universe, but, boy, does their music sound smooth on the stereo. In a later episode, a guy playing Don Henley leans into a record player spinning The Royal Scam, tenses his brow, and snaps at the guy playing Glenn Frey: “Shhh, listen! Is that dark sarcasm?”

So we burrow into their zero-sum tales of antiheroes and shrug off the agreeable music. Or we revel in the expertise, the bounce, the reggae-lite and the sleek soul, but ignore how downright pitiable the characters are. The narrator of “Hey Nineteen” is a thirtysomething struggling through conversation with a fun-loving co-ed because he values the satisfaction of his penis over the health of his soul. The lyrics don’t condemn him, but they don’t support him, either. They’re indifferent. He becomes carefully separated and immortalized—a glorious loser. These stories aren’t just slogans and anthems. They are complex, and they do warrant discussion and rumination. But they don’t need it as long as the music remains hot and tasteful. On the lyrics “She thinks I’m crazy/But I’m just growing old,” half the room joins in.

The band metes out some free breadsticks and doggy paddles through a couple of songs. Some are so ferociously anticipated by the crowd that it doesn’t really matter when the band plays them like clinicians. But most of Friday and Saturday’s sets reveal muscles in the music that I never heard on record. “Black Friday” and “Kid Charlemagne” drive the fans to fits, and rightfully, and how. But the real revelation, to me at least, were the slowest, darkest ones: “Haitian Divorce,” “The Royal Scam,” the unhurried nightmare of “Third World Man”—songs that crawl through apocalyptic visions, each downbeat a crush followed by jets of fume. Live, they pulled weight more reminiscent of heavy metal than cocktail rocks.

On Wednesday, the band cancelled and rescheduled a show in which they’d been scheduled to play the entirety of 1980’s Gaucho. In lieu of the concert, I visited my dad, the man partially responsible for my obsession with pop music. Waiting for the rain to calm down, he tossed his umbrella back and forth between hands. “Steely Dan, yeah.” He looked out at traffic with the screwed-up face of someone who just saw mouse innards smeared on the sidewalk. “I never ‘got’ Steely Dan. ‘You’ve been telling me you were a genius since you were 17,’ ” he continued, quoting “Reelin’ in the Years.” “It’s what I like to call ‘feel-bad’ music. I only ever really liked ‘Don’t Take Me Alive.’ The image of this guy locked in a room with a bunch of dynamite—that always seemed very Steely Dan to me.”

After the performance of Aja on Saturday night, a young man in the row ahead of me shouts for “Don’t Take Me Alive.” He shouts for it after every song, louder each time. (Fagen finally responds to the hail of requests by saying, ” ‘Ribbity-bibbity-boppity-boo.’ That’s what it sounds like to me up here.”) Finally, Becker plays a fractured, detached guitar figure. The young man rises, victorious, his fists in the air. An older man next to him, presumably his father, points to him, smiling, proud. Then Fagen sings the song, about a guy locked in a room with a bunch of dynamite. I know what you mean about feel-bad music, but Dad, the crowd likes it.

Steely Dan play the Beacon Theatre August 10–12

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The Excess and Eccentricity of Francis and the Lights

Everything about Francis Farewell Starlite, leader of synth-pop throwbacks Francis and the Lights, is insanely meticulous. Sipping on Orangina in his cement-floored Lower East Side apartment one crisp January afternoon, Starlite is dressed neatly in a dark, military-ish overcoat, charcoal-gray pressed pants, and expensive-looking black dress shoes. The bathmat is folded tidily over the tub in the bathroom; racks of clothes hang from the ceiling, still covered in plastic from the dry cleaners. A trapdoor in one corner of the room leads to the basement, where you’ll find a full-blown recording studio with the instruments all ordered just so, including an array of synths with all the white keys painted black. Starlite explains that it’s a songwriting aide: “It helps me break the mold. The difference between black and white keys is that there is no difference.”

This is where Starlite records most of his songs: shimmering, complex nuggets of ’80s-excess pop that call to mind the brainy soul shakedowns of Scritti Politti and the cocktail-jazz fusions of Steely Dan. (Studio obsessives both, too.) Since 2007, he’s released two excellent EPs and one single, a modest output with nonetheless killer highlights, including the tender, falsettoed-out ballad “Strawberries” and the spare future-funk jam “My Goals.” You may not have heard of him yet, but Starlite promises to be one of the year’s breakout successes: Internet entrepreneur Jake Lodwick (who now runs the music company Normative) has thrown him a boatload of money ($100,000, to be exact) so that Starlite can focus solely on his music. MGMT have tossed him an occasional opening slot. Kanye’s offered shoutouts on his blog. “I think he could be a successful, mainstream international act,” says Lodwick. “The way he crafts his songs—they’ve gotten more and more sparse. Every element of his songs is so deliberate. He’s acting with certainty.”

Next up for Starlite? Hard to say. He won’t comment on whether he’ll release a proper full-length, but he’s already making a splash with his live shows. (At his most recent gig, a sold-out performance at Bowery Ballroom earlier this month, he performed note-perfect renditions of his tunes and showed off some impressive dance moves, hopping across the stage and twirling in circles in what looked like a bizarro Indian rain dance.) “I don’t discuss things that aren’t definitely going to happen and, ideally, I only discuss things that already have happened or are happening,” he says. “I think it’s the proper way to conduct one’s self.”

When asked to divulge details about his personal life (where he grew up, his earliest musical memories, fairly innocuous stuff like that), Starlite gets maddeningly vague: He remains silent for 30 seconds, nervously pleats and unpleats his pants, and then offers up something like, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” Eventually, though, he gives in and offers very specific responses: He’s 27, grew up in Berkeley, California, and went to Wesleyan from 1999 to 2002, where he took “1.5 full semesters of classes, then resigned.” His favorite song by Prince, a personal hero, is “Dirty Mind”; he also digs Thelonious Monk’s “descending and ascending whole-tone scale that he uses quite often.”

His biggest influence, though? Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. “That book is about doing things simply and omitting the needless,” he says. “That’s the most influential thing on my music.”

Starlite seems to be a pretty private guy generally, so it’s strange that he keeps a highly detailed laundry list of everything he’s purchased on his website: $5 for a taxi; $7 for a Vietnamese sandwich; $41 for a blow-out at Grace hair salon; $6 for a heart-shaped nightlight and batteries. The purpose is practical: It’s a way to keep track of his budget. But it’s meant to benefit his fans, too. “It is a factual, accurate window into who I am,” he says, “and what I do in daily life.”

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Catdown to Ecstasy

Donald Fagen’s new album, the Steely Dan co-founder’s first since 1993’s Kamakiriad, is a funky suite devoted to post–9-11 conundrums. His song cycle is framed by “Morph the Cat,” a lazy-gaited pop-jazz groove that serves as the collection’s title, opening tune, and ending reprise, and which Fagen—who in liner notes writes a brief synopsis of each track—describes as follows: “A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of ecstasy.”

This act of the imagination is a fanciful yet brutal inversion of intentionally caused smoke that was the result of enormously less innocent sources. In “Morph the Cat” Fagen’s New Yorkers experience not fear but profound entertainment. The environmental joy is there whether these New Yorkers look at the sky or encounter the phenom in their “wiggy pads” as the cat-thing “oozes down the heating duct” or “swims like seaweed down the hall.” And “Chinese cashiers,” “grand old gals at evening mass,” “young racketeers,” “teenage models/Laughing on the grass”—they all react this way.

Within the frame of this song and its conceit—as whimsical in the song as it is harrowing in its actual political basis—Fagen offers more grand and low-down tunes; the music is as free as birds and as constrained by reality as the Times. A guy late to LaGuardia falls for a security inspector, her sweeping wand and crooked smile in “Security Joan”; “Search me now,” he begs. The woman in “The Night Belongs to Mona” has become a Manhattan nocturnalist, although since “the fire downtown” she doesn’t go out clubbing but rather optionlessly stays home, dresses in black, plays her CDs, and dances alone; sometimes she telephones Fagen’s narrator to discuss all this “grim and funny stuff.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Funn” want their relationship to protect them from the cable-TV-fueled daily realm of “poison skies and severed heads.” In “Mary Shut the Garden Door”—”Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government,” Fagen’s synopsis runs—the perception of public tragedy boils down to exhausted, droll reporting: “They won/Storms raged/Things changed/Forever.”

All of this would be of impressive but still limited achievement if Fagen’s music weren’t alluring. And the music—melodic angles dissolving into dulcet straight lines and circles, Mensa harmonies skillfully made super-vivid by ’90s Steely Dan sessioneers, lapidary lead vocals gliding in deep-skull cashmere, often decorated with tiny yet plush backup chorales—refines further Fagen’s singular pop-r&b-jazz. It remains the painstaking music of a man who once pointed out to an interviewer that since computer keyboards overtook the instrumentation of most pop productions, records have gone out of tune, and that generations of listeners now take the fatally unforgiving temperament of those tunings as pitch-perfect. So is Fagen’s music good? Unfashionable, yet wicked good. And as David Geffen once famously said, there’s never a bad time to be good.

Morph the Cat has smashing tunes about death as expressed by W.C. Fields (“Brite Nitegown”), Ray Charles’s sexual genius (“What I Do”), and an eccentric old band (“H Gang”); each occupies Fagen’s sequence well but less programmatically. The music wields the musical-literary focus of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo debut, where he held court like J. D. Salinger as a jazz hipster. And it also offers the sonic kicks, if appropriately cooled off, of Kamakiriad.

But Fagen’s triumph of rendering post–9-11 New York most recalls how perfectly Steely Dan caught LA on 1980’s ‘Gaucho.’ Nothing in pop music outdoes Patti Austin’s and Valerie Simpson’s background voices there, floating through and dramatizing the maybe horrible ease and questionable unblemishedness of the money and sex and drugs and surgery of West Coast high life. Similarly, Fagen’s narrator urging that security chick to “Search me now” cinches, effortlessly, the current world of ongoing monumental worry and this afternoon’s missed flight.