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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1991

1. Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC)

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

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

4. U2: Achtung Baby (Island)

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

6. Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh (Capitol)

7. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo)

8. Metallica: Metallica (Elektra)

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1991

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

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

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

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

5. Metallica: “Enter Sandman” (Elektra)

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

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

10. EMF: “Unbelievable” (EMI)

—From the March 3, 1992, issue

 

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

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

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

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Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

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None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

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I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

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But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

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But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, 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 MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Angels, Demons, and Philip Roth

1. Jennifer Castle, Angels of Death (Paradise of Bachelors)  

You might bet against the notion of anyone other than Lana Del Rey calling an album Angels of Death and not drowning in her own pretentiousness. With the Toronto singer Castle, you’d lose. The first song is last night’s dream you can’t remember; Castle remembers it for you, and as the songs roll on she stays on that path. The action is all in the interstices between the melody and the cadence, the voice and the instrumentation. The melody seems called up by the cadence, the instrumentation feels like a reflection of the voice, and you can find yourself listening for those tiny lifts, the suspensions in the songs replacing the songs themselves.      

2. “The King of the Delta Blues,” Timeless (NBC, season two, episode 6, April 22)

In this time-travel series, the bad guys go back to 1936 to kill Robert Johnson “to prevent the birth of rock ’n’ roll music and eventually the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the fall of Nixon, and the end of the Vietnam War.” The good guys go back to stop them, presumably to allow the birth of rock ’n’ roll and end the Vietnam War. Johnson, as played by Kamahl Naiqui, seems absolutely convinced.

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3. Jackie Fuchs, at “What Difference Does It Make? Music and Gender,” MoPop Pop Conference 2018 (Seattle, April 26)

The former bassist Jackie Fox, on how being raped as a member of the Runaways led her to become an entertainment lawyer working with women in the music business: “It’s a lot easier to stand up for someone else than to stand up for yourself.” Harvard Law, she said of her alma mater, “turns out 600 lawyers a year: ‘Next!’ And there were so few female musicians in the Seventies — I wish I had known how much power I actually had.”

4. Les démons, window in the Nouveau Théâtre de Montreuil (Montreuil, France)

From floor to ceiling: Silk-screened on the glass, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in 1956 in the last moments of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, evanescent pods over their heads, are running right at you, so physically present you want to reach into the glass and pull them over to the other side. And they’re there forever. 

5. Jose Cuervo, “Last Days,” directed by Ringan Ledwidge (CP+B) 

In some Southwestern bar, the radio announces the end of civilization. Some people flee; one man cues up Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never” on the jukebox. He begins to dance, a woman joins him, the roof blows off, and as the bartender pours a shot and then leans back, singing along with indescribable pleasure, you might wonder why the song never sounded as good as it does here.

6. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Scribner) 

Kushner’s celebrated last novel, The Flamethrowers, was so relentlessly brilliant I couldn’t finish it. I got the point: Kushner is brilliant. This book, about a former sex worker and convicted murderer serving double life sentences in California, is quiet, deliberate, slow. Iron Maiden, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, “the wind of Elvis’s empty soul,” Richard Nixon playing piano at the Grand Ole Opry, the 1950s L.A. radio DJ Art Laboe (still taking prisoner’s requests in the 21st century) flit through the story like someone flicking a light switch on and off. Kushner doesn’t know how to end the novel, which barely matters; by the time she starts faking the plot, the reader understands that the story doesn’t need an ending, because the real story won’t have one. One line I’m still turning over and over: “People are stupider and less demonic than some can admit.”    

7. “Images en Lutte: La culture visuelle de l’extrême gauche en France (1968–1974),” Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris (February 21–May 20) 

Mostly May ’68 posters, many made at the École des Beaux-Arts over a few weeks of hurry, excitement, and fear that the new world glimpsed as art students worked in concert could vanish overnight, and the posters looked like the analytic committee work they were. They didn’t have the casual flair or scrabbling insistence of the utopian graffiti that covered the walls and hoardings of Paris at the same time, which the show ignored. But in the back, off to the side, was La Datcha, a painting, from just a year later, of five radical French philosophers. Credited to Gilles Aillaud, Eduardo Arroyo, Francis Biras, Lucio Fanti, Fabio Rieti, and Nicky Rieti, it too was a collective work, but there was no sense of a group effort; the six dissolved into one whom they didn’t bother to name. They were having fun picturing a scene of absolute solemnity, in the style of a sort of socialist realist suburban pastoral. There was a very modern house, comfortable chairs, a gorgeous sunrise, all set up to catch a perfect May ’68 fantasy, matching perhaps the most inspired graffiti: “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!” There was a plaque attached to the frame with a subtitle: “Louis Althusser hesitates to enter Claude Levi-Strauss’s dacha Tristes Miels, where, already reunited, are Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, at the moment when the radio is announcing that workers and students have decided to joyously abandon their past.” They all look miserable, but your eye is drawn to Foucault, in the foreground, the only one not frozen in the tableau, who really does seem to be thinking it over, plotting how he’s going to escape the curse of redundancy that, the painting says, the rest definitely will not.  

8. Mekons 77, It Is Twice Blessed (Slow Things) 

Over the Mekons’ forty-plus years, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh have emerged as principal voices; in the beginning, in 1977, in the art student milieu of the University of Leeds, Mark White and Andy Corrigan were the singers, Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett played guitar, Ros Allen, who would soon form Delta 5, played bass, and Langford played drums. They each do here what they did then, not with “Where Were You” or “Never Been in a Riot,” from their very first singles, but with new songs that could have been written and played right alongside of them. The argument is that while the affirmation that clatter and hum trump all other values might not have carried the band through forty years, once every forty years, with the title of this album continuing that of the band’s first, it’s a punk rock grail.

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9. Michelle Goldberg, “A Grotesque Spectacle in Jerusalem,” the New York Times (May 14) 

“The juxtaposition of images of dead and wounded Palestinians and Ivanka Trump smiling like a Zionist Marie Antoinette tell us a lot about America’s relationship to Israel right now,” Goldberg wrote — and her line about the Presidential Daughter tells us more about Trumpism than a thousand fulminating screeds, let alone the NOKD sneers that continue to appear in the likes of the New Yorker (see, or don’t, Ann Beattie’s recent “Tasting Notes for a Teetotalling President”). What Goldberg wrote won’t change anyone’s mind. It won’t change anything. But it adds to the record that people will have to sift through if the republic emerges from these times with any sense of what it was and what it was supposed to be.

10. Philip Roth, 1933–2018  

Which was his great subject. Before and after everything else, Roth was a patriot, and consumed by the complexities of loving one’s sometimes hateful country. American PastoralI Married a Communist (to me, his best book), The Human StainThe Plot Against America, and The Great American Novel are proof of that. I’m sure he wanted to live to see Donald Trump gone. But his death saved him from a lot of torment, and deprives the rest of us of a voice unlike that of anyone else.

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The Mekons are Still Here, Still Great — and in a New Doc

In Richard Lester’s 1965 Help!, two proper English matrons, dressed in balmacaans, gloves, and old-lady hats, wave to their neighbors, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, who, in the movie’s fantastical universe, live in a communal Beatle pad on an ordinary London street. “Lovely lads, and so natural!” says one to the other, noting how remarkable it is that success hasn’t gone to the boys’ heads. Her friend agrees: “Just so natural! And still the same as they was before they was.”

In real life the Beatles could never be the same as they was before they was. The Mekons, on the other hand, have pulled it off. What began in 1977 as a five-member punk band at the University of Leeds has survived against the odds for more than 35 years, by morphing into a sort of rock ’n’ roll collective that long ago pushed off the shores of punk to navigate the even wilder and more expansive waters of folk and country. Its members live on three continents, mostly supporting themselves by holding down random day jobs and doing side projects; they come together to write songs, rehearse, record, and tour. The shape, texture, and focus of the Mekons’ music may have changed over the years, but their vitality is a kind of miracle. As filmmaker Mary Harron says in Joe Angio’s jubilant new documentary, Revenge of the Mekons, “I never imagined that 30 years later I would be talking about the Mekons, and they would still exist.”

Harron first wrote about the band, in an earlier life as a rock critic, in the late 1970s for Melody Maker, taking note of their intensity, their free-flowing lefty ideology, and their incompetence as musicians — you really couldn’t miss that, as any of the Mekons’ founding members would freely tell you. In Revenge of the Mekons, original lead singer Mark “Chalkie” White — who started the band with present-day Mekons Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, along with erstwhile Mekons Kevin Lycett and Andy Corrigan — talks about the moment he realized his bandmates had actually learned something about playing music, even as he had cultivated “no musical ability whatsoever.”

White left the band in 1983, and its members have shifted and reshuffled over the years, though Langford and Greenhalgh — both singers and guitarists — remain constant. The Mekons as we know them today, and as Angio captures them in all their ragged, rough-and-tumble splendor, count among their eight or so members vocalist Sally Timms, a devil-elf with a wildwood-rose voice; multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds, who, when he isn’t on Mekons duty, travels through Central Asia, helping musicians preserve and record their local folk music; and preternaturally elegant violinist Susie Honeyman, who also co-runs the Grey Gallery in London, which purposely doesn’t focus on the hot young things of the art world. She started the gallery with her artist husband because, as she says, “We were so sick of the emphasis on new and emerging artists.”

You may be wondering how this gloriously ragtag troupe keep body and soul together in a world where making astonishing records (as the Mekons still do) and touring (as they also do) never seems to make the right people rich. Angio — whose previous projects include a 2005 documentary about inventive multitasker Melvin Van Peebles — allows his subjects to explain: Bassist Sarah Corina, who lives in London, manages to find jobs that give her the flexibility to tour. As Honeyman hops into her car to drive to her gallery, she informs us brightly that it cost “350 quid on eBay” — and that the band’s van was sourced from eBay, too. Timms, who lives and works in Chicago, says that the Mekons sometimes do make a little money when they go on tour, which only means that the band members get to pay themselves for a change. Langford, Greenhalgh, and singer and accordionist Rico Bell are all fine artists, respected and accomplished in their own right, though no one would identify painting as a path to easy riches.

What Angio captures, beautifully, is that the Mekons make great music because, together and apart, they’re so alive to the world around them. Over the years the band has been signed, for a quicksilver second or two (and in times when such a thing could make a difference), to one major label or another, but they’ve never lived in a rock-star bubble. Their earliest recorded songs, from 1978 — “Never Been in a Riot,” “Where Were You?” and “32 Weeks” — were, as Greil Marcus describes in his wild and woolly 1989 punk history Lipstick Traces, “preposterously rough, left-handed screeches about, respectively, a wish for trouble, a wish for affection, and the number of weeks of low-wage labor required to pay for various household objects, like refrigerators.” Revenge of the Mekons includes early performance footage of those songs, and they’re thrilling, purely of and in their moment, lightning bolts of fury being hurled by impossibly young, impossibly skinny guys.

But Angio offers not a jarring juxtaposition but a sense of continuity when he shows us more current footage, like a performance of the 2007 “The Hope and the Anchor” — a ballad that’s like a half-hopeful, half-despairing letter in a bottle, bobbing along on the silvery-blue waves of Timms’s voice. During another performance, Langford — not really the Mekons’ leader, but the charismatic hillbilly-by-way-of-Wales Buddha who keeps the whole enterprise together — performs a wiggly dance that’s part sailor’s hornpipe, part snake charmer’s exhortation, with a little twist-and-shout thrown in for kicks.

The Mekons found a new direction when they began to explore American country music — though as their friend John Gill, a musician, recording engineer, and sort of low-key musicologist, once pointed out, they’d been playing a kind of folk music all along. As Marcus says in Revenge of the Mekons, “The surprise is not that they’re still here. It’s that they’re still able to play as if they’re discovering their music.” Nothing is too far out, or too far in, for the Mekons. Have eBay touring van, will travel: Their job is the everyday hunt for poetry.

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MONSTER MASH

Jon Langford, charismatic anti-star of sainted rockers the Mekons, illuminates and mystifies in equal parts on his powerful new album with Skull Orchard, Here Be Monsters. Illustrated with his own painted iconography, Here Be Monsters is sometimes directly political — as in “What Did You Do in the War?” and “Drone Operator,” which concerns the guy who brings faceless death from behind his computer screen — but is also by turns mystical and realist. Langford is a rock journeyman with no time for self-regarding pretensions. He sings about life’s epic imbalances, both social and spiritual, and he’s well aware that no one’s getting any younger. “Aim too high and live in obscurity,” he sings in “Weightless.” “Live too long and die in poverty.”

Fri., April 4, 8:30 p.m., 2014

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The Mekons

I wouldn’t be surprised if this legendary British rock collective’s Saturday acoustic show ends up wilder than Friday’s electric counterpart. Wild-eyed children of Marx, Elvis, and Hank Williams, the Mekons have been shock-rocking the dialectic since 1977. Their new Ancient & Modern is another masterful bricolage of styles that plays on British historical resonances from across the last century.

Sat., Oct. 8, 10 p.m., 2011

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Jon Langford & Skull Orchard

Between the Mekons, Waco Brothers, Wee Hairy Beasties, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, etc., not to mention his radio and theater gigs and artwork, it’s a wonder that Langford has time to eat or sleep. But he does have some time for his own solo gigs, and obviously has plenty of material to mine. As he’s proved with the Mekons so many times before, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who can come up with better, funnier stage banter than this wonderfully sharp cynic. With Chris Mills.

Thu., Nov. 18, 8 p.m., 2010

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Revenge of the blokes

When you’ve been to heaven and back, what’s left for a curious band? Apparently, the Mercury Lounge. But the Mekons, one of the sturdiest bands to emerge from Britain’s first wave of ‘70s punk, have delved down many sidestreets since the 1979 classic Fast Product (punk, folk, politically charged country, even) yet retained the firebrand rock edge of unaltered youth. The lineup has cycled steadily since their scrappy Leeds beginnings (Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh are the only originals remaining), but unerring is their staunch fanbase; to say they foam at the mouth is an understatement. See that old guy on St. Marks slicking back his mohawk and snarling at posers? He’s a Mekons fan. And, given the impact they’ve had, it’s likely you are, too. With the Horse’s Ha and Megan Reilly.

Sat., Aug. 1, 8:30 p.m., 2009

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Todd Snider

As this ace Nashville satirist hits his 40s, he’s become more graphic about his bleeding heart politics but no less sly and funny with his stances. Though his upcoming record was cut with a band and ace producer Don Was, he’s still happy to tour alone with his trusty guitar and harmonica. Along with Mekons and Spinal Tap, he’s one of the few performers whose stage banter almost matches his songs. With Ashleigh Flynn.

Thu., June 11, 8 p.m., 2009

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Ageless Beauty

My favorite Mekons song doubles as my favorite economic system: Brutish and short (if not particularly nasty), “32 Weeks” is an uncouth two-minute rant in which an enraged, bellowing Englishman announces roughly how long you have to work to earn the money to buy various products, from the titular 32 weeks (a car) to just one week (a mattress) to two hours (whiskey) to six minutes (a loaf of bread). A blaring two-chord guitar riff staggers about in the background; between his conversions, the bellowing Englishman develops a succinct and wonderful life philosophy:

Get a job

Get a car

Get a bed

Get DRRRRRRUNK

Released in 1979 by fresh-faced, delightfully crass Leeds gentlemen who’d probably never held out behind a counter long enough to buy a mattress, this is merely very funny; a quarter-century later, revisited on a record wistfully titled Punk Rock, and with the Mekons themselves having slowly morphed into scrappy folk-punk elder statesmen, it’s wearier, bleaker, and even funnier. The bellowing Englishman (quite possibly a different bellowing Englishman) now has a bemused, battered voice that betrays how much whiskey his life has earned him: He roars “Get DRRRRRRUNK” as though ripping into an unwieldy hunk of beef, well-done, well-played.

Now the Mekons are 30. Starting with 1985’s Fear and Whiskey (fear, incidentally, will always be free of charge), they’d embraced a shambolic, apocalyptic alt-country—always fully formed and expertly half-assed, covering Hank Williams and what have you—that has since fueled more than a dozen records and around that many lineup changes. Which brings us to last month’s Natural, their latest, and . . . their latest. Not greatest, not worst. The mood has long since turned
post-apocalyptic, with creaky violins and dourly strummed guitars and mournful marimba and craggy voices of shell-shocked folks retreating to a pastoral English countryside that has overpowered our once-great civilization. Think Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” our factories and Dairy Queens choked now by dust and ash and menacing flora, a planetary rebirth we humans won’t survive. No song lingers long enough to earn you a loaf of bread. It closes with “Perfect Mirror,” a solemn shuffle with lyrics as dire (The trees are dead . . . We wait for fire . . . We used to dance) as the harmonies are gorgeous.

Whether you enjoy Natural is immaterial—like Bruce Springsteen’s (slightly more upbeat) Magic, it’s mostly just an excuse to tour, though instead of untold months selling out enormo-domes, the Mekons are touring for two and a half weeks, infiltrating slightly more intimate spaces: Gramercy Theater, say, the Wednesday-night crowd sizable and devout. Eight Mekons sit in a half-circle and sing their songs of jovial despair, as though they are the wizened elders and we merely the campfire. Between bouts of despair, there are jokes about how old everyone’s gotten. Lots and lots of jokes.

In fact, they barely qualify as jokes. Ringleader Jon Langford immediately attempts to explain the stage layout: “The reason we’re all sitting down is”— “You’re old!” someone in the front row shouts. After a rousing, Poguesian opening salvo of “Beaten and Broken,” Jon suggests that they’ll all lie down for the second half of the set. Shortly thereafter, he prefaces the downcast new “Give Me Wine or Money” by saying, “This is a song about the old ways, and the old people doing the old things in the old towns, eating old crisps that have gone stale.” His repartee with gorgeous longtime bandmate Sally Timms plays like a top-shelf cruise-ship comedy routine: “Jon wanted a pole built,” Sally sighs, as Jon prepares to dance around lasciviously, thrusting his crotch about like a slightly more lucid Robert Pollard. “We didn’t have the budget,” Jon counters. “We didn’t have the stomach,” Sally adds. “I do,” Jon notes, patting his middle. Sally sighs again. “Does anyone have anything that makes old men more cheerful?”

A Mekons concert seems to work in that regard, actually, on both the crowd and the Mekons themselves. Each major player takes his or her turn in the spotlight: Tom Greenhalgh, a nattily dressed charmer who looks and sings like Tom Waits if Tom had taken better care of himself, belts out “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian” like a rubber-limbed carnival barker. The severe-looking Lu Edmonds righteously wields his saz, a long, pointy, violent instrument—half-lute, half-sickle—that seems constantly in danger of stabbing someone in the face and allows for some badass soloing. Jon does lewd Riverdance. (“Thank you from the bottom of my crotch. Thank you.”) And best of all is Sally, sort of the hybrid Nurse Ratched/Jessica Rabbit of the group, dryly directing traffic (“It’s nearly 11 o’clock. We should get on”) and providing the band’s sweetest, breathiest moments, from “The Hope and the Anchor” to “Ghosts of American Astronauts.”

The vibe is free-wheeling, goofy, and increasingly tequila-soaked—the Mekons completely botch one song, the Natural dirge “Dark Dark Dark,” just to illustrate the difference between playing it loose and losing the plot altogether. And despite the good lord, we are OLD theme of the evening, over two hours the mood turns quietly triumphant. “I imagine we’ll be doing this in another 30 years’ time,” Jon announces; “Tell your children or your trustees to bring you to the show,” Sally adds. And though it takes an awfully long time for all eight to wander back onstage for an encore (they’re all “senile and pissed,” Sally notes, sighing yet again), the fully rocked-up version of Fear and Whiskey standout “Hard to Be Human Again” is worth the wait, Jon standing on his chair and genially thrashing about. You’d hope someone like the Arcade Fire can still do stuff like this in 2035 or so, but such grizzled longevity is much harder than it looks to obtain. “Not bad for a bunch of old farts!” jeers the front-row heckler. It takes 30 years of your life to earn such praise.