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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

2004 Pazz & Jop: Freedom for Every-Which-Where!

Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year, and it’s all over the 31st or 32nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, our largest ever hey hey hey. Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight. Any Top 10 that boasts three alt-minded rock bands who’ve convinced the RIAA to blingify their CDs is fighting the good fight. And if the Top 10 also reveals would-be optimists overrating good intentions and pretending small victories are big ones, well, that was 2004 for you. The Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature November 2. Hey hey hey.

So right, it’s good that dapper Franz Ferdinand invaded and weird young Modest Mouse flowered into goofy older Mickey Mouse — good too, kind of, that each revived the venture-capital model in which major labels wager seed money on bands who are in it for the music, kind of. Congrats to the not-for-profit Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s illegal mash-up of Jay-Z (corporate honcho throws self on open market) and the Beatles (corporate keepers brandish attorneys). Thank Jack White for refurbishing Loretta Lynn and U2 for refurbishing war-is-over-if-you-want-it. The Streets’ Mike Skinner warmed up for his Booker Prize, and with input from some Texan carpetbaggers, our nonfascist neighbor to the north generated an alt-rock sleeper cell worthy of its overwrought raves. And who can fault Green Day, whose “punk opera” not only revived their sales but got nominated for an album Grammy while calling Americans the idiots they are?

All but one of these are admirable records. But I wish I could swear they belong in the same paragraph with The College Dropout and SMiLE. Maybe the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, whose unabashed loveliness and complex tone could portend something wider ranging, or just grander. But the U2 is the genial front job any reality-based assessment would predict, the Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse are lightweight on purpose without achieving buoyancy, and I’m not the first listener to reluctantly conclude that A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Van Lear Rose, and The Grey Album read better than they sound. And then there’s American Idiot. In a year when pop musicians politicized with unprecedented unanimity —  Nashville alone pro-Bush, many actively opposing the reactionaries and/or getting out the vote, and only a few rappers sidestepping Kerry on lefter-than-thou grounds — American Idiot was the sole Top 10 album to take a protesty tack, and got much love for it. But to my ears it founders on sodden songcraft — never mind Dookie, try the tunes on 2000’s neglected (and no less conscious) Warning — and half-congealed themes. Beyond some light name-calling (sharpest on the Japan-only B side “Governator”), the signature “Don’t want to be an American idiot” was as far as its politics went, because American Idiot is in substance an anti-political record. Ultimately, it’s about punk’s inability to change anything, even Billie Joe. That dull buildup you hear is the familiar sound of confusion taking itself seriously.

I impute this message of helplessness to the work of art, not its creator, who did also put a song on a Rock Against Bush comp. But where I’d rather get my art is Rock Against Bush itself — or NOFX’s 2003 The War on Errorism, not exactly Linton Kwesi Johnson but smarter than Green Day, even on “Idiots Are Taking Over.” Such smarts prove highly intermittent on our 2004 lists. They show up in Rilo Kiley’s CEO-targeting “It’s a Hit” and Tom Waits’s war-torn “Hoist That Rag” and Morrissey’s waspish “America Is Not the World,” in Nellie McKay’s wisecracks and the Drive-By Truckers’ worldview, in rumblings from U2 and TV on the Radio, in the hardcore rabble-rousing of Eminem’s “Mosh” and the vernacular conspiracy mongering of Jadakiss’s “Why?” And that’s about it. Odd, no? This was certainly the first presidential election in Pazz & Jop history to dominate artists’ and voters’ mindsets. Yet the election’s issues and personalities remained all but unaddressed by the music the poll honored. My guess is that this disconnect succumbs to the hoary fallacy — belied on my own list by Todd Snider, Jon Langford, Andre Tanker, Public Enemy and Moby — that “art” precludes “propaganda.” But for purposes of argument let me posit instead that it was deep-structural. All these passionate anti-Bushies kept on musicking as usual because they sensed that nothing less than the freedom to make and hear the precious stuff was at stake.

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In other words, we weren’t being “liberals,” striving to protect the unfortunate here and overseas. We were acting out of raw self-interest. Not just because plausible scenarios involving terrorist attack (remember terrorist attack?) could quickly transform our democracy into a bold-faced showpiece of postmodern fascism. Not just because some trade or currency wrinkle too boring to go into could impoverish us all. But because constitutional democracy, as conceived by those who now control its mechanisms, is being retooled to render your lifestyle and mine fiscally insupportable. Never mind Social Security, where “reform” would kick in slowly, sandbagging the young people now being told that boomers want to steal their payroll taxes. There’s a faster way to destroy the safety net, soaking states where rudiments of government for the people survive — namely, to abolish the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes in the name of balancing a budget squandered on the rich and Iraq, thus forcing blue states to slash human services and reducing their residents’ discretionary income. It’s enough to tempt your Democratic representative to add a buck in VAT to the price of every CD.

Math being for poobahs and Harvard M.B.A.’s, I apologize for burdening you with these apparently nonmusical abstractions. But Bush’s determination to compel all of us to compete Darwinistically for our semblance of comfort — to convert every American into a mini-capitalist or a serf — has musical consequences. The relevant goals, in this context, are the privatization of progress and the curtailment of leisure by forced attrition. By withdrawing from the human services sector, the government will dare do-gooders to put their money where their rhetoric is. And of course, every increase in work hours and reduction in discretionary income starves the music and film industries — which at their crassest remain stubbornly liberal — and shrinks the arts’ material base in academia, bohemia, and the helping professions. Collateral damage is a specialty of these robbers with fountain pens.

In such dire circumstances, going on about rock criticism and its discontents feels frivolous. Slogging through comments that included extensive selections from blogs I never read, I was often annoyed by the insularity of it all. Franz Ferdinand and Loretta Lynn, Usher and Devendra Banhart, Morrissey and Elliott Smith, “Redneck Woman” and The Grey Album, Hotlanta’s “Yeah!” and Metropolis’s “Yeah” — all big and rather different stories. Us content providers — many of the younger ones serfs unless backed up by school loans or parents or spouses or actual jobs (almost certainly underpaid if they’re editorial) — are expected to exploit the discretionary income of the better-compensated young by playing these stories for all they’re worth, meaning more than they’re worth, in the desperate hope that advertisers etc. And they served this function all too well. In every case I’ve just cited, the big stories came with overrated music.

Not bad, usually. But overrated — palpably limited in ambition, achievement, or both. With due respect to the pro-gay posture I pray they stick with — which isn’t required of the fabulous Scissor Sisters, who proved everything they had to in 15 minutes — Franz Ferdinand are a cautious little band compared even to their conceptual forebears the Strokes. Lynn stopped recording her own songs because “One’s on the Way” and “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” were truer than “Portland Oregon” or, God help us, “God Makes No Mistakes.” The once precocious Usher is a cute sex object matured into the usual conniving pussy magnet; the permanently precocious Banhart is a female-identified weirdo-on-principle whose spontaneity is already a cultivated pose. Morrissey came back — from where, exactly? to what, exactly? Elliott Smith released a posthumous album very much like his prehumous albums, which not even the junkies manqué who love him claim had much life to them. Gretchen Wilson’s high-trash Tanya Tucker tribute is as painstakingly constructed as Danger Mouse’s time-seizing ’60s update, and neither is as convincing as it swears it is. “Hell yeah!” Gretchen’s sisters chorus on cue. “Yeah!” screams a 20-on-a-scale-of-10 shorty going all up on Usher, aware without thinking on it that if she don’t Luda will ejaculate her from his Jag. LCD Soundsystem’s lead cyborg sums up the collective dilemma after his girlies intone their own “Yeah”s: “Everybody keeps on talking about it/Nobody’s getting it done.” I just wish he’d added, “Including me.”

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Given the general craving for affirmation, it’s no wonder our 793 voters ratified artists who embraced their freedom to make music. Frequent finishers Wilco and Björk, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey withdrew deeper into private aesthetics — the first pair esoteric and obscurantist, the second spare and formalist. I found all four lacking but preferred the formalists; the electorate cheered them all on, favoring the obscurantists. Sonic Youth took both routes at once as usual, drawing out and smudging up their catchiest album since Dirty; Nick Cave wrote a few songs worthy of the real Leonard Cohen (not the imposter who came in 243rd) and stretched them into a double CD. Newcomers also received concept points that divided up mod and trad, with getting it done left for a better day. Live, Akron’s Black Keys extract massive blues from a guitar and a trap set, but composing in that style is a rare knack, so Rubber Factory scored on accrued rep and improved distribution. And though Brooklyn’s unkempt TV on the Radio may someday amount to more than 12th place in a critics’ poll, I wish their boosters would admit that they get race points too. Regularly credited with a funk and soul imperceptible to the unseeing ear, they’re the first African American rock band of critical consequence since Living Colour put the Black Rock Coalition into practice 15 years ago, and while Vernon Reid’s Yohimbe Brothers (zero mentions) flow better, flow doesn’t “rock.”

Cultivating the most private aesthetic of all was the year’s major underground trend. So disdainful of the literal that it’s effectively apolitical even when it wishes otherwise, the artier-than-thou traditionalism of psych-folk is a hippie revival rooted in acoustic eccentrics I’d hoped were behind me three decades ago, from the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley down to Essra Mohawk and I see where one site is hawking Kay Huntington, whose atrocious album may still be in my storage space (yours for $200 to the privatized progressives of my choice, folkies — how about the American Negro College Fund?). Psych-folk enrages some of my younger colleagues, but I’m too old to feel threatened — Devendra Banhart’s talent is quirkier and less pretentious than Buckley’s (not just Tim’s, Jeff’s), and the poetic acrobatics and pure brainpower of the equally arch Joanna Newsom just go to show that in these fragmented times any scene can generate a visionary.

These paired hereditary bohemians represent psych-folk uncut, but other finishers are close allies, as are 52nd-place Christian Sufjan Stevens, so much prettier and deeper than 48th-place ex-Christian Sam Bean. (41–50: electronica standard-bearers Junior Boys, electronica salesmen Air, tape-eating Walkmen, Alicia “Legs” Keys, tweaker-folk Mountain Goats, party girl Gretchen Wilson, new wave popsters Futureheads, d/b/a Iron & Wine, new wave art-rockers Secret Machines, prescription-only Ted Leo.) Though the Fiery Furnaces identify rock, their roots riffs, opaque verbiage, and whimsical air cross-market them as effectively as if they’d planned it. The vaguely tribal Animal Collective muster more charm if less skill than the Incredible String Band. And Nellie McKay has nothing to do with the trend at all — except that she’s a trad-avant acoustic singer-songwriter who’s vegetarian too. It’s enough to convince you that fame-averse obscurantism is psych-folk’s essential ingredient.

Or maybe to indicate that, a few separatists notwithstanding, this wasn’t much of a year for disengagement. McKay’s hunger for a public presence counts as defiance in a state bent on repression. Of course alt-rock made a showing. A.C. Newman’s solo record outran Neko Case’s solo record; the Libertines took their falling-apart-in-front-of-your-eyes act so far that Pete Doherty withdrew from view, a confusing effect. The Arcade Fire are neither hype nor fluke, and though they could choose art-rock vainglory, they could also prove world leaders. But only Craig Finn’s Hold Steady went alt all the way — Almost Killed Me could pass for a concept album about the circuit, and although Finn’s storytelling has lost a few twists since Lifter Puller, I wish his Pushcart Prize bid well unless John Darnielle enters the Mountain Goats. But he sure didn’t write better than the Drive-By Truckers, who put out a slightly subpar album in half the time it would have taken most bands to write half the material and toured like they were the Allman Brothers, or than Rilo Kiley, who secured major-label distribution for an album keyed to catchier songs than “Take You Out” if not “Somebody Told Me.” And then there were the Blairniks of Interpol, who began their album with a hopeful “We ain’t going to the town/We’re going to the city,” only to demonstrate why exurbanites flee the city and vote Republican to keep it away from their doors. “See the living that surrounds me/Dissipate in a violent race,” their charting “Slow Hands” goes. Exactly what the exurbs are afraid of. City people dance to that? Sick, just sick.

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Nevertheless, all over a theoretical pop/semipop realm I’ll dub the Republic of Crunk Guitar, city people were dancing. Crunk guitar is theoretical not least because the guitars that color the sexist party hip-hop signified by the soon-passé “crunk” are dirty and metallic while the guitars (and synthesizers) that propelled young rockers onto the floor in surprising numbers are clean and electronic. The conflation merely insists that, no matter how loudly and justifiably their adherents and adversaries bitch and moan, for quite a while the putatively opposed worlds of hip-hop and alt/indie-rock have both been good to us. They’re often escapist and that makes me bitch and moan. But I never forget, or regret, that human beings have always treasured music for the escape it affords.

In 2004, hip-hop, consistently underrepresented in our poll and by now declared dead as regularly as rock, nevertheless produced a second straight No. 1 album. Though the voters came out stronger for OutKast, I’ll take Kanye’s guaranteed pop-soul hooks, modest flow, saving cameos, group-focused vision, and dynamite sense of humor; hip to modern serfdom and too decent to peddle thug domination fantasies, he renders nerdiness at once cute and racially credible while mocking the lie that it will get the oppressed what they deserve. A sharp dip in r&b party anthems on our singles chart suggests that as hip-hop’s commercial dominance gets old, its crassness looks worse. But we still signed off on a healthy complement of major and indie hip-hop albums. I rate Nas (59th) and the slept-on Mos Def (77th) over the belatedly beloved Ghostface, and in addition to the three worthy albums released by this year’s indie-rap fave, MF Doom (whose Madlib collab Madvillainy was No. 11), recommend the Bay Area’s arch-in-his-disgusting-way Z Man and Vancouver’s sincere-in-his-businesslike-way McEnroe. In London, Mike Skinner’s lit rode vocal dramatics that recalled without resembling the declamations of Ghostface and Chuck D, and Dizzee Rascal’s up-and-at-’em made music of the scrawny techno-dancehall derivative that is grime. I also enjoyed ex-Detroiter Eminem, who was edged out by the competing white beatmasters of NYC’s DFA.

Besotted with Franz Ferdinand’s No. 1 single, some might argue that r&b party music was undercut by DOR — dance-oriented rock, kids, so abbreviated well before Duran Duran glitzed their way into your impressionable sensoriums. But the singles chart reveals dance music from every-which-where, with DOR just one component: the Killers’ brazenly mechanical “Somebody Told Me,” the Scissor Sisters for the moment and Gwen Stefani forever, some count “Float On,” and let us not forget those Blairniks. Rather than danceability, what distinguishes our rock albums is chart clout. Of course Pazz & Joppers always like bands that sell a little, and here’s hoping if not predicting that they’ll always have Hold Steadys to get hot for. Rock radio continues to die, too. But the Franz Ferdinand–Green Day–Modest Mouse trifecta constitutes an uptick. Teenpop having given way to American idolization, which will also run its course, the surviving megalabels are pursuing saner long-term musical investment strategies on a playing field where indies are entrenched, prices have fallen, and downloading is a progressive force. If the world wasn’t coming to an end, this might equal reason to be cheerful.

Admittedly, it makes me feel a little better anyway. But there’s only so happy you can get about the Killers. So allow me to promote more far-ranging escapes — starting with, of all things, a longshot country finisher. Big & Rich are a bit wet for my tastes; though they usefully exemplify the varieties of Christian experience, that Jesus song is just too corny. But their irreverence and appetite are such a relief in a Nashville that’s gynephobic and xenophobic when it’s rowdy at all. Gretchen Wilson is lucky to have met them, and not only that — you just know they’d appreciate Piracy Funds Terrorism, the 23rd-place bootleg mix Floridian-Philadelphian Diplo imposed on the forthcoming album by Sri Lankan–British singer-toaster M.I.A. M.I.A.’s eighth-place bhangra-dancehall-grime “Galang” is only the most explicitly every-which-where of dance singles that include crunk lite from a peripatetic Army brat, ragga lite from Queens-based Puerto Rican–I-think twins, trash lite from queens doing their Elton John impression, blues-rap featuring an avant-garde trumpeter doing his Muddy Waters impression, fragile Norwegian-blond Europop, Blairniks, and DFA. Eclecticism/internationalism has long been dance music’s way, but it intensified in 2004, and I trust its timing will keep getting better without further encouragement or explication from me.

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Sometimes, however, explication deepens enjoyment as well as enlarging the mind. I’d love the Diplo boot more if it raided the Middle as well as the Far East, the way Hispanic/multiracial hip-hoppers and 1998 Pazz & Jop finishers Ozomatli did to jump-start their mysteriously-or-maybe-not 208th-place Street Signs. That’s why I was so pleased that Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt finished 34th. Always Islamic, N’Dour knows he’s heard as merely African by the Americans and Europeans whose musics he’s assimilated. So as a political act, the Senegalese Mouridist claimed Muslim by recording in Cairo. This uncommonly pointed one-worldism sinks deeper when you read not just the notes but the linked info at the Nonesuch website. The most gorgeous album of N’Dour’s career celebrates an Islamic culture more humane than any fundamentalist one, or than the secular compromises putative liberals like Thomas Friedman pump. It’s more humane than Nashville’s culture, too — and, sometimes, NYC’s.

In part, I know, my pessimism about America reflects my age. At 62, I had my expectations primed back when the goal of a humane society was axiomatic, and at 62, I deeply resent the prospect of spending my golden years battling goons who hate everything I’ve lived for. So it’s salutory to replay The College Dropout — a record I once foolishly feared would wear thin — and hear Kanye’s kiddies wickedly chorus, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you we still alive.” That’s how it goes with social disasters. They get worse than the crack epidemic, but not so’s the end of the world is actually the end of the world — not even after a suitcase nuke, or the worst-case consequences of dumping the Kyoto accords. All year I remembered Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music, where slaves jamming their stinking barracones and then blacks crowding their overtaxed barrios musick defiantly anyway. Keeping it real f’real, West’s songs import that impulse into modern African American life — music is a dream that waxes and wanes, something folks will steal because it’s something folks live for. His good cheer assumes his people will get squeezed half to death, and won’t stop won’t stop anyway. Politically, he shows more smarts and better instincts than any finisher except N’Dour and the Drive-By Truckers.

Brian Wilson’s good cheer proceeded from a deeper sense of entitlement yet proved deeply fragile — he broke down well before the ’60s did. But the luck of career development impelled him to re-examine his own flowering, and though my aversion to ’60s nostalgia knows no bounds, his political timing couldn’t have been better. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded, but history is forgotten by those who find out too late why Karl Rove name-checks William McKinley. Smiley Smile was always wonderful, and psych-folkies may want to know that it’s more eccentric than SMiLE. But SMiLE is a history lesson, one that’s only rendered more vivid and persuasive by how silly it is, and also by how worn Wilson’s voice is. The beauty it achieves regardless — the apotheosis of the Beach Boys’ trick of respecting and undermining their music lessons simultaneously — defines the cultural space where the freedom to make and hear precious music was and remains unquestioned if not uncompromised. As in all works of art, that space is a fiction, or anyway a construction. But it’s worth battling for.

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Top 10 Albums of 2004

1. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

4. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

7. The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic)

8. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)

9. Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

10. Danger Mouse: The Grey Album (djdangermouse.com)

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Top 10 Singles of 2004

1. Franz Ferdinand: “Take Me Out” (Domino)

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

3. Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris: “Yeah!” (Arista)

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

6. Kanye West: “Jesus Walks” (Roc-A-Fella)

7. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (Doggystyle/Geffen/Star Trak)

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Maps” (Interscope)

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue

 

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

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

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

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

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

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

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

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2000

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

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

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

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

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

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

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

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

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

—From the February 20, 2001, issue

 

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

 

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

1993 Pazz & Jop: Playing to Win

No use seeking hidden meanings in the 20th or 21st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. The story is smack dab on the surface, there for the kvelling and the selling — self-evident and significant, heartening and thrilling, unprecedented and maybe even sexy. Liz Phair — the first female victor since Joni Mitchell in 1974, when the 24-person electorate consisted largely of my friends — is joined on the album chart by 11 other women, recording under their own sobriquets or fronting bands that usually include more women. With PJ Harvey scoring twice, and the Digable Planets and Yo La Tengo granted half-credits for Ladybug and Georgia Hubley, that’s 13 and two halves records all told, and though in 1992 we had 10 and two halves, then women garnered a mere one (and a half) of the top 10, whereas in 1993 they scored three of the top four. On the traditionally distaff singles chart, where the gender breakdown is unremarkable, the Breeders follow Tracy Chapman in 1988 and Laurie Anderson in 1981 to the top spot. Björk’s “Human Behaviour” came in second on our video ballot, following Cyndi Lauper in 1984, and “Cannonball” rode in fourth on a goofy clip codirected by better half Kim Gordon. Rap-rockers Luscious Jackson follow Lucinda Williams in 1989 as EP winners. Only on the reissue list, where Columbia’s proudly feminist Janis Joplin box finished seventh in an otherwise male field, did guys still rool.

Needless to say, skepticism is always justified when journalists crow about trends. Note that as recently as 1991, the only women to place were Bonnie Raitt, Sam Phillips, and Kirsty MacColl, and note also that this is hardly Pazz & Jop’s first Year of the Woman. We had one in 1992; we had one in 1988; we had one in 1981, when women put ten and three halves albums in the top 40; hell, we thought we had one in 1979, when 10th-place Donna Summer, now cited as an example of how critics only respect sexually assertive white women, led seven (and three halves) female artists onto our chart. And as was noted by many of our 309 respondents — a new high, as were the 68 female voters, their numbers swelled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton Memorial Poobah Ann Powers’s affirmative-action effort and H. L. Mencken Memorial Poobah Joe Levy’s insistence on declaring our deadlines a disaster area — the women on our chart are as varied as the men. (Almost, anyway — none of them is as big a creep as Dwight Yoakam, not to mention Dr. Dre.) I’ll grant you that 68th-place diva Toni Braxton and 47th-place sexpot Janet Jackson deserved more respect, that icons on the order of Sinéad and what’s-her-name were nowhere in evidence, and that we got no riot grrrls either (although Bikini Kill’s Joan Jett–produced “Rebel Girl” was tied just below chart level with seven other singles that would have toned up an already healthily non-album-dependent list). But despite all that, we cover a lot of territory; I mean, from Sade’s velvet wallpaper and Aimee Mann’s power-pop singer-songwriting to Rosanne Cash’s mainstream privatism and Jane Siberry’s eccentric privatism to Carol van Dijk’s Euroneotraditionalist lead work and Laetitia Sadier’s Euroexperimental front work to Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s people’s poetry and Cassandra Wilson’s art of improvisation seems like a lot to me. And Phair at number one, PJ Harvey at three, and the Breeders at four (plus Belly at 37) represent a sea change.

I’m not forgetting that Harvey and the all-female L7 burst upon us in a 1992 that was topped by the half-credited Arrested Development. And I’m down with the profusion of comments on the varieties of female experience. But I still think that the big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules, and play it to win. Sade and Mann and Siberry and Cash and Me’Shell and Wilson and van Dijk and Sadier all fit established female niches that critics appreciate. It’s not impossible to imagine a poll-topping successor to Joni’s Court and Spark emanating from a leader-plus-backup like van Dijk’s Bettie Serveert, even from a singer-songwriter who combined Siberry’s singularity with Mann’s thralldom to the hook. Not impossible — just damned hard. I believe that Blondie’s 1978 Parallel Lines was a more incandescent explosion than the poll-topping This Year’s Model, that the McGarrigles’ 1977 Dancer With Bruised Knees was a tougher statement than Never Mind the Bollocks, but I wouldn’t waste time electioneering for either. I know all too well that in practice, our poll honors music that parades its mastery of meaning, and that in practice this comes down to bands, whether ad hoc creations like Paul Simon’s Graceland hirelings, De La Soul’s voice-and-tape fantasias, and Prince’s multitracked versions of his multitalented self or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like the Clash, E Street, Crazy Horse, and Nirvana — whether ad hoc studio creations like Phair and friends or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like PJ Harvey or hybrids like Belly and the Breeders.

In short, what we have here is the consummation a lot of male critics said they were waiting for — not women who could play their axes or anything stupid like that, just women who knew how to come on strong. This is basically the musical bias the Brits call rockism, a promethean schema that valorizes the artist as creative actor. From Van Morrison at 55 to Mick Jagger at 110, from Donald Fagen at 43 to John Cougar Mellencamp at 93, from Elvis Costello at 57 to Sting at 65 — hell, from John Hiatt at 38 to Billy Joe Shaver at 38 (hell and tarnation, from Kate Bush at 65 to Rickie Lee Jones at 106) — old-timers of all ages still strive proudly to fulfill this ideal. But it’s no longer the fine strapping hegemony it used to be, and not just among fad-hopping U.K. pomo-poppers. What does it mean, for instance, that three of our most aged white male finishers — Jimmie Dale Gilmore (seventh), Willie Nelson (22nd), and Bob Dylan (23rd) — devoted themselves to other people’s songs? Or that after years of traditionalist resistance, the Pet Shop Boys — whose three previous entries finished 22nd, 32nd, and 35th — should leapfrog to fifth on their poorest-selling disc? Above all, what does it mean that after years of posing atop Mount Caucasus, torch aloft and eagle at liver, U2 should finish ninth with a damn Eno album?

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For good reason, the rockist vision is often attacked as Euro, male chauvinist, and so forth — as an aestheticization of the will to dominance. Yet oddly enough, while rockism continues to define metal and fuels many of the new male country singers, two of its bulwarks these days are rap (pardon me, hip hop) and the former Amerindie subculture still sometimes labeled alternative, both of which reject or redefine virtuosity while championing their own modes of rugged mastery. As so often happens in countercultures, it’s like hippie all over again: in order to combat the ruling class, the media, the powers that be, the establishment, the man, both rappers and alternative rockers lay claim to an individualistic ethos they believe has been homogenized out of existence. Big on authenticity and creative control, they carry the rockist flag. But not without misgivings. Reluctant to cross over yet desperate to get paid, reliving African trickster and griot traditions as they act out against absent fathers, forced by the forces of censure and censorship to front about how literal they are, rappers suffer ugly doubts about their own autonomy. And the indie guys, who reject rockist ideology while embodying its aesthetic, don’t have it so simple either. They’d be confused about gender privilege even if their girlfriends didn’t hock them about it.

When Nevermind overwhelmed Billboard first and Pazz & Jop later in 1991, we all knew “alternative” was in for weird times, but except for some feminist critics, notably the Seattle-born Powers, few considered gender consequences in the year of Raitt-Phillips-MacColl. Who would have figured? Yet here we are. Say there are 12 Amerindie bands in our top 40, and nine in our top 20: Dinosaur Jr., Belly, Uncle Tupelo, Yo La Tengo, American Music Club, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders, Nirvana, and Liz Phair. Since not one of these bands records for a fully independent label, this list is deeply debatable; maybe it’s wrong to exclude long-ago Twin/Tone stalwart Paul Westerberg, and I count Pearl Jam only because…I forgot. Still, bear with me. Seven of the 12 are first-time album finishers, but not one of the four male newcomers — Uncle Tupelo, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, and Smashing Pumpkins — scored with a debut album. All came up in the indie farm system, where all recorded at least two albums/EPs. A version of the Breeders that included Belly’s (then Throwing Muses’) Tanya Donelly released a Rough Trade album in 1990 and a 4AD/Elektra EP in 1992. But Liz Phair and Belly charted true debut records, which added to Digable Planets, Me’Shell, and Netherindies Bettie Serveert makes five, all showcasing women, on a chart that averages around eight — with Exile in Guyville, which predated the Atlantic deal critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper Gerard Cosloy cut for his poll-vaulting Matador label, our only genuine Amerindie album.

Nor is it just the numbers that tell me women are now the prime hope of a onetime youth culture whose length of tooth is measured by the 1986 and 1988 debuts of Overkill and the Whigs. It’s my ears. Although I didn’t resist Exile in Guyville, I did find it hard to hear through the word-of-mouth, just as Nirvana’s number-two In Utero was hard to hear through the media clamor (in my defense I’ll say that two decades ago it took me just as long to penetrate Exile on Main Street, which I promise not to mention again). When I gave myself the Christmas present of relistening in depth, however, the voters’ choices ended up my favorite new music of 1993, and Guyville started sounding like a full-fledged classic.

If you wanted to get wise, you could grouse that Guyville shares all too much with Court and Spark, but you’d be jiving. Where Joni’s winner was a produced, listener-friendly variation on the audaciously arty For the Roses, Phair’s recalls the more tentative Clouds — except that it’s realized and Clouds isn’t, proof positive that minimalism lives. Phair milks drummer-coproducer Brad Wood (who kicks things off with a perfect Bill Wyman bass hook) and multitracks with Princely panache, adding simple, self-taught, alternative guitar noises — strums and riffs rather than Nirvana/Sonic Youth noise-a-rama — where he-who-cannot-be-named would lay in a beatwise panoply. By the time I’d heard the 18 songs 18 times, I was hooked right down to the perverse slow ones — like “Canary,” which follows a minute of halting piano with a sad ditty whose mix of domestic detail and attempts at cooperative cohabitation climaxes quietly with a house on fire. Clearly, Phair wanted to prove she could do it with a band and prove she could do it without one; substitute “guy” for “band” and you’ll know why. Not only does she have another album in her, she has a career in her, one she’s canny enough to stay on top of. But at the same time she’s alternative-rockist enough to look askance at careers undertaken exclusively from behind closed doors. So her next step is to get out of the studio and start a band. Since this leader-plus-backup is unlikely to bog down in participatory democracy, I just hope Phair figures out how to generate the requisite synergy anyway, and noting that the four musicians credited on her record are fulltime citizens of Guyville, submit that a female player might shake up the dynamics.

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For I also note that of the three other women’s bands, PJ Harvey, which consists of Polly Harvey and two guys from Somerset who knew a genius when they saw one, is at once the most accomplished and the most conventional — a blues-based power trio who, like Nirvana, hired critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper, alternative ideologue, and sexist dweeb Steve Albini to guarantee the hard-edged power-as-integrity they demanded in a followup. Albini’s input was pitiless and extreme, and although the device of turning some levels so low that listeners have to choose between not hearing the record or playing it loud is what insiders call a “stupid gimmick,” I go along with the consensus that Rid of Me is realer than the 35th-place 4-Track Demos. I prefer it to Belly’s Star and the Breeders’ Last Splash, too, and not just for its passion — hybrids who recorded before they played out, Belly and the Breeders aren’t all there yet musically. Yet live, Star’s mystofemmes are postmacho masters of their own pre-Amerindie pastiche, while Last Splash is simply the most outlandish record ever to make our top five. Take as a metaphor the tumble-bumble number-one single “Cannonball,” which is either alternative’s “Horse With No Name” or the revenge of the shambolic — proof the garage lives creatively, commercially, and in all the erogenous zones in between. Unlike the Pixies or PJ Harvey, the Deal twins don’t equate guitars with virtuosity or expressive display, and if they’re too messy by me, the voters took their loose ends as proof of a righteous impulse worth loving and rewarding.

And at least Last Splash made the Dean’s List — down in the 50s, stranded in a vast expanse of nonfinishers. Where before world beat and college radio my lists often anticipated the consensus, recently their correspondence to the general wisdom has been random — my first would be the voters’ 87th, my fourth their 32nd, my ninth their eighth, my 38th their fourth. This year, however, the pattern was different. Rarely have I concurred so thoroughly on the cream — four of the voters’ top eight are in my top seven, nine of their top 17 in my top 18. But not one of the 23 records below that — and only two of a typically varied 41–50 that goes Spinanes, Henry Threadgill, Donald Fagen, Counting Crows, Björk, Mekons, Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, Suede, Velvet Underground — made my year-end A list. Most of the voters’ choices were solid and smart, worthy of honor or at least mention; from Dwight Yoakam to Cassandra Wilson, I might have missed a few altogether without the P&J seal of approval. But they’re almost all by Yanks. And while the chauvinism wasn’t as unremitting as in 1992, when PJ Harvey and Morrissey were the only aliens on our chart, I find the census discouraging: the only non-Americans are Harvey, perennials U2/Sade/Pet Shop Boys, major-label freshpersons Stereolab, and Amsterdam Anglophones Bettie Serveert.

Although under the sexual circumstances I cherished hopes for 62nd-place Zap Mama, this is not a plea for “world music” — most of my African and Caribbean (and Central Asian) finds were strikingly archival. So forget Third World outreach — I would have settled for Anglophilia. Because in this particular year of the woman, I found the oblique genderfucks of the Popinjays and Saint Etienne and the self-contained dream-pop of Ireland’s Cranberries and Michigan Anglomorphs His Name Is Alive more pregnant with meaning than the arty variations on womanist expressionism served up by Mann, Siberry, and Me’Shell. When expressionism works it’s the shit. Mud-wrestling with chaos, cutting their rage with conscious grotesquery and indignant self-deprecation, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey, and Greg Dulli give irony the arm without denying themselves its out. In contrast, crooner-poemwriter concrète Mark Eitzel, one-trick guitar god J Mascis, Music Row status symbol John Hiatt, recovering outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, Oprah volunteer Eddie Vedder, and Prince surrogate Terence Trent D’Arby all express too much, methinks. Yet though their moments rarely become minutes and their minutes never become hours, all have parlayed identifiable styles, discernible smarts, and reliable personas into serious Stateside reps. Meanwhile, a straight U.K. band’s gay-identified U.K. record affects a pathos so flamboyant that reasonable people can’t stand it — until the songs climb into bed with them. In Britain, Suede wins a Mercury Music Prize. In Rolling Stone, it’s “Hype of the Year.” And in Pazz & Jop, it finishes 49th — better than it might have, worse than it deserved, and at least it deflected repressed homophobia from the Pet Shop Boys.

Although the shortfall may be random, to me Suede’s showing seems emblematic of Amerindie provincialism. With its naturalization of fashion, hype, indirection, androgyny, and Jacques Brel, Brit music culture is now so far removed from America’s alternative mindset that the poor guys might as well be performing Bulgarian folk songs. But provincialism begins at home. Were I to kvetch that of the 16 votes for Suede, nine came from New York and California and only two from Middle America, Midwesterners could respond that of the 18 votes for St. Louis fiddle-and-steel band Uncle Tupelo, nine came from Middle America and only four from New York and California. So as with Suede, I’d listen a lot and get it eventually. There’s something smartly posthomespun there, though not enough — I’d like more lyrics on the order of “Name me a song that everybody knows/I bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose.” On the other hand, I’m not always so sure what Suede’s songs mean either, and if a Minnesotan were to claim that our differences came down to dialect — that camp and falsetto are indigenous to one place, banjo and drawl to another — I’d have trouble mounting a convincing counterargument. As discrete monads segregate themselves into subsubcultures determined by geography and sensibility, battening down the hatches from Compton to Croatia, the fine old liberal myth about music dissolving boundaries is showing its bullshit quotient.

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As you might have guessed, it is with rap that segregation becomes most problematic, although this time it may be less characteristic of consumers than critics, with formerly tolerant white worrywarts on one side and populists and rap specialists on the other. Dr. Dre didn’t get near the victory some scaredy-cats predicted was his for the drive-by. But having fretted that gangstas were cordoning off their own market niche like the heavy metal kids of yore, I obviously never imagined that The Chronic, a late-’92 album that picked up all of 10 points last year, would finish a triple-platinum sixth in our 1993 poll. Still, Dre’s triple-platinum partner in profit Snoop Doggy Dogg was only 52nd, and the tenor of the few progangsta comments suggested considerable support in the fact-of-nature, sound-of-the-streets, and guilty-pleasure categories. And though the tough-talking Latinos of Cypress Hill were 29th, voters generally preferred the alternative: De La Soul, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Me’Shell, all whom explored jazzy beats that signified bohemia as much as they did great black music. I don’t exempt myself from this tendency — after a year of prayer and meditation, I’ve learned to loathe The Chronic. But I much prefer De La’s dislocated funk and the Digables’ hard-bop hooks to the cocktail-flavored groove of 82nd-place Guru, Me’Shell, even Quest, and would single out for praise the alternative/metal-rap of the 60th-place Judgment Night soundtrack, which attempts to suture cultural lacerations more patient-appropriately.

Dave Marsh leads off the “Gangsta Bitching” section with a typically passionate outburst that’s also typically, shall we say, overstated. The facts are these. Between 1988, when It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back announced hip hop’s rockist agenda, and 1992, when 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… became our third rap winner in five years, we’ve averaged two black albums a year in the top five, three in the top 10, and 10 in the top 40. But by “black,” I mean “featuring an artist of African descent.” This makes sense to me; anyone who doesn’t think Vernon Reid or Tracy Chapman is “really” black should try and imagine saying so to their faces. Others might counter, however, that a black album can only be one that attracts a substantial black audience, which also makes sense. Then our black numbers go down, although not that much — unless you want to argue that the black audience for Prince and P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development isn’t “black enough.” These calculations do get tricky — and risk unseemly racial presumption in the bargain.

We can safely say this much, however: 1993 is the first year that there hasn’t been a black album in the top five since 1985, when Artists United Against Apartheid earned only a half. And if we can also project that this will prove an exception rather than a trend, we can nevertheless see why Marsh is so upset. Because make no mistake, bohemia is a trend, from Digable Planets and Me’Shell NdegeOcello to Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. Bohemia is a function of class, a concept that in this context encompasses cultural style as much as gross income; it’s hostile to the merely popular in ways both stupid and smart. Marsh, who voted for Pearl Jam as well as Dr. Dre and has always trumpeted working-class taste and rockist expressionism over collegiate exclusivity and pomo irony, hates bohemians for reasons he would argue are fundamentally political, and even those who would beg to differ will grant that politics is hardly a specialty of this year’s boho crop. Where in 1992 we heard nonstop propaganda from John Trudell and the Disposable Heroes and heavy protest from Arrested Development, Neneh Cherry, even Sonic Youth and Leonard Cohen, 1993 never gets more ideological than Me’Shell, Digable Planets, and — jeeze — the Pet Shop Boys. For some, this leaves Dr. Dre in the symbolic position of embodying our inarticulate collective rage. I say he’s not good enough for the job. In fact, I say he’s not angry enough.

Yet however much our women pussyfoot around the four-syllable F-word, however heavy they come down on the inward, they do represent a power shift, and power shifts are what politics is about. It’s my (male) belief that the progress this shift will effect is unlikely to nudge, much less dislodge, the entrenched economic interests exploiting gangsta pathology, although it might palliate some symptoms. Nor do I expect international sisterhood to cut into an America-firstism that could get real tedious real soon. And let me note that as a longtime bohemian hanger-on, I’m appalled to witness in one year the returns of Tim Buckley (in the voice of his EP-charting son) and El Topo (a dreadful fillum revived as the dumbest video ever to top our poll). But none of the above is to suggest that Liz Phair represents anything less than a long overdue and exceptionally happy development in an exercise that teaches me something new every year. Male critics said they were waiting for it, and they were. Now they get to find out how much they like the consequences.

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Top 10 Albums of 1993

1. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (Matador)

2. Nirvana: In Utero (DGC)

3. PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (Island)

4. The Breeders: Last Splash (4AD/Elektra)

5. Pet Shop Boys: Very (EMI)

6. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (Interscope)

7. Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Spinning Around the Sun (Elektra)

8. De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy)

9. U2: Zooropa (Island)

10. Digable Planets: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum)

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Top 10 Singles of 1993

1. The Breeders: “Cannonball” (4AD/Elektra)

2. (Tie) Digable Planets: “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (Pendulum)
Nirvana: “Heart-Shaped Box” (DGC)

4. Dr. Dre: “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (Interscope)

5. Salt-N-Pepa: “Shoop” (Next Plateau)

6. (Tie) Radiohead: “Creep” (Capitol)
Soul Asylum: “Runaway Train” (Columbia)

8. The Juliana Hatfield Three: “My Sister” (Mammoth/Atlantic)

9. Urge Overkill: “Sister Havana” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day”/”Check Yo Self” (Priority)
Tony! Toni! Toné!: “If I Had No Loot” (Wing)

—From the March 1, 1994, issue

 

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

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

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.

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

1987 Pazz & Jop: Significance and Its Discontents in the Year of the Blip

I grew up in a time when elections still had their popcult charm, like baseball standings. Since age 10 I’ve been rooting for a presidential convention to go into extra ballots, and despite the lives at stake, the first Tuesday of November is my idea of a good night for a TV party. That’s how the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was conceived — as an election with only metaphors hanging in the balance, or maybe the musical equivalent of association baseball. But usually — cf. the goddamn presidency — the thrill of the contest is undercut by its more or less foreordained result. Not this year, though. As in the march of the seven dorks through spring primaries, the winner was hard to figure out precisely because the general outlines were so predictable.

I never bought Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons’s fatalistic assumption that U2 would rampage idealistically to the top of our 14th (or 15th) poll like we were Rolling Stone or the L.A. Times or the Hot 100. But since he was opening the ballots, I eventually lost my palmy certainty that The Joshua Tree couldn’t win because it just wasn’t good enough. As the countdown approached I handicapped the yearning sons of Eire just below Bruce Springsteen, the only major artist whose courage exceeded the call of duty in 1987, and Prince, the only major artist whose professionalism ditto, and a little ahead of yearning son of Indiana John Cougar Mellencamp and Pazz & Jop perennials R.E.M. and the Replacements. If I’d had to pick one horse it would have been Sign “O” [sic] the Times, but that was a guess, and I looked forward to some fun — an all-night tally down to the wire. Instead, the 226 voters gave Prince an unprecedented landslide. Prorated, only three albums this decade — London Calling in 1980, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain in the donnybrook of 1984 — have run up more points, and Sign “O” the Times is easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Its 579-point margin is 40 per cent wider than London Calling’s over The River in 1980, 60 per cent wider than Thrillers over Murmur in 1983. If only we could expect as much of Jesse Jackson.

I voted for Prince, and given the electoral realities I was rooting for him; I couldn’t have asked for a more gratifying or newsworthy result. Sign “O” the Times established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era — as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer. The set’s few lackluster cuts would shine electric anywhere else, and sides two and three never stop, piling on the crafty, eccentric, blatantly seductive pop erotica until you just can’t take no more. Between AIDS and Tipper Gore, it was a good year to stick sex in the world’s face, too, as George Michael wasn’t the only one to figure out. But I’m obliged to point out that Sign “O” the Times doesn’t right Prince’s chronic shortcomings as lyricist-icon-conceptmaster, shortcomings exemplified by the title cut, which squeaked into first in the singles category. As usual when he Makes a Statement, what it states is that he’s Making a Statement, and while I’ll take that from George Michael or even Michael Stipe these days, I expect better of a peerless musician who predicates his iconography on lyrics and concept. I prefer the runner-up, Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” not because it invokes the tragedy of child abuse with all the expressive means at Vega’s collegiate disposal, but because it condenses a two-hour TV movie into four minutes. And I’ll take “U Got the Look,” Prince’s erotomanic collaboration with Sugarwalls Easton, over either. Fuck significance, let’s dance.

As we’ll see, significance and its discontents loom large in this year’s poll, with several thoughtful voters chalking up Prince’s concept problem as a strength. Of course, if everyone agreed, the title tune wouldn’t have outpolled “U Got the Look” two-to-one. One reason the album gathered such broad support is that it gives off enough verbal-conceptual signals to appease the average critical conscience. For every J. D. Considine tagging it (plausibly if meanly) as “half-assed, self-indulgent,” there’s another who thinks it’s all about, well, the times — and another who hears the music signifying, and another who says let’s just dance (or boogie) (or fuck), and maybe half a Chuck Eddy concluding that Prince’s very confusion makes him a true son of rock and roll. All of which is worth precisely eight points by me. So if I gave Springsteen 13, why was I rooting for Prince? Because Tunnel of Love is so subtle, so austere, that a victory would have smelled of the sobersided insularity, racial myopia, and old-boy conservatism rock critics are accused of every once in a while. Historically, smart but obvious beat music has won this poll. I wanted Bruce second, and I got him.

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After that, to be honest, I didn’t much give a shit. My more recondite personal choices finished higher than I’d hoped: Sonny Rollins’s hottest record in a quarter-century at 60, New Order’s definitive 12-inch compilation at 56, Jimi Hendrix’s definitive live album tied at 45, and, in a startling surge, Sly and Robbie’s Laswellized art-funk statement at 25, with the official U.S. debut of Culture’s roots-reggae classic Two Sevens Clash tied for eighth among reissues. All of which made me feel righteous. But when R.E.M.’s Document and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee didn’t turn into the contenders my enthusiasm fooled me into expecting, I just figured these personal discoveries were blips.

Because 1987 was the year of the blip. In the collective mind and ear, no fewer than five of the top 10 albums were almost as unexciting as they were unexceptionable, with individual preferences among them adding up to nothing more than a bunch of individual preferences. I liked R.E.M. and Mellencamp, others liked Los Lobos and Hüsker Dü, big deal. The Replacements do drum up more passion, and rightly so — Paul Westerberg is the Prince of critics’ rock. But all these bands articulate well-turned variants on the song-oriented Amerindie guitar-band dialect that has dominated this poll all decade, and if their professionalism is a lot more meaningful, pleasurable, and unpecuniary than Whitesnake’s or (Jesus) David Bowie’s, professionalism is nonetheless what it is. They make a living at it — in some cases a damn good one. In 1987, Mellencamp led his multiplatinum following deeper into roots while R.E.M. sold a million and Los Lobos scored a number-one single (third with the critics) and soundtrack (two mentions). Can the Replacements be far behind? Not with Westerberg engrossed by the contradictions of maturity they can’t.

One result of this professionalism is a logjam that disorients critics addicted like no others to the shock of the new. Except for 1982, when there were six, exactly five newcomers had entered the Pazz & Jop top 10 every year since 1979. In 1987, that figure plummeted to two: old P&J hands XTC with the 1986 holdover Skylarking, and old P&J also-ran John Hiatt, now alcohol-free and on his fourth major label in a career dating back to 1974. Deprived of their dose of new-thing, the critics dispersed their support into an ever-widening field of mutually exclusive cult artists as their general enthusiasm waned. Both responses were reflected in point totals that dip below ’86 and ’85 levels right after Hiatt’s depressingly impressive finish and never recover. Not since 1979 has anybody snuck into our top 40 with under 100 points the way abstemious Tom Verlaine and alcohol-free Warren Zevon did — and need I mention that we’ve seen these deserving coots around here before?

In the end, however, criticism more than statistics was what convinced me that my mood of good-but-not-good-enough wasn’t a blip. Last time, determined to bring forth a more democratic forum, I published testimonials to the top 10 from the professional and semiprofessional writers who voted them in. But this year I came up almost dry once past U2, who also elicited all the contumely due a dubious frontrunner. Not a word on XTC beyond a complaint that “Dear God” spoiled Skylarking’s concept. A single compliment for Mellencamp’s music — leading into a surly assault on all the “people” (not even “critics”) who’ve “spread ’em” (male bias? us?) for his “populist bilge” (and this from a fan of A Very Special Christmas). “No scams, no star-struck looks, and no hook-oriented lyrics” was as not-bad as it got for Los Lobos; “His singing has never been more soulful and his lyrics have never been more witty and intelligent” was as much-worse as it got for John Hiatt. I name no names because it’s not my desire to put colleagues down, but if they couldn’t rise to the occasion of their own preferences, I felt no need to cut their faves any slack.

By now, faithful readers may be wondering whether something’s changed. After years of pooh-poohing the pessimism of the electorate, am I finally buying in? Well, yeah, in a way. If in 1986 I saw progress turning into a problematic concept for rock and roll, now I get the sense something’s ending. That doesn’t mean nothing’s beginning, though. Amid the usual aye-and-nay (and more nay) — pedestrian complaints about radio and A&R, pedestrian demurrals, criticism criticism, appreciations, gibes at this or that bête noire, dull desperation, crazed desperation — there were defiant glimmers of pleasure and elation, often from respondents who don’t strike me as dopes or pollyannas, or even especially happy people.

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As usual — strangely enough, it’s how I make my living — I have the beginnings of a theory about all this. Keepers of the flame may well regard this theory as treasonous; those who’ve gotten burned, meanwhile, will wonder what took me so long. I suppose the catalyst was the rockcrit (not rock and roll) event of the year, Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which sent admirers and epigones ruminating off in a hundred directions, as you can see from the comments that begin that long section entitled “Rock and Roll as Literature, Literature as Rock and Roll.” As far as I’m concerned (he ruminated), Lester’s relentless attack on significance, right reason, rock-is-art, the whole baggage of validation and domestication that’s an all but inevitable consequence of criticism no matter how wild and wooly it sets out to be, was always salutory and never the whole enchilada, not even in his own mind. Still, I was struck by what Bart Becker had to say about Lester’s elevation to “literature” on his own dust jacket. The term is sharp marketing, useful propaganda, and an all but inevitable consequence of writing as well as Lester wanted to and did, but I have to admit that it lays a dead hand on a tremendously vital life-enterprise. And I’m not so sure the same concept isn’t vitiating rock and roll itself.

The canard that rock critics only care about the words has a history so long that there was once a smidgen of truth to it — around the dawning of James Taylor, when Lester was coming up. But the most genteel songpoetry shill always knew he or she was in it for the song, not poetry, though the terminology to evoke or analyze the song may have been lacking. Anyway, that was long ago. These days critics no less than songwriters are acutely aware of music and especially musicians. Most exemplary are the de facto singer-songwriters — Westerberg, Mellencamp, Holsapple, Merchant, imminent apostate Morrissey — who actively embrace the expressive discipline (and limitations) of a band. If anything, critics are even stricter about this than bandleaders, who do have ego conflicts and little dollar signs in front of their eyes to distract them from the path of righteousness. And the bands critics like best generate their own unmistakable sounds: except for studio-bound quick-change artists XTC and Pet Shop Boys and the R.E.M.-influenced 10,000 Maniacs (plus perhaps the proudly folklorico Los Lobos), there isn’t one in the top 40 who couldn’t be ID’d without vocals inside of eight bars.

Yet nobody would be interested in these bands without vocals — not just because the vocalists are essential and usually dominate musically, but because the lyrics the vocalists articulate (or slur) are what make the music mean. They specify it, sharpen its bite. And at whatever level of change-your-life, cognitive dissonance, sound example, comforting half-truth, or craven banality, meaning — or anyway, the show of meaning — is something audiences expect from music. So from the pop factories to the garages, from Debbie Gibson to Big Black, we’re inundated with well-made songs — well-made not because they revitalize the European concert tradition with harmonic aperçus, as polite little well-made songs are supposed to, but because they yoke sense and/or nonsense to sound and/or noise. This sense/nonsense is literary in a fairly narrow way — with due consideration for the peculiarities of the genre, which often include gauche blank patches and a rather unliterary colloquial logic, but no more than in drama or epic. Most critics have little trouble, really, finding songs if not albums that meet their literary standards. But one reason good is no longer good enough is that songwriters are having trouble eluding the dead hand that pushed more than one critic into rock and roll to begin with: the relative rapidity with which words lose their power to surprise, especially when they’re competing with countless other words of similar form and quality if not import. In a crisis of overproduction, another peculiarity of the genre eludes us: stuff that gets us off, as rude little rock and roll songs are supposed to.

I don’t trust theories of formal exhaustion. They’re too tautological; they don’t explain enough. The right artist in the right place at the right time can make them look ridiculous — Rosanne Cash’s Nashville branch of the El Lay School of Rock is so well-endowed it’s a wonder John Hiatt dropped out. And there are obviously personal exceptions beyond number. Nobody’s gonna tell me that R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” isn’t a sign of the times, or that Mellencamp’s “The Real Life” is any kind of bilge, and there’s evidence that my failure to fully connect with Pleased To Meet Me shouldn’t be blamed on Bob Stinson’s gone guitar or Paul Westerberg’s broken contract with the devil — that it’s a dysfunction related to my advanced years. There are loads of blips out there without a doubt, and I’m ready to believe that blips are what make life worth living. It’s even possible the year itself was a blip. Years do differ, after all — only 15 of the 1986 top 40 even released albums in 1987, which is about normal, and among the missing were song-oriented neofolkies Bragg and Burnett and Pogues and Timbuk 3, two of whom have already posted contenders for the 1988 list. Or maybe as they break pop the great critics’ groups will go into cultural overdrive. But I suspect not. Speaking generally, collectively, historically, an aesthetic seems to have lost its charge. Words aren’t making rock and roll mean the way they have ever since I took this job.

As I said, some dare call this treason. There are critics out there who’ll die believing Robbie Robertson is cutting-edge because he gave his imprimatur to Bono Vox; if I’m not mistaken, some of them are dead already. But as I also said, others dare call it too fucking late, and them I take seriously. One way or another, consciously or instinctively, many of the most demanding younger critics have been pushing ill-made antisong for years. They look to immerse in sound that destroys or supercedes the sense/nonsense continuum: posthardcore, industrial noise, skronk, grunge, shit-rock, records that deteriorate before your very ears. Most of it sounds dead end, is dead end, but a new dead end is at least a change, and out of the wreckage of feuding cults and stupid experiments has emerged the one Amerindie band to show significant upward musical and electoral movement in recent years: Sonic Youth, who finished 12th and deserved better with a noisy album whose songs never call attention to how they’re made and connect more powerfully for it.

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Still, the wreckage is there. Beyond this year’s top 10 (plus dB’s and Blasters and 42nd-place X hanging on and Del-Lords ready to emerge from limbo), our recent LP and EP lists have touted too many imminent obscurities. The roll call begins with tragedy and fast degenerates into small-time professionalism, earned anonymity, and pathetic self-indulgence: Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Fleshtones, Lyres, Rank and File, Bongos, Love Tractor, Let’s Active, Salem 66, Violent Femmes, Neats, Lifeboat, Flipper, Butthole Surfers, Dream Syndicate, Del Fuegos. Of the 17 Amerindie bands to place 41–100 last year, seven made new albums, one of which placed 41–100 this year. (That would be Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, tied for 77th with supergriot Salif Keita’s Soro, which is my idea of poetic justice. FYI, the Leaving Trains’ Fuck got shut out.) If any of the six American ill-mades to place 41–100 this year — Red Kross, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose, Big Black, Chain Gang, Negativland — ever finish as high again, I’ll be astonished. And also, probably, pleased. It’s not as if I don’t hope the Amerindies shock me into recognition again — I want to mention that the best songs of the 70th-place Silos beat Mellencamp’s by me, albeit without Kenny Aronoff to kick them home, and wonder what Negativland think of the Pet Shop Boys. Even among enthusiasts, though, enthusiasm is flagging palpably.

With this in mind, I decided we should finally 86 the EP tally, instituted in 1981 as an Amerindie showcase, though from the start it proved a refuge for major-label odd lots as well. In the early years, the list did serve a predictive function, but not lately. Simmons readily assented to the change, and after some consideration we decided EPs would compete with albums (where Feedtime’s Shovel — which some claim is an EP, although I’ve never laid eyes on the thing — finished 63rd and Pussy Galore’s Pussy Gold 5000 118th, nine points ahead of the overpraised Right Now!). We weren’t surprised when Amerindie partisans howled; what surprised us is that they changed our minds. The EP ballot will return next year by semisemipopular demand, replacing videos, where only a third of the voters exercised their franchise this year, with the Chief Poobah among the missing. Maybe the victory will give the partisans a taste for the rewards of consensus, but I doubt it, because what was most striking about the ad hoc EP lists scattershot our way was their dearth of agreement — or duplication, I guess you could say. Having grown up in a time when elections had their popcult charm, I value consensus — even (or especially) oddball consensus. The partisans value self-expression, self-interest, self-anything, in bands and criticism both. At this juncture the American “underground” isn’t just factionalized — it’s atomized, a minority of minorities of one.

Other minorities proved more coherent — and also, as should surprise no one, more suggestive. We paid special attention this year to demographics — not regional, where the usual distribution prevailed (29 states plus D.C. and Ontario, with 84 metro-NY voters; qualified boondockers please apply), but racial, sexual, and generational. After appending a brief plea for black and female participation to our first mailing, where we also asked critics how old they were, we followed up by sending an affirmative-action statement and second ballot-and-SASE to black invitees. None of which worked. Black participation rose from an embarrassing 13 to an embarrassing 16, about half of them Voicers; female participation fell from 30 to 29; and well under 100 voters revealed their ages. But we had to do what we had to do, not just because we’re always looking for new ways to wear our hearts on our sleeves, but because as devotees of what’s supposedly a novelty-obsessed youth music we combat stasis by any means necessary. After all, in a year when the top 10 was almost uniformly white, uniformly male, and depressing by nonacclamation, maybe those perennially short-changed in the Pazz & Jop (and rock and roll) consensus might offer useful input. Bob the Nonethnic Mack may think the secret is revitalizing ’70s art-rock — guitar solos welcome, neatness counts. But after you agree that the Edge’s Zeppisms do more for The Joshua Tree than Bono’s bluesisms, read Gina Arnold on Eric Clapton in the section headed “Demography in Action.” For her — and, unless she’s deceiving herself, most young women — guitar solos are the enemy. Like it or not, minority musical needs and proclivities really do differ from those of rock criticism’s white boys, a jocular heh-heh term from our invitation that was thrown jocularly heh-heh back in our teeth by a number of respondents — “I’m a white boy,” “28-year-old white-boy rock critic,” “35 years old, white, male (of course!)”

Pursuing this line of thought, I ignored the unreliability of our tiny samples and totted up women- and blacks-only top 15s. Not surprisingly in a music that has yet to generate an unseparate-but-equal female tradition, the women’s list begins not unlike the big one, but with fewer points (read: less enthusiasm) for the identical top four than 29 randomly selected voters would have assigned. Other high-finishing albums did poorly (Hüsker Dü, Coleman, and Sonic Youth featuring Kim Gordon got four mentions total), while women put Kate-Bush-with-teeth Sinéad O’Connor into the top 40 and 10,000 Maniacs featuring Natalie Merchant into the top 30. Presumably, women play this boys’ game for the same conflicted reasons they play so many others — partly because their options are limited, partly because they share the boys’ values (freely or otherwise), and partly because the game has its intrinsic attractions. Taken as a group, they decline several of its usages, notably romantic-individualist virtuosity from Coleman to Clapton (though mad poet O’Connor half-fits the mold) and the objectification of gurls/wimmin to which all boys are prone and some more prone than others. When they choose role models (or sex objects), they prefer the emotion and atmosphere of O’Connor and Merchant (or U2 and, it pains me to report, Robbie Robertson) to Kim Gordon’s defiant porn-queen fantasies (or John Hiatt’s mitigated sexism).

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Partly because they can’t change it much, the few women critics are grudgingly accepted into rock’s journalistic consensus. Black critics, who are in a position to really wreck the thing, are stuck someplace else altogether. Now more than ever, they decisively prefer their own half-separate tradition, which some people claim is the source of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols. Collectively, our 16 black critics voted for black artists, with the Replacements edging onto their list at 15; about half of them voted for no white albums, compared to the fifth of white critics who voted for no black albums and the seventh who voted only for Prince. Of course, black critics aren’t exactly encouraged to cross over. Excluding the close to a dozen blacks who now write about rock and roll at least occasionally for the Voice, I know of precisely seven nationwide with ready access to the general interest press. (Let me name them: Cary Darling, Pablo Guzman, Marty Hughley, Dennis Hunt, Belma Johnson, Connie Johnson, Ron Wynn. I must be missing some — mustn’t I? — and would love to know who they are.) The rest are confined to black-targeted consumer publications, dance and radio tipsheets, and trade journals. Opportunities to discuss Hüsker Dü in such venues are limited, and so are opportunities for real criticism — only rarely can they write negatively except by omission, and only rarely can they delve much deeper than simple function analysis. Especially given the slavishness of much white music writing, from dailies puffing the stars to you-send-it we’ll-like-it fanzines and leisure weeklies, this doesn’t bother me much. But though we solicit ballots from many such writers, few respond. Which is doubly unfortunate in a year when significance-free function analysis isn’t far removed from what some of our most disaffected respondents think we need.

At least temporarily, you see, function analysis might serve as an alternative to quasiliterary criticism. “Radio is a good, weird machine,” Greil Marcus insisted last year, and this year the theme was reflected in the singles lists of many critics who’ve never met — for instance, Frank Kogan, Rob Tannenbaum, Chuck Eddy, and Ted Cox. All were Amerindie partisans five years ago, and to an extent they still are, with Cox and Tannenbaum in the Lobos-to-Hüskers tributary and Eddy and Kogan down with noise bands like White Zombie and Pussy Galore. But for singles they listen to the radio and get off on getting manipulated. Cox and Tannenbaum go for pop-to-schlock, Fleetwood Mac or Eddie Money, while Eddy and Kogan list a lot of street-rap. But all fell for diva/girl dance records that five years ago they almost certainly would have dismissed as, dare I say it, disco: Whitney Houston, Deborah Allen, Company B, Exposé.

None of this is reflected on a singles list that doesn’t call for much rumination. Note the anti-backlash for Michael Jackson at his most professional (Bad was 49th), the big finish of M/A/R/R/S’s state-of-the-microchip multiple-climax dance smash, the second-generation soul of LeVert, and the outpouring of sentiment for American beauties from two supposedly opposed generations, X and the Dead. Also note the sole nonhit, Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” which was merely the greatest piece of rock and roll released in 1987. Then note that in general the chart is dominated even more than usual by the second-half releases from top 40 albums that are a chronic distortion of our consensus.

But if Eddie Money and Spoonie Gee are blips, they’re blips that add up to something. Cox and Tannenbaum move from meaningful, sonically distinct Amerindie songcraft to pragmatic, factory-tooled songcraft to physically manipulative (but liberating) dance-pop; Eddy and Kogan move from desperate, sonically enraged Amerindie noise to streetwise, beatwise noise to physically liberating (if manipulative) dance-pop. All respond to rhythm as meaning — or at least as a component of rock and roll’s musical vocabulary that the various unmistakable Amerindie sounds fail to account for. And all confront rock and roll’s significance-deadening crisis of overproduction by moving beyond mere critical consensus to the pop consensus at its most democratic, anonymous, and perhaps even arbitrary. Being critics, they may well get into the lyrics of their favorite disco songs as well, although not as spontaneously as Brian Chin gets into “You Used To Hold Me.” But it’s fair to say that the elation they feel is the elation of escape — not just from their troubles, as Cox believes, but from a critical dead end.

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As someone who’s always believed the stupid pleasures of mass culture deserve more respect than they get from intellectuals of any political stripe, I’m very sympathetic to this tendency. I suspect it’s prophetic, too, which doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever be fully reflected in the Pazz & Jop consensus. But it does partake of a certain voluptuous beat-me beat-me passivity that I find suspicious as the reign of Reagan drags to its enervating close. And insofar as it represents a programmatic rejection of the quasi-literary song aesthetic (as it does for Eddy), I’m not ready to go along. Just in case it seems I’ve been saying there are no more good songs any more, let me emphasize: I’ve been saying there are more than we know what to do with. Maybe, just maybe, we can solve this cognitive problem, and we definitely shouldn’t give up on it yet. I mean, every day I hear songs that not only mean something but get me off. That effect rarely endures the way it’s supposed to, sometimes because the song (words and/or music) wears out, sometimes because it’s rendered moot by the competence and worse of the LP where it appears. The thing is, why should it endure? As a peculiarity of a novelty-obsessed youth genre, the belief that rock and roll should get you off forever — that is, change your life on an approximately semiannual basis — has essential uses and attractions. But it’s also a romantic delusion. As Randy Newman put it: “Everybody dies.”

And so we find ourselves up against the third demographic. Since generational splits within rock criticism deepen every year, let’s get one thing straight. The idea that rock and roll is the eternal province of teenagers flies in the face of so much evidence by now that it’s too kind to call it a delusion — try distortion, or lie. Not only isn’t the music created primarily by teenagers, it isn’t consumed primarily by teenagers, and to claim the contrary is ’50s nostalgia as rank as the new Sun Rhythm Section album. Originally, rock and roll was indeed keyed to high-school spending cash, and teenagers have exerted innovative pressure on it ever since — without them we would never have had hip hop, hardcore, English punk, P-Funk, etc., Motown, or Beatlemania (to say nothing of MTV, heavy metal, English art-rock, and the Partridge Family). But in their total concentration on teenagers, the ’50s were an anomaly. Throughout its history, popular music has been the domain not of teenagers but of young adults whose mean age fell somewhere in the midtwenties, just as it does now — of people who lost touch with the soundtrack of their courtship years gradually if at all once they turned into grownups. In the rock and roll era, young adults have nurtured soul, disco, guitar-strummers good and bad, the best jazz-rock, the entire country-music tradition, CBGB punk/new wave, reggae, etc., black pop, and Randy Newman. I say we need them as much as we need the kids.

Of course, I don’t speak as a young adult. Call me the dean heh-heh, a 45-year-old whose fondness for his work bewilders benighted baby boomers. Except to observe that lengthy interactions with a Sesame Street fan do cut into one’s listening time, a precious resource in a crisis of overproduction, I admit to no diminution of interest or hardening of the sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean my agenda is independent of my age. And it doesn’t mean every veteran in this white boys’ game shares my enthusiasm. There’s a logjam in rock criticism not unlike that in the music itself — a logjam comprising a few lucky souls whose writing lives on, numerous pros who do an honest night’s work, plenty of hacks who should hang it up, and too many subcompetents who should never have taken it off the rack. The resentments that build are often dumb: knowledge does count for more now than it did back when there wasn’t much to be had, and between the pay and the mythos there’s plenty of turnover, so that young talents find their niches pretty fast. But the young semitalents who chafe most bitterly have a point: their half-assed ideas might well prove more provocative and productive than the solidly grounded opinions of the hacks and professionals in front of them.

Thus, two more minipolls: of critics 36-and-over and 29-and-under. The panels comprised 36 graybeards including five women (grayhairs?) and one black, 43 whippersnappers including five women and five blacks; ages provided were augmented by my personal knowledge (no guesses) to enlarge the samples. Alert for conservatism and hegemony on the one hand and rebellion and next-big-thing on the other, I got hearteningly ambiguous results. Seven of 1987’s top 10 albums finished in the graybeard top 15, which dropped those ill-behaved Replacements to 11th and made a top four out of the rest of the Pazz & Jop top five, but with much stronger than random support for under-30s Prince and U2 and only average points for near-contemporaries Springsteen and Hiatt. And they reserved their greatest enthusiasm not for steadfast Van Morrison or gaseous Robbie Robertson but for Ornette Coleman and especially Marianne Faithfull, two over-40s who stretched rock and roll in 1987 by ignoring everything about it but its attitude — by raging against the dying of the light. The whippersnappers, meanwhile, put the entire Pazz & Jop top 10 in their top 15, but with marked enthusiasm only for XTC and Hüsker Dü and marked unenthusiasm for Springsteen, Los Lobos, Mellencamp, and R.E.M. With several notable exceptions (including Sonic Youth, who also did fine among the graybeards, and the Smiths, whose two entries got nary a mention), it’s almost as if they couldn’t come up with anything better — not collectively. They couldn’t agree. Call it fragmentation, or option overload, or the shape of things to come. Maybe call it all three.

As their sneak preview the whippersnappers selected Dinosaur Jr., whose achievement outstripped their potential by me, something the whippersnappers can obviously relate to. Fan Frank Kogan would say Dinosaur Jr. acknowledge how fucked they are, and they’re certainly better at it than most, but seekers after future hep will be safer with 10,000 Maniacs or Sinéad O’Connor, or with any of the four count-’em four Pazz & Jop debuts more genuine than Hiatt’s in the graybeards’ top 15. Most curious are Brit teendreams George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, which latter received a full two-thirds of their support from our 36-and-overs and only two mentions from 29-and-unders. Pass this off as our weakness for pop muzik if you like; I say for us graybeards all youth music partakes of sociology and the field report. By now our eternal attraction to the theme is so disinterested that Paul Westerberg’s passionately fucked edge-pop and Neil Tennant’s disaffected consumerism seem equally true, equally representative, while young crits are so imbued with the guitar-crazed Amerindie ethos that they regard Tennant as the enemy. May the best boy win, I say — assuming they don’t find some way to agree.

The graybeards also went for more black music than the voters at large — not just Ornette, but crossover pheenom Alexander O’Neal and great hope Terence Trent D’Arby. Hearsay’s auteurs are pop-disco princes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but O’Neal has a good voice and a good head on his shoulders, undercutting emotionalism with a constricted timbre I associate with the marketable funk of Slave and Con Funk Shun. He certainly updates soul more smartly than veteran up-and-comer Hiatt, who equates deep feeling with overstatement like so many alcohol-prone white people before him, a fallacy that also puts me on Bob Mack’s side of the Edge-Bono question and induced me to pass over the powerful instrument and utterly tortured spirit of 1987 reissue champ James Carr. D’Arby isn’t immune to this fallacy, but in his virtuosic neotraditionalism he gets away with it, and if his lyrics recall Dinosaur Jr.’s achievement-potential gap, he’ll stick around on ego alone. Our 36 graybeards gave the young man nearly half his support. The whippersnappers vouchsafed him one mention.

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Not that the whippersnappers ignored black music — only old stuff. They championed rap, the most defiantly youth-targeted black music ever, almost as militantly as black voters — the teen-metal crossover of L.L. Cool J. more than the JB redux of Eric B. & Rakim, the year’s hands-down superthreat debut more than Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show did receive 55 of its 29-and-under points from black voters (Cool J got five), but if these middle-class midtwenties from the margins of NYC don’t qualify as sonic youths of the year, I’m giving up graph paper. After I got on Chuck D.’s hit list by assailing the album’s achievement-potential gap (have to introduce him to Lou Reed — and Sonic Youth), the December single “Bring the Noise” convinced me inside of 30 seconds that his claque wasn’t whistling dixie. This is postminimal rap refracted through Blood Ulmer and On the Corner, as gripping as it is abrasive, and the black militant dialogue-as-diatribe that goes with it is almost as scary as “Stones in My Passway” or “Holiday in the Sun.” I’m ashamed to reveal that I’m the only graybeard who voted for it. And as an amateur statistician, I must insist that the failure of a single 36-and-over to mention Yo! Bum Rush the Show was more than a blip. Old folks really don’t like loud noises much — or black militance either.

This is the first year in Pazz & Jop history when black debut albums outnumbered white, and even if you don’t expect much of Eric B.’s formalism you can’t deny that Public Enemy’s message-rap and D’Arby’s black-is-beautiful soul-revisited are ideas whose time has been too long coming — now that their commercial viability is manifest, there’ll be plenty of variations. But before you get set for one of my black-to-the-future sermons, expand your horizons. No matter how far these two ideas go, they’ll do so in the well-made songs I just claimed were wearing out, though rap does fuck with the aesthetic as effectively as any more self-conscious attack on the sense/nonsense continuum. They’ll be part of the future, depend on it; so will Brits and Amerindies. But my personal projection is more in line with the postsubcultural antijingoism espoused by graybeards Ron Wynn, Michael Freedberg, and John F. Szwed, and not just because I happen to be a reggae loyalist and Africana fan. The way I see it, internationalism has gathered an aura of historical inevitability — if the pop music I insist on calling rock and roll does progress, where else can I go?

As Szwed indicates, this is an old man’s kind of wisdom, dripping with the accrued tolerance of the years, and the flood of utter bullshit it presages is horrifying to contemplate — Europop, world-beat, white reggae, Zaireans cleaning up their acts in Paris, the romanticization of the primitive, the denial that there’s any such thing as the primitive, Indian movie music, Japanese metal, Kitaro, Little Steven, arrghhh. Rather than a quest for international understanding, think of it as a lover’s leap off the tower of babble — or as the nonpassive, postmasscultural alternative to getting off on random disco songs (though they also figure in the future, of course). In a crisis of overproduction, the solution isn’t necessarily to await a hero or movement that renders all else irrelevant. Just as likely, the solution is to go all the way with it. Overwhelmed by significance we can’t quite make sense of, we could do worse than take meaninglessness by the horns.

With U.K. Earthworks and Globestyle distributed Stateside as of 1988 by Virgin and Shanachie, the raw material will obviously get spread around, but as a critical-perceptual project this one could take decades to bear its own fruit — that is, genuinely international rock and roll. Which as far as I’m concerned is a guarantee that things will stay interesting. I’m talking more music than anybody can handle physically much less conceptually — so much more that no amount of preweeding can make the task manageable. I’m talking songs whose workmanship can’t fully register until you figure out what the words are, and good luck. I’m talking function analysis of living cultural artifacts that exist only on plastic for 95 per cent of the would-be analysts. I’m talking more shock of the new than any human being can possibly absorb, more room for disagreement than any consensus can possibly quantify. I’m talking the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

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Top 10 Albums of 1987

1. Prince: Sign “O” the Times (Paisley Park)

2. Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (Columbia)

3. The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me (Sire)

4. U2: The Joshua Tree (Island)

5. John Hiatt: Bring the Family (A&M)

6. Los Lobos: By the Light of the Moon (Slash)

7. John Cougar Mellencamp: The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury)

8. R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S.)

9. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen)

10. Hüsker Dü: Warehouse: Songs & Stories (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1987

1. Prince: “Sign ‘O’ the Times” (Paisley Park)

2. Suzanne Vega: “Luka” (A&M)

3. Los Lobos: “La Bamba” (Slash)

4. Prince: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”/”Hot Thing” (Paisley Park)

5. M/A/R/R/S: “Pump Up the Volume” (4th & B’way)

6. (Tie) Grateful Dead: “Touch of Grey” (Arista)
Bruce Springsteen: “Brilliant Disguise”/”Lucky Man” (Columbia)
R.E.M.: “The One I Love” (I.R.S.)

9. Prince: “U Got the Look”/”Housequake” (Paisley Park)

10. (Tie) Bruce Springsteen: “Tunnel of Love” (Columbia)
X: “Fourth of July”/”Positively Fourth Street” (Elektra)

—From the March 1, 1988, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1983 Pazz & Jop: Who Else? A Goddamn Critics’ Band, That’s Who Else

Only rock critics will understand how such a thing could be, but for a while there it looked as if R.E.M.’s Murmur — known jocularly among skeptics as Mumble — might actually outdistance Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. This dire possibility reflected the ambivalence with which the most happening year in American pop since whenever filled those who make their livings (or at least cover their expenses) writing about rock and roll. Quintuple platinum or no quintuple platinum, rock critics found 1983 an overwhelming year in all the wrong ways. To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: “There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean).”

I know exactly what he means. Since the passion for music-that-matters defines rock criticism, every year voters worry that it’s becoming extinct. And since “matter” is as subjective a concept as “boring,” for some of them it does become extinct, whereupon they either start faking it or find a more remunerative vocation and play their old records a lot. But never before has the nay-saying reached such a pitch, and never before have I been so disinclined to explain it away. For years I’ve cited the continuing abundance of excellent albums, which many nay-sayers now readily acknowledge, as a healthy alternative to any perceived dearth of — how shall we say it? — intense significance. But while the flow in no way abated in 1983, I noticed an unwelcome new pattern in my listening — it was rare that I played any album for pleasure once I’d reviewed it, and even rarer that such pleasure went deeper than the aural surface. In fact, if I’d followed Lester Bangs’s dictum and arranged my list in strict order of turntable time, my top 10 would have comprised tuneful groove albums from Gilberto Gil to Neil Young. More specific modes of signification just didn’t sing to me.

I still believe that if more voters had more access to more music they might feel better about things. No doubt narrow-minded trend-hopping pseudointellectual sloth — epidemic among rock critics, as any empty-headed out-of-it antiintellectual good-for-nothing could tell you — contributes to this problem. But have a heart — so do time and money. Most critics are now semiprofessionals who buy or if they’re lucky trade for many of the records they hear, while those who remain on the mailing lists often work in offices where any noise louder than the muffled clickety of word processors is frowned upon. I was struck by the experience of Utility Poobah Steve Anderson, who got to know two of his top 10, Womack & Womack’s Love Wars and the Local Boys’ Moments of Madness, only because I slipped him my extra copies. How was he to figure out on his own that he’d take to those and not to the Blasters’ Non Fiction or Hilary’s Kinetic, which I also gave him? Worse still, how is he to guess which of a confusing, ill-reviewed bin of reggae or hardcore or funk or Brit-hit records to take a flier on? Full appreciation of democracy’s pluralistic bounty requires a pluralistic affluence which most rock critics are too marginal to enjoy.

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And marginality gives rise to ambivalence like nobody’s business — cultural marginality even more than economic marginality. Early rock journalism was a subsistence living at best, but at least in the ’60s it was on the inside of a collective experience which combined pop reach and profitability with defiance of the so-called mainstream. The broad thrust of rock criticism ever since has been to sustain that paradoxical synthesis as popular rock and roll became the mainstream — hence what I like to call semi-popular music. But it’s been so long since pop reach and profitability seemed a natural part of rock and roll that for many younger critics (and musicians) the whole idea of, to choose a telling instance, vital top 40 radio seems like an insupportable contradiction. And these days it probably is. Yet ponder this mixed message. Not surprisingly in the absence of albums-that-matter, Pazz & Jop’s oft-heard singles-are-better-than-albums plaint swelled this year into a deafening unison chorus. And not very surprisingly, given the shape of the year, the singles list was dominated by biracial top 40 smashes rather than the customary indies and imports and new wave airplay hits and black dance records. What does seem strange is that for the first time more than half of the top 25 also appeared on the top 40 albums — the ones that don’t matter. In other words, the classic pop process in which music is tested by massive exposure and validated by public pleasure didn’t end up making our voters feel good. It didn’t instill in them that sense of pop community which rock criticism was invented to analyze and celebrate.

I accept in part the common sense explanation for this statistical oddity — that with singles where the action is, the best we can expect is half-assed albums with great singles on them. Indeed, lots of nay-sayers apply this analysis to Thriller itself. Of course, like incorrigible art-rocker Michael Bloom (“If I never hear ‘Beat It’ again it’ll be too soon”), some voters aren’t fans at all; about a quarter of the 207 P&J respondents weren’t sufficiently impressed with the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles to list him in albums, singles, or videos, all of which he topped. And while a 75 per cent response is phenomenal anyway — only “The Message” has ever equaled it — one doesn’t expect that the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis would have encountered even that much resistance at the time of, say, Rubber Soul. By now the natural orneriness of rock and rollers has been all but institutionalized in predictable patterns of reaction and polarization — Boston Rocker readers recently ranked Michael just below Quiet Riot and Duran Duran on their go-away list. I think Jackson’s achievement holds up so well critically that I wonder whether some of the scrupulously well-reasoned debunking to which he’s being subjected doesn’t have a lot of kneejerk in it — if it doesn’t signal a willful refusal of any pop community at all.

Not that I’d claim Thriller as the best LP of 1983 myself — it’s uneven enough that I suspect its biggest supporters of trying to bolster their dreams of pop community by ballot-stuffing. In fact, I ranked it 30 in 1982, and then exercised my option of upping it to 6 as a “late-breaking” 1983 album. (Thriller might have won even bigger if our rule — which allows any record receiving at least half its previous year’s total to carry that total over, with the earlier points subtracted when the same critic lists a record two years running — had been clearer.) For me and the voters, something similar happened in 1980 after MJ broke five singles off 1979’s Off the Wall, though back-to-back comparison with Thriller quickly destroyed my attraction to the fashionable minority theory that Off the Wall is the superior album. I do truly hope Michael isn’t planning to wed Brooke Shields on MTV in an all-out chart push for “The Lady in My Life.” But for me every Thriller hit except “P.Y.T.” has thrived on massive exposure and public pleasure, including “The Girl Is Mine” (which I’ll take over “Michelle,” Rubber Soul fans) and “Thriller” itself. In fact, “Thriller” is the rare song that’s improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of showbiz power for Michael (and his fans) and the not-quite-a-joke scariness of “the funk of 40,000 years” for (Michael and) his (white) fans.

One sign of how lukewarm Pazz & Joppers felt about albums this year is how few points they alotted the ones they liked — a mean of 10.6 (and a median of 10.0) in the top 15, as compared to 11.3 in 1982 (when the scarcity of albums-that-matter also occasioned much gnashing of teeth) and 10.9 in the two previous years. But Jackson averaged 13.1, and R.E.M. was right behind at 12.8, a remarkable index of collective enthusiasm in albums with so many mentions. For some critics, in other words, Murmur was a semipop event the way Thriller was a pop event. And significantly, only 29 named both albums.

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While willing to grant that my failure to make a deep connection with R.E.M. may be generational (see Managing Poobah Tom Carson’s explication de texte), I’m with the Jacksonites — choosing Murmur as a Pick Hit over the Blasters’ amazingly durable Non Fiction was my personal miscall of the year, and as I relisten dutifully all that happens is that Murmur slips further down my list. A “consistent and enjoyable” record, sure, steeped in pop usages ripe for rehab from its hooks to its guitars, from Mitch Easter’s deceptively offhand textures to Michael Stipe’s deceptively inarticulate soul. But what it has to say (assuming Carson’s not explicating through his hat) defines it irrevocably as a critics’ record, not just in the know-nothing way that term is used to dismiss disquieting innovations, but in its central preoccupations. That is, Murmur’s subject is the dilemma of cultural displacement to which the broad thrust of rock criticism addresses itself, and while I take this dilemma seriously, I go back far enough to crave pop outreach nevertheless — even when the central preoccupation of the music involved is the glamour and danger of the star system, which is in a sense the dilemma’s obverse and in a sense its cause.

Which brings us, yes it does, to video. I didn’t spend much time pondering my decision to substitute a video poll for last year’s rather inconclusive compilations competition; I just wanted to give traditionalists and retro-rockers a full franchise by opening the album vote to reissues. (The 16th-place, 19.8-points-per-mention finish of Jerry Lee Lewis’s import-only 12-disc Sun Sessions box, virtually unavailable as a promo, was some show of strength; The Jackie Wilson Story came in 68th, The Best of Slim Harpo 74th, and Big Maybelle’s Okeh Sessions 95th.) But the voters gave the video option a lot of thought, as their quoted outpourings only begin to suggest, and a full one-third declined to participate for reasons ranging from regretful ignorance to indignant avowals of the ineluctable modality of the audible. This negative fervor seems fishy to me; beyond all the sociopolitical analyses and perception theories, many of which I go along with, I smell turf war. I’ve already stated my own objections to videos in general and MTV in particular, but I like some and even learn from a few. Anyway, if displaced adpeople are going to use rock and roll to power their shitty little movies, I want to provide the most demanding rock and rollers with a chance to give them what for.

The voters did just that, selecting not songs but audiovisual artifacts — the top five were also top-25 singles, but in radically scrambled order, while only one of the remaining selections even finished among the top 40. What’s more, MTV’s effect on the rest of the poll was negligible — the only artists the critics might have underplayed without it are the Eurythmics (oh well), Eddy Grant (lose some, win some), and (mustn’t forget him) Michael Jackson. Basically, that’s a plus — I go through all this because I believe that people who convert their musical perceptions into written discourse have a special role in keeping the music honest. But there’s also a sense in which it’s a minus — just one more example of how unremarkable the results were. I mean, Men at Work’s Cargo surely deserved a mention or two.

In the end, I don’t blame the poll’s conservative drift on the voters so much as on the year. With three of eight albums repeating from 1982, it was the worst year for black artists since 1978, which given the singles list should signal Stevie Wonder to get hopping and George Clinton to move his release schedule up to October or so. It was also a terrible year for women, with Exene Cervenka, Annie Lennox, and the recrudescent Linda Ronstadt (come back, Ol’ Blue Eyes, all is forgiven) the only finishers, though Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, and Yoko Ono are already righting that for 1984. Blacks and women would have done better if the list had gone down to 50 thusly: UB40’s 1980-83, Divinyls, Moses, Culture Club’s Kissing, Jett, Midnight Oil, Ramones, ZZ Top, Green, Plimsouls. Offsetting the strongest finish in almost a decade by Mr. Bob Dylan, who admittedly made his strongest album in almost a decade but still hasn’t made me like it, was the heartening shortfall of expedient work by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and overpraised work by the Police.

Of somewhat more concern is the relative paucity of rookies — not first-time old-timers like Tom Waits and Paul Simon, but fresh blood. I count maybe seven up-and-comers, the fewest in many years, with Aztec Camera, Culture Club, and the Replacements the only ones that inspire much hope in me; this is what happens when young avant-gardists hang in there, I suppose, but it portends hardening of the arteries nevertheless. Even more distressing is what happened to independent labels. Except for Twin/Tone — home of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s irrepressible Replacements, the biggest and most gratifying surprise of the poll — and Richard Thompson’s Hannibal operation, only the reissue specialists at Charly/Sun and the gloom merchants at Factory/Factus fully qualify. The continuing semi-independence of Mango (where the marginal finish of 1982’s fourth-ranked Sunny Adé, whose Ajoo also finished 90th, makes the juju king look more like a critical novelty than is flattering to him or the critics) and Slash (where the Violent Femmes, though maybe not the Blasters, would have done just as well without Warners) is better than nothing, I guess, but I’m worried about what the latest pop explosion could mean for the visibility of the alternative capitalists who provided me with more than two dozen of my favorite 1983 albums. Trickle-down theory has never held much appeal for me.

Independent labels from the Brill Building manqué of New York dance music did gain one on the singles list, weathering the contemporary-hits blitz just as the Lyres’ good little Ace of Hearts garage-band simulacrum did. And aided by a time rule designed to favor rookies and indies (which disqualified well-supported “mini-LPs” by the Style Council, Roxy Music, and U2), both categories made big noise on the EP list, with Los Lobos and Let’s Active the T-Bones and R.E.M.s of the year and the powerful outreach of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (whose record has been picked up and improved by EMI America) a promise of Flying Burritos to come. Since the EP is speed-rock’s natural medium, I’m also pleased that this year two hardcore-identified items finished in the symbolic money.

I could go on, believe me, but I’d only be objectifying my own feelings, which more than usual are in no special harmony with those of the electorate. This is only appropriate. My pet metaphor for P&J ’83 takes its cue from the surprising showings of Reed and Richman and Thompson and Dylan and Newman and Parker and Waits and Simon, not to mention X’s John Doe and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and the Blasters’ Dave/Phil Alvin. Every one of these artists has the lineaments of what in 1969 or so began to be called a singer-songwriter; since it’s known by now that songwriters (and singers) are most effective when they conceive music as well as melodies (and words), they work closely with bands, but they’re still basically expressing themselves, giving private responses a form that’s musical before it’s either collective or public. I wouldn’t sign off before offering up my own hard-earned lists — longer than ever this year to underline my continuing faith in pluralism. But I want to leave as much space as possible for other voters to give their private responses public (and in total context even collective) form. It won’t keep the music honest by itself, but maybe it’ll help a little.

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Top 10 Albums of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

2. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.)

3. Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire)

4. X: More Fun in the New World (Elektra)

5. The Police: Synchronicity (A&M)

6. U2: War (Island)

7. Lou Reed: Legendary Hearts (RCA Victor)

8. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Jonathan Sings! (Sire)

9. Richard Thompson: Hand of Kindness (Hannibal)

10. Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia)

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Top 10 Singles of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (Epic)

2. The Police: “Every Breath You Take” (A&M)

3. The Pretenders: “Back on the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

4. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (Tommy Boy)
Prince: “Little Red Corvette” (Warner Bros.)

6. Eddy Grant: “Electric Avenue” (Epic)

7. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic)

8. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (Sugarhill)

9. Run-D.M.C.: “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.s” (Profile)

10. Talking Heads: “Burning Down the House” (Sire)

— From the February 28, 1984, 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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Ten U2 Songs We’re Not Ashamed to Admit We Like

It’s easy to hate on U2. Even leaving aside their recent crash-landing into everyone’s iTunes library, it seems Bono and Co. have been screaming at the top of their lungs for us to deem them still relevant since the turn of the century. Because of all this, there are now more than a few haters who have taken it upon themselves to nitpick the band’s catalog and loose a wave of vitriol at its worst offenders. We’re not gonna lie: U2 have some awful songs. Some read ugly upon first listen, and then only get worse upon repeat encounters. But there are many others that still found their way into our hearts despite the fact that they’re almost universally despised, even by the group’s fan base.

To mark the band’s monumental eight-night residency at Madison Square Garden, which kicks off July 18, we’ve laid it all bare and revealed the U2 songs that are our guiltiest pleasures. From “Vertigo” to, yes, “4th of July,” check out our selections below.

“Vertigo”
One might not think it a guilty pleasure to like a song that won several Grammys and went gold in the U.S. But to many, “Vertigo” represents everything that’s wrong with modern-day U2: bloated pomposity, forced eclecticism, and a cheesy take on hard rock. Say what you will: In an era of diminishing rock returns, this song, despite soundtracking an iPod commercial, straight-up rocks. And sure, his “Uno! Dos! Tres! Catorce!” count-off is cringeworthy, but when Bono lays into “I can feeeel!” on the hook, he proves his inimitable yelp is still in fine form.

“Beautiful Day”
If you’ve caught U2 in concert since 2001, then you’ve seen them perform this massive, charting smash off 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “Beautiful Day” was a gigantic commercial success and, in many ways, helped re-energize the band’s then-waning fanbase. Still, the song has garnered its share of haters, largely because it’s nothing if not one gigantic hug from Bono to humanity. We’re more than willing to look past the schmaltz and embrace this song for its fist-to-the-heavens charms. And plus, it sounds more like early U2 material than pretty much anything they’ve released in the past fifteen years. So there’s that.

“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”
It cannot be overstated just how vicious the blowback was toward U2 after their latest album, Songs of Innocence, suddenly appeared in every iTunes user’s library last fall. To that end, for many, this blazing, chant-heavy lead single was the first they heard of it. We’d like to believe the track would have gained a much more amenable audience if not for the album’s botched delivery. Instead, the pervasive gloom hanging over the single had it that Mr. Ramone would have been ashamed to be associated with it. We think differently: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is not only the best song on U2’s new album — it’s also a slashing and menacing gem of a track in its own right.

“No Line on the Horizon”
Depending which side of the fence you’re on, U2’s perpetual restlessness is either their biggest asset or their most grievous flaw. It’s their need for constant experimentation that’s led many naysayers to dismiss the band’s 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon, as yet another of their reaches to the back row of the stadium. Sure, as a whole, the album is manifestly too magnificent and grand. But the Edge’s seesaw guitar lines and Adam Clayton’s pulsating bass throb — most importantly in the case of the LP’s underrated title track — help guide these test-tube trials down undeniably intriguing rabbit holes.

“City of Blinding Lights”
Sometimes it feels as if U2 are trying far too hard to justify their oft-cited title of Biggest Band in the World. In many ways, the entirety of their 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, fit this mold. But perhaps no track better exemplifies this than “City of Blinding Lights,” a giddy, triumphant climax to the LP. “I’m getting ready to leave the ground,” Bono sings with childlike glee, and while the song feels tailor-made for an American Airlines commercial, its unabashed streak of sheer happiness is impossible to resist.

“4th of July”
Listening to a U2 album is often quite the emotional gut-shot. Which is why it’s somewhat baffling that popular consensus lists the ambient instrumental “4th of July,” off 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, as one of the most reviled of U2 songs. Conceived thanks to producer Brian Eno recording both Adam Clayton’s and the Edge’s in-studio noodling, the lead-in for the epic “Bad” is a soothing, if deranged, meditation. We’ll go to bat any day for this U2 oddity.

“Miami”
There are more than a few things wrong with “Miami,” the Pop track that reduces South Beach to “print shirts and Southern accents/Cigars and big hair.” But take away the borderline-offensive lyrics and uncover a trip-hop-infused, Radiohead-toasting highway interchange that meanders into previously undiscovered murky territory. Plus, it can’t be stated enough how underrated Adam Clayton’s bass prowess is, and, man, does dude shine on this cut.

“Elevation”
While there was a generally positive critical reaction to this monstrous All You Can’t Leave Behind single, U2’s fan base has taken a particular disliking to this song. Perhaps the fact that it was linked to the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film and was given one of the most expensive music video treatments in history didn’t help sell its artistic merits. Nonetheless, there’s a surefire hip-hop inflection to the track, again largely courtesy of Clayton, again showcasing U2’s willingness to wander into uncharted territory. What’s more, the band was able to give this song a nice live changeup: It’s often played without drums and bass for the first verse and chorus before the rest of the band joins in.

“Window in the Skies”
In recent years, when a band or artist teams up with superproducer Rick Rubin, the results are typically either brilliant or downright rough. When the Zen master linked up with U2 in 2006 at Abbey Road Studios, the resulting track, “Window in the Skies,” found on their compilation LP U218 Singles, made a massive splash — though primarily with Grammy voters. Fans let out a massive “mehhh,” and much of the reaction is due to the song having no true distinguishable aesthetic to it. But just because something’s familiar doesn’t make it undesirable: “Window in the Skies” is every U2 ballad rolled into one and is all the better for it. Why mess with a good thing?

“Get On Your Boots”
Criticism came fast and furious when U2 unveiled this electro-influenced pop banger as the lead single from 2009’s No Line on the Horizon. And while it’s understandable how many could be turned off by the track’s seeming appropriation of current radio trends — nothing is worse than old dudes trying to seem cool — at its core, “Get On Your Boots” is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek take on an impatient society. “The future needs a big kiss,” Bono sings at the outset, and as U2 have long attempted to do, he and his Irish cohorts are here to help.

U2 play Madison Square Garden July 18–31.

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Lykke Li

Lykke Li has had a busy fall: not only were her vocals featured on U2’s surprise new album, but the Swedish songstress is also making a stop on her current tour at New York City’s historic Radio City Music Hall. The show comes in support of her May-released third album, I Never Learn, her most fully realized, and most heartbreaking, effort. At its core, all of Li’s music has a particular beauty, be it through the pain of her latest album or heard in excellent electro-pop ditties like her breakthrough “Little Bit.”

Sat., Oct. 4, 8 p.m., 2014

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The 1975

Of course, the world will never have enough alt-rock groups eager to assume their own take on sex, drugs, rock and roll and the glory of youth. It’s been a minute since pop-punk had these topics on lock, and indie rock seems to have rescinded a bit, so in steps UK-based group the 1975. Applying a coating of pop on U2 or Coldplay-tinged guitar intricacy, along with catchy male falsetto and easy lyrics, the 1975 even work in a little r&b. There’s something here for everyone, except those who yearn for deeper meanings. Imagine the Killers, toothless and with more synthesizers.

Wed., Oct. 9, 9 p.m.; Thu., Oct. 10, 9 p.m., 2013

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Warren Haynes Band

Hot on the heels of the Allman Brothers Band’s Beacon residency, this titan of the hollow-body returns to the Allmans’ pied-a-terre, playing original songs from his newly released studio album Man In Motion. It’s a kinetic, gospel-drenched tribute to his North Carolina roots with an airtight horn section and enough gutbucket sturm und drang to remind listeners why they call him “Soulshine.” But there’s nothing like seeing him shred on an extended live jam–sliding seamlessly from David Allan Coe to U2 to “Afro Blue,” Haynes is one of the most versatile fingerpickers out there.

Thu., May 12, 8 p.m., 2011