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1979 Pazz & Jop: The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll (Almost) Grows Up

A few weeks ago two rock critics were gossiping on the phone, something rock critics do more than ever now that there aren’t any press parties. Both were among the many newcomers asked to contribute to the sixth or seventh annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and both were awed by this responsibility, as is only mete. One of them, however, was apparently overawed, he — I assume it’s a he, since most rock critics are — told my informant he felt like he’d been knighted. A jest, of course, but nevertheless — I mean, I’m obviously not the only one who takes this thing seriously. Every year I am beset by late ballots via special delivery and express mail; messengers and living critics come up to the fifth floor to hand me and my fellow Poobah their lists. And for what? No one is paid, and very few ballots are reprinted. As the poll gets larger the power of any individual to affect the result diminishes. But people actually listen again to dozens of albums, agonize, call long distance to clarify our chronically incomprehensible letter of invitation, all to assure that the tally reflects their deepest convictions. Ain’t representative democracy grand?

Representative of what, you might ask, and I admit I could be happier with the answer. This was to be the year the P&JCP grew up; I vowed that in 1979 I’d start tackling the problems of regional and racial spread early. But that vow, like others before it, went down to defeat. Instead I spent two days in mid-December working phones with co-Poobah Tom Carson. Our method was simple — frantic calls to acquaintances all over the country to ascertain who was actually reviewing records where, never mind how well — and its effectiveness scattershot. We did better in Minneapolis than Chicago and lousy indeed through the southeastern and Rocky Mountain states. It doesn’t bother me that L.A. and Boston are disproportionately represented, or that New York provided 66 of the 155 critics who responded. Those are the cities where the outlets are, and anyway, this is still a Voice poll — all Riffs contributors who hear a lot of records are included in automatically. But nobody from Nashville or Denver or Omaha or New Orleans was even invited, and this is a good time to mention that any regularly published rock critic with access to most of the important releases who’d like in should write now and I”ll file his or her address. Go knight yourself.

Racial balance proved even more difficult to come by. Our informants were useless, and consultation with black journalists around here yielded few new names. Finally, around New Year’s, I resorted to record company publicists specializing in black music, but most of the 30 or so invitations that resulted went out so late that I got only 11 back in time, enough to suss certain patterns but not enough to see them fully realized in the tally. The post office was a big problem in general. A lot of people got our instructions 10 or 12 days after they were mailed, or never, and when no first-class letters were delivered to the paper on deadline day we were forced to postpone the final count for 24 hours. Even so, late ballots kept dribbling in afterwards, including several from black critics and several others from regional punkzines, which were also contacted late. Next year we’ve got to get organized.

As it was, though, I think the poll ended up pretty much what it should have been in a very enjoyable but critically inconclusive year. Four “r&b” acts (the term is returning to favor) made the album list, expanded this year from 30 to 40 in honor of an enlarged electorate and the curly-headed kid in the third row. More black input would have meant more commanding finishes for all four — crossover queen Donna Summer, comeback prince Michael Jackson, disco pacemakers Chic, and elder statesman Stevie Wonder — as well as for Ashford & Simpson (Stay Free, 44th), probably Dionne Warwick (Dionne, 52nd), and possibly Millie Jackson (Live and Uncensored, 55th). More punkzine input would have helped the nouvelle vague concrete of Pere Ubu, the reggae agitprop of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the maximal minimalism of Philip Glass, and the elderly statesmanship of Iggy Pop, as well as pushing Off White (45th) and/or Buy the Contortions (47th) — James Chance’s two albums, which totaled 139 points on a spottily distributed independent label — into the top 40, and perhaps aiding XTC (Drums and Wires, 49th) and Wire (154, 53rd) as well. Both constituencies would have boosted Bob Marley, and either might have gone for the jazz records that got scattered mention: not only the Art Ensemble’s Nice Guys, but also Mingus at Antibes (48th) — three Mingus albums totaled 121 points — Air Lore (51st), and Blood Ulmer’s (excuse me, I mean James Blood’s) Tales of Captain Black (60th). And they would have upped the disco discs and imports on the singles chart.

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But especially if allowances are made for Nashville and Denver and Omaha and New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine any other album cracking this year’s top five: Armed Forces, by last year’s overpowering winner, Elvis Costello; Fear of Music, by Talking Heads, up from fifth in 1978; the confusing American version of The Clash, which in its 1977 English edition showed up on a lot of best-of-the-decade lists; Rust Never Sleeps, generally regarded as Neil Young’s best album since Tonight’s the Night; and this year’s model, Squeezing Out Sparks, by Graham Parker & the Rumour, who placed their first two albums at two and four in the 1976 poll but haven’t made much noise among the voters since.

The 1978 P&JCP’s consensus was, in the immortal words of my editor, a “triumph of the new wave,” with 16 of the top 30 albums falling clearly into the category and lots of others on the fringe despite increased participation by suspected conservatives. Not that I considered the triumph unmixed — my punkophile elation was undercut by my natural distrust of hegemony, especially defensive hegemony based on ressentiment. Commercially, after all, Saturday Night Fever and its trentuple platinum was spearheading its own victorious vanguard, and I detected in the sweep some of the racism and homophobia of “disco sucks,” then a mere slogan rather than an arrogantly out-of-it prefab “movement.” But it did seem that new wave was over the bottom line — that the best artists in the style (or whatever it is and was) were going to make albums for quite a while — and that print media were part of its success. It had always been a truism of the record manufacturers (and of music journalists) that good reviews don’t sell enough product to keep anybody but the reviewers in business. But recently it’s become apparent that between the prestige they impart and the core audience they generate (especially in the absence of adventurous radio), good reviews do keep good bands, in the immortal words of the Bee Gees, “stayin’ alive.”

That was last year. Since then, an arrogantly out-of-it prefab industry has taken a nasty fall, with some blame due both trentuple platinum (and the consequent lure of overproduction) and disco (now regarded once again as a cult music with crossover potential). As a consequence, there are rock and roll propagandists who’ll tell you that new wave’s triumph isn’t just artistic — that last year’s critical consensus is next year’s big thing. As usual, I don’t believe it’ll happen, and furthermore I don’t want anyone else to. I’m delighted that Blondie’s Parallel Lines, which finished 25th in the 1978 P&JCP, subsequently achieved the AM airplay and platinum sales its inspired popcraft deserved, and pleased enough that together with, yes, Get the Knack, (86th), it’s made it easier for similar bands to record. I even find a good many of the resulting power pop albums fairly likable. But a world of Blondies and Knacks would hardly be rock and roll heaven, and I worry about unreasonable expectations, which after a few foolish bidding wars could make new wave a no-no just like disco. Who needs them? Rock’s capital crisis is a drag for would-be Foreigners, but for good bands it’s a blessing. What ought to make new wave attractive bizwise isn’t mass appeal so much as strong regional roots in an era of prohibitive travel costs and strong simple music in an era of studio parsimony. To hell with superprofits. I’ll give you power pop if you’ll give me all the independent labels that have come over from Europe this year — I.R.S., ZE, Stiff, a revitalized Mango, a reorganized Virgin. May they prosper modestly, just like such U.S.-based companies as Alligator, Rounder, and Ralph.

In short, I haven’t spent years learning how and when to ignore the Hot 100 just so I could get all het up when Blondie makes number one or CBS makes a boo-boo. It was a great year for rock and roll — in a class with 1978, which was the best ever for the hard approach I prefer — because of all the good-to-great new records. Admittedly, it’s only over the past month, which I’ve spent in a continual state of desperate delight catching up with stuff I hadn’t found time for, that I’ve become fully convinced. And I think more of my finds are good than great — I’ll probably end up with 50 A or A minus albums from 1979, a few more than last year, but where in 1978 I wished I could squeeze 14 records into my top 10, now I could stop comfortably at seven. My top 10 would be even thinner if I hadn’t given up and included jazz records that enriched my rather inchoate rock aesthetic — that spoke to my shifting ideas about rhythm and electric noise, pop and folk, “accessibility.” (In other words, I eliminated all jazz in the pure music tradition first asserted by my favorite jazz style, bebop, including Thelonious Monk’s Always Know and Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden’s Soapsuds, Soapsuds, which I love, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys, which — to my own discredit, I’m sure, since it came in number 29 this year, the first time an acoustic jazz record has ever placed — I never quite got.) Anyway, here’s my own list, with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10. It’s my custom to joke about how permanent the order is, but this year my listening is still in such flux that I won’t bother. Believe me, these are damn good albums, and there are others (by Irakere, Midnight Rhythm, the Heartbreakers, David Bowie, maybe Smokey, maybe Toots, maybe Cleanhead, maybe James) waiting in the winds:

1. The Clash (Epic) 18. 2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 17. 3. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 14. 4. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 11. 5. Air: Air Lore (Arista Novus) 11. 6. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 9. 7. The B-52s (Warner Bros.) 5. 8. Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5. 9. The Roches (Warner Bros.) 5. 10. Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia) 5.

11. Tom Verlaine (Elektra). 12. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca). 13. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire). 14. Wreckless Eric: The Whole Wide World (Stiff). 15. The Only Ones: Special View (Epic). 16. Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra). 17. James Monroe H.S. Presents Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington (Elektra). 18. The Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.). 19. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Reprise). 20. Marianne Faithful: Broken English (Island).

21. Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango). 22. Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song). 23. Fashion: Product Perfect (I.R.S.). 24. James Brown: The Original Disco Man (Polydor). 25. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army: Replicas (Atco). 26. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic). 27. Culture: International Herb (Virgin Internatioal). 28. Chic: Good Times (Atlantic). 29. Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor). 30. Living Chicago Blues Volume 1 (Alligator).

31. Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic). 32. Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest). 33. James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House). 34. Cory Daye: Cory and Me (New York International). 35. Mutiny: Mutiny on the Mamaship (Columbia). 36. Steel Pulse: Tribute to the Martyrs (Mango). 37. Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis). 38. Roxy Music: Manifesto (Atlantic). 39. George Jones: My Very Special Guests (Epic). 40. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia).

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But though record albums dominated rock in the ’70s, they’ve never been the whole story, as both new wave and disco have demonstrated. Somewhat belatedly, the P&JCP has expanded to reflect this: In addition to 10 albums, contributors were asked for unweighted lists of up to 10 singles and three local bands. From disco adepts like Mike Freedberg (“it’s impossible to poll disco, or even black slow music, fairly from LPs alone”) to r&b oldtimers like Robert Pruter (“my record-buying friends have always bought singles and always preferred them to albums”), black music fans were enthusiastic, and so were new wavers, many of whom commented that it was hard to keep their lists to 10. “Rock” people, on the other hand, complained (Noel Coppage of Stereo Review: “I’m too old and elitist for this shit”; Blair Jackson of Bay Area Music: “Aah forget it. I hate most singles”). Since I spend most of my working (and waking) hours listening to albums, I had no trouble containing my list, but the following 10 singles definitely weren’t the only ones to make a dent on my life this year:

The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Michael Jackson: “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (Epic); the Clash: “1-2 Crush on You” (CBS import); James Brown: “It’s Too Funky in Here” (Polydor 12-inch); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion 12-inch); McFadden & Whitehead: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (Philadelphia International 12-inch); Kleenex: “Ain’t You” (Rough Trade import); the B-52s: “Rock Lobster”/”52 Girls” (B-52s); the Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor).

The new category in which I had more trouble limiting my selections was local bands, an appellation that was left vague to find out how the voters would define it. For me, there were two musts: the Feelies, whose avant-garde surf music thrilled me frequently before they withdrew to the big time, and the James “Blood” Ulmer Quartet, whose second set at the Tin Palace May 23 rivaled the Clash at the Palladium for intensity and who also fused me at CBGB and Hurrah. But I passed on the Lounge Lizards and In the Tradition — not to mention Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, whose visit from Austin impressed a lot of people, as we shall see — reluctantly, only so I could pay my respects to Richard Hell’s lamented Voidoids.

New York seemed bound to dominate the local band competition — on demographics, if not sheer vitality. And indeed, the winner was predictable, a shoo-in with 14 votes: Anya’s Bad Boy himself, James Chance, a/k/a James White and the Blacks, a/k/a the Contortions. (This year we’re giving out awards with the poll and we’re wondering whether James would prefer his across the backs of the thighs.) But after that the New York vote broke up, so that three out-of-town bands scored more mentions than the local second-runner. Most impressive by far was the aforementioned Senor Carrasco, who divided 10 votes between Texas and New York — his band sounds like a speedy synthesis of every Farfisa group that ever tripped over a hook, and you’d better listen up or they’ll pass you on the left. After that, with six mentions, came X, from Los Angeles, and Human Sexual Response, from Boston (though as a sexually responsive human I must register my doubts about the latter). New York’s Fleshtones strolled in fifth with five. Other strong showings included four votes for New York’s Feelies and L.A. Alley Cats, and three for Curtiss A (Minneapolis), the Beat (San Francisco and CBS), Greg Kihn (Berkeley and Beserkley), Robin Lane (Boston and pretty soon now Warners, plus an indie EP that scored on our singles chart), the Lounge Lizards (New York), the Naughty Sweeties (L.A.), the Nervous Eaters (Boston), Prince Charles and the City Beat Band (Boston), the Speedies (New York), Blood Ulmer (New York), and the Zippers (L.A.).

It may say something about local-band consensus or lack of it that although I spent more time seeing groups in clubs in 1979 than ever before, my most unforgettable moment was not provided by Blood Ulmer or the Feelies or even Pere Ubu. It came one frigid night in February when three of us slogged uptown to catch the Only Ones and instead stumbled upon a seething mass of well-kempt youths who were dancing to rock and roll. Mercy day, I said to myself, this ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB — this is the “rock disco” Hurrah, only it has normal rock and rollers in it. Straight weekend escapists, on leave from Fordham and Farleigh Dickinson and high school, they danced stiffly, except for a few scattered punks, but there they were, shaking ass to Cheap Trick and the Cars and Devo and the Ramones. Suddenly I believed yet again that rock and roll was here to stay.

This wasn’t the punk-disco fusion I had posited wistfully at the end of last year’s P&JCP roundup, but it was a start — a primitive one, as it turned out. Six months later art-punk and electropop were melding into dance tracks as empty as the most soulless Eurodisco, and if you wanted to step out to Cheap Trick you had to go to Brooklyn, or anyway Heat — suddenly rock discos were all over the place. But by that time the B-52s had proven that they really were “a tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia” — it was on the dance floor rather than in my living room that they made my top 10 — and white people were once again catching up with the black music of an earlier time, in this case James Brown funk. Bizzers began talking about DOR — dance-oriented rock — instead of disco, and a real punk-disco fusion was achieved by two notable records, which oddly enough ended up on top of the first P&JCP singles chart: Ian Dury’s “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” and M’s “Pop Muzik.”

I must now interrupt this program to explain how singles were counted. P&JCP contributors are asked to limit their album choices to domestic releases so as not to split support for the many new albums released in different years on different sides of the Atlantic. But singles are about immediate impact, and critics who care about them usually buy (or trade for) imports. So rules were kept to a minimum, and we got votes for all kinds of stuff — not just EPs and disco discs, which were encouraged, but promos, even album cuts, the latter of which were expressly forbidden (and not counted). Multiple editions, configurations, and mixes presented worse problems. In the end we decided not only to add all versions of a song together, but — as a tribute to the ancient concept of the two-sided single — to combine the votes for two songs that appeared on the same record. This is how Ian Dury beat out Robin Scott (a/k/a M), whose “Pop Muzik” was certainly our song of the year. Not everyone who voted for “Rhythm Stick” or “Cheerful” has even heard the 12-inch that included both songs; some may (foolishly) disapprove of the disco mixes. But it seemed fairest to consolidate all of Dury’s votes.

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Although singles actually played and possessed by critics would have been preferred, we got a lot of lists of radio favorites. This was fair enough. Both the r&b trend in disco and the popularization of new wave have once again “made the radio fun” (J.D. Considine); 1979 was the year when Donna Summer heated up her stuff and Nick Lowe produced pure pop for real people. But even the best radio stations don’t play all the most interesting music, and away from the likes of BCN and PIX it’s still hard to hear imports and indies. Which is why the showing of the Brains’s privately produced and distributed “Money Changes Everything” — a little too slow for DOR, much too obscure for AOR, and tied for ninth anyway — is doubly significant. And why the Pretenders, who without a U.S. release got more votes than any singles artist except Donna Summer (in addition to “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket” was on seven ballots), can be expected to make considerable noise with their debut album.

I must admit that I found the singles chart more interesting than the generally unexceptionable album selections. That’s what’s so great about the singles — they’re quirky. I especially enjoyed the tie for sixth — “My Sharona,” which brightened the radio as surely as Fantastik takes the enamel off your refrigerator, and “Tusk,” the weirdest 45 issued by any megagroup since the defeat of George McGovern. I was pleased that Funkadelic, who dipped almost as precipitously as Ian Dury in the album voting (Dury went from 13th to one mention, Funkadelic from 27th to 89th), could score in its long suit. I was glad so many high school intellectuals manque admitted their crush on the grown-up teen schlock of Peaches & Herb. And I found the five-way tie for 22nd laudable in five different directions.

It’s worth pointing out that the singles list is hardly a triumph of the new wave. Given the presumed bias of the electorate, it’s more of a triumph of disco, with two consciously compromised (and quite enjoyable, don’t get me wrong) punk-disco fusions beating out two irresistible examples of the real thing — except, of course, that “Hot Stuff” is as much a conscious compromise as “Pop Muzik.” The real new wave triumph goes to the Pretenders, who did it with a Ray Davies song. Hmm. Perhaps after triumph comes growth, consolidation, and some looking around, eh? That’s the way the album vote looks to me.

First of all, despite (or maybe because of, as they say) the plethora of new wave albums released in 1979, the number of them in the top 30 is down from 16 to 14 — not a big dip, but enough to make room for Michael Jackson and the Art Ensemble. Moreover, even the staunchest new wavers seem to have broadened their listening this year — Donna Summer and to a lesser extent Chic got votes from all over, and it was the hard-core punks who brought Linton Kwesi Johnson home. Also, the new wave grows older. Of the nine debut albums in the top 30 last year, seven were outright new wave, an eighth was David Johansen, and a ninth was the Cars (who fell to 61st this year, which may say more about the fickleness of pop fans than the fickleness of the Cars). This year’s eight debuts include the Roches, Marianne Faithfull, Rickie Lee Jones, and Linton Kwesi Johnson as well as the B-52s, the Buzzcocks, Lene Lovich, and Joe Jackson (hurray for all the women in that catalogue, by the way — last year we were down to Blondie and Patti Smith). And if the widespread support for Pere Ubu’s gruesome, funny, resolutely experimental, subtly hooky Dub Housing is a shot in the arm for the futurists among us, the equally strong showing of Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes is a shot in the mouth.

Petty got this year’s Bruce Springsteen Memorial Rock and Roll Verities vote. Damn the Torpedoes is a pretty good record, but a measure of its appeal is that of 18 first-string daily critics, always the conservatives, 12 voted for it. (None, by the way, selected Pere Ubu; one of them, in fact, is reputed to have once — literally — pulled the plug on the band.) Damn the Torpedoes is a breakthrough for Petty because finally the Heartbreakers (his Heartbreakers, this Live at Max’s fan should say) are rocking as powerfully as he’s writing. But whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it — that is, whether he has anything to say — remains shrouded in banality. And in this he establishes himself as the fave rave of those who want good rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over, rock and roll that won’t disturb your sleep or your conscience or your precious bodily rhythms. It’s fun in small doses — about three minutes is right — and it beats state-of-the-studio smuggeries like those of Supertramp (tied for 66th) or the Eagles (69th). But if Tom Petty ends up defining rock and roll heaven, then Johnny Rotten will have died in vain.

I don’t mean to imply that the 1979 P&JCP is a triumph of let’s-boogie revisionism, and a good thing, too. But as a 37-year-old pro, I’ll trade insults myself with any ageist putz who claims it’s impossible for other aging pros to make exciting rock and roll, and I think that, basically, this happened to be a year when old guarders — from artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison to craftsmen like Ry Cooder and Fleetwood Mac — managed to translate their vitality and courage to vinyl again. Morrison’s return was especially auspicious; he shows signs of turning into Ray Charles with lyrics. But the voters pretty much knew it wasn’t happening: Old guarders who made tired albums, like Randy Newman, were rewarded in kind (43rd), and those who flubbed altogether, like Joni Mitchell, got theirs (two mentions). And I believe the great El Lay hope of Rickie Lee Jones is a chimera, the same goes for the great post-punk hope of Joe Jackson. There are no stylistic rules; lots and lots of good records are being made; collectively, the critics have a pretty accurate idea of what they are.

And so, upon reflection, I think that Squeezing Out Sparks is an entirely apposite winner. Graham Parker is a genuine transitional artist. Surfacing a little earlier than fellow pub-rock veterans like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, he never assumed the kind of protective pop irony they’ve perfected. Though his lyrics are knotty, their passion is palpable — Parker speaks directly. And his music, while a long way from Robbie Robertson, isn’t reticent about its blues and country roots. Rhythmically and dramatically he’s not above corn, but it would be risky to call him safe — he might [spit] in your eye. I found that the masterfully hooked-up Squeezing Out Sparks wore thin after a powerful initial impression, but the memory of its craft and commitment stayed with me, and apparently many felt the same. The kind of critics who voted for Rickie Lee Jones or Ry Cooder often picked it number one, but those of us who preferred Neil Young or the Clash (both of which got as many first-place votes) still felt inclined to pay our respects, which is how it amassed its solid margin. If this be compromise, I just might settle for it myself.

The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has grown quite a bit since its semi-official quasi-beginning in 1974. Once it was a survey of a few writers I especially respected; now I’ve never read half the people whose ballots I tabulate. It’s based on what may be a naive belief — that people who listen long and hard enough to formulate their opinions on paper have special judgments to make. That assumption is holding up pretty well so far.

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Selected Ballots

ADAM BLOCK: Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Beat [sic] Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic 12-inch); Roxy Music: “Dance Away” (Atlantic 12-inch); Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Nick Lowe: “Cruel To Be Kind” (Columbia); Jacksons: “Blame It on the Boogie” (Epic 12-inch); M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Pearl Harbor & the Explosions: “Release It”/”Drivin’ ” (415); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Atlantic 12-inch); Ray Charles: “Some Enchanted Evening” (Atlantic); James White and the Blacks: “Contort Yourself” (ZE 12-inch).

TOM CARSON: M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Lene Lovich: “Lucky Number” (Stiff/Epic); Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Dave Edmunds: “Girls Talk” (Swan Song); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English” (Island); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion); Sid Vicious: “My Way” (Virgin 12-inch import); Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime” (Sire); The Kinks: “Superman” (Arista 12-inch); Anita Ward: “Ring My Bell” (T.K.).

GREIL MARCUS: Essential Logic (Virgin import EP); Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing” (Real import); Blue Oyster Cult: “In Thee” (Columbia); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English”/”Why D’Ya [sic] Do It” (Antilles 12-inch); Moon Martin: “Rolene” (Capitol); Foreigner: “Dirty White Boy” (Atlantic); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories” (Virgin import); Delta 5: “Now That You’ve Gone” (Rough Trade import).

JON PARELES: Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Ian Dury: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Elvis Costello: “My Funny Valentine” (Columbia promo); Gang of Four: “At Home He’s a Tourist” (EMI import); Pop Group: “We Are All Prostitutes” (Rough Trade import); Robin Lane & the Chartbusters: “When Things Go Wrong” (Deli Platters); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor 12-inch).

GEORGE ARTHUR: Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 15; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 12; Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros.) 12; Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic) 12; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 10; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 9; Rachel Sweet: Fool Around (Stiff/Columbia) 8; Jerry Lee Lewis (Elektra) 8; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 8; Get the Knack (Capitol) 6.

LESTER BANGS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 25; Marianne Faithfull: Broken English (Island) 20; The Clash (Epic) 20; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 5; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 5; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 5; Charles Mingus: Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic) 5; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; Patti Smith Group: Wave (Arista) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): Fern Kinney: “Groove Me” (T.K.); Jackie Moore: “This Time Baby” (Columbia); Love De-Luxe: “Here Comes That Sound Again” (Warner Bros.); Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band: “I”m an Indian Too”/”Deputy of Love” (ZE); Bionic Boogie: “Hot Butterfly” (Polydor); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor); Claudja Barry: “Boogie Woogie Dancin’ Shoes” (Chrysalis); Carrie Lucas: “Dance with You” (Solar); Black Ivory: “Mainline” (Buddah).

TOM CARSON: David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 14; The Clash (Epic) 14; Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia) 14; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 12; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 10; The Roches (Warner Bros.) 9; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 8; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 7; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 7; Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 6.

DAVID JACKSON: Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (ECM) 10; Steppin’ with the World Saxophone Quartet (Black Saint import) 10; Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 10; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 10; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 10; Robin Williamson and His Merry Band: A Giant at the Kindling (Flying Fish) 9; James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House) 8; Bread and Roses (Fantasy) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Polydor) 20; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 15; Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner Bros.) 15; Peter Green: In the Skies (Sail) 15; Tonio K: Life in the Foodchain (Full Moon/Epic) 10; Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 5; David Johansen: In Style (Blue Sky) 5; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 5; Randy Newman: Born Again (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 5.

REGGIE MATTHEWS: Brenda Russell (Horizon) 15; Heath Brothers: In Motion (Columbia) 13; Ron Carter: Parade (Milestone) 12; McCoy Tyner: Together (Milestone) 11; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 11; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 10; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 7; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 6; Jeff Lorber: Water Sign (Arista) 5.

MARIE MOORE: Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla) 10; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 10; Crusaders: Street Life (MCA) 10; Cameo: Secret Omen (Chocolate City) 10; George Benson: Live Inside Your Love (Warner Bros.) 10; Dionne Warwick: Dionne (Arista) 10; Stephanie Mills: What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (20th Century-Fox) 10; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Commodores: Midnight Magic (Motown) 10.

JON PARELES: Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 15; James White and the Blacks: Off White (ZE) 15; Philip Glass/Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach (Tomato) 15; Art Bears: Winter Songs (Ralph) 15; David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 5; XTC: Drums and Wires (Virgin) 5; Police: Regatta de Blanc (A&M) 5; Wire: 154 (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Verlaine (Elektra) 5.

DOUG SIMMONS: Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 25; The Clash (Epic) 15; Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.) 10; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 10; Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango) 10; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 5; Inmates: First Offence (Polydor) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; The Boston Bootleg (Varulven) 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Gino Soccio: Outline (RFC) 20; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 20; Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest) 14; Merle Haggard: Serving 190 Proof (MCA) 11; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 8; Tammy Wynette: Just Tammy (Epic) 6; Sylvester: Stars (Fantasy) 6; Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra) 5; Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 5; Arlo Guthrie: Outlasting the Blues (Warner Bros.) 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1979

1. Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista)

2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise)

3. The Clash: The Clash (Epic)

4. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire)

5. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia)

6. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.)

7. The B-52s: The B-52s (Warner Bros.)

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA)

9. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis)

10. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca)

Top 10 Singles of 1979

1. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic)

2. M: “Pop Musik” (Sire)

3. Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca)

4. (Tie) Sister Sledge: “We Are Family”/”He’s the Greatest Dancer” (Cotillion)
The Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing”/”The Wait” (Real import)

6. (Tie) Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.)
The Knack: “My Sharona” (Capitol)

8. Blondie: “Dreaming” (Chrysalis)

9. (Tie) The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter)
The Flying Lizards: “Money” (Virgin)

— From the January 28, 1980, 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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Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

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What Is the Most Nostalgic Song of All Time?

My father died three years ago. He was a good man, a good father. He rocked a Jim Croce mustache and a white man ’fro. He rode a motorcycle and worked as a mechanic; he taught us about engines and cars and horse racing (and forgiveness and love of family and a good joke). I grieved him as children do. But ever since he died, this odd thing has been happening in which a song will come on that reminds me of him — perhaps it’s even a song I don’t ever remember hearing — and I’m suddenly overwhelmed by such an intense wave of nostalgia, I literally have to stand still and catch myself. Like I can’t breathe.

It started with “Celtic New Year” by Van Morrison. I don’t even remember my father playing that song. But it was his music, you know? I was standing in the kitchen when I heard those acoustic guitar chords and that raspy voice and suddenly I saw my dad in his red leather café motorcycle jacket, eating a popsicle on a bench at Knott’s Berry Farm while I ate a snow cone next to him. I could feel the sun on my cheek, the taste of the blueberry ice, the sound of his easy laugh as crow’s feet gathered around his weathered face.

Like I said, I had to steady myself. I sat on the cold tile floor and listened to it again and again and again. It hit me all at once: They’re all gone. It wasn’t just the moment at Knott’s or that smile of his. It was like I could suddenly feel the presence of all the people I’ve lost — my grandmother putting cream cheese on a bagel as she told an off-color joke. My grandfather looking up from his stack of articles from The Progressive with glasses on his nose. My uncles howling with laughter as they tell their stories about Mexico.

The author and his father on a beach
The author and his father (with that Jim Croce mustache)

This feeling never happened to me when I was younger. I suspect it was because I’d never really lost anything so big.

It was as if a lost continent — like Atlantis — had suddenly revealed itself, and I could see such monuments that were built to ideas were now buried under a thousand feet of water. They lived, they laughed, they pursued life, and they’re all gone now.

I don’t know what it is about songs that can make you feel the weight of people or their loss or the fact of your own. But they do.

The next time it happened was “The Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. It was another song I don’t remember ever hearing until it came on one day and there were these great old voices singing about building dams and haunting spaceships. Again, I had to stop what I was doing and play the song twenty times. I just had to sit in it, to think about these lives, to understand their monuments. My father with his brown Porsche 924 that he restored. His cowboy boots. My maternal grandfather with his thin mustache, reading the paper in a chair while we played on the rug.

Who were the dam-builders Waylon Jennings is singing about? Where did they all go? What about the women at the shore, the children waving as the boats fell into the water?

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After the twentieth listen I could finally put the feeling down. But not until then. Not until I’d walked around that room in my head, flashed some light in every darkened corner to see the memories that lay about like sunken treasure.

I had this vision of an entire generation staring down at their phones. Millions and millions in separate rooms talking through wires on social media, like inmates knocking on a prison wall, trying to communicate from their individual cells. As one of them, I posted it to my Twitter account, curious if any other people locked in their cells felt this way about nostalgic songs.

It was like banging out Morse code on a wall: knock, rappity, knock knock.

A simple question, posed at eight o’clock on a Saturday night: What is the most nostalgic song of all time? I suggested “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. (Not the studio version, mind you. But the live version recorded at Warner Bros. Studios in 1997 where Stevie Nicks introduces the song by saying, “This one’s for you, daddy.”) I let the communiqué reverberate through the prison walls and waited.

I got more than 5,000 comments back.

It started with the Beatles (“Let It Be” and “Yesterday”), then moved into James Taylor and even Journey. There was an entire discussion about “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, a sidebar about Jackson Browne (“The Pretender” might just be the correct answer to the original question). Jim Croce himself made an appearance with “Time in a Bottle.” (This prompted a tributary conversation about dads who looked like Jim Croce.)

Many answers were tied to a specific person, or event: “I’m gonna go with ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ mostly because of my mom who passed away four and a half years ago who instilled in me my love of Motown and also because her name was Gladys.”

“ ‘Same Old Lang Syne,’ Dan Fogelberg. They play it every year at Christmas and it punches me in the gut every time I hear it.”

Next we got on to the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York,” that great call-and-response duet with Kirsty MacColl:

I could’ve been someone. Well, so could anyone.
You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.

I kept ’em with me, babe. I put them with my own.
Can’t make it all alone. I built my dreams around you.

By the time we got onto “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, it was a raging discussion — people posting lyrics and memories and suggestions for new songs, new genres. (What about modern classics like “California Stars” by Billy Bragg and Wilco, or “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem? What about hip-hop?) Most Eagles songs were shouted down (thankfully) though the political undertones of “The End of the Innocence” by Don Henley were treated with a respectful reverence. Someone even made a Spotify playlist inspired by the thread. So many people talked about the relief they felt to simply sit like teenagers in a room, listening to music and talking about what the songs meant to them — the connection, to the past, to the lost Atlantises, the buried treasures in our minds, to each other.

And it was around this time it occurred to me we’ve all lost something: that there is a dread infecting the country, maybe the whole world, a sense that the future might not be as good as the past. And this fight, this dread, this nagging fear about the future has become such a familiar burden, we don’t even think about it. Except when we dive down into memory where it does not exist, and momentarily the weight is lifted. Where we commune with our lost cities and ghosts and sense their presence. Not just the people. But the laughter, the clothes, the hairstyles, the ideas, the sound of their voices filling the room.

I became a father a year and a half ago. We started our son’s musical education with lullabies and children’s tunes. We’ve begun playing modern music for him. His current favorite song is “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. (I mark this as a personal victory.) He bobs his big noggin and slaps his hands on the comforter of the bed while we dance with him. These are the moments when I feel OK about the future again. When I remember that there are new cities to build, a new lifetime of memories still to come, and the music, for whatever mysterious reason, will always be a pathway back to this moment — for me, maybe for him — laughing and safe and hopeful and free.

It’s all there in the songs.

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The Hold Steady

There was a time when indie kids wouldn’t admit to listening to Springsteen — the alt-country kids might cop to liking Nebraska, but that was it. That is, until the Hold Steady crashed the party, and a whole scene reawakened to its love for anthemic paeans to the hopeless hopefulness of America’s suburban outsiders. Where 2004’s Almost Killed Me skillfully merged the wordy Van Morrison/Bob Dylan operatics of early Springsteen with the barfly poetry of prime Thin Lizzy and the wistful whimsicality of Minneapolis punk, 2006’s Separation Sunday upped the lyrical and conceptual ante, hoisting Craig Finn’s almost-annoying vocals over tracks that pushed THS’s Boss fetish towards Darkness on the Edge of Town territory, setting a template that the band has followed ever since. 2014 promises the release of Teeth Dreams, and if single “I Hope this Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is any indication, Finn and company have picked up right where they left off.

Thu., Feb. 6, 9 p.m., 2014

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The Reissue Van Morrison Doesn’t Want You to Buy

What happens when a hotly anticipated new release comes out by an artist . . . and the artist encourages you not to buy it?

Such a rare occurrence is usually due to the artist’s belief that the material is either inferior, not in final form, bootlegged, or has fallen into the clutches of an evil musical overlord via some less-than scrupulous Byzantine law of recording contracts. But with the recent expanded reissue of Van Morrison’s classic 1970 disc, Moondance (available in single and double-CD formats, plus a four CD/one Blu-ray version), none of that seems to be the case. Enter classic rock’s greatest curmudgeon.

“I do not endorse this,” Morrison wrote about the new versions of Moondance on his website, as reported by Rolling Stone. “My management company at that time gave this music away 42 years ago, and now I feel as though it’s been stolen from me again.”

The magazine also reported that Morrison has rejected many balloons floated in the past about a Moondance expanded reissue, or even a career-spanning box set.

Most fans, though, won’t care one bit about artist vs. record company financial or contractual quibblings. They’ll be happy to have not only a remastered version of the classic album, but all those demos, unreleased tracks, and alternate takes that are the main attraction for buyers of classic-rock reissues across the board.

The album is arguably both Morrison’s commercial and artistic high. More than half of the record’s 10 tracks are among Van the Man’s best known and loved: “And It Stoned Me,” “Crazy Love,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” “Come Running,” and the title track. And even the remainder have little fat on them from the walking bass country/jazzish “These Dreams of You” to the strong acoustic “Everyone” and the funky “Glad Tidings.”

They all sound amazing here, especially as the remaster brings out the bass, horns (from Jack Schroer and Collin Tilton), and even tambourine sizzles of “Into the Mystic.”

Of the second CD, none of the alternate versions trump the pick that made it onto the actual record — save, ironically for “Brand New Day.” It’s the weakest track, and could have benefited from the alternate, more soulful version. But it’s interesting to hear “Caravan” buoyed with sweet electric guitar licks and more sax, or discovering just how important the horns are to making “Into the Mystic” a killer once you’ve heard the song bereft of them. An alternate take of the title track sounds like it came right from Harry Connick Jr./Michael Bublé-ville. And the disc two version of “Come Running” could have been on a Delaney and Bonnie record.

Outtakes include a pedestrian version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” the hot James Brown–meets-Electric-Flag–like “I’ve Been Working” (the song would appear on His Band and the Street Choir), and the incredibly vibrant but unreleased Latin-tinged “I Shall Sing” (later a hit for Art Garfunkel).

England’s fine music magazine Mojo regularly asks artists to name their favorite Saturday night and Sunday morning records. Moondance definitely qualifies as a choice for the latter. Even if this version won’t be welcome in its creator’s own home.

The reissue of Moondance is out now on Rhino, should you wish to purchase it against Van’s wishes.

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Van Morrison

As it goes with many performers saddled with expectations based on their earliest iconoclastic works, live performances means struggling to reconcile legends with the strain of age and economic imperative. This is especially true for Van Morrison, the famously mercurial singer capable of ecstasy as well as scowling indifference even in his prime. However, touring in support of a just-released deluxe edition of his classic Moondance, Morrison appears to be in surprisingly strong voice for a 68 year-old, so that even when he strains to capture his old feverish sensuality he retains an imposing and enviable stage presence.

Mon., Nov. 25, 8 p.m., 2013

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The Allman Brothers Band

There are few New York traditions that unite Southern and experimental rock, jam band, jazz, and country fans under one roof, but the Allman Brothers annual Beacon run has become a rite of passage and pilgrimage for nearly a quarter century. They’ve grown older, perhaps wiser, and more stylistically deliberate, yet no amount of setbacks has stopped them from playing “Whipping Post” or Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” as the endless, escalating jam-based sermons that made their name. Their psychedelic, fractal-based light show hasn’t changed since the ’80s either, but a timeless period décor is typical of most religious institutions.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sun., March 17, 7 p.m. Starts: March 1. Continues through March 17, 2013

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Greil Marcus Revisits Some Strange Days…

Greil Marcus would like to talk about his iPhone.

“Look at the iPhone,” he says, picking it up from next to him on the couch in his crisply decorated, sun-soaked West Village apartment. “You know, it’s good looking…” He pushes the button at the bottom, and his home screen pops up. “I mean, isn’t that cool?” He points at the app logos. “What does that mean? Look at all those talismanic symbols—I wonder what they are?” He contemplates the object. “It was derided by all sorts of people, and I was probably one of them, as some sort of expensive status symbol, or just the latest electronic fetish object … But then people discover not only is it beautiful, not only is it cool—in the best sense of the word—but it’s also useful. And it really does make life easier. And not only does it make life easier, but it makes life more interesting and fun.”

Mr. Marcus was not asked for a pro-Apple testimonial. As is so often the case when you’re talking to Greil Marcus (or reading his writing), the route that got us to his iPhone began with something seemingly unrelated: a passage in his new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, in which he defines pop culture as “the folk culture of the modern market… an unknown station playing unknown music, until both turn into secrets everyone wants to tell.” In today’s world, he thinks the iPhone has that quality. “But on the other hand,” he continues, and being Greil Marcus, he then proceeds to connect this same notion to Mattie May Thomas, a mysterious singer recorded by a folklorist in a Mississippi women’s prison in 1939.

Connections like that, so seemingly random yet stitched so effortlessly into the texture of our vast cultural map, are a cornerstone of Marcus’s writing, which has torn through countless publications and 12 books on topics from punk to Dylan to Elvis to Clinton to Dadaism to The Manchurian Candidate. The new book is about the Doors, but true to form, it’s not just about the Doors, any more than Invisible Republic was just about the “Basement Tapes.” It is also about Lady Gaga, Thomas Pynchon, Oliver Stone, Don DeLillo, Pump Up the Volume, Them, Train, Ed Sullivan, Wild in the Streets, Wallace Berman, Chet Baker, and the Manson Family.

Like his 2010 tome Van Morrison: When That Rough God Goes Riding, The Doors is not a biography; these books are less about the artist than about the experience of listening to them. He chose to eschew personal details “except in the most minimal way necessary to give the reader grounding.” He hadn’t initially intended for the Van Morrison book to be the first of a series, but he was struck, while driving one afternoon, by the sheer volume and variety of Doors songs he was hearing on the radio.

He had always liked the band. He and his wife saw them “many, many times” in San Francisco in 1967, as they were breaking out, and after that as well. In writing about them now, he asked, “What drew people to them? What drew me to them? And I ended up saying something like, ‘People wanted to be in the presence of a group of people who seemed to accept the present moment at face value.’ In other words, to take it with the seriousness that it deserved. And the present moment, in 1967, ’68, ’69, was horrible… To accept the present moment at face value—that’s a big deal. That’s hard to do.”

Marcus is well aware that many contemporary music critics dismiss the Doors as pompous, overblown, tiresome. “There’s a way in which people find the Doors embarrassing,” he admits. “Often people did then, and people do now. They find their excess embarrassing, they find their or Morrison’s inability to tell something good from something bad embarrassing—and you know, a lot of what they did was awful, terrible. But behind embarrassment is fear. People are afraid of being moved by somebody who is so fucked up.”

While he’s not attempting to change anybody’s mind (“I’m not trying to make people appreciate the Doors,” he insists), Marcus certainly makes a persuasive case for the sheer visceral power of the music. Writing about a live performance of “Roadhouse Blues” in 1970, he goes off on one of his wonderful riffs, where he seems to match the musicality of the performance with his own energy, tempo, and momentum. “With each measure of vocal sounds the pressure in increased,” he writes, “the pressure is deeper, the abandon more complete, the freedom from words, meaning, song, band, hits, audience, police, prison, and self more real, precious, and sure to disappear around the next turn if you don’t keep your eyes on the road.”

Marcus was originally concerned about the relative dearth of material available to him, at least compared to the previous volume. “With Van Morrison,” he explains, “I had 45 years to work with. I had almost a lifetime of somebody’s work, a kind of vast terrain to explore.” With the Doors, though, the discography was slimmer, and confined to a much shorter period of time. “Could I possibly write a book about five years in a band’s life?” he wondered. But his mind was changed by the discovery of a four-CD set of bootleg recordings, carrying the undistinguished title Boot Yer Butt: The Doors Bootlegs. He found them completely captivating.

“These are awful recordings,” he announces with a grin. “This is not some professional or semi-professional bootlegger. These are just people with crappy recording equipment, and maybe they’re in the front, maybe they’re in the back, people are talking next to them… Jim Morrison might sound like he’s across the street, and the band might sound as if it hasn’t come out of the men’s room yet or something, and yet there was something…what’s the right word…” He pauses, searching. “Otherwordly about these recordings, as if you couldn’t believe these performances actually happened. A lot of the performances are very strong and chaotic and broken up by tirades or speeches or the song breaking down and then restarting, or people in the audience screaming abuse. All kinds of stuff is going on. And I just found it mesmerizing.” Here was an artifact that captured the intangible quality Marcus thinks resonates through the group’s best music—one that wasn’t always present on their records.

In the process of writing the book, in playing those odd field recordings and constructing a kind of “shadow version of the Doors’ career,” Marcus stumbled onto some archaeology of his own.

“I remembered that I had a folder of Doors stuff,” he recalls. “It included a handbill from the Fillmore Auditorium where I’d written down the songs they’d played on the back, a bunch of Avalon Ballroom handbills, which were mini-versions of the posters that they’d do for that particular week, and some other things.” Among those other things were newspaper and magazine pieces from the period. “In these old articles, which God knows why I kept them, I guess it was in ’68, Morrison is saying, ‘A Doors concert is a special kind of dramatic discussion between the audience and ourselves, called by us. We’re calling a meeting.’ And I thought that was an enormously rich idea. Whether or not it ever happened in the way he fantasized it, that notion would be in his hand when he’s standing on stage. And there are moments that you hear on this bootleg set, where he says to people just as Joe Strummer would do in 1977 in London, he would say, ‘Why are you here?’… I think he really wanted to know, but it’s also a device, it’s a challenge, it’s a way of throwing people back, and making them wonder why they’re here, what they want, what they expect, what they’re ready to accept or reject.”

That idea—the tension and dialogue between the artist and the audience—is one that has popped up in Marcus’s work before, in contemplating the hostility lobbed at Dylan and the Hawks by those notorious British hecklers in his Dylan study Like a Rolling Stone, or Van Morrison’s evasion and distrust of his audience in When That Rough God Goes Riding. It’s a theme that Marcus examines with authority because he remains firmly embedded in that audience; though a member of academia (he lives in Berkeley in the spring while teaching at NYU and the New School in the fall), his style is the very antithesis of “academic.” As his longtime friend and Village Voice colleague Robert Christgau notes, “People who accuse him of academicism generally know very little about academia except that it pisses them off. They’re threatened by his seriousness.”

He plans to continue working on these slim, “listener’s diary”-style volumes, primarily because “they’re fun to write,” he says. “They don’t take that long, and with this one especially, I’m really happy with it, partly because I had such fun writing it. So I don’t look at it as this great labor.”

On Monday, November 7, Book Court hosts a release party for Greil Marcus and The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. 7 p.m., 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, bookcourt.org.

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

The Wood Brothers

Guitarist Oliver and bassist Chris Wood live up to the rustic ring of their collective moniker with musicianship a notch or two higher than one tends to find in the forests of folk. As part of jamming jazzbos Medeski Martin & Wood, Chris adds an unexpected dimension to songs firmly rooted in the realm of shoo-fly pies, metaphorical mountains, and sibling harmonies vaguely reminiscent of Van Morrison with the Band. Also playing tonight is Chris Kasper.

Mon., Sept. 19, 10 p.m., 2011

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

He may not be as recognizable without the Tijuana Brass, but this ol’ labelhead and trumpeter had his catchy/kitschy string of hits in the ’60’s, not to mention a disco hit in the ’70s. Lately, he’s been teaming up with his wife, singer Lani Hall; their previous album of standards mined pre-rock pop while their new one mines Van Morrison and the Beatles in a jazzy bossa style. For adult contemporary, it’s nice, relaxing stuff ID’d by Herb’s clear tone.

Sun., Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m., 2011