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

2002 Pazz & Jop: Party in Hard Times

The worst one-two finish in the history of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll couldn’t have come in a worse year, and it’s my sworn duty to tell you why. The year was so bad it quashed a worthier worst one-two finish and continued on to a worst one-two-three, so bad that a worse finish yet could come in a worse year yet — namely, the 2003 this worst year sets up. But hey — rock and roll, big deal. If next Presidents’ Day Annan has snookered Wolfowitz and Sharon is on a leash and the worst son of a bad man has failed to slip another quantum of GNP to the one percenters, I won’t care if Pazz & Jop does go to early favorite Daniel Lanois. Meanwhile, history sucks, and headed by two of the dullest works of well-turned semipopularity ever to contemplate their own impotence, our 29th or 30th poll sucks right along with it.

One way or another, artists can’t help responding to current events. The question isn’t whether, it’s how —with denial always an option. From Tweedy and Beck to Cee-Lo and Karen O, from Charles Aaron to Shannon Zimmerman, almost all our finishers and the vast majority of our respondents are dismayed if not outraged by September 11’s fallout: the imminent attack on Iraq, invasions of privacy bleeding into curbs on expression, the arrant escalation of the class war initiated by Reagan. But that doesn’t mean they know what to do about it, and this old artistic dilemma is further snarled in reactions to September 11 proper that go deeper than outrage and dismay: mourning, disorientation, uncertainty, fear. While the oligarchs in Washington jumped to arrogate more power to their cohort, the rest of us grieved, seethed, tossed and turned, worried about right and wrong, and tried to reclaim our lives. Recall if you will how brave and weird it felt to go to a club or celebrate a birthday in the early autumn of 2001. Then realize that a lot of the apparently apolitical music honored by our critics this year was created under comparable emotional circumstances.

And then add the complication that a lot of it couldn’t have been, because it predates that pivotal day. Eight of our top 40 got votes in last year’s poll: Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Super Furry Animals, Andrew W.K., Soundtrack of Our Lives, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an earlier version of the N.E.R.D. album, and our winner (do the words “back story” mean anything to you?); so did several of the information thefts expropriated for the illegal-times-two Best Bootlegs in the World Ever. Linda Thompson’s return is a life project, and many early-2002 releases — Streets, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Doves, Clinic, Cee-Lo — were begun if not finished before the world changed. Even Steve Earle’s Jerusalem, with its focus track claiming John Walker Lindh is a human being, was mostly written by August 2001. And except for Jerusalem, which insisted, and our winner, so redolent it wrapped any meaning its admirers hung on it in a haze of regret, none of these albums was burdened with ex post facto relevance. All registered as getting-on-with-our-lives records, background music for a party in hard times.

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These before-and-after distinctions will seem overly fine to two camps that concur on little else: the hedonists who scoff at any politicization of pop discourse and the moralists for whom pop discourse is never political enough. Both find that music post-9/11 was as down with its own program as ever. Even our critically sanctioned kind is escapist on the singles chart, where the artistic action is bright of plumage and light of foot to compensate, and self-involved on the album chart, where blue brontosauri, hoary anodynes, great-headed shows of significance, and other protected species still rumble across the plain: Solomon Burke’s latest comeback, which has him trading backslaps with once-famed songwriters in a push-me-pull-you bacchanal the Grammys understand too well, or Sigur Rós’s deliberately incomprehensible attempt to bring Debussyan tone color to their gray-green land. But other bands demonstrated that formalism needn’t be ponderous to be self-referential. Austin’s Spoon jacked up their groove and pared down their sound on an album that accentuates keyboard yet announces its intentions with the opening words “small stakes”; Dakar’s Orchestra Baobab ended the long retirement that followed their climactic final LP with a masterful encore CD whose four best tracks improve songs from their first life. These were spirited and resilient records that had zero to do with the world situation they helped the world survive. Career albums topping career albums, they were music for music’s sake, down with their own programs.

Which brings us — God have I been dreading this — to our underwhelming winner-by-a-mile and surprise runner-up. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Beck’s Sea Change didn’t amass near the support of Dylan and the Strokes in 2001 or OutKast-Harvey-Radiohead-Eminem in 2000; with voting up 12 percent to 695, they pulled markedly fewer points. But they’re Pazz & Jop albums of the year regardless, and I wish they were easier to tell apart. Remember folk-rock? Well, this is folk-rock — evolved folk-rock, postmodern if you must, but folk-rock nonetheless. The giveaways are (a) pedigree and (b) drumming. Beck has long served as celebrity spokesperson for an antifolk movement long turned pro, and while alt-country turned out to be where songwriting adepts Ryan Adams and Rhett Miller shored up their popcraft against the roil of grunge, Wilco chose a different kind of genius move — channeling Woody Guthrie for Billy Bragg. Beck is also the white-funk trickster of Midnite Vultures, and although I’m truly sorry about his girlfriend, his groove there was knock-kneed enough to kick off a mutation into string-swathed crooner of sad songs all by itself. Wilco’s drummer is Ken Coomer — you could look it up, and I bet you’ll still have to. His most prestigious side credit is an inert track on Jerusalem, which rocks high-octane when Will Rigby is driving.

How I tell them apart is that Wilco is the one I tried to hate and ended up respecting and Beck is the one I tried to like and ended up walking around the room until it could get home on its own. As I relistened, it happened again: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was so passive-aggressive I wanted to throttle it, Sea Change so pretty I wanted to tell it I was sorry, only then Beck’s songs vaporized as Wilco’s took on a weathered solidity. Clearly, though, the two share a genetic code: diffident vocals, winsome tunes, contained tempos, affectless rhythms, and, above all, texture as aesthetic signifier. Nothing wrong with texture, which as timbre, melisma, “microtones,” etc. is a prized delicacy in almost every kind of music; in rock and roll, it’s been sticking out its tongue at “classical” canons of tonal purity since 1955. But note that its present vogue privileges what once would have been called sound effects, and that these proceed from the sampler and hence hip hop, though in England they say techno. Most would rate Radiohead’s OK Computer the apogee of pomo texture, well ahead of Beck’s Odelay, but before those two I fell for Latin Playboys. Where OK Computer’s sound effects are also alienation effects, all dystopian gloom, fractured groove, and hate-love relationship with technology, on Latin Playboys, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez conjure places and people past and present from Tchad Blake’s audio treasure chest, blending them in with a hip, swinging, hip-swinging sense of time. My view of our dystopian prospect is that if I change my mind now about who was right, bin Bush has won.

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As a token of their transcendent genius, Wilco split the difference. Our winner is temperate rather than warm or cold, reticent rather than sociable or disaffected, and barely sampled at all — more “treated,” or just plain arranged. The way Jeff Tweedy’s tunes seep through shifting strata of complication recalls Beck’s in Odelay, but Odelay was a lot jollier than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and also than Sea Change, which signals a retreat by abandoning the sampler for sour strings, gobs of reverb, and passably parsable lyrics. Both records make a virtue of their entanglement in disconnected sound, their depressive inability to control an encroaching environment — a defeatism familiar enough from slacker days, only slackers were hyperactive, funny, or at least ironic about it. Wilco’s and Beck’s integrity comes down to a stubborn determination — distinctly American in its folksy affect and go-it-alone-ism — to tell the world how very ineffective they feel.

There’s honor in this. But right below Beck, a better way glints through yet another pokey piece of soundscape Americana, the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where the psychedelic nutballs joke, cope, hope, and okey-doke with a lot more life than on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. I might have A-listed it if the pink robot was Dick Cheney instead of a stock sci-fi villain. But not even the guy I had penciled in above Beck found a way to get that specific. Had The Rising been half what it intended instead of a quarter, I could have nattered on about the matched insufficiencies of broken field run and power play, aestheticism and moralism, shards of sound and great gallumphing truckloads of good old rock and roll. But it wasn’t. It was a failure, magnificent or pathetic or tragic or self-important or merely insufficient. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s politics, as left-decent as any in the music. Then ask yourself how left-decent a reaction he got. And then try to imagine what better album might have radicalized his return. Should he have adopted the Mekons’ “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”? Earle’s “Jerusalem”? Would it have made a damn bit of difference if he had?

What, us effective? Of the finishers who responded directly to September 11, and there were several, only Earle seemed at all programmatic, a folkie without apology now. Elsewhere, politics were personal. If Sleater-Kinney and the Mekons were jolted upward pollwise, that’s because they’d been jolted themselves; if Missy Elliott name-checked the World Trade on her way to Aaliyah’s funeral and Eminem warned his army to stay out of Rumsfeld’s, they were doing what came naturally. Sonic Youth recorded at Ground Zero without getting literal about it, chalked up survivor credit, and were propelled back onto our chart by the musical machinations of fifth member Jim O’Rourke (also all over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and since I prefer the late-’90s Kim-and-Thurston Pazz & Jop snubbed, assume I don’t get him). Three “conscious” rap albums — by gabby Blackalicious, esoteric Common, and the perennial Roots — could have been recorded in 1997 for all the social science they dropped: career name-namers Zack De La Rocha and Gil Scott-Heron, for instance, contribute only righteous generalizations to Blazing Arrow, which burrows its aspersions on patriotism so deep John Poindexter will never notice. The opposition was out there. Be-Afroed Mr. Lif rhymed against the bombing of Afghanistan and finished a respectable 89th; conscious godfathers Public Enemy rhymed against Bush and won the support of a single cross-dressing punk rocker. But the voters preferred Common at his uncommon worst, dripping keyb-enhanced rectitude.

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It’s conceivable they had no way to know better. Strangely or not, all of our “alternative” hip hop albums are copyrighted information products of UniMoth MegaCorp, while Koch signee Public Enemy is now an indie act no less than Mr. Lif and his Def Jux labelmate, 41st-by-a-tiebreaker RJD2. (41–50, available online like the rest of our results: soundscaping RJD2, O Dixie Chicks Where Art Thou, third-with-its-2001-points White Stripes, AYWKUBTTODLAMF, Friends of Karen O, Tom Waits’s unbloodied Alice, she-has-my-2001-points Pink, Avril fans Boards of Canada, Boards of Canada fans Black Dice, state-of-the-union address Red Hot + Riot). Although the majors continued to bleed quality to small businesspeople less burdened by debt service, support for indie albums among our expanded electorate slipped slightly. Granted, exact counts are impossible, especially with every distribution and capitalization deal hiding its own wrinkle and the sign-’em-up farm-team model making a comeback (see Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Andrew W.K., Blackalicious, Houston ghetto boy cum former Rap-A-Lot recording artist Scarface, and soon Yeah Yeah Yeahs). But really, how was MCA’s Blazing Arrow a drastic improvement over Quannum Products’ NIA — music or promotion? Duh.

Also major-friendly is one of two significant European movements — not mashups, as indie as it gets even when 2 Many DJ’s gets permissions, but what I’ll designate Eurosemipop because Europop already means anything from ye-ye to Abba to *NSync to Coldplay itself. It would be willful to deny the tunes and sonics of Coldplay, Super Furry Animals, Doves, and Soundtrack of Our Lives, and they’re of their own culture. Stateside semipop like Spoon and (O Neko Where Art Thou) New Pornographers is altogether quirkier and more intense; the few American bands who aspire to a comparable sound — prominent melody textured with worked harmonies, whitebread emoting, and arrangements that mix trad and pomo — end up beefcake or cotton candy. Which is why only a cowboy like me could call Coldplay or Doves semi-anything — although they’re less laddish about it, in the land of Blurandoasis they were conceived to go for the gold. Gothenburg’s Soundtrack and Cardiff’s Furries are somewhat more boho. But all four distinguish themselves from, let us say, Clinic and the Hives by simple virtue of being dead on their feet — even Soundtrack, Stones fans though they may be. They hire drummers who could beat Ken Coomer within an inch of his life and then put that power in the service of the Antifunk. They aim for stasis even when they rock. Stasis is beauty. And beauty is…well, everything, innit?

Lyrically, let’s say that the Swedes and Welshmen favor alt-style allusion where the English bands cultivate well-meaning commonplaces. I feel Coldplay’s and not Doves’, but both clearly whispered radio-video to whoever was running Capitol at the time. Funk, Antifunk, what’s the diff. Just keep it vague, er, accessible — universal. When that’s the name of the major-label game — which it needn’t be, just ask such holdouts as Flaming Youth, Sonic Lips, E. Costello & His Amazing Gall Bladder, younger please, er, Queens of the Impending Stone Age, Scandinavia’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band, Shadow Knows, Norah Jones is too all-ages — stasis is neither here nor there. If there’s a market for beats, business schools, it’s your job to provide beats.

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For those who favor corporate support of the arts, this has long been a piece of luck. And in 2002 the voters finally offered clear statistical indication that great-headed shows of significance weren’t the only evolutionary success in a music that remains blues-based historically whatever its chords. For the first time since “Sun City” edged Little Creatures in 1985 — after “The Message” and “Sexual Healing” whipped Imperial Boredom in 1982 — more respondents listed our No. 1 single than our No. 1 album. With a third of the electorate still standing moot on singles, this makes Missy Elliott’s “Work It” pretty universal — hoisted aloft by 46 percent of the voters in her category where Wilco limped along at 29. For some voters, radio is a vast wasteland, the record business in its death throes. But for many others, pop innovation is at a historic peak, with artist-of-the-year beatmasters Timbaland and the Neptunes come to slash and burn the extinction-bound ponderosas on the album chart.

This old argument has never had more weight. Tim and the Neps have placed 12 records by 11 different artists on our singles charts over the past two years, with the Tim-and-Missy combo twice No. 1 in a landslide and “Work It” ’s Neptunes-Nelly preamble “Hot in Herre” third by a single vote in 2002 — behind “Lose Yourself,” Eminem’s rock song about the rap agon. For purposes of argument I wish two-three had reversed — Eminem got respect by becoming less interesting and less hip hop in 2002, and “Lose Yourself” isn’t even the best 8 Mile has to offer (especially 8 Mile the movie). Inconveniently, however, I never connected with “Hot in Herre”; for me the Neps’ great triumph was the sly funk they fashioned in tandem with Tim and 127th-place Justin Timberlake. If they’re the future, as Sasha Frere-Jones isn’t alone in believing, maybe I’m just showing my age. But hear me out.

The producer as auteur is an idea whose time has come and then some; having gotten to where what are called beats sometimes reject, sometimes exploit, and sometimes just are what are called hooks, we need figureheads with more rebop than Jeff Tweedy. But it’s one thing to insist that musicality in a rhythm music doesn’t equal songcraft plus sound effects, another to explain how any kind of pure musicianship, rhythmic included, signifies in pop, which achieves meaning by any means necessary. I should have voted for the backward-unmasked “Work It,” which grabbed me right after our deadline — it’s a surreally inventive novelty, so eventful it would take thousands of words to describe (love that jackass, or is it an elephant?). But even more than “Hot in Herre,” a novelty is what it is, a novelty about the liberating power of sex — especially if you think liberation involves oblivion, an ancient idea in people’s music.

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This is a myth whose efficacy is well-known at Pazz & Jop’s anti-pop extreme, in the only alt movement of moment: the Brooklyn bohos who successfully declared themselves a scene in the wake of 9/11, embracing the soft-core porn deceptively trademarked electroclash before shape-shifting toward an alienated DOR (“dance-oriented rock,” we called such earlier overrated bands as the Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid) best understood by the DFA label. Result: three charting singles, the dominatrix tongue-in-chic of the squeaked-on Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP, and the well-chilled eroticism of half-Brit Interpol’s top-20 album. Right, the sexualization of pop has been accelerating for many years — since MTV, maybe disco. And as usual — here come da “Sexual Healing,” now tell me where da “Message” — black musicians do it better. Still, this is a party in hard times however you slice it. Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before we let that happen we’ll fuck our lives away.

A believer in sex myself, I voted for Tweet-and-Tim’s “Oops (Oh My),” where Tweet strokes herself in the mirror after a hot date, a consummation much preferable to Interpol’s “You’re so cute when you’re frustrated dear/You’re so cute when you’re sedated dear.” But I’m not convinced anyone should feel obliged to get naked at the drop of a hint, and wish Missy was autonomous enough to differentiate between sex-positive and boy-crazy; when she offers to “put my thing down flip it and reverse it,” well, I like the way the image matches the music, but as a procedural guideline it seems a bit on the fancy side. I love the track, and in general prefer Tim’s gnarled beats (every one a swamp, with old sneakers, interesting deadwood, and empty Henny bottles set out like folk sculpture) to the Neptunes’ sleek, efficient ones (more like airports: strong franchise coffee, moving sidewalks, fluorescent lighting everywhere). But for me the most gratifying surprise of this poll was the Neptunes d/b/a N.E.R.D.’s In Search of…, which I now love for the same reasons I panned it in July: Obscenely wealthy, obscenely catchy thugs-by-association rationalize their ethics and throw their dicks around, only they’re consumed by doubt and hence honest enough to make themselves look like jerks. As conflicted as Biggie or Ghostface and more self-examined, they’ll be ready for the orgiasts whenever it cools down in therre — which is not to claim the orgiasts will be ready for them.

There I go, trumping a single with an album like I always do. Sorry, that’s how I hear, and how I want you to hear. I’ll never dis beatmastery, been pumping it forever, but even in hip hop I see bigger future in the Roots and Cee-Lo, both of whom chose this year to humanize their formal commitment with injections of singing and guitar. Up against my fellow citizens over in Williamsburg I’ll take the Drive-By Truckers’ underclass regionalism — or the alt logorrhea of Omaha’s/Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Brixton’s/the Streets’ Mike Skinner, one texturing with an 11-piece band featuring bassoon and cello, the other with low-end electronic junk. And when I want to escape — which I often do, music is great for it — I have plenty of living options. Heading my fuck-what-you-say Dean’s List, the longest ever, are the worldly, faithful, Muslim/Catholic, catholic/pagan Afrosalsa of Orchestra Baobab; the self-sufficient, ears-everywhere, middle-class microcosm of DJ Shadow; and the mad, bitter, guarded, indomitable truth-telling of the Mekons. I’m proud they all finished, never mind where. Jon Langford, who’s managed to put out four albums since last March including one against the death penalty, is my artist of the year, and I intend to follow his example. The world won’t end, you know. It will just get worse.

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Top 10 Albums of 2002

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

2. Beck: Sea Change (DGC)

3. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)

4. The Streets: Original Pirate Material (Locked On/Vice)

5. Sleater-Kinney: One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)

6. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia)

7. The Roots: Phrenology (MCA)

8. Eminem: The Eminem Show (Aftermath/Interscope)

9. Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)

10. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (Elektra)

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Top 10 Singles of 2002

1. Missy Elliott: “Work It” (Elektra)

2. Eminem: “Lose Yourself” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. Nelly: “Hot in Herre” (Universal)

4. The Hives: “Hate to Say I Told You So” (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph)

5. Eminem: “Without Me” (Aftermath/Interscope)

6. The White Stripes: “Fell in Love With a Girl” (V2)

7. Kylie Minogue: “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (Capitol)

8. Nirvana: “You Know You’re Right” (DGC)

9. Rapture: “House of Jealous Lovers” (DFA)

10. Tweet: “Oops (Oh My)” (Elektra)

—From the February 12–18, 2003, 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

1999 Pazz & Jop: Flak on Both Sides

Rock critics are nerds. We like it that way. We like staying home and listening to records, then trading them in for other records (even, heh heh, beer money). We like being on the guest list, too. There’s lots of good things about this job. We don’t have to coo over John Updike or Robert Bresson. We get to use CAPITALS more than front-of-the-book colleagues who don’t know our names. And exclamation points! So say it loud — ROCK CRITICS ARE NERDS!! A nerd army, with thesauruses mightier than a ploughshare, and the up-to-the-minute vernacular weapons our chosen artform exploits so greedily. We’re paid to have fun! We’re not paid much, true. But, heh heh, see the barter part above.

All of which is to explain why, for rock critics, the turning of the millennium took a backseat to something far more important: 1999 was a terrible year to be a nerd. Or anyway, an art nerd; techie nerds did fine. Yet though the spectacle of young workaholics getting rich quick with every IPO hardly enhanced the social happiness of our community of content providers, the year’s most galling indignities were inflicted by our chosen artform. We’re used to not topping the charts; too many of us enjoy it. But usually there are status perks to compensate, and historically the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has partaken of these. The 1998 Lauryn Hill–Lucinda Williams face-off pitted the glamorous teacher-diva of rockcrit’s rap dreams against a longtime succès d’estime propelled into something resembling fame by print media; 1997 winner Bob Dylan proffered wordslingers the gift of meaningful old age if not eternal life, while in a grand old Brit tradition Radiohead’s art-rocking second-runners rode reviews to sales; in 1996 alt-folk superloser Beck transformed himself into a pop-funk best-seller by dint of the cleverness and chutzpah rockcrits live by; and before that we lived for years off Nirvana’s leavings.

Our 26th or 27th poll provides no such satisfactions, showcasing shortfall after shortfall. Not only are winner Moby and runner-up Stephin Merritt two of the shrimpiest guys ever to achieve prominence in an artform that has never competed with the NFL, but their albums are succès d’estime only: Moby’s Play clawed its way to 125 on “Bodyrock” ’s run and is now, cross your fingers, climbing again, while the Magnetic Fields’ three-CD 69 Love Songs wouldn’t have charted if Stephin’s mom had bought out Merge’s first pressing. These heroes are followed by former pop-funk best-seller Beck, whose supposed sexx album has failed to back any azzes away from the black pop that supposedly inspired it; Oklahoma’s acid-tested Flaming Lips, who floated their magnum opus heavenward in a poll where they’d never cracked 60 before but, as with all but one of their previous dozen longforms, failed to breach the Billboard 200; and the indie-rock debut of old semipop role model Tom Waits. Then the exception, Rage Against the Machine’s double-platinum The Battle of Los Angeles, album of the year in Rolling Stone and runner-up in Spin, kudos some call p.c. though clearly both rewarded Rage’s rare-in-’99 parlay of critical and commercial credibility. Fiona Apple’s solider follow-up to her megaselling 1996 debut clearly lacks the legs of the hit that made it possible, as does Beck’s sillier follow-up; released in November, both are certified gold and swooning around toward the bottom of the top 100 as I write. Sadly soothing Wilco and Beth Orton enjoyed even less impressive SoundScan debut-peaks, 78 and 110. And the sole top-10 hip hop selection, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, is on indie-rap Rawkus, a sales behemoth by indie-rock standards that has yet to command the market share galvanized by nearly every 1999 release on Def Jam or Cash Money.

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Shortfalls are business as usual on our unbusinesslike survey, of course. But except for 14th-place Nine Inch Nails, 1999 was exceptional for its dearth of crit-mersh parlays down the line; the hip hop and r&b artists we deigned to recognize don’t need us for sales or status, and with 40th-place Santana we’re just along for the ride — Carlos’s four other ’90s albums garnered nary a mention. Worse still, these fiscal embarrassments are epiphenomena. The real problem is that, just like in high school, we’re being made to look bad from two sides, and in areas where we thought we’d secured squatter’s rights. Hitters like Limp Bizkit will sell records forever, we accept that, but we never imagined that one day they’d get to smash all that Woodstock peace-and-love ticky-tacky to bits — Woodstock was ours no matter how much we made fun of hippies. And though teenpop had been coming and going even longer than metal, it had generally been reducible to a single symbol like the Osmonds or the New Kids. How annoying to have to distinguish between the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And how ominous that every goddamn one of these cheerleaders and student council suckups was selling a gazillion albums. Like Woodstock, albums are supposed to be ours. They’re supposed to have artistic pretensions. Teenyboppers get singles.

For purposes of clarity, I’ve been free with the editorial “we” here. In fact, not all rock critics are nerds, and if you don’t buy that one how about not all nerds are the same? Specifically, some have no use for the state of formal hyperconsciousness that rolls its eyes at pop’s trick bag of mnemonic riffs — they like having their buttons pushed. So our singles voters have always made room for trifles album snobs enjoy despising — “Jump,” “Lump,” “Creep,” “Jump Around,” “Unbelievable,” “La Macarena,” “C’Mon N’ Ride It,” and, most remarkably, 1997’s first-place “MMMBop,” which occasioned a P&J cover depicting three milk-drinking young Oklahomans taking a bubble ride. With teenpop all over the radio in 1999, the electorate anointed three certified cheerleaders and suckups — Britney, Christina, and the Backstreet Boys. But since “I Want It That Way” is a timeless cipher that deserved to whup the “progressive” “No Scrubs,” and the misleadingly kid-identified “Steal My Sunshine” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca” are the kind of happy skyrockets the voters always go for, this showing seems pretty lackluster to me. Critic after resentful critic complained that unnamed colleagues were shilling for teen shit, but darned if I know who they mean. Does Metal Mike Saunders loom that large? Am I really not allowed to stick a Backstreet Boys column in between the Latin Playboys and the Holy Modal Rounders? Some people are so threatened by the state of the pop marketplace that any informed response to same is dismissed as a pseudointellectual betrayal just for accepting — provisionally, mind you — the marketplace’s terms.

Really, even folks who compare Max Martin to Gertrude Stein or usher symbolic schoolgirls into their sex fantasies have their doubts about this pop marketplace. So before I move on to the music I care most about — Moby and the Magnetic Fields topped my album list too — allow me a few observations and projections. Christina Aguilera could end up a cleaner if not squeakier Mariah Carey, God help us, and some kid cabal Jive Records has never heard of is sure to bust out of the rehearsal rooms. But musically, teenpop’s crucial architect so far — producer-songwriter for BSB, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and counting — has been Swedish Europop mastermind Martin, who has direct links to Ace of Base. Those who believe his songs will fast-fade into oblivion should forget Paula Abdul and the Bay City Rollers and ponder the gaudy durability of Abba. They should wonder whether in 1968 Kasenetz & Katz themselves were certain that the Ohio Express’s “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” would be remembered longer than anything ever recorded by Rhinoceros or the Electric Flag. I’m not even convinced the teenpoppers will self-destruct when their target demo graduates from high school. All these showbiz kids memorize Behind the Music. Isn’t it possible that, just like George Michael, one of them will figure a way out of its cycle of eternal recurrence?

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Boy-band pimp though I may be, I hope not. Surrounding a few telling details with feel-good platitudes that never face facts or smash up the joint, teenpop is George W. Bush music right down to its faint Latin flavor. But this fact of life is aesthetic, not political — if kids do actually fall for the latest Yalie drug survivor, blame the Democrats or the damn Greens, not Carson Daly, Vibe, and the failure of Seagrams to make role models out of Girls Against Boys. What’s remarkable about the present pop moment isn’t the ignorance, passivity, and materialism of its consumers, none of it as one-dimensional as elitists assume. Correcting for economic anxiety, which diminished in the ’90s no matter how delusory the new mood may be, do you really think Nirvana’s millions were so different? The change is almost entirely a matter of blandness quotient, in fans and artists alike. And what’s unprecedented is not just that a rather luscious aesthetic has cohered around this vanilla sensibility, an aesthetic that at its best — as in LFO’s borderline-stupid “Summer Girls,” which ducked insults all the way to its 36th-place tie — makes its gawky self-interest seem coltish and sexy. It’s that this aesthetic is the only new game in the console. Not that we should write off future undergrounds — quite the opposite. But except in hip hop, where I hope against hope that breakouts and consolidations are imminent, few imagine that these undergrounds are anything else.

With only four of the top 10 singles on charting albums, no one can grump that the critics are reiterating their long-form tastes; it’s not their fault when the hits they love are withheld or withdrawn to force people to buy bad CDs with good songs on them. Their singles aesthetic favors energy and edge: “Steal My Sunshine” and “Believe” and “Praise You” and “Bawitdaba” and “Vivrant Thing” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca” all devote themselves to toning up the élan vital, while “No Scrubs” and “You Got Me” and “All Star” and “My Name Is” and “Unpretty” are reality rushes, upful doses of home truth that set pungent rhyme to body-friendly rhythm. But of their top 10 albums, only Moby’s Play and Beck’s Midnite Vultures (both of which scored singles, notice) pay much mind to either effect, and even those are Serious Works. If Beck had accomplished anything like the art-funk/mind-body fusion he’s claiming, he would have run away with the poll — his problem isn’t that he tries to be funny, but that his jokes are as forced as his horn charts. Moby, on the other hand, not only proved himself the humanistic sellout techno straight-edgers have always suspected but gave unto the world his devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Atheists have been having mystical experiences on the dance floor since disco. This born-againer made them flesh. He’s never believed electronics were the living end, and doesn’t show proper respect for the generic blues and gospel he exploits so grandly either. That makes him our kind of guy, and that’s why he won. Hurray.

When I say these albums are Serious, I mean for one thing that they’re short on laughs. Beyond Midnite Vultures, the only top-10 albums that made jokes a project came from Tom Waits, a funny guy who should be funnier (less Kerouac, more Burroughs, and please mister could we have some Ginsberg too) and isn’t as funny as he thinks he is (more pop burlesques, fewer literary grotesques). Plus of course the Magnetic Fields, whose three-CD act of conceptual derring-do is almost never not funny — even when the presumptive mood is somber, which isn’t often, the bravura rhymes make you chuckle with delight if not amusement. Cheap or rich, the tone is so much more complex than what is suggested these days by “irony” that you can assume anyone who uses the term doesn’t get the record, which knows things about love that you don’t. Since Merge was stingy with freebies, most of its 99 supporters paid or traded for it, which makes its second-place finish even more impressive. It will, it will rock you.

Granted, other funnymen also made our top 40 — nasty Randy Newman, kindly John Prine, wiggy Handsome Boy Modeling School, buggy ODB, dirty Kid Rock, and dirtier Eminem constitute the usual quota or better. What’s more serious is how many of the critics’ favorite albums took up the burden of historical recapitulation. It would be nonsense to call this impulse millennial when it so obviously reflects rock and roll’s ever-advancing maturity, which I mean not as stodgy compliment or veiled insult but neutral description. So our winner joyfully integrated rural feeling (not to mention rural hooks) into a “postmodern” “electronica” that has lost its next-big buzz — diehards voted for the Chem Bros. and Underworld the way earlier diehards stuck with Van Morrison, but the utopian rhetoric has faded away. Our runners-up, meanwhile, impassively stuffed an eccentric reading of 20th-century songwriting into slyly rudimentary postrock arrangements that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard except old Magnetic Fields. The same historiographic impulse touched off the repertory revivals of Prine and Ibrahim Ferrer, and imbues blues- and bluegrass-steeped Tom Waits and Steve Earle. Less familiarly and more pregnantly, it also puts across the pop-schooled orchestrations of Randy Newman (who invented this shit), Fiona Apple (thank you Jon Brion), XTC (West End boys after all), and — a thorny case — the Flaming Lips.

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Newman, Apple, and XTC we grasp: sonically arresting showpieces deploying lots of traditional pop instruments, rock only by association that couldn’t have happened without it. The Soft Bulletin, on the other hand, is rock period even though it drips with violin surrogates and trips over the beats of a drummer who’s spent too much time in the practice room. It’s the prime 1999 example of the species of contained adventure in which Megapop Inc. (especially Warners, which is still bravely trying to sell it) once invested with proud alacrity. People love it because it’s neopsychedelic in such an American, wide-open-spacy way — generous by nature, jerry-built on principle, and hopeful beyond all reason. What puts me off is that Wayne Coyne evinces so much more sweetness than brain. What puts me off Nine Inch Nails’ double-hoohah, on the other hand, is that Trent Reznor evinces neither, unless you think musical intelligence equals human intelligence, his con for years — always with music that says things like “dream job: emperor” and “more fun than death by injection.” Handsome Boy Modeling School gives me better goof and better techno-obsessiveness than either attempted masterwork, plus I know they’re not just wise guys because Prince Paul’s concept-album-of-the-year had deeper politics than The Battle of Los Angeles.Why both finished below The Soft Bulletin and The Fragile (and The Battle of Los Angeles) is for me to know and you to figure out.

The difference between confronting history and leaching life from the tried-and-true often confounds our alt-country branch. Wilco fans believe Jeff Tweedy is turning into Brian Wilson, poor guy; I’m reminded more of Tom Petty and the dogged craft of Richard Thompson, auteur of the not-half-baddest effort on our list. Since good songs infused with the right compound of concept and conviction can signify in any style, Kelly Willis and the Old 97’s are a different story. Only it’s easier to hear the songs if you feel the style — others pump Robbie Williams and Everything but the Girl as thinking teenpop and techno feminism, whereas for me they’re hip fop and pseudo Sade. I prefer the hip-schnook pseudopop of Fountains of Wayne, whose Utopia Parkway promises endless fun-fun-fun to those who can forget what’s actually on the car radio and don’t know that the real Utopia Parkway is a decaying residential thoroughfare in Queens. I’ll also take Mary J. Blige’s soulful indifference to class, which more than her stalwart songs is why I prefer her to Macy Gray, whose Billie-and-Dinah voice says Birdland and whose Shara-and-Dionne material (Nelson, Farris, remember?) says bank your advance. As someone who didn’t think Me’shell Ndegéocello would come this far, however, I’m not giving up on Gray. Like Ndegéocello, she wants to do something big with her big gift. It’s conceivable that someday either might come up with her own Play — or, what can you do, Soft Bulletin.

The hip hop that is regularly shortchanged in this poll is juiced as much by a similar sense of mission as by the new or undiminished musical ideas at its disposal. Figure a more involved and representative electorate would have boosted every rap title in our top 40 as well as elevating Mobb Deep (72nd) and late-December Jay-Z (68th, wait till next year) toward the printed chart. But note that the alt-pop split that has afflicted and energized rock since punk is taking hold in hip hop too. Because its market remains far more discerning than the dolts who assume it isn’t, the Roots are genuine stars, and voter favorites like Mos Def and Prince Paul still outsell all but the biggest alt-rockers. But they don’t represent the culture, just its Talented Tenth types. Although Prince Paul’s very different tours de force make him artist of the year — quite a contrast to Dr. Dre, who edges Marilyn Manson and Celine Dion for shithead of the decade even if his grayboy Eminem has a lot better chance of turning Beastie than Limp Bizkit do — the Roots’ soul jazz and Mos Def/Black Star’s understated old-schoolisms don’t transform enough history to suit me. Nor does flava-of-the-year Mannie Fresh agitate my azz, which never caught the Miami booty-boom either — the embarrassing fact is that I have more fun with the Brits in Basement Jaxx. In case you didn’t know, however, I also don’t represent the culture — I mean, not only am I down with Q-Tip’s electrobeats, I still like the Canibus album. So I’ll abide steadfastly until some forward-looking race man — not one of those hippy-dippy West Coast guys, and quite possibly Black Star itself — takes alt-rap all the way home.

If I continue to look to hip hop for pop renewal, that’s due partly to my regard for James Brown and partly to hip hop’s art-commerce interface. But it’s too late for semipopular music to stop now — way too late. So I meant what I said about not counting undergrounds out. Which brings us to 1999’s most striking statistics.

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Reflecting Megapop Inc.’s withdrawal from the succès d’estime game, a record 14 of our top 40 (more than ’96 and ’97 combined) were manufactured and distributed by independent labels — including 69 Love Songs and Play, the first indie one-two ever. In part that’s because indie patterns have changed. Play is on V2, the thumb Richard Branson stuck in EMI’s eye after unloading Virgin; Prince Paul works for hip hop pioneer Tommy Boy, still half-owned by Warners but otherwise independent; former runner-up Pavement finished only 29th in what I hope isn’t its swan song on Matador, which earlier in the ’90s took two majors’ money and ran. Moreover, five of our finishers — Moby, Waits, Willis, XTC, Prine — spent years at Megapop before bailing to conspicuously solvent indies (or, in Prine’s case long ago, forming his own shoestring one). With all respect to The Soft Bulletin, can Built to Spill be far behind?

All this downsizing is one reason P&J’s newbie quotient is dipping as its indie quotient rises. For most of the ’90s, half or more of our top 40 artists were cracking the album list for the first time. In 1998 the total was down to 18 including the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill; this year it’s way down to 14, including Black Star’s Mos Def, Buena Vista’s Ferrer, the two entries from former De La Soul man Prince Paul, and, well, Santana. Seven of a 41-50 that goes Dixie Chicks–Caetano Veloso–Chili Peppers–Le Tigre–Blur–Cassandra Wilson–Latin Playboys–Guided by Voices–Buddy Miller–Joe Henry have been top 40 in the past, as have almost half the 51-100 finishers. Maybe this surfeit of repeaters is just one of our logjams, in which so many known thirtysomethings make honorable records that name recognition prevails until a tsunami sweeps them all away. On the other hand, maybe it indicates that the new game is controlled — temporarily, right? — by cheerleaders, suckups, and hitters. Macy Gray or no Macy Gray, the only 1999 newcomers I can readily imagine establishing new rules are my favorite hitters, Eminem and Kid Rock, both also hip hoppers of sorts. I bet both are too old, and materialistic, to risk it.

Lots of comments, so I’ve farmed out only one mini-essay, in which longtime indie-rock participant-observer Katherine Spielmann advances an encouraging claim: that at long last indie privatism is giving way to polemic and struggle. Since the privatism was a reaction to Nirvanamania, an indulgence of the agoraphobia that’s as bad for semipopular music as racism, heroin, and Germans playing synthesizers, it damn well ought to recede — especially now that the invaders are gone when you stick your head out of the root cellar. And having spent my adult life watching lefties make speeches to people who aren’t listening, I don’t expect any new bunch of white people with more time than money and not enough of either to save many souls or forge many polities. But since Spielmann’s case begins with Sleater-Kinney, whose The Hot Rock was the most undervalued record of 1999 and who this year will release two more projects (one with the Go-Betweens!), and Le Tigre, a top-30 band if more voters had heard them and certain cult heroes if they stick at it, I do expect some of them to lift my soul — and yours, if you’re into it. WHICH I HOPE YOU ARE!

We nerds need to stick together. No matter how many critics share the banal belief that the others are caught up in some banal mesh of herd mentality and genteel taste, our consensus can tell the world something about musical quality. It can also tell us. Looking down my own lengthy list of gooduns, I find scarcely an item that wasn’t originally supported by some species of word-of-mouth. I look forward to hearing and reading about more in the years to come. Maybe I’ll even be wrong about the soul saving. It’s happened before.

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Top 10 Albums of 1999

1. Moby: Play (V2)

2. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge)

3. Beck: Midnite Vultures (DGC)

4. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)

5. Tom Waits: Mule Variations (Epitaph)

6. Rage Against the Machine: The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic)

7. Fiona Apple: When the Pawn… (Clean Slate/Epic)

8. Wilco: Summerteeth (Reprise)

9. Beth Orton: Central Reservation (Arista)

10. Mos Def: Black on Both Sides (Rawkus)

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Top 10 Singles of 1999

1. TLC: “No Scrubs” (LaFace)

2. Eminem: “My Name Is” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. Len: “Steal My Sunshine” (Epic)

4. Madonna: “Beautiful Stranger” (Maverick)

5. Backstreet Boys: “I Want It That Way” (Jive)

6. Cher: “Believe” (Warner Bros.)

7. Smash Mouth: “All Star” (Interscope)

8. (Tie) Ricky Martin: “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (C2/Columbia)
The Roots: “You Got Me” (MCA)

10. Santana Featuring Rob Thomas: “Smooth” (Arista)

—From the February 22, 2000, 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

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, 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.