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

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

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

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

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

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

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2000

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

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

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

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

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

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

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

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

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

—From the February 20, 2001, issue

 

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

 

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

1997 Pazz & Jop: The Year of No Next Big Thing

Because the 24th or 25th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the biggest-and-bestest ever, it tempted me to come out shilling for our big fat turnout and shiny new machines. Because the winner was in doubt well into the computerized tally, his margin of victory the smallest since…Blood on the Tracks? — no no no, Born in the U.S.A. — it beckoned the frustrated sportswriter in me. But I run this thing because I like being a rock critic. My boyish delight in the charts doesn’t do as much for my cardiovascular tone as my adult pleasure in the kid music I call rock and roll. And this year, its kiddie and grown-up quotients soared in parallel, with confusing consequences for the art-in-itself critics supposedly monitor.

If one generalization can apply, which it never can, try this: a terrible year for the rock “vanguard.” Yet though nobody this side of MTV would mistake a grizzled popcult booster like me for an avant-gardist, I wasn’t wild about the myriad shapes the tried-and-true assumed. An admirer of our winner, Bob Dylan’s darkly traditionalist Time Out of Mind, I nevertheless prefer Blood on the Tracks and seven or eight of its predecessors. I am underwhelmed by second-place Radiohead, an arena-rock band that could do with smaller gigs on its touring schedule and fewer on its hard drive, as well as most of the electronica-flecked hedgers and retro-fretting folkies-in-disguise waving guitars further down the list. Topping a platter of pop-’em-in-your-mouth singles, meanwhile, is a teenybopping bonbon said to be as addictive as “I Want You Back,” but though I’ll certainly take Hanson’s milk-fed cheer over Radiohead’s bulimic paranoia of convenience, I still like my chocolate bittersweet (and my symphonies not at all). Only in hip hop, saved from self-destruction by a song and dance man rather than the wizards of Shaolin, are the year’s old-fashioned pleasures big enough fun, and that’s ignoring a consumerism so corporate it inspires nostalgia for dookie gold.

If anything summed up rock’s foreshortened horizons, however, it was the twin pop events of the year, the more undeniable of which was the resurgent singles chart, where in 1996 a mere 34 voters (out of 236) made the Quad City DJ’s our winners. In 1997, as the electorate exploded to 441 (previous high: 308), the Middle American “MMMBop” attracted a much healthier 96 full-time fans, followed by the Brit-hits “Tubthumping” and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — the first time black artists have ever been shut out of the top three. But the renewed respectability of pop evanescence peaked with the Spice Girls. Grown from the DNA of En Vogue, Elastica, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they got a free ride from Alanis-haters turned Fionaphobes by making no attempt to conceal their inauthenticity, thus rendering it moot. Though I think “Wannabe” is a great record, I have my reservations about how eagerly pop intellectuals suck up this amusing pseudofeminist scam. The problem isn’t politics, even if their movie defines girl power as bearing a baby — a female baby with her dad on the lam. It’s that they’re not good enough. Since none of them (including my favorite, Baby) dazzles as a singer or comedienne, and since the run of their material is bland Eurovision crapola, their deepest pleasures are ipso facto convolutional: femme-friendly respite from feminist puritanism along with people-friendly respite from rockist puritanism. And if in the end they ain’t all that, well, what else you got?

The answer many critics embraced was an overwhelmingly male-defined imaginary world somehow untainted by political incorrectness. Declaring it a pop event may seem cheeky. But at its distribution level it enjoyed phenomenal exposure and spin control, and it was named by more Pazz & Joppers than “MMMBop” itself, only the second time a No. 1 reissue has outdrawn a No. 1 single (the first was Robert Johnson over Deee-Lite, 1990). Just as the Spice Girls address a pop present that assumes no pop future, asserting the significance of the trivial more fiercely and playfully than any academic culture vulture, Harry Smith’s dazzlingly repackaged Anthology of American Folk Music addresses a pop present that has longed for permanence since at least 1823, when the obscure Brit songwriting team of Henry M. Bishop and John Howard Payne penned the 19th century’s greatest hit, “Home Sweet Home.”

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I love the Anthology myself — it’s not all as transcendent as is hoped, but it keeps opening up. As everyone should know by now, the old songs it canonized in 1952 are hardly unbesmirched by commerce. They were recorded for sale to subcultural markets circa 1930, not unlike indie-rock today. Nor are they especially homey, or sweet. Selected by one of the signal bohemians of our era, they’re the opposite of parlor music, many of them surreal, dislocated, and/or violent tales of what this year’s winner summed up in the title of his 23rd-place 1993 album: a World Gone Wrong. And so, while inspiring the so-called folk revival, they also presaged rock and roll, which first revved up their social utility and then claimed their themes. In 1997, many rock and rollers — seeking formal solace in a world gone wrong and around too long to take techno-utopianism literally — felt a need to access their ingrained knowledge.

As it happened, Bob Dylan — who has now put 15 albums on our charts since Pazz & Jop began in 1974 or 1971, more even than Neil Young (14) or Prince (13) — had been on this trail all decade, certainly since his folk albums of 1992 and 1993. In 1997, he not only got it right but scored his greatest PR coup since he fell off that motorcycle. I don’t mean to belittle an illness we’re blessed he survived, but I’m convinced that Time Out of Mind is in no intrinsic way “about death.” Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated — even if “The end of time has just begun” reminds me all too acutely of how the minutes crawl when the love connection is broken. The mortality admirers hear in it is their own, mirrored in a vocal mask half sage and half codger, in the nakedness of the one-syllable words the artist affects and the weary music that backs them. The timelessness people hear in it, on the other hand, is what Dylan has long aimed for — simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received. In a year when the rock “vanguard,” in both its struggling electronica and barely breathing post-rock cough cough modes, vowed to break the bonds of lyrics and verse-chorus-verse, only callow ideologues could simply ignore Harry Smith’s and Bob Dylan’s arguments for history. And many felt the Spice Girls and Hanson were an evolutionary outcome of this history.

Of course, only naive zealots believed songs, singing, and the four-four were actually on their way out. But with Nirvanamania grinding into schlock as Britain’s acid house fissure spread in all directions, it did seem as if the infinite palette of computerized sound was about to work some permanent changes on the collective ear, not just of critics but of workaday consumers. And pollwise, at least, the failure of “electronica” stops with the term itself. Despite no-shows by Tricky and DJ Shadow, both certain to return in 1998, the Chemical Brothers plus Roni Size plus Prodigy plus Daft Punk add up to the largest number of techno artists ever to chart, with Björk and Portishead and Stereolab and Primal Scream and Radiohead down with the program. But while our 16 U.K. finishers (counting Björk and Stereolab but not full-time Frenchmen Daft Punk), the most since 1980 and the second most ever, include all of the above, they also include, in descending order of technophilia, U2, Cornershop, Spiritualized, the slackly electronica-associated Beth Orton, the Verve, Supergrass, Blur-not-53rd-place-Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian.

In short, as we should have known from Blur-versus-Oasis as well as common sense and casual observation, Britain’s techno revolution was, gee, less than total. Not only did it leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by a high-concept readymade, but it produced numerous partial converts and the usual complement of rebels, skeptics, and go-it-aloners, including guitar bands aplenty. So Brits took over a new-blood function that Pazz & Jop has long vouchsafed Amerindies. This year adds to a U.S. honor roll that includes X, R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sleater-Kinney two minor bands on major labels: Ryan Adams’s Whiskeytown, led by a dulcet young hook merchant with “left to pursue a solo career” embroidered on the seat of his jeans, and Doug Martsch’s much meatier Built To Spill, a stubbornly domestic project of no discernible commercial potential. And although the four U.S. quasifolkie chart debuts include tuneful if depressive Elliott Smith and expressive if depressive Richard Buckner, the other two are showbiz hopefuls: Fiona Apple, Lilith Fair’s answer to Alanis, and Ron Sexsmith, a thoughtful cutie-pie who wants to give Tim Hardin his shot at the brass ring.

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The real change, however, is that excepting genius-from-nowhere miniaturists Belle and Sebastian and in their peculiar way Blur, who elected to escape the shadow of Oasis and the Kinks by aping Pavement, the British newcomers don’t truck with Amerindie’s antistar niceties. They’ve been in the papers too long. Back when Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce was Spaceman 2 or the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft wandered lonely as a cloud or Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh thought music was just a hobby for him, they could pretend they were ordinary chaps who didn’t care how many records they sold. But these days they’ve all joined the pop race, where they seem no less at home than U2 or Radiohead — there’s little sense of strain in the ambitious sprawl all achieve. Where Amerindie’s musical commitments are conceived as means to counterculturalism, in Britain the children of acid house control the radical rhetoric. So no matter how stoned or alienated or hedonistic these guitar bands are, they respect rock tradition and accept a pop system they’re dedicated to beating. For them, vanguard is barely a concept anymore.

And the way our electorate heard the year, it wasn’t much of a concept stateside either. Among the fanzine rumors and local heroes who placed down to 120 or so last year, a feat requiring the support of some half dozen voting weirdos, were five newly anointed cult bands: Tortoise (post-rock hack-hack), Smog (dim solipsism), Cat Power (anti-chauvinist low-affect), the Lilys (amplified watercolors), and the Sun City Girls (postskronk imperialism). But my disdain isn’t the point — the point is that a few people who think critically about music credited their obscurantism. This year, although Ben Folds continued to pump out puddle-deep ironies as the putatively country-rock Geraldine Fibbers abstract-expressed themselves all over creation, the only newcomers with the slightest insurgent vibe were two sets of well-schooled L.A. popsters: star-crossed biz babies That Dog and up-and-coming self-promoters the Negro Problem. There were also below-40 repeaters both avant (Smog, Helium, Sea and Cake) and neoclassicist (Flaming Lips, Luna, Waco Brothers, Superchunk), as well as new solo artists (Jim White and Edith Frost the not-very-strangest, Ben Harper and Robbie Fulks most likely to succeed). But for the nonce the wellspring of out-there young American bands has dried to a trickle.

These disparities were so abrupt — not just the Amerindie falloff, but the 16 Brits, way up from five in 1996 and eight in 1995 — that I suspected some demographic anomaly. Since we’d not only computerized but greatly expanded and updated our rolls from dailies, weeklies, and magazines nationwide, we added 259 voters who hadn’t participated in 1996. (Note that every record with a mention, every critic’s ballot, and an extra comments file are posted at www.villagevoice.com.) It seemed conceivable that the new voters would gravitate toward major-label mailings and hence the U.K. But when we tallied up a minipoll of the 182 repeaters, the U.S.-U.K. distribution remained stable. The most meaningful differences involved hip hop, where — despite much improved representation from name writers at the hip hop mags, which now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the music press — we failed to attract the kind of second-string reviewers who in the alt world flock to Pazz & Jop. So in an even better poll the Notorious B.I.G. would have finished top 10 and the top 40 would have made room for Common, the thinking B-person’s cherce, and most likely Rakim, the elder statesman returned. Such other high hip hop also-rans as Timbaland and Magoo, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, the fast-spinning Return of the D.J., Vol. II, and New York turntablists X-Ecutioners might also have contended. (In the real world, 41-50 went: Octagon, Foo Fighters, Common, Arto Lindsay, Return of the D.J., Chumbawamba, Timbaland, Paul Simon, Mike Watt, Rakim.)

But otherwise our results compute. Redoubling our electorate certainly wouldn’t change the collective opinion of America’s rock critics in re the indie/alternative scene long identified as rock’s avant-garde, which is that it is at best in the doldrums — a finding I report with no outrage and little regret. What else could anyone have expected? Lo-fi to low-affect, abstinent to self-abusing, withdrawal has been the Alternian strategy since whenever the gatekeepers concluded that the wages of Nirvana was Smashing Pumpkins. That’s why Sleater-Kinney is such a miracle — loyal citizens of Alternia’s most Olympian stronghold, on Kill Rock Stars yet, they’re nonetheless possessed by the need to hammer out music that explodes its own boundaries and everyone else’s. But putting aside your favorite exception (I have mine), they’re alone. No Alternians remotely like them combine the guts and the talent to come down from the mountain or up from the basement. You think Smog or Cat Power want to be — hell, are willing to be — loved like Sleater-Kinney? Much less Oasis? They don’t even want to be loved like Pavement or Yo La Tengo.

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If there’s no point whining about this logical turn of events, there’s also no reason to worry it’s a life sentence. In pop, there are no life sentences; we’re lucky there are two-year bids. Within months, at least in theory, Courtney or Madonna could redefine the game, and so could someone we don’t know exists, someone of any race, gender, creed, or nation of origin. But let me put it this way — it won’t be Liz Phair, it won’t be Polly Jean Harvey, and barring miracles on top of miracles it won’t be Sleater-Kinney. Nor will it be Pavement or Yo La Tango, who peaked artistically with their 1997 albums and were rewarded with, wow, critical acclaim, as well as, holy moley, viable careers, neither guaranteed permanent — old masters now, they’ve already reached out with as much common touch as they’ll ever have at their command. I’ll reserve some stray hope for Cornershop, whose formally pop collection of sublimely simple multicultural jingles just poked its nose into Billboard’s album chart. But the dream of an alt nirvana where aesthetes take over rock and roll, which like most nirvanas always seemed a little dull anyway, has played itself out.

My own favorite albums of the year, easy, were by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, and — my heart’s prize, a fragile, lyrical, sly, beatwise, embarrassingly beautiful cross-cultural appropriation — Arto Lindsay. Bohos all, New Yorkers and Olympians, every one on an indie even if Matador’s sleeping with Capitol, and who was I trying to kid? Could I really argue that the average record buyer was crucially poorer for his or her indifference to these distinct and exquisite fellow spirits of mine? Well, maybe Sleater-Kinney, but not the others — they’re too specialized, too rarefied, even if Alternians regard them as gauchely obvious by now. And although except for Arto all these bands continue to command broad critical respect, the Brits who trailed and in the case of Radiohead led them represent, well, an alternative.

U2 have always put on too many airs to suit me, guvnor. Through studied hip and good intentions, through stylistic permutations that barely inflect their deliberate tempos, careful riffs, and tortured magniloquence, they epitomize a crucial strain of rock pretension — working-class strivers bent on proving they’re not common. Pseudoironic title aside, Pop was a disappointment bizwise, moving a paltry 1.3 million after Achtung Baby and Zooropa totaled over 7, and also pollwise, where it scraped in at 31 after the albums just named charted top 10. But these shortfalls are relative. Pop was also the 50th biggest album of 1997 — in the U.S., which is not U2’s major market — and outsold all but six Pazz & Jop finishers (Notorious, Badu, Prodigy, Wu-Tang, and Apple, plus 1996’s late-breaking Sublime). As for Pazz & Jop, I had hoped the wan, overworked, serious-as-taxes contraption wouldn’t chart at all. But eventually I figured why fight poetic justice. Except for Cornershop, all the U.K. guitar bands to crash our top 20 — the Verve, Spiritualized, and above all Radiohead — take their cues from U2.

It’s not as if grandiosity has been monopolized by the quondam British Isles in our poll — after all, one of the dozen things that made Nirvana great was the pretensions they fulfilled. But these bands are more seignorial about their angst than any Yanks of consequence except Smashing Pumpkins — strictly in U2 mold. In fact, I just thought of this, maybe that‘s the mold dumber-than-mashed Richard Ashcroft can’t break out of in “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as inane a single as ever has snared the voters’ ears — that symphony is just like life only catchier, you see, catchier than any damn U2 hit too, as is my own proud pleasure by this asinine band, “The Drugs Don’t Work.” Although Jason Pierce’s drugs worked so swimmingly for so long that some applaud him for discovering love L-O-V-E, Spiritualized retain more functioning cerebral tissue. They’re also the least U2-like of the three, superimposing the droning circle games of Spacemen 3 onto rock melodrama, and for all their ex-junkiedom are refreshingly short on the fatalism pawned off as wisdom by the Verve and depressive if impressive Radiohead.

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Admittedly, few crits lie down for Thom Yorke’s pained critiques of conformist humans and unmanageable machines. The band’s brains, they agree, are in its sonics, which achieve what U2 brags about — an electronically textured, augmented, and otherwise fucked-with guitar sound that occasionally even I find gripping, as on “Electioneering,” which has the shortest lyric on the album. But in addition to the words I take exception to Yorke, who is a better singer than Stephen Malkmus the way Mariah Carey is a better singer than Mary J. Blige. Good pipes are the refuge of fools, the kind of fools the critics mean to speak for if not be this year — better the broad gestures deployed by high-handed rockers, they’ve decided, than the straitened circumstances affected by lo-fi snobs. But though I accept the principle, I can’t get with the fact, and this is probably generational. The specious notion that punk was ’50s rock and roll revisited does contain a kernel — like punk, the music I grew up loving was fast, short, lively, and good for a laugh. The music many critics in their thirties grew up loving, however, wasn’t punk, not at first — it was AOR, which was slow, long, turgid, and somber. U2 made their mark on late AOR because they shared its penchant for the grand aural trademark, and to anyone weaned on AOR they and their progeny sound natural in a way they can’t to me. Maybe being old ain’t so bad after all.

Since Pazz & Jop often has predictive power, I’m warning you to watch out for the Verve, tuneful saps who in their escapist-murk phase were counted arty enough for Lollapalooza’s second stage; they will certainly outsell Radiohead as well as Spiritualized and may surpass U2. I only wish I could see how this will make the world a better place. For some reason, human beings need tunes — they order time, yoke beauty and logic, trigger the smile reflex, help you buy stuff, something. But tunes are also the refuge of fools. While classical folk believe they’re only worthy when “developed,” I ask merely that mine pack some extra charge. Whatever gets you high, but for me that didn’t happen to be “MMMBop,” an ebullient piece of product without the, I’m sorry, social vision of “Tubthumping,” which finally triggered my hum reflex the day after we voted, and would now be my No. 3 single.

Nos. 1 and 2 were nonfinishers — Puff Daddy Inc.’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and B-Rock & the Bizz’s “MyBabyDaddy,” both of which access ingrained knowledge too shamelessly to suit Pazz & Joppers. “Missing You” you know — the B.I.G. tribute is the r&b “Candle in the Wind” at over 3 million sales, and didn’t hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November. “MyBabyDaddy” sold 700,000 without approaching the same level of ubiquity, and I loved its nutty deep-South hook before I had any idea what the song was about, which — as in Spice World, of all things — is raising a baby (female, but that’s muffled and incidental) with its dad on the lam. Thus it transforms a supposed national tragedy into a wild joke, a fact of life, and a party-shaking Miami bass track. And although the sample isn’t the hook, which is all in Kittie Thomas’s “Ghetto Gul” drawl, it’s as dependent on the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” as “Missing You” is on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Well, big deal. Puffy’s sample is a recontextualization as humane as MC Hammer’s with “Super Freak” in 1990, when I voted for “U Can’t Touch This,” which also rescued a tune human beings can use from a mean-spirited blowhard (a feat attempted less warmly and boldly on John Waite’s 1984 “Missing You,” which jacks Sting’s cadence but not his exact notes). And though the main thing both producers want to do is amass bills in large amounts, a side effect is to connect kids who think “Rapper’s Delight” is a Redman song to a vast tradition every music lover should take pride in.

So with the Verve getting respect, I must second Carol Cooper’s “It’s Nation Time!” As you might expect in a year when singles rooled, 1997 gave up massive black pop. From turntablist magicianship to Puffy’s steals (which aren’t always that blatant, not unless you’re a bigger fan of Bill Conti and Eddie Holman than I am), from Timbaland’s Tidewater dub to the sonic overkill of the Wu (who can only benefit from the artistic competition), hip hop has survived gangsta without disrespecting its downpressed defiance. The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more “Tyrone”s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants, and I’m a total convert to down diva Mary J. Blige (85th) and very-round-the-way girl Missy Elliott. While such counterparts as Maxwell and D’Angelo have yet to produce a “Tyrone” of their own, the sheer quantity of male singing talent is enough to make a choir director try A&R. Janet Jackson gave better content than superstars with far deeper throats. And if I were to name a 1997 album with the reach and grab and surprise of true vanguard pop, I’d go along with Spin, which challenged its alt-identified readership by putting the Notorious B.I.G. on its year-end cover. Life After Death is poetic, brutal, realistic, catchy, and forward-looking, and I very much doubt Bob Dylan has ever heard it — although Thom Yorke is working on ripping it off right now.

Tolerance lectures get us no further than pleasure lectures, and I’m not delivering any. You want to hum “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” I can’t stop you — sometimes I can’t even stop myself. Until the rules are changed by Courtney or Missy or Tjinder or Ben Kweller or some now anonymous kid whose dad just lost his kurta in Jakarta, my special favorites in the pop race will probably flow out of the same ingrained African American tried-and-true I’ve been quaffing from since doowop and Fats Domino. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have any intention of abandoning a single tendril of the many-fingered eclecticism that put a record 78 albums on my A list this year. Art-in-itself doesn’t equal culture in the hungriest and most daring of times, and this is neither. But it can keep you going till the game changes. And if the game never changes, then it will just have to keep you going anyway.

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Top 10 Albums of 1997

1. Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind (Columbia)

2. Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol)

3. Cornershop: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

4. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

5. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador)

6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

7. Erykah Badu: Baduizm (Universal)

8. Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave)

9. Björk: Homogenic (Elektra)

10. Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Matador)

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Top 10 Singles of 1997

1. Hanson: “MMMBop” (Mercury)

2. Chumbawamba: “Tubthumping” (Republic/Universal)

3. The Verve: “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (Virgin)

4. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

5. Blur: “Song 2” (Virgin)

6. Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha” (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Block Rockin’ Beats” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Erykah Badu: “On and On” (Universal)
Smash Mouth: “Walkin’ on the Sun” (Interscope)

10. The Notorious B.I.G. (Featuring Puff Daddy and Mase): “Mo Money Mo Problems” (Bad Boy)

—From the February 24, 1998, 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

1995 Pazz & Jop: Lost in the Soundscape

Buffeted by two equally implacable forces, the advertising department and the hand of God, the 22nd or 23rd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll got off to a depressing start, and not just because the Blizzard of ’96 immobilized New York on our earliest due date since Clay Felker ruled this precinct of Alternia. One of the odd luxuries of our annual retrospective is that it really is one. Where other critics are compelled to sum up a year that hasn’t ended yet, our voters commonly spend the fallow weeks of early January finding out which of their fondly remembered or recently embraced favorites stands up to one-on-one comparison and repeated listening. For me it’s always a pleasant respite —an excuse to have fun and call it work on a job that too often demands the opposite. This January, however, it felt rushed, forced, pinched, its only blessed moments the night I converted my wife to Eric Bachmann (who he, you wonder, as well you might in this ominously private year) and the midnight of Storm Sunday, when we locked James Carter onto our lists as we sat in the dark watching pioneers traverse a white, still Second Avenue.

But soon Second Avenue was a mess, and so was our poll — for a week the Poobahs and their elves alternated between counting the vote and getting it out. Generous though we were with late ballots, the short deadline daunted some — our 278 respondents represented a slight dip in the decade’s 300-ish turnouts. Or maybe the nonvoters just couldn’t get revved up for 1995’s music. With winner and runner-up foregone conclusions (some would say since April), the biggest excitement of the staggered schedule was provided by Oasis and Björk edging past Son Volt and Joan Osborne, or maybe Alanis Morissette and Wilco supplanting the Roots and Steve Earle. This beat watching paint dry, but not smelling grass grow. With young reedmaster Carter flying and Peter Stampfel and Randy Newman passé, your faithful Senior Poobah was reduced to rooting for Wilco — partly to fend off the complementary contagions of Son Volt and Supergrass, mostly just to stay awake. I mean, what a dull, disheartening bunch of finishers.

Back before Public Enemy plus Nirvana set off punk- if not Beatlemania-scale cultural expectations in rock’s long-fractured community, the standard ballot used to lead: “It was the worst year for music since…” One wag even suggested we distribute a form letter to that effect. Me, I rarely think in such terms until my rhetorical labors require it, and I entered January feeling neutral at worst. I knew my A list was kinda quirky, and as my points indicate, I felt uplifted by only the tippy-top of a satisfactory top 10. But in the crass way I measure these things — by counting good records — the year more than held up musically. And although too many people I care for are busy dying and three irreplaceable colleagues were fired in the most brutal management action this place of employment has ever known, the ups outnumbered the downs personally and professionally as well. So how would I have begun my ballot? Something like this: “It was the worst year for humanity since…”

I mean, right — you love music, I love music. It could even be said that music is my life — hyperbolically (“Your CDs or your wife,” sure), but there’s a truth there. Only that truth has limits. Assigned to a concentration camp, I’d no doubt gravitate to the guy with the guitar (guitar, hell — flute), but my passions would be putting food in my belly and getting the fuck out. And in a world consumed by a class war in which the aggressors are the rich and the rich are winning, music’s power to inspire and console is, I’m sorry, decisively diminished. This might be less true if musicians were responding actively to the crisis. But it’s the opposite, and I see no purpose in abjuring what satisfactions remain at my disposal by pretending otherwise. Which I’m afraid makes it the worst year for music since…

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Ordinarily, I consider it impolite to commence these reflections with my faves — by the fifth graf I should at least have named the winner whose mug is up front selling papers, don’t you think? But in this every-person-for-his-or-her-self year I want to note the political inadequacies my own chosen escapes. Joining the gnomic Pavement on the formerly alternative front, Luna’s languidly songful 45th-place Penthouse is the cheekily entitled career album of Harvard trust-fund semipopster Dean Wareham, while the Archers of Loaf’s cheekily dissonant 82nd-place Vee Vee flexes the muscle of four avowedly apolitical North Carolina road musicians, three of them from homes more comfortable than mine (and one of them Eric Bachmann, who also heads my favorite “post-rock” combo, cough cough hack hack ptooey ptooey, the saxy Barry Black). Randy Newman’s Faust (87th) is an insouciantly arrogant El Lay musical comedy, Peter Stampfel’s You Must Remember This… (112th) a recklessly peculiar cover cavalcade. Carter and [File Under Prince] are no-holds-barred roots innovators whose social ideas are inexplicit and sensationalistic, respectively. And Orüj Güvenç’s Ocean of Remembrance, an effort somehow overlooked by the remainder of the electorate, is trance music (the real thing for once) that fuses clinical psychology and Sufism, a faith whose attraction for Western intellectuals I have always attributed to its elitist tendencies.

Except perhaps for Vee Vee — rarely do I so adore a young band so underrated by my young colleagues — my 1995 top 10 achieved a typical consensus: three out of eight in the Pazz & Jop top 40, which makes five out of 10 now that we’re finally ready for the big guys. Ladies and germs, I give you THE UNCHALLENGED ONE-TWO PUNCH OF THE 1995 PAZZ & JOP CRITICS’ POLL. Put your hands together for PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, which got more points than the numbers two and three albums combined. And before you sit down, let’s hear it for Tricky’s Maxinquaye, which got just 63 fewer points than the numbers three and four albums combined. Really, these are some numbers. In 1988, a troika comprising Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and Tracy Chapman very nearly outpointed the next nine finishers. But only one runner-up and one winner have ever piled up such margins, and they sure didn’t do it in the same year: the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls finished second back in new wave 1978, while Hole’s Live Through This steamrollered just a poll ago. Trend or blip? Both, probably. But statistical speculations will have to wait until we honor the complementary triumph of two radically dissimilar records.

In only one way is our famously blues-drenched and verity-revitalizing winner more retro than such trendy neotrads as Oasis, Joan Osborne, and D’Angelo, not to mention our raft of roots-rockers: she has the courage to go for a Great Album and the talent to bring one off. Asked to profile its creator for Spin well before the record was released, I’ve been living with To Bring You My Love for over a year as I write, and while axe-grinders will always finger-point (sings off-key, naughty girl), I’m qualified to affirm what most of you already know: the thing hits hard and holds up even though it’s impossibly old-fashioned, arty, Romantic. It addresses universals in a form as much received as renewed; intrinsic, indelible, and inimitable, its power is in its spiritual yearnings, emotional quests, and delved essences. Polly Jean Harvey can make virtues of such hermeneutic indiscretions for only one reason. She is — and I do my very best not to toss this word at people under 30 — a genius.

Tricky may be a genius too — let a thousand geniuses bloom, given how much we’re accomplishing without them — but although he’s put in a proper apprenticeship on the English trip-hop scene, wherever exactly that is, it’s too soon to know. Anyway, unlike Polly Jean he doesn’t act the genius. Yet even so he’s belittled in certain outposts for encouraging a cult of personality instead of letting the, er, culture express itself through him — or maybe just for making a record “everybody” can like. Applied to an enigma known to perform without lights whose album has yet to make the acquaintance of the Billboard 200, I find these complaints obscure. All I know is that Maxinquaye was at once my ear candy of choice and the strangest, darkest, most formally unreceived album ever to bowl over an electorate that always insists on songcraft in the end, however much rap pacesetters Public Enemy and De La Soul stretched that concept. Granted, he’s Holland-Dozier-Holland compared to Ritchie Hawtin or the Sea and Cake, even Goldie or Raekwon, and without Martine’s spacy vocal stylings his album would barely exist. Nevertheless, Tricky’s seductive ability to transmute hopelessness into escape is realized mostly with texture and mood. And in this he is the opposite of anomalous avant-rockist Polly Jean Harvey.

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Songcraft versus soundcraft is a crucial polarity this year, fused and deconstructed and recombined and mushed up though these abstractions are at their best. So I don’t want to make too much of PJ’s and Tricky’s confluences, such as the tour they shared last spring — they also share a label, after all, and anyway, Tricky’s cooled-out if surprisingly rockish show failed to convert the headliner’s followers. And while in each case a woman singer puts a novel emotional spin on a traditionally male-dominated musical approach, Tricky’s tradition is unformed and Martine is even more unreadable than he is. Still, that probably helps explain the two albums’ otherwise unapproached electoral outreach. Usually four or five records attract at least one in five respondents. But unlike Maxinquaye, Moby’s third-ranked Everything Is Wrong (album of the year in Spin, failed tom make Rolling Stone’s top 10) didn’t altogether shake its dance stigma — or else (my theory) didn’t cohere as magically as its partisans claim. And while Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters, who finished second in Rolling Stone, got just one fewer mention than Moby, our weighted voting system slotted it as a record more liked than loved — both Elastica and Neil Young–Pearl Jam’s Mirror Ball had more passionate stats.

The weakest support ever for top-10 also-rans is the obverse of the chart-toppers’ huge margins, and as I said, both are part trend and part blip. Or at least I hope they’re part blip — hope the worst year for music since… isn’t obliterated with all deliberate speed by 1996 and then 1997. Because in a more general sense this dilution of common enthusiasm has been under way for a decade or two — even in the down year of 1985, John Fogerty’s 10th-place Centerfield (remember that one, roots guys?) got more points proportionally than 1995’s fourth-place Elastica. As taste subcultures are broken down into ever-smaller components by ragged individualists plucking likely-sounding flotsam and jetsam out of a flood of local and specialized releases, diffusion becomes inevitable, and I appreciate its cornucopia effect — on the longest Dean’s List ever, 71 strong, I count 24 genuine indie labels, fewer than 10 the rock/dance/alternative outfits that define the term for most voters. But just to look a gift cornucopia in the mouth, let me mix in another metaphor, one that seemed a quaint historical abstraction until Bosnia: balkanization. The cornucopia’s glories are best utilized by those with broad taste in comestibles. Balkanization’s horrors are best avoided by those with broad taste in people.

Balkanization seemed a distant threat last year, at least to alternarockers, who rooled Pazz & Jop like — well, without trivializing real-life horror, let’s just note that Serbs aren’t the only folks convinced of their cultural superiority. Semipopular guitar bands romped in 1994, and autonomous women got respect for the third straight year. Folk music in the broadest sense had its standard-bearers, and the Mavericks’ Nashville country record counterbalanced Johnny Cash’s Burbank one. But only six black artists finished, none in the top 20, an alarming nadir, and Britannia sunk even lower: Elvis C., Shara Nelson, and Portishead, who give or take a few poppish singles was the closest we got to the burgeoning dance world. And except for grunge immortal Neil Young, over-40s charted only under Rick Rubin’s or Ali Farka Toure’s steam.

All of this made sense critically — it was a hell of a year for semipopular guitar bands. But there was less than no reason to hope it would last, especially given how fast organic culture breaks down into fliers, trends, fads, and tiresome clichés. In 1995, critics made it their business to look askance at the flavor-of-the-month alternapop bizzy being hyped — most visibly on a singles list tattooed with the new wave novelties “Lump,” “Name,” “Hey Man Nice Shot,” and “A Girl Like You.” The symbol of its hegemony, who I’ll bet the franchise isn’t a one-shot in Billboard even if her Pazz & Jop days end as soon as they begin, is the Wicked Witch of the North, Alanis Morissette, reliably reported to have been invented by Madonna herself so she could get away from the publicity machine and have a material child. The symbol of its absurdity was the New South’s answer to Michael Bolton, Alanis’s close personal friend Hootie Rucker, whom some bizzers initially slotted as alternative because they’d never heard of him before, and whom the voters denied but couldn’t ignore.

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With no consensus culture to fall back on, the voters listened more catholically and/or grasped at straws. Four Brits (plus one Icelander) in the top 10 and three in the top four constitute the proudest U.K. showing since 1978; four dance albums in the top 40 and two in the top three constitute the most ecstatic dance showing ever (easy). A dozen black artists made the cut, and although only two went top 20, one was Tricky. Hip hop generated Raekwon’s populist obscurantism and D’Angelo’s minimalist neoclassicism (although Coolio’s populist heart was confined to the singles ballot); jazz and reggae returned to the lists, as did Prince Be and Prince Used To Be. A different and highly disparate bunch of autonomous women checked in — only three of the nine, including our third consecutive female winner, had ever charted, only the winner under her own name — and five top-25 albums wedded male and female energy: Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth from literal married couples, Tricky, Garbage, and the 6ths from professional partnerships of varying conventionality. Dwight Yoakam took the Mavericks’ lateral for an end run. Bruce Springsteen embraced the folk music cause, Emmylou Harris cloaked herself in its aura, and four commercially marginal Midwestern roots-rock bands labored to evoke the same soulful past that the original folkie generation had somehow mistaken for the conformist present. Yet all told, more than a dozen noisy semipopular guitar bands also made the top 40 — most repeaters and a few brand-new, including several alternapop best-sellers who are semi only by association. There was a semipopular piano band too.

All of which looks dandy, and most of which sounds dull and disheartening. It’s clear that last year’s parochialism fed off a true musical bonanza. If anything, alternarock remained healthier than it got credit for in 1995, as Lollapalooza convinced me: Hole and Elastica, Sonic Youth and Pavement, Beck and Moby, the Dambuilders and Superchunk. Although axe-grinders prog and trad whined about “predictability,” I haven’t heard so much exciting music in one day since Monterey. As put into practice by Everclear, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, NOFX, 16th-place Rancid, 18th-place Sonic Youth, Belly, my beloved Archers, and poor Green Day (who plummeted from 12th place to four mentions atop Dookie’s perfectly sincere follow-up, which I hope teaches them never to sell a gazillion records again), Amurrican punk/grunge did more for me than for critics in general this year. Nevertheless, as an old generalist I obviously welcomed their need to seek elsewhere. What dismayed me was what they found.

At my dourest, which is usually, I suspect voters of falling for variations on the very hype they pride themselves on seeing through. Although 27 first-timers made the albums list, this high is compromised by the spinoffs and regroups and past lives that signal gathering professionalism — Björk and Farris, Son Volt and Wilco, Foo Fighters and 6ths had all put other billings on our chart. Indie action was low-normal at best while the spread among alternifying megacorps broadened notably (WEA led as usual, but PolyGram was a strong second, and the other four majors all charted three or four albums, a first). And I note with serene disinterest that one imbalance the voters failed to right was generational: the edgy returns of Ornette Coleman (47th), Yoko Ono (60th), and (I insist) Randy Newman would have been shoo-ins five years ago, and after a 23rd-place rediscovery in 1991, John Prine put out an equally good record that finished 100th. Instead, voters tried to put their own stamp on history.

I can forgive going gaga over catchy trifles like Matthew Sweet or Garbage or the noble Foo Fighters — I did it with Luna myself, only I did it because Penthouse is beautiful (only you know whose ear beauty is in). But too often records were rewarded for tackling worthy concepts that got away — D’Angelo’s Marvin Gaye abstraction, P.M. Dawn’s sample-free r&b, Wu-Tang’s hip-trop, Joan Osborne’s gotham blues mama, Dionne Farris’s intelligent black postdiva, Emmylou Harris’s grievous angel, Smashing Pumpkins’ rock slopera, Ben Folds’s Todd Rundgren tribute, and let us not forget Oasis’s phony Beatlemania rising from the dust (just what we needed — a Cheap Trick revival). No doubt converts will call me a philistine as regards this or that treasure, to which I can only reply, So’s your old man. Except for the slopera and the Rundgren, I have nothing against the concepts, but the basic thrill of these records is that they’re doing the right thing even when they’re not doing the thing right.

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About two touchstones I don’t much enjoy I’m less cocky. Like Maxinquaye, Björk’s hiply well-named Post and Goldie’s schlockily well-named Timeless are formal coups — their mix of song and sound points directions many will follow. Paradoxically, Post registers as one of our most grooveless top-10 albums ever, with the basswise productions of Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper (and the noisescape Tricky kicks in) reduced to orchestral settings over which Björk can recite and emote and shriek and coo and generally dramatize. And if Goldie is to jungle what Tricky is to trip-hop — the “accessible” name brand for strangers in wonderland — then Martin Denny was Dr. Livingston. Occasionally some diva takes up a tune, but this pleasant, far from arhythmic soundspace posits an impressionistic respite from hard-core techno, with warm links to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Rick Wakeman.

Both coups have their connection to the post-rock fiddle-faddle you may have read about, as do several of the weaker finishers on our new compilations list (all but the winner, that means). These were somewhat more grooveless than the dance- and perhaps “world”-friendly finds I’d envisioned, although the category’s instigator, Junior Poobah Ann Powers, harbored no such illusions — or desires. As Erik Davis’s sane if overly visionary counterview emphasizes, dub is the most crucial source of the hipster vogue for slow, exotic instrumentals, and also the most unimpeachable. Hence the real numbers for Macro Dub Infection in an otherwise inconclusive competition that I expect to heat up next year, and hence my critical insecurities, for despite Bruce Sterling, Augustus Pablo, and my friend Greil, I’ve been not getting dub for over a decade, always with the uneasy sense that I’m missing something. But never forget the hipsters’ fatal attraction to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Holger Czukay — the real-life consequences and/or correlatives of the silly loungecore bubble. Also note that Ennio Morricone did better with reissue voters than Can, all of whose albums were put back on the market by Mute for a grand total of four mentions — and that just as I prefer Sufis when it comes to trance, I prefer Pygmies when it comes to jungle. Heart of the Forest, the real thing — dig those crazy water drums.

If the futurism doesn’t look so bright this year, the sense of history is also dim. I actively deplore only two of what I count as seven arrantly trad finishers (eight if you buy this thing about the Geraldine Fibbers being country), and actively admire Steve Earle’s 41st-place Train a Comin’. (The 42-50 also-rans: Cesaria Evora, the Roots, Portishead, Luna, Mary J. Blige, Ornette, Supergrass, Vic Chesnutt, Helium — as varied as the top 40, and as full of grasped straws.) But my choices and the electorate’s vary inversely: the Bottle Rockets’ stroke of local color is down in the thirties with the light, smooth Wilco and the soulful, densely worked Jayhawks, while Emmylou Lanois and the revolting Son Volt crowd up behind supposed blueswoman and nice enough gal Joan Osborne, who might at least offer them a few tips on avoiding sanctimony. These priorities befit an escapist, soundscape-ridden year. The Bottle Rockets rock out more than they root around, and achieve what I like in my roots-rock: class consciousness, which usually requires words. They’re specific, strike one, and funny, fouling the next pitch into the seats. Son Volt’s Jay Farrar is too smart and too stupid to take such risks. His lonesome drawl as redolent of PBS docudramas as his meticulously cornball music is of honky-tonks imagined at hootenannies, he subsumes his songs in the soundscape he hopes sells them. As for Emmylou, her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it’s fraying with age is ripe for Daniel Lanois’s one admittedly beguiling trick: gauze over every aural detail and call the soft focus soul.

Harris’s instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, because this inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup (check her out on Earle’s similar career move) has no vision of her own for Lanois to obscure. Tragedy was left to the self-determined Springsteen, whose soundscape was at once the most courageous and the most depressing of the year — and since a soundscape was hardly Springsteen’s intention, also the most contradictory. Springsteen’s motives were even better than usual. Astonishingly and disgracefully, he was (with partial exceptions for Buju’s bondage, Rancid’s solidarity, and Moby’s jeremiad of a CD booklet) the only artist in the entire top 40 to do more than hint with the odd tale or image that 1995 might have been the worst year for humanity since… — to directly address the war on the poor (and, increasingly, what is called the middle class) that is now the political agenda of the industrialized world. Of course there were moral outcries and desolate backdrops from Tricky to Neil Young to Raekwon to the Bottle Rockets to the Geraldine Fibbers. Of course improving society isn’t what artists are for. And of course my own faves are just as clueless. But when the political culture is healthy, a portion of artists will preach and protest and prophesy, even if it’s only talk. I mean, four years ago I was apologizing for the ideological fecklessness of an album list with room for Public Enemy, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Billy Bragg, the Mekons, and, Lord-a-mercy, Linton Kwesi Johnson. I’m appalled by what’s been lost — by what no longer seems possible to artists I’m used to expecting great things from. As most of its admirers realize, that sense of impossibility is the ultimate message and underlying burden of The Ghost of Tom Joad.

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The album reads well enough. But supporters should ID its “Atlantic City” or “Highway Patrolman” before citing Nebraska, and listen to Struggle before they go on about Woody. Guthrie is less literate and detailed, but he figured out a way to sing his bare-bones horror stories of battles mostly lost. He was outraged rather than sad, and his outrage is almost jaunty at times — even, dare I say it, ironic (bitterly ironic, that is). Maybe he had the guts to come on so cool because he wasn’t beset by class guilt (although in fact his background was more genteel than Springsteen’s, his everyman persona a construction), but he was abetted by, dare I say it, the Communist Party — a bunch of acquaintances who shared his anger and believed they could do something about it. Springsteen plainly doesn’t, and in addition is so frustrated by the paradoxes of his outreach — by his conviction that the very gifts that enable him to engage a large audience will distract it irrevocably from what he has to say — that he chooses to muffle his songs, so that only those who really want to hear their despair will bother trying. His tunes, arrangements, and mysteriously praised “phrasing” aren’t just forbiddingly minimal — often they’re rather careless. This Brechtian strategy may be justified aesthetically. But it’s no paradox that it fails to engage — and no capitalist plot that it’s sold dick, either. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a bore. It is recommended to the many people of conscience who’ve developed a taste for ambient techno and the Sea and Cake.

In short, the bravest artist of 1995 ended up in the same trap everybody else claimed as home. Reading the comments, I began to think the voters were angrier about Hootie and Alanis than Gingrich and Giuliani, and it could be. What’s the point of getting mad at a system you’ve long assumed has nothing in it for you? A general resignation has clearly set in, and grasped straws won’t prevent younger critics’ now habitual us-and-them skepticism — as regards Washington, music they didn’t know about first, whatever — from slipping into garden-tending know-nothingism. Alternative cultures seem self-sufficient when they’re peaking, as alt-rock did in 1994. That’s why the inevitable 1995 commercialization/rationalization of grunge/punk excites such fear and loathing. It’s also why a clutch of self-defined pioneers is convinced the Next Significant Thing will be found at that spot just over the horizon where their personally rediscovered disco, art-rock, crappy jazz, minimalism, and electronic music must certainly converge — the perfect site for New Alternia, where a person can live or at least listen free forever if only he or she is hep enough.

And though others may take hope in all the less arcane directions voters pointed, something is fucked up when artists as apparently dissimilar as Raekwon, Emmylou Harris, D’Angelo, and Son Volt — or, hell, Yo La Tengo, maybe even James Carter (not Tricky, he builds the horror right in) — devote themselves to soundscape construction instead of working to make themselves understood. If these soundscapes were marked as respites, aural environments where the beleaguered can replenish their energies, it might be different — that’s the Sufis’ gift. Instead they posit a self-sufficiency that is one more metaphor with depressing real-life correlatives and consequences.

I’m a fan of bohemias, and a bigger fan of the postpunk music and sensibility that generated the counterculture this poll now quantifies. I have scant tolerance for the puritan distinction between “new” and “novel” that would deny us both transient thrills and a greater array of genuine innovations than the puritans admit (or want any part of). And I’m proud of all the artists Pazz & Jop has gotten to first. In recent years, however, the impulse to get there first has looked more and more like a reflex in the service of a lie, whether that lie be the aura of hip, the myth of progress, the dream of eternal youth, the chimera of immortality, or the story you need to sell to pay the goddamn rent. That’s why those 27 first-timers obviously aren’t the hook here. Rather than portending a brave new anything, they merely signify an endangered counterculture desperate to make of its raison d’être — and a journalistic culture eager to make of its subject — a system that isn’t just self-sufficient but self-renewing. It will come as no surprise that I’m unconvinced. All of us — musicians, listeners, and the writers who at their most effective serve as an interface between the two — are implicated here. And I say that only if all of us make it a priority to assure that our pleasures mean outside themselves, those pleasures will seem more rushed, forced, and pinched every year. Until finally the pleasures dry up, we give up, or both.

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Top 10 Albums of 1995

1. PJ Harvey: To Bring You My Love (Island)

2. Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island)

3. Moby: Everything Is Wrong (Elektra)

4. Elastica: Elastica (DGC)

5. Neil Young: Mirror Ball (Reprise)

6. Foo Fighters: Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capitol)

7. Björk: Post (4AD/Elektra)

8. Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia)

9. Yo La Tengo: Electr-O-Pura (Matador)

10. Oasis: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Epic)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1995

1. Coolio: “Gangsta’s Paradise” (MCA Soundtracks)

2. Edwyn Collins: “A Girl Like You” (Bar/None/A&M)
Alanis Morissette: “You Oughta Know” (Maverick/Reprise)

4. Elastica: “Connection” (DGC)

5. TLC: “Waterfalls” (LaFace)

6. Joan Osborne: “One of Us” (Blue Gorilla/Mercury)

7. PJ Harvey: “Down by the Water” (Island)

8. TLC: “Creep” (LaFace)

9. (Tie) Dionne Farris: “I Know” (Columbia)
Shaggy: “Boombastic” (Virgin)

—From the February 20, 1996, 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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FADE IN

What would December be without an epic Yo La Tengo run to warm the cockles of our cold hearts? With Hanukkah overlapping Thanksgiving and Maxwell’s succumbing to late-stage capitalism, Hoboken’s loss is Gowanus’s gain as the trio relocates to the Bell House for four nights (starting December 13) of historically informed eterna-pop; lustrous meditations on life, love, and mortality; and sturdy neoprimitive space jams. YLT presumably won’t be replicating their Hanukkah format, however, so expect nothing more (or less) than a couple of sets of mind- and heart-expanding music — and perhaps some memorable sit-ins — with these middle-aged rockers in their prime. As Ira Kaplan sings late in Fade, their gentle all-things-must-pass take on keeping faith in precarious times, “If we’re not so young, that’s the point of it.”

Dec. 13-16, 9 p.m., 2013

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Oneida

As one of Brooklyn’s most prolific and resilient units, rock experimentalists Oneida maintain a state of perpetual motion that equals only their own hypnotic rhythms. In the past three years, they’ve played day-long “Ocropolis” concerts, they’ve put out albums, singles, and live LPs, and they’ve always managed to squeeze in a few hometown shows in between European tours. Tonight, they make their return to Glasslands. With a set by Dump, a lo-fi side project of Yo La Tengo’s James McNew.

Fri., Oct. 4, 8:30 p.m., 2013

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IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER

Scottish indie rockers Belle & Sebastian are filibustering between albums on this tour, since their next scheduled release is a compilation of B-sides and rarities. But the lack of a promotional agenda is certainly nothing to complain about, since the band’s recent concerts have found them playing lengthy, career-spanning sets, including a few never-before-played B-sides like the instrumental “Judy Is a Dickslap.” The band’s ability to transform a song with a title like that into something poppy is what keeps attracting fans. After all, were it not for frontman Stuart Murdoch’s charming brogue, a song like 2004 single “I’m a Cuckoo”—which would reek of classic-rock overindulgence in the hands of any other band (it even contains a tongue-in-cheek Thin Lizzy homage)—might not have become a whimsical concert favorite. Their secret weapon is Murdoch’s ebullience, and they’ve found an equally excitable and unpredictable band to open for them: like-minded indie-rockers Yo La Tengo.

Thu., July 11, 7 p.m., 2013

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Yo La Tengo React to Legendary Hoboken Venue Maxwell’s Closing Its Doors

When news broke last week that Maxwell’s—that infamous, beloved rock spot across the river in Hoboken—would be shuttering in late July, industry folks freaked, bands grieved, and music lovers wrung their hands in mourning.

Todd Abramson, one of the owners and the man who’s been booking Maxwell’s for over 25 years, says that a dwindling artistic community in Hoboken, along with an influx of new residents who aren’t particularly compelled to patronize the venue, are two of the primary factors that influenced his decision to close.

“It’s so hard for people to travel to Hoboken—nobody can find parking—and the way that the demographics of the town have changed, the kind of people who would enjoy Maxwell’s have been moving into [New York City],” he says. “People who really aren’t going to be that interested in a place like this are moving in, you know? The artistic community, such as it was, is pretty much gone, and you need to be pretty well-to-do to move into this town nowadays. For the most part, that type of crowd isn’t all that gung ho about seeing the Screaming Females.”

Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo echoes Abramson’s sentiment. Maxwell’s departure is a significant one for Kaplan and his band. The Hoboken indie stalwarts have hosted a run of Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s since 2001, though their relationship with the venue began long before that: Yo La Tengo first played Maxwell’s in 1984, and more or less cut their teeth on its stage.

“When I opened my mouth to sing at that first show, nothing came out,” says Kaplan, reflecting on Yo La Tengo’s Maxwell’s debut. “There was just terror the first time. The Hanukkah shows matched the venue in a perfect way for us. At these shows, we would try anything. I think it led us in any variety of directions, just bringing people onstage to play with us. This sort of ‘anything goes’ aspect of those shows had a big positive impact on the band. The Hanukkah shows were really fun and exciting, and those were my favorite shows at Maxwell’s. Sometimes you have mixed feelings about your home, but Maxwell’s has been our home all along. It [closing] is not good, and I think it’s reflecting something that’s going on with the city.”

Maxwell’s will host a number of banger concerts—including Ted Leo, the Feelies, and . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead—before officially closing up shop on July 31. Kaplan, who swung the venue the day its closure was announced to see New Zealand’s The Bats play to a sold-out crowd, hits shows there as frequently as he’s played them. He says there’s a reason the club has retained its sterling reputation over the years.

“For one thing, looking at our group, I don’t think it’ll surprise you that I’m a fan of things that last a long time,” he says. “The fact that the club exists as it does today is because it was built on this foundation of so many years ago. Maxwell’s has changed a lot over the years, but it did so gradually and organically, so it’s always maintained its connection to what it began as, which is a place that did things in a way that wasn’t ruthless business but building something for the future.”

Yo La Tengo may squeeze in one last set before the Hoboken institution is closed for good. When asked about their relationship with Maxwell’s, Kaplan plainly states that the imprint the venue has left on the band is substantial.

“You say ‘a place like Maxwell’s,’ and I’m not sure there is one,” he says. “Something I’ll always say about most anything is that if you change the circumstances, the results are going to change, too—so no, I don’t think Yo La Tengo would’ve been the same band without Maxwell’s.”

Yo La Tengo play as The Condo Fucks at Maxwell’s on Saturday, June 15.

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Yo La Tengo

Persistence and longevity are among Yo La Tengo’s most admirable virtues. Though the intensity and explosiveness of the Hoboken, New Jersey trio’s output has ebbed and flowed since a late 1990s heyday they’ve never quite recreated, every post I Can Feel The Heart Beating As One album boasts a delirium gopher hole or feedback nebula worth returning to. Fans bumming over the last couple will find much to like in the forthcoming Fade, where Ira, Georgia, and James somehow juggle the eternal and the succinct.

Sat., Feb. 16, 8 p.m., 2013

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DREIDEL ROCK

Skipping their annual tradition only once since 2001, Yo La Tengo continue their 
enlightening eight-night Hanukkah benefit run this year at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. In the past, each evening has offered a different comedian (Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, David Cross), opening act (Alex Chilton, Redd Kross, Sun Ra Arkestra), beneficiary (expect several Sandy-related donations), mixtape (by band and friends), and emotionally rocking YLT set. The secret lineups are a roll of the dice, tickets are tighter than Grover Norquist’s wallet, and you’ll probably be stuck behind what even the trio reckons to be “the world’s tallest audience.” But it’s all worth it to see an adult rock band at the top of their game, playing to friends and family in what only a few weeks ago was one of the world’s wettest towns.

Mondays-Sundays, 9 p.m. Starts: Dec. 8. Continues through Dec. 15, 2012

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Last Night: M. Ward, Yo La Tengo, and Broccoli in Prospect Park

Here’s your “healthy” rock snack!

[See More Rock ‘n’ Dinner Roll: Pavement’s ‘A Shady Lane’]

Well, last night as the sun set in Prospect Park and Yo La Tengo took the stage (sans bass player James McNew, felled by appendicitis, but replaced by two other temporary musicians), I was distracted by the sight of punters passing in the gloaming carrying bowls of broccoli. Not hot dogs, barbecue, chips, or popcorn, but broccoli. Have the mayor’s edicts finally fallen on fertile ground? I wondered as I leaped from the blanket and hastened to investigate.

Waiting in line for . . . bowls of broccoli at Celibate Celebrate Brooklyn last evening.

It turns out the event’s concessions were dominated by Kensington’s the Farm on Adderley, and it was offering a whole slew of vegetables to accompany the music, priced at three for $14, or individually for $5: succotash, green salad, green beans, peas and lettuce, and a spelt-farro salad that must have had the hearts of the nutritionists in the audience beating pit-a-pat.

And the audience seemed to be eating it up. To be fair, there were a few “unhealthy” options, too, including fries dressed with mayo, and pork sausage with Sriracha in a bun — but the balance of the food was mayoral, to say the least.

Feeling smug, I wondered as I dug into my al dente broccoli: But would they dare to serve this fare at, say, a hip-hop show?

Click on image to enlarge
Click on image to enlarge