Listening in Real Time

Eclectic neoclassicism versus childhood-oriented avant-primitivism as global warming swamps our history

It is 2045 and the protagonist of Bruce Sterling's 1998 novel Distraction, a young pol named Oscar Valparaiso who happens to be a clone, repairs to a half-wrecked Louisiana town where the beach houses were long ago moved up into an abandoned cow pasture. As he sups on a genetically altered crayfish the size of a lobster, a string quartet strikes up a minuet: "Typical Anglo ethnic music. It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene. Anglos seemed to have some talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn't match." But never fear. Though the Chinese have destroyed the U.S. economy by putting all our software online, life remains "doable" in this "big, hot, Greenhouse swamp"; as one Cajun operative puts it, "The women are good-lookin', and the music really swings!" And though many harbor a bias against Anglos—"the most violent ethnic group in America," with "white-collar crime rates right off the charts"—the best pop music in the world comes from the Netherlands, where holding off the sea is a way of life.

Distraction was on my mind in re the 32nd or 33rd Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll because it glances off two key but apparently unrelated 2005 music stories. One of these is obvious. Though Nonesuch's 129th-place Our New Orleans 2005 will go down in history as the finest charity comp since Red Hot & Blue, Katrina didn't make our album list, poking through only on two singles: the Legendary K.O.'s 15th-place "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," which turned our big winner's greatest soundbite into an online protest rap that easily outpolled the Bright Eyes download "When the President Talks to God," and Amerie's No. 2 "1 Thing," which came marching in behind an indestructible Ziggy Modeliste beat.

The other story is subtler: what Sterling jocularly slots as Anglo ethnic music. We have long-standing quasi-symphonist Kate Bush at 25 and newcoming Gilbert & Sullivan fans the Decemberists at 33, chamber-pop Stars getting all Canadian on our ass at 37 and Suzuki-method violinist-cum-fiddler Andrew Bird blinding them with science down at 49. We have the new/ny/nuevo prog of System of a Down at 30 and Dungen at 31 and the Mars Volta at 45, the glacial kitsch of Sigur Rós below the sonar at 50 and the parlor-cum-chamber faux gentility/nouveau sincerity of Antony and the Johnsons over the top at 7. And we have three of the five highest finishers engaging 19th-century European notions of orchestration and musicianship: not just Sufjan Stevens's No. 3 Illinois, but also two that owe concertmeister to the stars Jon Brion. One of these was his old protégée Fiona Apple, who hired Mike Elizondo to get Brion swingin' before she ran Extraordinary Machine up to No. 5. The other was our hands-down artist of the year, the first consecutive-poll repeat winner since the Clash in 1980 and 1981. You knew who it would be before the paper came out: Kanye West.

There's more to be said about Anglo ethnic music, and New Orleans too. Both dwarf Kanye West. But they're whole traditions. He's a single artist—which doesn't mean a singles artist, though this year he won in that category as well. Not to hang too much off a two-album oeuvre, but having cruised to first place with The College Dropout last year, West did well just to release a follow-up in 2005. That Late Registration should prove his second consecutive full-length to come on strong and then keep getting better makes him look like one of those rare "actual genius" singer-songwriters that singles consumer advocate Joshua Clover considers an inadequate excuse for our hero-hyping electoral ritual. With The College Dropout it was jokes that remained funny while they got serious; with Late Registration it's music so rich you never tire of unlayering its meanings. Brion contributes mostly synthesizer parts exploited for organic color—the violent violins that rev "Crack Music" three minutes in are an atypically explicit case. The famed arranger ceded the actual arranging to West, who absorbs Brion's European bent into a basically black flow. And you'd best believe this Panther's son with the line of credit at Jacob and Co. is basically black.

I've had it with the caviling. In a year when the fashion in hip-hop realness was a grotesque crack nostalgia—powered, in the case of Young Jeezy (No. 39 album) and Three 6 Mafia (No. 10 single), by Anglo-ethnic victory-fanfare and scary-strings beats whose wholly 'hood authenticity was indistinguishable from their Hollywood schlockitude— moralistic sellouts have got it going on. Knowing you're the best isn't arrogance, and knowing what's right doesn't require a vow of poverty. The guy rhymes about conflict diamonds and self-appointed Africanists interrogate his annotation; he blurts—or plans out, more power to him if so—an ugly truth about our hideous president and is taken to task for not constructing a platform around it. Then there are the wheezes about his workaday rapping skills, and hey, he's not the handsomest fellow you ever saw. So let's bring it.

On the evidence, Kanye West is nothing less than the young century's most gifted popular musician. Everything indicates a decent man who's canny about putting his decency into artistic practice—the widespread misapprehension that the poll- topping "Gold Digger" is "sexist" is one of many proofs that he's smarter than his critics. His rhymes have enormous emotional range—the one about his dying grandma chokes me up every time—and when he falls in love he will write interesting songs about it. Not only that, West produced two other finishers in his spare time: Common's well-spoken 15th-place Be and John Legend's super-ordinary 27th-place Get Lifted. He's turned himself into such a cultural presence that his cameos on these albums are musical highlights—he's more the voice of common sense than the former Common Sense is.

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