Listening in Real Time

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

Yet for all that, this was, extry extry, our closest poll ever—proportionally, Late Registration's 107-point margin was the narrowest in Pazz & Jop history. With two more critics voting than in 2004 (795, yet another record!), West's sophomore album gathered 18 fewer mentions and 301 fewer points, while M.I.A.'s Arular beat Brian Wilson's 2004 finish by 54 mentions and 284 points. So give it up as well to another critics' rapper: Kanye's contemporary, 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam. The U.K.-based Sri Lankan embodies progressive tendencies and grand old P&J traditions. One of three female artists in the top five (sole precedent: Phair-Harvey-Breeders 1993), she is a political provocateur-obsessive who, like West, comes from radical stock, only where West's revolutionary dad became a marriage counselor hers became a terrorist. She is also an art-schooler turned working visual artist who learned music by fashioning club beats in her bedroom.

M.I.A.'s cheeky flow and slang-tangy rhymes bounce across her beat peaks like she has a right. And crucially, her formerly-known-as-grime has tunes, childish chants anyone can hum. But she's no rap Art Brut, who are a classic Ramones-model song band—M.I.A.'s tunes serve banging sounds. Align her formally with Congo's 24th-place Konono No 1, avant-primitives by acclamation whose crudely amped thumb piano and junk percussion generated deeper trance in Brussels than Kinshasa, and with four kiddie- friendly entities: Danger Doom, in which a word-drunk MF Doom alt-raps to Cartoon Network buddies over a comfy Danger Mouse groove; the Go! Team, whose stolen pop tunelets and schoolyard chants get hyperactive over a storm of drums and samples; Deerhoof, who set Satomi Matsuzaki's high little voice and dream lyrics against proggily structured noise-rock songs whose melodies esteem the simplistic; and—though they already show signs of growing up—the ecstatic campfire freak-folk of Animal Collective. Call these artists the avant-garde opposition. As of now, all except Deerhoof are formally antagonistic to Anglo ethnic music, but only incidentally—their first concern is breaking the guitar-band template. With or without that mysterious soupçon of gotcha, other newcomers' variations are familiar—Bloc Party's fashionable tightness, Art Brut's audacious autohype, Wolf Parade's double-lead cacophony, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's nerdy power surges, Stars' young-modern sophistication, the National's boom and gloom.

This polarity—eclectic neoclassicism versus usually beat-oriented, usually childhood-oriented avant-primitivism, with a bunch of indie/alt newbies in the middle—is a more extreme version of Pazz & Jop's old song-versus-rhythm schema. But what's most extreme about it is that almost every artist I've named had yet to hit our poll before 2000. Once upon a time Pazz & Jop gave off a whiff of old fart—every damn Van Morrison and XTC album would edge onto our list, and as recently as 1992, nine of the top 20 instead of the customary four-five-six were by veteran repeaters. In 2005, there were three. Newly anointed oldsters Monk-Coltrane and Bettye LaVette don't count, and neither do newly anointed world-beaters Amadou & Mariam. Nor do artists whose pre-2000 output didn't chart (Common, Spoon) or even get noticed (Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket). That leaves resurgent-on-principle Sleater-Kinney, young Fiona Apple, and 1996 winner Beck, whose return to whatever finished 17th.

Beck and Sleater-Kinney rank with Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Wilco (2005 live album 91st), Lucinda Williams (2005 live album three mentions), Björk (2005 soundtrack one mention), and Yo La Tengo (2005 comp one mention) as '90s-based perennials in the Morrison-XTC manner. They finish higher because they still command consensus, an ever rarer thing. Nevertheless, they constitute a rather modest cohort, from which the Roots, 148th-place Stephen Malkmus, 61st-place Madonna (though "Hung Up" scored), and now 95th-place Missy Elliott have apparently departed. This endurance shortage reflects the megabiz crackdown on long-term catalog investments. But it also bespeaks a younger electorate tied to the Web as both writers and consumers. It's like when three music weeklies competed for the Britfan's fad-impaired attention span by putting new next big things on their smudgy covers every other issue, only sped up. In principle, file sharing and music blogs mean we can all listen to everything for nothing, and let's-start-a-webzine content provision exploits what New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki calls "the wisdom of crowds." Unfortunately for audiotopia, listening happens in real time, something even the nuttiest netcrits don't have enough of, in part because there's too much music out there and in part because they're paid peanuts-to-zip for writing about it. And unfortunately for groupthink, coordinating collective knowledge is impossibly tricky. Pazz & Jop's methods are imperfect. But so are Amazon's, ILM's, and Metacritic's. So why doncha just listen to your Uncle Poobah?

The blogosphere eats up music so fast that whole backlash cycles are over in weeks. On Metacritic, the enthusiasm of the Pitchfork rave that got the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah thing rolling is now exceeded by, I kid you not, that of Billboard—and also, just barely, that of me, which took months to formulate, after I dismissed a borrowed EP and then decided to buy the album and ran it through my head on cassette (right, cassette, stole that music myself) and finally woke up from a nap one day saying, "Gee, whatever this is it moves." By this time, CYHSY were a cliché. They're a nice little band who will enjoy a profitable alt-circuit run. But with bloggers and listserv geeks joking about their name, their hot moment is permanently over. Never before has rock criticism been so into three of its ancient sins: cooler than thou, instant gratification, and what have you done for me lately.

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