The Sheep Take a Buffalo Stance

Critics' polls have evolved and arguably withered lately, but at least we didn't vote for Timbuk 3

Beyond its status as a discerning metric of the Bands That Matter in a given year, Pazz & Jop became one of the hottest potatoes in the field of music journalism in 2006, following the Voice's dismissal of its patriarch, Robert Christgau. Within the community the poll had consulted for nearly 35 years, its fate was a pressing concern rivaling the most important question of all: whether TV on the Radio, Clipse, or Bob Dylan released the year's best record.

P&J has grown in renown and influence since its early-'70s inception, curated and tallied—until this year—entirely on Christgau's watch (and, he has joked, his family's). The poll became a valuable property for the Voice, but its reputation was largely thanks to the signature annual report from Xgau himself, a cutting and uncut essay that chided the hypocrisy and laziness of its participants and its winners in equal measure. By the turn of this century, the event was eagerly awaited year after year: an infallible, indefatigable permanent record of Good Music.

Or was it? You can judge for yourself at robertchristgau.com, where the results since 1971 are available. But anyone out to lionize P&J as a Top 40 poll or an arbiter of taste has their work cut out for them from about the mid '80s forward. A few comical gaffes, by year:

1986 Timbuk 3's debut LP, Greetings From Timbuk 3, makes #34 on the strength of its hit single, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades." It is narrowly edged out by the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead at #30, but manages to best Bad Brains' I Against I (#35).

1988 Aging beatniks take over the music industry. Live through this (I did): Tracy Chapman (#3), Michelle Shocked (#5), Traveling Wilburys (#9),Randy Newman (#10), Brian Wilson (#12), and John Hiatt (#18) tower over Talking Heads (#24), Guns N' Roses (#26), Jane's Addiction (#34), and . . . wait, K.D. Lang is only at #37?

1989 The only Cure album ever to make Pazz & Jop, Disintegration, rates #39, overtaking NRBQ's Wild Weekend (#40) but clearly not in the same league as Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh (#26) or Neneh Cherry's Raw Like Sushi (#5).

1991 The debut albums from Seal (#19) and Massive Attack (#25), as well as My Bloody Valentine's Loveless (#14) and Metallica's Metallica (#8), have nothing on P.M. Dawn's Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience, an album that, in the closest race of the poll yet, barely misses besting U2's Achtung Baby and settles in at #5.

1995 At #20, Matthew Sweet's 100% Fun is 100 percent better than Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die (#38) and Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers (#39). Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx makes #15, but they're all worthless compared to Elastica's Elastica (#4).

2005 Neneh Cherry's comeback album, Arular, makes #2.

Last one's a joke. But now, faced with instant consensus in the Internet age, even Christgau has conceded that Pazz & Jop's critical weight has diminished over the last five years. Largely this is because year-in-review coverage has two major purposes: First and foremost, Top-XX lists condense and advertise a publication's demographic focus—its taste. Secondarily, they act as a shopping cart for casual listeners: those too young to know what's what, and discerning fans displaced from cities where "cutting-edge" music is more heavily discussed and promoted. That second function—outreach—is wholly voided by the Internet. If you can afford to keep up with pop music, you can afford a high-speed connection that offers you an incomprehensible universe of recording artists, and far too many opinions about them.

Via the Internet, producing, promoting, and keeping up with music are all easier and more affordable pastimes, which is why Christgau's mantra the last couple of years has been one of submission. He has repeatedly quipped that there is more music released in a given year than we can be expected to process perceptually, let alone critically, and this has led him to support the explosion of online music criticism that arguably unseated him, positing that more music necessitates more gatekeepers.

Yet he stops short of calling out my peers—his apprentices in many cases—for a host of critical deficiencies. Chiefly: self-absorption, editorial and intellectual laziness, and an overt susceptibility to peer pressure that's led to a disdainful homogeneity of opinion.

This year pulled back the curtain on this issue of rock-critic one-mind like never before. Year-end lists from the biggest "independent" print and online magazines—which enjoy the luxury of reckless self-direction—were essentially the same as those of "corporate" publications. This is only a problem because many of the indie world's biggest voices—Pitchfork and the recently launched Gawker blog Idolator prime among them—make such an effort to stitch up the old guard as out-of-touch straw men, positioning themselves as some kind of antidote. Both sites have gone after Rolling Stone, and Idolator in particular was pathologically obsessed with vilifying this paper on behalf of Robert Christgau, who didn't ask them to, and continues, incidentally, to write frequently for Rolling Stone.

For discerning listeners, and suspicious teenagers who want to find their own music, the undeniable transparency of rock-critic hegemony should be liberating. Finally, 2006 made it plain: Everyone who's telling you to listen to the same 50 records is caught in a closed loop of incestuous self-assurance, and you owe it to yourselves to leave them behind.

Pop music criticism is mired in a virulent, unrepentant triumphalism these days, and I don't know that readers are sufficiently aware of it. Critics are cripplingly invested in breaking bands and generating buzz, a careerist formalization of the childish desire to snort, "Oh my God, you haven't heard this yet?" More forgivingly, it's also a function of young voices wanting to establish their reputation by aligning with an artist's work before anyone else. But this is not criticism: It is enthusiasm. By and large, what we read online amounts to the overexcited gushing of groupies, presented in a format that looks professional and therefore feels like a publication. Worse, undeserving online writers are disproportionately trusted, because their opinions are simultaneously free, easier to come by, and more rapidly "validated" by consensus (read: linking) than those of their once venerated print predecessors.

In tight times, print publications are unfortunately still hedging against whether or not a band has money behind them—whether they would be wasting space on the page to cover a bunch of college kids that will probably break up by the issue date—and their effort to ape the Internet's turn toward one-click novelty is just another reason their industry is collapsing. In 2006, Pitchfork is Splenda for coffee-break hipsters, PopMatters matters, and bands are just as likely to profit by a mention on Stereogum as by a feature in Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner has been writing "Nothing happened today" in his diary for two years.

Coverage of pop music—the "noise of pop," as Paul Morley might put it—isn't limited by issue dates or printing costs anymore, so the idea of stamping records with a rank relative to their temporal peer group is more and more reductive, and arguably pointless. What does Sonic Youth have to do with Joanna Newsom or Belle & Sebastian, apart from the fact that they all released records in 2006? Who is evaluating music on its own terms, against its obvious stylistic lineage, rather than by its ability to blend or contrast with—or in only the best cases, change—the pop culture of its day? The answer is that critics are chasing novelty, which leads to the celebration of the obvious, of "Weird Al" singles and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," one of the most perplexingly inconsequential one-hook jingles ever to storm the charts.

Today, we've lost independent points of view, thanks to the oppressive consensus effect of the Internet. A lazy reliance on just a few websites assures critics they're covering the "right" records and are still on top of things. That's why all of our year-end lists look exactly the same: We're constantly looking over our shoulders lest we miss out on a scoop that might generate traffic. But it's not just critics. Everyone's relationship to music has changed because of the Internet, and in a way that invalidates year-in-review summaries: We rank and file music all year long on our blogs and web magazines, in the list-drenched advertorial press, and even on our iPods. If everyone's a critic, do we still need a critics' poll?

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