The Year of Too Much Consensus

Indie rock is the new Springsteen, but not in the way you think

Come back, Kevin McFrench. All is forgiven.

Well, OK—Kevin McFrench never existed. He was just a fake daily-paper hack from Ohio with the corniest, rootsiest, stodgiest, most clichéd and clueless white-bread biz-sucking middle-aged middlebrow Midwestern Springsteen-to-Wilco do-gooder dad-rock critical tastes you ever saw. The couple of hilarious Pazz & Jop ballots that early-'00s Voice intern Nick Catucci filed in his name didn't even count in the results. And, looking at this year's tally, you get the idea that his tastes are an endangered species.

What would Kevin make of the most whimsically insular prissy-pants indie-rock-centric Top 10 albums list in Pazz & Jop history, I wonder? Heck, even 2007 still had Bruce, plus Robert Plant/Alison Krauss—salt-of-the-earth stuff, right up Kevin's alley. Back in the early '00s, indie nerds were lucky to occupy even three spots. But back then, nobody knew what Pitchfork was. (Remember the first time you looked for it and found that farm website?) And damned if eight of this year's Top 10 P&J albums didn't also make Pitchfork's Top 10. That doubles the four Top 10 similars apiece in 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

C'mon, kids, give Bruce some love.
Danny Clinch
C'mon, kids, give Bruce some love.

Just as disconcerting, there's this year's Top 10 P&J singles, seven of which come off indie-identified albums that also finished in the Top 10. Unheard of—as a point of comparison, perennial P&J album high-charters Sleater-Kinney never placed a single above #35. In the three decades since singles tabulating started, only once before have seven Top 10s emerged from Top 10 albums: 1987, and it took three verifiable hits by Prince and two by Bruce (along with one each from R.E.M. and Los Lobos) to pull it off. The last time even five singles turned the trick was 2000, and none of those—two OutKasts, two Eminems, one U2—had indie cred.

I apologize for all the math homework right off the bat, but what's going on here? Couldn't be that indie rock is suddenly better than everything else put together, could it? Doubtful, even if it's gotten more rhythmic and varied, which people claim, but I can hardly ever get past the inept vocals, so I wouldn't know. Plus, that explanation doesn't explain more encouraging trends further down the P&J results—metal, for one, has never done better. And, to be fair, 21 albums finishing in 2009's P&J Top 40—more than half the list, including a few more indies—didn't place in the Pitchfork Top 40 at all.

Anyway, I've got theories. First off: Lazy indie voters turning a fun exercise into a dutiful one by listing random "singles" off albums they also voted for are the new version of lazy AOR voters who used to vote for perfunctory tracks off albums they also voted for. Only the genre and technology have changed, and the fact that the AOR squares—back before our newfangled, allegedly singles-oriented, iTunes-through-shitty-speakers era began—almost always got marginalized by radio-imbibing pop and dance and hip-hop fans. Though, hey, at least critics still fell for Lady Gaga this year. (Three top 13 singles: Who does she think she is—Prince?)

The indie domination at the top of the album list is a harder nut to crack, but a few factors seem worth pondering. For one thing, the poll's electorate has changed—freelance dollars aren't flowing like the old days, and with dailies and weeklies chopping arts positions, newsprint dinosaurs have departed the vocation, voluntarily and involuntarily, in droves. Meanwhile, way younger bloggers and Tweeters who make even less money reviewing music have stepped in. Some vote, and plenty see eye-to-eye with Pitchfork.

Also, this is big: Used to be, when you filled out your P&J ballot, you hadn't seen very many other Top 10 lists. Now, with websites pretending the year is over well before Thanksgiving and surviving print mags falling in step with their own premature year-end countdowns, it's hard to avoid peering over your neighbor's shoulder. A story snowballs through the year, so by December, critics who don't hear many releases and the ones who've heard too many to sort through—enough Pazz & Joppers to pass as a consensus—have had the words "Animal Collective" pounded into their heads so incessantly that boarding the bandwagon seems like a no-brainer.

Probably also didn't hurt that a few critically approved indie albums actually did OK commercially, at least in relation to stuff that did worse—Veckatimest and Embryonic both hit Billboard's Top 10 in slow weeks; Phoenix and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have SoundScanned in the 200,000-unit range. The latter two even wound up listed among the "Top Billboard 200 Albums" of 2009, albeit at a modest #177 and #192, respectively; no other P&J Top Tenner made the list. Especially given the industry's continued double-digit retail nosedive, that's not saying much. It's certainly not Susan Boyle or Taylor Swift. But it's something.

As negligible to horrible as I think most of the bands in the Top 10 are, I'm not second-guessing tastes here. People like what they like, and that apparently goes even for fans of the xx's male singer. I'm also not too cynical about consensus to be happy that my votes for Lady Gaga, Brad Paisley, and K'Naan helped them place in the Top 40. I do wish more Web-bound whippersnappers who claim to enjoy a weird, twisted racket would go out on a limb for, say, the Jono El Grande or Meercaz or Frozen Bears or Okie Dokie records that Pitchfork ignored this year. But even though I half-ran it through most of the '00s, Pazz & Jop hasn't coincided with my tastes since the early '80s, and I'm used to it. It's Kevin McFrench I'm concerned about.

Kevin might really dig those Avett Brothers, I bet. But what would he think about Bruce's less-dull-than-usual (and well-regarded, I thought) Working on a Dream flopping around way down at #59? And all those other albums that easily would've gone Top 40 in an earlier era: Bob Dylan (#41—did his Christmas record cut into votes?), Allen Toussaint (#43), Rosanne Cash (#46), Levon Helm (#47), Amadou & Mariam (#49), and Leonard Cohen (#55).

For the record, no Springsteen voters also voted for the xx or Girls, and only one voted for Animal Collective. Theoretically mainstream old-guard pros like Bill Holdship of Detroit's Metro Times and Geoffrey Himes of the Nashville Scene both saw only two of their Top 10 albums place in the P&J Top 40; St. Louis stalwart Steve Pick, choosing esoterica like Dave Alvin and the Bottle Rockets and Ian Hunter, got shut out entirely. Back in 1980 in these pages, Robert Christgau divided the Pazz & Jop electorate into "the avant-gardists versus the traditionalists, the radicals versus the conservatives"—you know, Beefheart guys vs. Bruce guys. Me, I like strangeness and skronk, but I also like boogie and beer; still, my basic instincts have always been with the vanguard. But when it's mainly the old farts who seem to have minds of their own, I start to wonder.

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