Pazz & Jop 2011: Seth Colter Walls On Craig Taborn, Matana Roberts, And Voting From The Fringe


To supplement this year’s Pazz & Jop launch, Sound of the City asked a few critics to expand on the reasonings behind their voting. We’ll start off the series with Seth Colter Walls of New York City, who has a constant itch to do the deep dive and find the single-voter albums out there. Find his ballot here.

Damn do I ever love voting in, and then reading, Pazz and Jop. All these serious music-listening people, expressing opinions, mostly with a high degree of sincerity: admit it, it’s a nice break from the social media-enabled review cycle, in which a lot of people apparently feel obliged to sound off on topics about which they may only kinda sorta have an aesthetic stake. (Read: The Internet.)

Consumers (and/or voters) often look to the number ones, to talk about the consensus where it exists—me, I liked but did not love Merrill Garbus’s poll-winning record, outside of the stunning tracks “Powa” and “Bizness”; I suspect her masterpiece as a composer may yet be written for forces larger than her multi-tracked self—but in times where a 10-vote album ballot feels ever more confining and statistically unrepresentative of broader listening habits, I’m always fascinated to look at the sheer number of lonely minority reports on this side of the poll.

Critics cited 1,734 different full-lengths this year; way more than half of those titles had only a single champion. Multiple votes for albums only start to occur with real consistency around poll position #341 (Gang of Four’s Content). If you’re a true Pazz freak you’re gonna do the deep dive, and try to find something new in that glut of passions rebuffed (or ignored) by the hivemind. As in: wow, East River Pipe put out a record this year? I didn’t know that. Same-ish thing goes for Brooklyn Rider and their disc of Philip Glass string quartets.

Naturally, I have a rooting interest on this front: three of my favorite albums of 2011 were specific to my ballot, while others had only precious few allies—and I’d like to think other people might give those fucking recordings a chance. Such solitude is par for the course, though, when you don’t segregate your pop from your other genres. But y’all still need us, if for no other reason than that we can’t really call it Pazz and Jop anymore unless a few people are willing to talk about (steel yourself) jazz.

I’ve been bothering people about Craig Taborn’s Avenging Angel all year, and I was pleased to see the Times‘ Nate Chinen join six other balloters in encouraging non-jazzheads to check out the album’s solo-piano brilliance. It had a surprising high placement at position #129—tied with Internet cause John Maus and nearly touching Björk. (Don’t let the album’s clean production and quiet intro tracks fool you; it gets pretty wild/wooly/loud.) Not a single Taborn voter submitted a straight-jazz ballot.

Doing even better on this jazz-intrudes-on-your-world front, at position #78 (well trumping T____, the Fucking C______, not for nothing), was Matana Roberts’s stunning, form-busting avant-jazz concept album, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, in which the alto sax player narrated a personal take on the ancestral journey of Africans in America with piercing screams and radical blues playing. (Thanks for cosigning, Chuck Eddy and Christopher Weingarten.) Liturgy’s divisive (at least on metal boards) Aesthethica also cracked the top 100—in part because I gave it the maximum 30 possible points on my ballot, as I did with Taborn. “Generation” is a great song too, album track or not. (Hunter Hunt-Hendrix told me in an interview this year that he originally wrote it as a John Adams-style piece of minimalist chamber music in school, which makes sense. Hot jam, in any event.)

I figured a lot of people would vote for PJ Harvey and Pistol Annies, just like I did—and hey look: that happened! Beyond that, my ballot gets super lonely pretty quick. It would be dumb to be heartbroken over my solitary status in stumping for brilliant interpretations of compositions by American mavericks Charles
Ives and John Cage—though hey, I’d place money on the possibility that a modernist named Merrill Garbus has spent time with the works of both those chaps!—but I confess I’m somewhat stunned not to see a little more love for Killer Mike’s Pl3dge, which featured a pair of potential rap verses of the year (both on “That’s Life II”).

R&B’s critical public I no longer have any illusions about: if it’s not “Hot on Twitter” in a manner akin to CNN’s Best Political Team on Television in this upcoming year of political offal, it doesn’t have a chance of connecting with online tastemakers who profess to identify, much less want, some soul. Regardless, Marsha
Ambrosius still sons The Weeknd, in my view, nowhere more clearly than when
she shows how to be unafraid of vowels while losing it on the chorus of Lauryn’s “Lose Myself.”

Finally, I’d say indie-world needs to have a talk about Matthew Friedberger. Sure, he’s always… trying a bit noticeably. That feud the other year (over nothing) with Radiohead and Beck was a bit [emoticon]. But the man’s a great melodist and a legit innovator—and while Eleanor’s got her strengths and some tunes, wasn’t there something about her solo record that seemed a little edge-less, without him? Her Last Summer may have come in at a respectable #107, but notice how two lonely souls voted for different Matthew Friedberger albums this year. (Brother Matt tried to release eight solo
albums in calendar year 2011, as part of his vinyl-only subscription series Solos. The final three drop next week.) I picked the harp album, Old Regimes, which was moody and gorgeous in ways Drake will never conceive, let alone execute. Meantime, Douglas Wolk went with Matt’s piano record, which features a murder ballad Lefty Frizzell would have been proud to write, if Lefty Frizzell had been an absurdist (“I’ll Ride Right Up On My Mule”). I know it’s been cool to snipe at Fiery Furnaces for years now, but if they manage to get another group record out in 2012, I’d merely suggest that we not all reflexively be like, “LOL, the aughts.” And if not, see you again at the bottom of next year’s poll.