Radio Hits One: Beyoncé’s Unlikely Pazz & Jop Coup


If the triumph of tUnE-yArDs in this year’s Pazz & Jop albums poll was one of the biggest upsets in the poll’s history, then the companion singles poll offered one of its most predictable winners to date: Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” Smart money had been on that song taking the prize since it began its record-breaking chart run almost exactly a year ago, and few songs offered it much realistic competition. When I was predicting results among friends in recent weeks, only two songs seemed like remotely possible spoilers, and I was close enough on one (Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” which finished at No. 3) and way off on another (Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” at No. 10).

My Sound of the City chart talk colleague Chris Molanphy already viewed the albums poll through the prism of sales in his Pazz & Jop essay, where he lamented the inaccuracy of his own prediction that Adele’s 21 would become the third album to ever rank as both the top-selling album of a year and the Pazz & Jop-voting bloc’s favorite (after Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A.). Apparently not enough of the five million Americans who bought 21 were also professional music critics; the album finished at No. 6 on the poll. But Adele did notch a similarly rare achievement on the singles poll, where “Rolling In The Deep” became the third poll winner in Pazz & Jop history to have also been Billboard‘s No. 1 song of the year. Again, one of the precedents is an unsurprising ’80s blockbuster, Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” but the other is a bit more surprising: “Gangsta’s Paradise.” The Coolio smash dominated 1995 with a Stevie Wonder melody and a Dangerous Minds soundtrack placement—and it spawned an obligatory “Weird Al” Yankovic parody—but otherwise it’s hardly a canonized pop classic.

Last year, Pazz & Jop stats wizard Glenn McDonald added the P&J&B (Pazz & Jop & Billboard) page when I wanted some hard data to back up my suspicion that the 2010 singles poll was the least pop Pazz & Jop in history. As McDonald’s “P&J Popism” graph shows, the crossover between the Voice singles poll and the Billboard charts dipped the lowest it had ever gone for three consecutive years from 2008 to 2010. In the 2011 poll, the numbers have bounced back slightly, higher than 2009 and 2010, but lower than 2008 or any previous year.

Some have lamented the dominant presence of indie rock on the Pazz & Jop albums poll over the past decade, as the results have come more and more to resemble Pitchfork’s year-end lists. But I never saw much of a break there from the poll’s history of rewarding albums from punk and new wave bands, wordy singer-songwriters, and other kinds of artists that fall into the traditional “critical darling” role. The singles poll, however, has seen a much more significant sea change, from celebrating the best (or at least the catchiest) of the pop charts nearly all the time to giving over nearly half the list to the exact same critical darlings dominating the albums poll. See the hit-packed top 10 singles of 1983 or 1992, and compare that to 2009 and 2010, when token song picks from indie bands with zero presence on any radio charts (Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Girls, Animal Collective, Sleigh Bells) cluttering up the singles poll and making it look redundant with the albums poll.

By comparison, 2011’s top 10 list (top 11, really, since two songs are tied for No. 10) is truly packed with singles. Seven songs were Hot 100 hits in 2011, M83’s “Midnight City” was a minor rock radio hit that infiltrated the mainstream via TV and ad placements, and the other three (Azealia Banks’ “212,” Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” and Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers”) were all buzz-building viral hits by new artists that blew up on YouTube, which at this point is as much a portal of popular music as any radio format. Tyler’s polarizing album Goblin deflated the mounting Odd Future hype with so-so reviews and landed way down at No. 98 on the albums poll, while Banks and Del Rey had not yet released their debut albums by the end of 2011. “Video Games” did enter the Hot 100 this week, however, and it’s a funny bit of timing that Del Rey’s breakthrough single has been cemented as the seventh-most-acclaimed song of 2011 during the week that all of her media coverage is focusing on poor reviews of its Saturday Night Live performance. You have to get all the way down to the No. 12 single to find a non-hit that could be called a surrogate for its parent album: “Bizness” by the albums poll winner, tUnE-yArDs.

Of the seven songs in the Pazz & Jop top 10 that were chart hits, six were big unavoidable smashes that peaked no lower than No. 5 on the Hot 100. The other one is the poll’s surprise runner-up to “Rolling In The Deep,” Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” which peaked no higher than No. 71 despite being sung by one of the biggest stars in popular music. The travails of Beyonce’s fourth solo album 4 are well known by now: it’s her most critically acclaimed effort to date (No. 26 on Pazz & Jop), but it’s also her most commercially troubled. Suddenly, a woman with two dozen top 10 hits under her belt (including seven chart-toppers) couldn’t get higher than No. 16 last year, for the album’s second single, “Best Thing I Never Had.”

Back in November, I singled out 4 as the worst, most muddled and ineffective singles campaign to happen to a good album in 2011. But a funny thing happened in the last couple months: the album became inescapable on urban radio. After 4‘s campaign got off to a slow start with the widely reviled lead single “Run The World (Girls)” and “Best Thing” got it back on track with a moderate hit, several songs were lobbed into the marketplace in the same timeframe, and the strange thing is that they all worked: three songs from the album currently reside in the top 20 of Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, a distinction shared only by Drake’s Take Care. “Party” has been the biggest so far, peaking at No. 2, but “Love On Top” and “Countdown” were rising even before the arrival of Blue Ivy Carter put the new mom back in the headlines. This week, those songs are both airplay gainers, at No. 11 and No. 12, respectively. None of those songs are crossover smashes, though: the only time any of them rose into the top 40 was “Love On Top”‘s week at No. 20 after her VMA performance, an iTunes bump that predated the song’s radio success by months. “Countdown” is actually only the sixth-most-successful Hot 100 hit from the album, behind all the other singles as well as the album track “1 + 1.”

“Countdown” is the third Beyoncé to place in the Pazz & Jop top three. “Crazy In Love,” featuring her boof boof Jay-Z, was No. 2 on the 2003 poll, and “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” took third place in 2008. One could even say that those three songs represent something of a thematic trilogy tracing B’s relationship with Jay, with “Crazy” representing the frenetic joy of new love, “Single Ladies” celebrating matrimony, and “Countdown” looking back on a decade together and forward to starting a family. That the first two songs topped the Hot 100 and the latter stalled at No. 71 makes “Countdown” the odd one out, but it’s just as giddy and hook-filled as its predecessors, if perhaps a little quirkier and less ruthlessly club-ready. Perhaps the victory of “Countdown” is in keeping with Pazz & Jop’s increasingly hip, indie-loving constituency after all. Last summer when 4 album was released, MTV aired a making-of documentary, Year of 4, which featured a scene in which Beyoncé, while in the studio debating with her team over which songs to keep for the album, said of “Countdown”: “Every hipster, that’s their favorite song.”

“Countdown” is the fifth Beyoncé song to make it into the Pazz & Jop’s singles-poll top 20, and her eighth overall including her career-launching girl group Destiny’s Child. But her husband’s total is even more impressive: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas In Paris” and “Otis” in this year’s poll bring Jay’s P&J total to 14, and West’s to 10. Here’s a rundown of every artist that has notched five or more songs in the top 20 of P&J over the course of their career:

Prince: 16
Jay-Z: 14
Madonna: 11
Kanye West: 10
R.E.M.: 9
Bruce Springsteen: 8
Destiny’s Child/Beyonce: 8 (3 for the whole group, 5 for just Beyoncé)
Outkast/Big Boi: 8 (6 for the whole group, 2 for just Big Boi)
U2: 7
Public Enemy: 7*
Eminem: 7
The Pretenders: 7
LCD Soundsystem: 6
Rihanna: 6
Missy Elliott: 5
Michael Jackson: 5
White Stripes/Jack White: 5 (4 for the whole group, 1 for just White with The Raconteurs)

* Songs that placed in the poll in two consecutive years were only counted once, except in the case of Public Enemy, who placed with “Bring Tha Noize” first in 1987, and then in a re-recording with Anthrax in 1991.

Prince still reigns fittingly as the greatest artist of the Pazz & Jop singles poll, which began in 1979, the year of his first pop hit (add his songwriting in and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” and Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” bring his total to 18). But it’s been a long time since he was a major commercial force, and his only placing song since 1992 was 2006’s “Black Sweat,” so it’s likely that the aging but still very popular Jay-Z will take his crown sooner than later. Meanwhile, West should easily overtake Madonna, and Beyoncé should have no trouble leapfrogging ahead of the recently disbanded R.E.M. Within a few years, we could be looking at a top 3 dominated by the trio of superfriends that have dominated hip hop and R&B over the last decade, leaving those ’80s icons in the dust.