You can’t really know where you’re headed unless you know where you’ve been. For that reason, we’re taking a look back at Pazz & Jop 2012 to drill down into the ballots of contributors and voters who participated. Maybe amongst the rubble we’ll find clues about what lies ahead for music lovers in 2013. Here, music writer Dan Weiss defends his ballot.
– Pazz and Jop 2012: Top Albums
Dan Weiss. Who are you, and how many times have you voted in Pazz & Jop?
I’ve voted in Pazz & Jop since 2007, the same year I realized my quasi-dream of being a dude who writes reviews that (some) people read and makes lists that (some) people might take their listening suggestions from. I write for a ton of places, should I list them to be cool?
You can. Or just listen the ones that people will think are “cool.”
The now-online-only SPIN‘s doing amazing things right now, I’m proud to have even a tiny hand over there. And I write for the Voice, LA Weekly, SF Weekly, Salon, The Phoenix, Paste, etc. etc.
My first question about your ballot is… well, wut? Loudon Wainwright III? Pink? Matisyahu? I mean, where’s the “Love Sosa,” man?
Matisyahu sucks, I’ll get that one out of the way. Great songs happen by accident to outrageous people. He nailed one. Part of me is amazed it wasn’t a huge hit, the other part of me completely understands why no one would give Matisyahu a chance in 2012. I reviewed the album on assignment, thought three songs weren’t horrible, and spent the rest of the year blasting “Live Like a Warrior” the way people blare “Love Sosa”.
Should we give Matisyahu a chance in 2013?
Eh, I mean, it’s an accident. He’s singing more and rapping less, that’s probably a good thing. Maybe if he worked with Dr. Luke.
What is it about that song that you enjoy so much?
The chorus is both massive in a crowd-pleasing (well, me-pleasing, a crowd of Me) way and a clever chord-change songwriting nuts-and-bolts way. There’s a pretty little breakdown, the verses have a good stop-start-stompy buildup. It’s the kind of song that would sound less controversial if people heard it all over the place first, then discovered later it was Matisyahu. Anyway, Pink.
Tell me about Pink.
Pink made a great album, it’s got some major cosigns (Maura Johnston, Bob Christgau), but it’s unfashionable and mildly off the radar. Although wasn’t the “Try” video with the dancing a big deal? One great thing about pop right now is like, most pop stars are great role models. I’m not sure the last time in history that was the case. Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Pink.
Expand on that a bit. What makes a pop star a “great” role model?
These are all really strong women with strong personalities encouraging people to be themselves. It sounds corny when I put it like that, but then Pink does a song called “Slut Like You” where she eradicates slut-shaming, proudly declares “I’m a slut like you!” in the chorus. And she loves dumb dirty jokes: “Blow Me (One Last Kiss).” She’s ultra-relatable, her hooklines are like, “I’ve had a shit day”. And the first song on the album, if you let it, is this great anti-Romney Occupy-style march thing. It’s called “Are We All We Are” and the chorus is “We are the people that you’ll never get the best of / Not forget the rest of”. So she and Ke$ha are these everyperson pop stars who don’t come off detached from reality, and they still know how to have fun.
Critics surprisingly flocked to the Ke$ha album, it got positive reviews all around. I loved five songs and junked the rest. I’m always rooting for Ke$ha. Pink quietly made the more consistent, durable record.
What about Taylor Swift? She got a song on your ballot, too.
I love Taylor, but I’m biased toward Speak Now, which I Pazzed at #2 in 2010. The new one has like, ten amazing songs out of sixteen. I’m not crazy about the arena-rock gestures like reverb-y Edge guitar or the Mumford-style duets. “Holy Ground” though, fuck. The drums. The new-wave synths. She’s a master melodist.
Now, the Carly Rae Jepsen album is a little weirder. You really have to dig for any personality in there.
So why’d it make it?
I’m a musician and melody is my whole thing. That album dug its claws in for me strictly as music. It was really hard to decide on. Take that Owl City duet that most people aren’t defending. I don’t think that guy’s the end of all music like butt-hurt Postal Service fans do. But I’m not proud of liking his song so much. The lyrics are totally vapid. But I can’t not sing along to it or go crazy when it comes on.
The Carly album is masterful because it sticks to the lightweight disco, and the rare ballad tries to make it count. “Beautiful,” the Bieber duet, is far and away the most listenable thing that idiot’s ever done, and it shamelessly rips off the One Direction song. Pop is weird. But the Carly album’s just a really great, consistent disco album.
So speaking of that, what sort of things do you consider when voting in Pazz & Jop? If something has no meaning but is catchy, does it work for you? And vice versa.
I vote for the stuff I played the most, occasionally giving weight to meaning as a means of tiebreaking. So when you see me vote for Carly over say, Kendrick, an album I really enjoyed, you’re just seeing unfiltered the album I returned to more for pleasure and comfort in between “work” albums. My top two was a really tough tiebreaker though.
What broke it?
I actually voted for a disc of two EPs, Burial’s Street Halo/Kindred, but only Kindred was listed I think (even though I bought the import CD containing both). That was my most-played record of 2012. I sleep to music every night, I can’t sleep without it. So Burial was functional music for me. My most-played and often favorite music in general is stuff that works in both the foreground and the background: Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Aphex Twin.
But. The Burial thing’s an EP collection, it’s slight, and I have a weird bias about electronic music culture. I think the many, many writers and many, many artists don’t demand enough. Burial’s a rarity, making some of my favorite music of the last whatever years. But his minimalism I think could still get richer and fuller. So even though I played it the most, I wanted to go with the album I thought was artistically best last year.
And that’s Older Than My Old Man Now.
Loudon for #1. I’m completely stunned it placed at #33 or whatever, but that should tell you something about how passionately its voters thought of it, when you’ve probably barely heard of it.
Yeah, I haven’t really heard the album. Does that make me a bad music writer?
No, not at all. It’s not really young-people music, at least not the sort of thing you’d be aware of automatically. He’s basically Rufus Wainwright’s dad, was around in the ’70s to be called a “new Dylan,” was known for novelty-folk songs that had like, super-cutting wit about family and being a deadbeat dad. And now that he’s old and has stuck around, he’s found a real niche. They’re very funny songs about needing his meds to get it up and whatnot. Families tearing each other apart and needing each other anyway. Facing death. There’s a bunch of guests, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot duets with him on a song called “Double Lifetime,” about asking if they could have a do-over.
It’s unusually straightforward and earnest and darkly comic for the vague indie-bedroom music moment.
This sounds like a record I need to listen to, and one that might not be the best choice if I’m feeling melancholy.
No, it is, you’ll laugh out loud at it. He’s not depressive like other folk singers. He’s more likely to make dead baby jokes. He always cameos in Judd Apatow movies. But the subjects are obviously heavy and grim, and being at an age his own dad never reached is a feeling worth exploring. There’s a track with a recording of his dad (who was like, an old Life magazine editor) and then Rufus on it, so three generations of his family. You don’t see that sort of perspective much.
You had another old dude on your ballot. Neil Young. How does Americana fit into the Neil Young canon?
I’m still kind of a Neil Young novice, actually, so I really started entering with Living With War, in I think 2005 — which came out when I was in college and trying to convince people to vote for Kerry. That was a grungy album with a gospel choir, heavy guitar, simple but effective statements. He’s still making very good records because his aesthetic is so unchanged. Long grungy jams with folk-style arrangements, unpretentious forever. Which is why he’s perfect to do an album like Americana, where he covers fucking “This Land Is Your Land,” and like, “Clementine” and “Oh Susannah,” and just completely retools these ultra-familiar songs from the 1920s and our childhood cassette tapes, into fuck-you grunge. It’s a really easy album to listen to. Both with Neil and Loudon, if you’re open to the idea of novelty music being full of substance, you can love them.
I liked most of the top ten in Pazz this year, I just thought it wasn’t the most exciting music available. And I searched more than normal and ended up pazzing a Syrian pop star, those old guys, a couple really consistent pop albums, some electronic stuff and like, two indie-rock things that I thought really worked their asses off.
I think Miguel, Japandroids, Kendrick and Fiona are still getting weird and ambitious and their best stuff is ahead of them. Frank I’m not sure. I pazzed his Nostalgia, Ultra at #2 and found this new one blander and less interesting.
Is variety important to you in voting?
Variety isn’t important to me, really. If this was 1994 my top ten would all sound like Archers of Loaf. But I think right now, rock and indie-rock are where cool music is popping up, but not the most imaginative or exciting. That’s why electronic music and R&B are all the rage right now, those people have ambition because they don’t feel like everything in their genres have been done before. Skrillex is making more viscerally exciting music than say, Japandroids or Cloud Nothings. I liked their albums a lot, but I didn’t go, “wow, they can howl like Kurt or play like Hendrix.” I do think variety is the key to making a good record, I always get pissed off when someone worries that like, Skrillex is going to weigh down the A$AP Rocky record. Clearly the dude felt his album needed more dimensions and facets. I think there’s kind of a cynical anti-variety mindset in a lot of reviewing, especially rap-reviewing right now.
Expand on that a bit. Let’s make the Rap Internet mad.
Oh, I’d love to. I mean, the only rap album I voted for was Big K.R.I.T.’s barely-noticed 4Eva N a Day mixtape, which plays as smooth as fucking Aquemini. I think K.R.I.T.’s boring, but his voice has soul and he put together this wondrously lush patchwork of just music-as-music. And some of the raps are good too, I think it’s sweet when he says his girl helps him sleep. The rap world is always searching for meaning, they claim to not want the same thing over and over. But they do. They want a movie, and they want it to have guns. The Kendrick album is smart as hell, but if it didn’t have guns, most people wouldn’t have bothered.
That’s a pretty bold statement.
I challenge people to challenge it. There’s two strains of critically acclaimed rap right now. There’s post-Kanye Auto-Tune emo-syrup, with Future (who I like, don’t love) and Drake (who I find boring) and then there’s Rick Ross, Waka, Chief Keef, Gunplay, guns, guns, guns. Crime. Bow bow bow. Kendrick combines the latter with the introspection of the former. Ta-da, “masterpiece”. And again, I still think the album’s really good.
That seems problematic, though, to pigeon hole it in that way. Couldn’t you argue that someone like Kendrick has broken out of those two molds, and that’s why it’s the “masterpiece”?
Well there’s a lot more going on with the record itself, I’m just saying that’s my belief why people paid so much attention to it. There’s a lot of great rap records that match its intelligence and ambition that they didn’t. I wasn’t blown away by his Lonely Island verse. I think his personality’s still forming. I think the album’s musically lacking in sweet spots, particularly toward the long songs at the end. Kanye, Ghostface, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Outkast masterpieces have more melody and hooks and yeah, variety. But again, I think under the limitations of being a new original rapper who’s thoughtful and makes Compton his subject again, it exceeded expectations.
So if we removed Compton from the record, do you think it’d have the same impact?
Well, it’s funny you mention that. I think his character sketches are great too, but as I said in a Salon essay last year, someone like Serengeti who doesn’t rap about guns, does it just as appealingly, and I don’t think Kendrick’s particularly more pop-friendly. Maybe “Swimming Pools” and a couple stray hooks.
Serengeti is this guy who does these alternate personas, raps as this suburban dad named Kenny Dennis, he’s done all kinds of concept records with the character. He’s on Anticon right now, he’s crazy prolific, he’s already got at least two records slated for 2013. A little obscure, but that’s a pop audience problem, deeply embedded rap critics should have him on their radar. Mind you, the next Kendrick album could be in my Pazz ballot. I’ve Pazzed so many people I never in a million years thought I’d ever enjoy, including K.R.I.T. and Dirty Projectors. I hated Dirty Projectors. Then they made the closest thing to a rock album that I was completely blown away by every song last year. So I think a big part of being a critic means allowing your biases to get turned upside-down. Like with Carly and Owl City’s “Good Time,” I’d love to talk shit on it, because you can detail everything that sucks about it on paper. But I had to scrap that whole mentality because I want to hear it all the time. And even though I pazzed Frank Ocean’s last album at #2, nothing on Channel Orange had that effect for me. Oh well.
That’s pretty surprising. Well, Dan Weiss, what do you see happening in Pazz & Jop 2013?
Oh Jesus, so many big albums were just announced. Do I think a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album called Mosquito with an R.L. Stine cover is gonna do well? On pure visuals I think that might be their Centipede Hz dropoff. Vampire Weekend, Flaming Lips… All I can say is that people try to pin a predictable trajectory on this stuff, and you never can. Look at tUnE-yArDs.
Very few people in my top ten were people I thought I would vote for someday. And I think Miguel, Kendrick and Frank were all people that were well-liked and hoped-for, but no one had any idea just how big they’d be. I still assumed the xx or Grizzly Bear would slaughter them. I like the xx but I’m glad shit changes. I bet the next Robyn album blows everyone apart though.
I’d be 100 percent okay with Robyn dancing all over everyone.
Thanks for defending your ballot, Dan! Good luck with the Rap Internet.
I’ll liveblog any death threats.