In 1971, the Voice hosted what music editor Robert Christgau then dubbed “the first and last annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll,” receiving 84 ballots (of which only 39 came from what he described as “legitimate critics,” or “human beings with more access to print media than a lonely attack on Led Zeppelin III in a high school newspaper in Minnesota, which was one credential proferred”) and splitting the results across two music sections. Who’s Next won by a wide margin, its 540 points easily topping Sticky Fingers‘s 332 and Every Picture Tells a Story‘s 319. The prominence of legacy artists led Christgau to complain of a “creeping auterism” by which “fave raves of yore… are trotted out like so many Frank Tashlins to receive a great art award for their annual wheeze.”
Three years later, however, the poll returned, trimmed down to just 24 voters, with Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell (the last female winner for nearly two decades) just barely topping Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, and Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, though Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, and Bruce Springsteen all might have contended had they not released their respective LPs too late in the year.
In 1977, punk rock crashed the poll, with Television’s Marquee Moon, The Ramones’s Rocket to Russia, and Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols all placing in the top five, and after “Rapper’s Delight” tied for 22nd in Pazz’s inaugural singles poll in 1979, hip-hop got its first victory when Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” topped Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” one year later.
Although the Clash became the first act to win multiple album titles (first 1980’s London Calling, then 1981’s Sandinista!), Bob Dylan’s four wins (1975’s The Basement Tapes, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, 2001’s Love and Theft, and 2006’s Modern Times) put him into the lead until this year, when Kanye West’s Yeezus gave him his fourth title in only eight albums.
To dig deeper here are five essays hand-picked by Christgau himself.
“New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question,” a review of the music of 1978, published in January, 1979.
Given my pure mania for what must now be called new wave — punk, I will never forget you — the fifth or sixth annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll ought to feel like a triumph, and in some ways it does. The 98 ballots received were almost half again as many as the previous high of 68, and a conscious attempt was made to avoid loading the panel with new wavers, with many freshpeople drawn from such citadels of tradition as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Circus and Crawdaddy (which I will call Feature the day Johnny Rotten — or John Lydon, okay — makes the cover). To a lesser extent than expected, I got my conservative response from those critics. But it was overwhelmed by a post-punk sweep to which more than 80 percent of the voters contributed with at least one selection.
Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model is the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Except in 1974, when there were a mere 28 voters, only The Basement Tapes has ever made over half the ballots, and Costello’s point spread — huge over the runner-up Stones and absolutely staggering over everyone else — is unprecedented and then some. But what’s even more remarkable is the rest of the chart. Last year, eight of the 30 finishers were directly associated with new wave; this year — not counting Brian Eno, the Cars or Cheap Trick — the figure is 16. And now consider the non-new wavers in the top 20, where the poll is most reliable statistically. Eno produced No New York and Talking Heads and is referred to in a recent issue of Punk as “God”; the Cars may share a producer with Queen, but they share a&r, not to mention key musical ideas, with Television and the Dictators. Bruce Springsteen was a punk before there were punks — a “real” punk, as they say. Singer-songwriter Neil Young encored at the Garden with a reprise of his paean to Johnny Rotten, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is an excitable boy who has done Neil one better by encoring with “God Save the Queen.” Hard rock perennials Stones and Who both responded more or less explicitly to the punk challenge with their toughest records in years. The best album since 1971 (if not 4004 B.C.) by the venerable rock vanguardist Captain Beefheart responds to nothing except the weather, but the Captain was his own kind of new waver before there was an ocean, or a flag. And finally there’s Willie Nelson, the great exception, described by ace ballot annotator Tom Smucker as follows: “Nelson takes the crossover spirit of 1978 Country Music and crosses so far over with it he misses the mainstream entirely and ends up with an album that takes risks and gains integrity.”
In part these monolithic results reflect the inactivity of a few major artists. Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman and Jackson Browne all finished very high in 1977 and could probably have done so again this year. (Note, however, that Kate & Anna McGarrigle, number 13 in 1977, put the disappointing Pronto Monto on exactly one ballot. Though at least they got 10 points. Nicolette Larson, unaccountably named female vocalist of the year in Rolling Stone‘s so-called critics awards, got only five from her supporter.) But even if Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had pitched in, there would still be no doubt that for rock critics 1978 was a year in which to rediscover rock and roll.
Despite the wing of the movement represented in the poll by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who lead a band called Rockpile that played better than the Stones this year, I don’t buy the claim that new wavers merely revive the rock ‘n’ roll verities. Still, in terms of spirit and structure the idea has its validity. The wit and the temper of Presley/Berry and Beatles/Stones, intensified by compact, catchy, rhythmically insistent music, abound on the best new wave records. What’s more, the same virtues are being pursued with born-again fervor by the best of the non-new wave selections. For critics who have deplored rock’s increasing pomposity and blandness, this is a vindication. Rock and roll is our passion, and suddenly there’s more of the real stuff than at any time since rock criticism began.
As the ballots crossed my desk, though, I began to feel vaguely depressed. I’ve never thought it a critical virtue to nurture weirdness, yet for some reason I kept remembering the comment of convinced eccentric Tom Hull, whose 1977 votes for such cynosures as Blondie Chaplin, Kevin Ayers, Hirth Martinez and Tony Wilson got lost in the consensus, but who this time placed nine of his 10 favorites in the top 30: “I haven’t heard as much odd stuff as in years before, and this list strikes me as pretty mainstream. Some mainstream, eh?” As fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Tom Carson and I computed the Rs through the Zs, my depression got worse. It so happens that there are a lot of orthodox new wavers toward the end of the alphabet, including three of Trouser Press‘s Anglophiliac cabal, and suddenly artists like Dave Edmunds (as Brit-purist as r&r gets), Devo (whose marginal early showing had encouraged us to hope they wouldn’t place at all), and Generation X (accomplished but by no means original — principled — power-pop punks) were vaulting upwards. This was turning into new wave hegemony, and I don’t like hegemony of any sort. Not even the sudden success of my own favorite record of the year, Wire’s Pink Flag, warmed my heart.
For although I remain a gleefully defiant rock and roll fan — I’m sure the Ramones are one reason I’ve escaped the cosmic cynicism that affects many of my contemporaries these days — I’ve lived too long to feel comfortable with monomania. Rock and roll has always been eclectic, not to say cannibalistic, and in the bleak mid-’70s, all but its most dogged (dog-eared?) critical adherents learned to translate that eclecticism into an enjoyment of other kinds of music. In my own case, habitual attention to the byways of pop was augmented by a certain tolerant fondness for the best of folk, curiosity about the more accessible downtown avant-gardism, and renewed enthusiasm for jazz. This year, I elected to exclude the latter two genres from my personal Pazz & Jop top 30, though I’ve certainly gotten more pleasure from David Behrman’s On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing, Eric Dolphy’s Berlin Concerts and several Sonny Rollins records than from many rock albums I’ve admired in 1978. My reasons were part formalism (rock still seems to me to connote songs and/or electric instruments), part humility (I don’t pretend to cover jazz or avant-garde music and am not entirely confident of my judgments), and part expediency (there were too many rock and roll records I wanted to list). But my decision didn’t stop me from rooting for Steve Reich’s (rather Muzaky) Music for 18 Musicians, which tied for 38th, or Carla Bley’s (loose but likable) European Tour 1977, which came in 54th.
The major disappointments, though, were in black music. Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they’re always fuzzy), it’s a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O’Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop from Linda Hopkins to Ashford & Simpson, Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears). All these genres share formal and cultural presuppositions with white rock. As in white rock, their virtues have been diluted and puffed up, and they rarely sustain over an entire album. But turn on WWRL for half an hour and they’ll still be there.
All this is so obvious I feel dumb writing it. But it bears reiteration in the year of Saturday Night Fever and its pathetic, homophobic rebuttal, “Disco Sucks.” Whatever the real dangers and deficiencies of disco as a genre and a mentality, some disco records do more than just succeed on their own terms, as dance music — some of them are wonderful rock and roll. The Best of the Trammps (ineligible for the poll, like all best-ofs) is rough, driving soul in the great tradition of Wilson Pickett; the Bee Gees’ side of Saturday Night Fever (which broke — broke the ice, broke records, broke the bank — in 1978 but is ineligible because it was released in 1977) is inspired silliness in the great tradition of “Carrie-Anne” and “Itchychoo Park.” But the disco-sucks crowd can’t hear that any more than they can hear a Charlie Parker solo or a Joni Mitchell song. These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar — hell, the first lilt — as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco,” though most often the discos could care less even when it’s true. They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.
So although the sweep put my beloved Pink Flag in the running, it cost me Lee Dorsey’s Night People, which I’ve played as much as any album to appear this year, although under scrutiny it does come up slightly short on consistency and wit. Night People is a real fluke, a classic New Orleans r&b album a decade after the style peaked, a great rock and roll album by an artists who is now 54 years old. It finished 34th, one of four records by black artists that ended up between 31 and 35. Two of the others were P-Funk outings, Bootsy? Player of the Year and Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair. Together with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, the year’s leading black album way up at 27, they would add up to 192 points and top-10 status for George Clinton if that were the way things were counted. Oh well. The other two most successful black albums, Al Green’s Truth n’ Time (30th) and Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta (32nd), were released late in the year on labels with sporadic (Green) or almost nonexistent (Coleman) distribution and press coverage, and might have done better with more time for word-of-mouth. But that wouldn’t have shattered the new wave hegemony either.
One thing [that] might eventually challenge it would be a shift in the critical population, but although I sought out writers specializing in black music, there aren’t very many. Only 12 of my 98 respondents, including two disco people, fit the category, and these followed a much less predictable line than the new wavers. This is partly because only the best new wave artists are getting recorded, while the term “black music” encompasses the multitude of genres I’ve already listed and probably a thousand albums a year. But it’s interesting to me that of the 12, only three named black albums exclusively. In contrast there were 39 critics who named not one black album — not only new wavers but a great many middle-of-the-road Joni-to-Brucie rock traditionalists, including several writers who I know love black rock and roll. If it weren’t for Lee Dorsey, I would have been among them myself. Which seems as good a place as any to enlighten you with my own painstakingly calibrated top 30, which you will read on newsprint only because Rupert won’t pay for granite:
1. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest) 13.
2. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 13.
3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13.
4. The Clash: Give ‘Em Enough Rope (Epic) 11.
5. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 11.
6. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11.
7. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 7.
8. Lee Dorsey: Night People (ABC) 7.
9. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 7.
10. The Vibrators: Pure Mania (Columbia). 7.
11. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire).
12. Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA).
13. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.)
14. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis).
15. Television: Adventure (Elektra).
16. Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia).
17. Al Green: Truth n’ Time (Hi).
18. Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.)
19. Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff).
20. Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes (PVC).
21. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum).
22. Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca).
23. Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song).
24. Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter.
25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Kaya (Island).
26. David Johansen (Blue Sky).
27. Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest).
28. Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt).
29. Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista).
30. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island).
And just because it was such a good year, allow me to append the makings of a top 40 for those with sentimental attachments to that concept: Raydio, Steve Gibbons Band, Ornette Coleman, Albert Collins, Loleatta Holloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Tom Robinson Band, Tapper Zukie.
Measured by the sheer number of terrific new records, it has been a good year, too, despite my misgivings — more than satisfying in black music and the best ever in hard rock. That’s right, folks, I said the best ever in hard rock. Which is the less ominous reason for this year’s new wave hegemony. Because blacks have always been treated like a second-class market, a cost-cutting, singles-oriented, let’s-lay-down-a-party-track-and-split attitude continues to damage the overall effectiveness of black LPs — the Raydio album, for instance, knocks the Bee Gees out of the box until its last two songs. That’s one reason six of the 13 black artists I’ve named are clustered in the addendum at the bottom of my list. But the reason so many new wave artists are clustered toward the top — nine out of 15 — is simply that they’re so damned good. In its first flush of studio assurance, the new wave mentality has set off a creative explosion, especially in songwriting, and I just don’t believe in upgrading an album on political grounds. Because my rankings are based solely on some intuitive balance of listenability and aesthetic intensity, I was forced to conclude that any five songs on the Vibrators or Ramones LPs were of broader usefulness than the wonderful 11-minute scatalogical rap that opens Funkadelic’s side two. Similar judgments were made by a devotee of the more standard r&b-rooted hard rock, Dave Marsh, who would have listed Saturday Night Fever and Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ‘n All had they not been released in 1977, but who finally decided that Candi Staton and Teddy Pendergrass didn’t quite cut it.
I’m gratified that someone like Marsh, who’s a lot more skeptical about new wave than I am, should find so much good rock and roll of his sort this year, because it reinforces my suspicion that everybody’s rocking harder. True, most music bizzers are relieved that the Sex Pistols have vanished into infamy; they still find the Clash strident and the Ramones simplistic, declaring such bands unacceptable to the imaginary consumer who personifies their own complacency and cowardice. But because it’s the nature of complacent cowards to hedge all bets — and because they want to prove they’re not, you know, square — they reassert their own putative attachment to “good” rock and roll at the same time, thus easing the sales breakthrough of ‘twixt-wave-and-stream bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick. A similar snap-to by old fans (including radio people) who had previously been backsliding into resignation makes quick, surprising commercial successes of Dire Straits (42nd in Pazz & Jop despite late-year release) and George Thorogood and the Destroyers (51st despite a small press list), spearheading a minor white-r&b revival. The more conservative critics, eager to be open-minded, find the new Elvis irresistible and become instantly infatuated with Nick Lowe, whose genius for high pop was inaudible to all but a few pub-rock experts three years ago, while the new wavers move on to the likes of Pere Ubu and the Contortions and love Captain Beefheart better the second time around. Meanwhile, more and more musicians play lots and lots more of rough, tough rock and roll.
It’s only fair to add that Marsh himself does not share my sanguine mood. He’s afraid it’s all a last gasp, and for his kind of rock and roll it sometimes seems that way. An interesting statistical sidelight of the poll is the high points-to-voters ratio of Who Are You and (hullo! what’s this doing here?) Street-Legal. When this happens with records below the top 15, it usually indicates preemtpive ballot-stuffing, a cultish determination to put the Real Stuff up there, which in earlier polls helped hype Eno and Dr. Buzzard and Kraftwerk but these days seems to be the defense of the mainstream. (Some mainstream, eh?) On the other hand, the 10 records in the top 30 that have gone gold — Stones, Springsteen, Young, Cars, Zevon, Who, Dylan, Nelson, Cheap Trick, Funkadelic — are mostly to Marsh’s kind of taste, including four in his top 10, and he also voted for 36-ranked Bob Seger, who spent the year trading in his silver bullets on something more fashionable. So maybe what the traditionalists are really worried about is that, like me, he suspects Willie Nelson is more likely than Pete Townshend (or Bruce Springsteen) to make good music till he’s 60. Maybe they too detect in the eyes of the Cars and Cheap Trick the blank gleam that gives away artists who are turning to platinum from the soul out. Or maybe it’s just that he’s not comfortable with the shift to the left himself. Three years ago Bruce Springsteen was young blood, the bearer of rock-and-roll future. Now he’s a likable conservative — the vital center, your favorite uncle, like that.
This would seem to be a swing year. The truism that success on the Pazz & Jop chart isn’t exactly synonymous with success on the one in Record World is borne out primarily by new wavers, who contributed most of this year’s dozen or so stiffs. Not even Patti Smith, who with help from Uncle Brucie finally bagged her hit single, achieved gold, which in the year of trentuple platinum (Saturday Night Fever has sold over 30 million units worldwide) is beginning to strike many bizzers as a rather negligible commercial goal. But for the more poppish artists the prognosis is favorable. Patti came close, and Talking Heads is over 200,000 or so and Costello looks unstoppable — he’s got a better shot at going platinum eventually than Jackson Browne appeared to five years ago. Lowe and Edmunds, who sold zilch, are just as talented as Elvis, but less passionate, less ambitious, and less young; still, if Rockpile is willing to slog it, they’ll do all right too. So will Blondie, already a major [band] in Europe and Australia; if Devo doesn’t go the way of the Tubes, they will too, which I’ll try to convince myself is a mixed blessing.
For the others, however, things look bleaker, with the U.S. sales prospects of the two greatest bands to come out of this thing, the Clash and the Ramones, [XXXX]-ing. So far, all that the Ramones’ hard touring and good music has netted them is more hard touring, more good music, and a nationwide cult large enough to keep their road operation out of the red; the Clash are stars in England but have shown as little interest in America as America has shown in them. David Johansen’s solo debut sold disappointingly, and though his sudden professionalism is awesome and his company support unusually single-minded, whether his hip, hoarse New York style can ever make a real dent in these United States is beginning to seem questionable. Solo Tom Verlaine, now minus Television, will tend to his own kind of professionalism, which will most assuredly have everything to do with music (and words) and almost nothing with becoming a star. Ian Dury is so English that he’ll always be a fringe benefit here. And Wire and Pere Ubu, both of whom enjoy modest success in the U.K. (even though Ubu is as loyal to Cleveland as the Clash is to its safe European home), are currently without U.S. labels.
Finally, though, I’m not convinced that all this crass pro and con retains importance. I’ve discussed sales annually in this wrap-up not only because they affect artistic strategy and define what kind of community the music and we its fans inhabit, but also, of course, because they determine what records get made and thus enter history. But it seems clear (knock on plastic) that we’re over that bottom line for a while. Maybe the Clash, embroiled and embittered, will bollocks Britain; maybe the Ramones and David Johansen will finally lose heart; maybe Tom Verlaine will do one solo album and disappear; maybe Wire will go back to art school; maybe Pere Ubu won’t even put out records in Cleveland anymore. But though any of those things could happen and one or two of them probably will, all of them won’t. Nor will every one of the more salable new wavers turn to shit before our very eyes. This new kind of rock and roll is going to be around for a while.
If someone had told me five years ago that I was destined for cultism, I would have scoffed, or cried. Rock and roll was pop music, that was my line — it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cultural resonance. And in a critic like Marsh, the idea that good rock must move an expansive, broad-based audience remains as powerful as any inborn aesthetic conservatism. But I’ve changed my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm for jazz that the bleak mid-’70s rekindled in me had a lot to do with it. For, looking around me, I am reminded of nothing so much as what I’ve read about the twilight of the swing era. Swing was vital popular music into the ’40s, and some of its proponents — not just Duke and Billie, either — did great work until much later, although not usually in a big-band format. But when Frank Sinatra shifted public attention from the bandleaders, who were swing’s artistic standard-bearers, onto the vocalists, most of [XXXX] integrity, swing began to evolve into the fatuous pop music of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, the music rock and roll revolted against.
Long before then, however, two different groups of black musicians had staged their own revolts. The Kansas City style that had been sophisticated into big-band swing was also simplified into rhythm-and-blues, which many blacks and slowly increasing numbers of whites preferred for dancing. Aimed point blank at the new teenage market (sometimes in combination with country music), r&b of course turned into rock and roll. Meanwhile, somewhere to the other side of the pop-swing mainstream, renegade big-band musicians sparked by Charlie Parker invented the apparently undanceable, virtuoso jazz style called bebop. Shortly after World War II, the style enjoyed a brief vogue symbolized in the picture magazines by Dizzy Gillespie and his zoot suit. Despite that flurry, though, bebop never became massively popular, and some of its key figures — such as Thelonious Monk — had trouble earning a living at it. Yet somehow, by the late ’50s, the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that originated with Parker pervaded jazz-based music.
There are no perfect historical analogies, and the equation of bebop with new wave doesn’t come close, not least because when bebop began there was no bebop — no popular-music-as-art-music — and now there is. As someone who has regarded Charlie Parker as the greatest 20th-century American artist even at the height of his infatuations with William Carlos Williams and Chuck Berry, I get nervous just putting the comparison on paper. But I’ve been making it in conversation for six months now, and I know of no better way to explain what I see happening. The rock that has become America’s popular music is rotten from Olivia Newton-John all the way to Kansas. Good art and/or worthy entertainment will continue to be created within its various genres, but as forms they’re moribund. Inevitably, the new wave ideas will infiltrate these genres and pop hybrids proliferate; since hybridization has always been a means to good rock and roll — eclecticism, remember? — some of them may be quite exciting and the real stuff will keep happening. I don’t believe any more than I ever have that new wave will turn into the next big thing. But I feel certain that it will survive and evolve as an entity — the musicians will be there, with a community of fans to support them. Some of them may even age more gracefully than most rock and rollers.
One reason this comparison makes me nervous is that in several ways new wave is bebop’s obverse: can a black music of unprecedented (for jazz) harmonic sophistication really parallel a white music of unprecedented (for just about anything) self-conscious primitivism? But though a lot of new wave may be technically unsophisticated, not all of it is — the English punk moment was an extreme — and in any case rock-and-roll so-[XXXX] technical. What’s more, rock and roll has been exploring self-conscious primitivism as a means of making black-derived forms authentic for white people ever since Elvis Presley; sometimes, as in Eric Burdon, the results are embarrassing, but other times, as in the best one-take-and-out Bob Dylan, they’re magnificent. And it’s interesting that in a couple of ways the parallel really comes alive — because, in addition to the hostile bohemian stance assumed by both new wavers and beboppers, a corresponding musical strategy has served to repel potential fans of each vanguard.
The great jazz critic Martin Williams argues that Charlie Parker’s most decisive innovation was not harmonic but rhythmic — that the difference between a Parker phrase and almost the same notes played by Ben Webster was that “Parker inflects, accents and pronounces a phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it.” While I can’t follow bebop’s harmonic permutations closely enough to judge with any certainty, that’s always sounded right to this unschooled bebop fan. Similarly, John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls “forced rhythm,” a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here’s another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas most new wavers — unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don’t swing — don’t swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the “frantic” quality of both musics.
The main reason I’ve never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-‘n’-roll verities is that new wave doesn’t sound very much like (good ol’) rock ‘n’ roll. It’s too “forced,” too “frantic.” It’s this — combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop — that limits its audience, and it’s this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn’t just (blues-based) white music — it’s White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony.
I believe new wave’s aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I’d consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I’ve made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed — disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the “race market.” But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to the right resemble, in their patterns of pro- [XXXX] largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny.
In the ’50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called “hard bop” and “soul jazz.” What do you think new wave disco might sound like?
“Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome,” a review of the music of 1982, published in February, 1983
Because jazz criticism is one of the many things I know too little about, Otis Ferguson was only a name to me when The Otis Ferguson Reader came my way this fall, and I hope his admirers will accept the compliment I intended when I claim him (for symbolic purposes, at least) as the first rock critic. Remembered mostly for his movie reviews, Ferguson also wrote extensively about the music of the swing era, and there’s something about his attitude that strikes a chord. The man was a born democrat: having worked his way through college, he refused to take on airs when the job was done. Actively hostile to any hint of sham or dilettantism, he tried to describe complex aesthetic interactions so that yeomen could understand them. But he refused to compromise in the other direction either. Unlike the run of fans and/or hacks who always dominate music journalism, he loved language for its own sake, written and spoken both, which means he was committed to taking colloquial risks in a honed style — he went for contemporaneity and a feisty edge without worrying about whether he’d sound dated stilted later. He valued music’s soul and inspiration no more and no less than its shape and meaning.
Like any sensible person, Ferguson knew you couldn’t write about American music without writing about Afro-American music — he was calling blues “America’s single biggest contribution to the form of music” quite early in the life of that cliché. But he also knew that “people who talk too glibly about racial differences always get left out on a limb, sooner or later,” and added: “When it comes to the musicians, the matter of race is a tossup as far as I’m concerned.” Ferguson was adamant if not defensive on this point — he once took John Hammond to task for “saying ‘white musician’ the way you’d use the term ‘greaseball'” — partly in reaction against ’20s Afrophilia, which was often not just dilettantism but elitist European. But when it came to the best musicians he got unlikely results from his tossup, devoting 13 pages (in the Reader, $10 from December Press, 3093 Dato, Highland Park, Illinois, 60035) to Bix Beiderbecke against Louis Armstrong’s one, 24 pages to Benny Goodman against Duke Ellington’s six, four pages to Red Nichols against Sidney Bechet’s two bemused mentions.
People who talk glibly about racial differences might get judgmental about these statistics, but I respect Ferguson too much for that. Anyway, he did better than many of his colleagues, and even the worst of them had alibis. White musicians were more accessible, white musicians drew more readers, white musicians had (to quote Ferguson) “melodic discipline” and “more definite organization,” white musicians “did more to spread the fame of jazz.” All of this is credible, useful, and perhaps even true; as a naif who regards jazz as an essentially black idiom, I was inspired by Ferguson to test the spritz of MCA’s delightful recent Red Nichols reissue, and I’m glad I did. But when I turned to Sidney Bechet’s RCA twofer from the same period (“his soprano saxophone can still be heard today”), and let me tell you — Bechet blew Nichols away.
People who talk glibly about historical parallels always get left out on a limb sooner or later, so I hope I don’t push my analogy further than it wants to go. But I kept thinking about Otis Ferguson’s Negro problem as the ballots for the ninth or 10th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll rolled in. If Elvis Costello’s victory wasn’t exactly hot news, his margin was respectable — he got a much bigger vote than the Clash in 1981, and did better proportionally than a comparable consensus choice, Graham Parker in 1979. But no matter how big a piece the winner cut off, most voters seemed weary of how stale, flat and unprofitable the pie had become; the dejected Britcrits at Trouser Press, for instance, declined to name a number one album this year, placing Imperial Bedroom, which topped their in-house poll, at a symbolic number two. And if I once again failed to share all this dolor, it wasn’t in the hundred-flowers bloom spirit that inspired me to list my 60 top albums a year ago; though I did find another 60 gooduns, down-the-middle sales and borderline creativity both sagged ominously enough to put a crimp in my natural rock and roll optimism. Starting in early November, however, seven of my favorite 1982 albums, every one a variation on a theme, restored a lot of my fire. And if they weren’t likely to lift the mood at Trouser Press, a journal white supremacist enough to make Rolling Stone look like a hotbed of affirmative action, George Clinton’s Computer Games, Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love, Prince’s 1999, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, Chic’s Tongue in Chic, Material’s One Down, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller made it a pretty damn good year after all.
Except in re poor Tongue in Chic, which got shut out, the critics shared my enthusiasm to a moderately unprecedented degree. Prince, Gaye, and Jackson finished 6, 8, and 15, while in 1980 Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson finished 8, 9, and 13 — with no Sunny Adé or Ornette Coleman to siphon off tokenism votes. And Adé’s showing was very impressive in itself — unknown to American critics a year ago, the African rhythm king finished fourth, higher than any black artist in the history of the poll except Wonder (who won in 1976). And while Ornette’s 13th-place finish doesn’t sound all that much more commanding than Dancing in Your Head‘s 15th in 1977, 1982’s sampling of 216 respondents, 67 of them from cities other than New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, should have been much harder to crack than 1977’s 68-critic in-group. It wasn’t, and for good reason: just as established critics were converted and new ones created by punk/new wave in the late ’70s, so now many young critics young and old are gradually learning to hear music that falls under the rubric of funk.
And the albums weren’t even the big story. Like “new wave,” the term “funk” exploits a serviceable vagueness; it’ll fit all the black records I’ve named if you stretch it around Sunny Adé a little. But funk in its purest form was the first cause of the pop event of the year, perched securely atop the singles list. Never in Pazz & Jop history has any record occasioned such blanket ecstasy as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.” About 75 percent of the voters put it in their top 10s, usually at number 1 or 2; the best percentage any album has earned was This Year’s Model‘s 60 in 1978, and in three previous years of singles balloting no title has made even a third of the lists. Nor was this New York chauvinism; “The Message” did even better in the boonies (as I jocularly refer to cities off the NY-LA-Boston-Frisco axis) and the ‘burbs (my pet name for LA-Boston-Frisco) than in its hometown, where it was subjected to a small gay boycott (though at least three gay voters ignored the “fag” references and named it anyway) as well as NY’s all too predictible antitrendie backlash. In any other year, the 104 votes for Marvin Gaye’s polymorphous vocal-percussive tapestry “Sexual Healing” would have been a definitive pop event all by itself. In any other year, the eighth-place finish of 1982’s most influential dance record, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” would have tempted me to praise of Kraftwerk and other universalist indiscretions. In 1982, however, the sinuous synthesized skeleton against which Melle Mel and company pitted Duke Bootee’s street-surreal rhymes combined the best of Gaye’s body rock and of Bambaataa’s futuristic world-spirit — and it had a message, too.
Nor did the funk stop there. Last year “rock” by Laurie Anderson, the Rolling Stones, Kim Carnes, and Yoko Ono surrounded Flash’s “Wheels of Steel” in the top five; this year, except for the rejuvenated Pretenders, all of the five white artists in the top 10 — led by the Clash, who gained inner-city credibility while at the same time proving so middle American that more than half their 18th-place album support came from the boonies — scored with black dance records of one sort or another. In fact, this was a year in which good black radio proved more open to good white music than any white radio did to any black music: black supremacist Ron Wynn, who attributed 1982’s “vibrant, exciting music” to “the growing rift in black and white pop tastes” (with that vague word “pop” leaving room for agreement), deplored the way “white junk like Toni Basil” (pop tastes do differ) crowded out such worthies as Jerry Butler. White supremacists, on the other hand, will probably view the entire singles list as a huge liberal miscegenation plot.
If in my mongrelizing depravity I seem to be prophesying interracial rockcrit hegemony, however, remember Otis Ferguson. Like rescued L.A. bluesman Ted Hawkins (heir to this year’s Longhair-Nevilles traditionalist vote) and former Blood Ulmer drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who finished 13 places ahead of his old boss), Adé and Coleman qualify as critics’ faves, like Aretha Franklin (in her first P&J charting ever), Prince, Gaye, and Jackson are black popsters who “cross over,” and while Gaye’s outreach is a simple little matter of genius rather than of conscious stylistic modulation, crossovers do by definition accommodate white journalists along with white everybody elses. I want, need, and love both pop and esoterica, but I’d be more encouraged if the voters shared my passion for the in-betweeners — if George Clinton (on whom word-of-mouth started late) had bested Richard Hell or even Lou Reed, also crazed old-timers recently arisen from the slough of despond, or if Grandmaster Flash’s LP (which would have made top 40 if only Tom Smucker, supposedly one of my best friends, hadn’t flued out on his franchise) had finished with Mission of Burma’s Vs. or the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses or the Fleshtones’ Roman Gods or even X’s Under the Big Black Sun, also groove albums of dubious verbal acuity. I’d be more encouraged if the black artists in the top 15 had finished even higher — in December I thought an Adé or Gaye victory conceivable. And I’d be most encouraged of all if I thought the flowering of funk was dispelling the gloom of white rock critics as irresistibly as it ought to be.
On one level the fact that it doesn’t makes perfect sense. Because most of the critics are white (though part of the story is how many good new ones aren’t), they find it easier to identify with white musicians, especially after five years of minor miracles from various punks and new wavers. But this isn’t as natural as it may seem; it’s a heritage of the old “progressive” sensibility and the radio it helped spawn. One reason I enjoy black music so readily is that as a child of the ’50s I grew up enjoying it — more than white music, and damn right I was aware of the distinction. Not that I came by funk spontaneously. Beguiled by progressivism myself — and therefore trained to get off on stuff that many young critics can barely hear at all (Donald Fagen, say, or Warren Zevon) — I had to retool my ears (at the urging of colleagues like Joe McEwen, Ed Ward, and especially Pablo Guzman) to understand how the new black music means; I had to learn George Clinton’s and James Brown’s language. After five or six years, I’m still working at it, and I suspect I won’t succeed to my full satisfaction without a lot more help from the likes of Barry Michael Cooper and Gregory Ironman Tate, who’ve breathed it all their conscious lives. But I can tell you that this language renders a lot of progressive standards not invalid (they still work for Zevon and Fagen) but irrelevant. If history is any guide, funk usages will eventually be taken for granted by everyone who listens to popular music; complaints about meaningless lyrics and indistinguishable rhythms will someday seem as off the mark as Otis Ferguson’s appeals to “melodic discipline” and “more definite organization.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anybody much good right now, because the pop future has to begin with your own pleasure in your own time. Unlike fan Tim Sommer, who berates “ethnic patronization” at least partly because funk is stealing hardcore’s thunder, or hack Blair Jackson, who signs off with cheery threats of “death to critics who think Grandmaster Flash is ‘important'” (somebody fly out to San Francisco and mug that biz-sucking hippie!), I think it’s healthy for young critics to force-funk themselves, as some do. Those African rhythms are famous for their je ne sais quoi, after all, and with Britishers like the Clash and Gang of Four and ABC (my conscience interjects: and the Human League and Joe Jackson?) outracing their attenuated U.S. art-funk rivals (I don’t mean you, Devo and Talking Heads) to black radio, many cool folk have decided that perhaps it’s time to look beyond the latest smart garage band. In New York this is unavoidable anyway — funk is literally in the air of one of the few American cities with a genuinely integrated street life. But the aging new wavers who are the principal funk converts still suffer from Ferguson’s Syndrome — their new pleasure doesn’t provide that essential existential satisfaction, because the language is still a foreign one.
I wonder how Ferguson, who died in World War II, would have adjusted to bebop. Would he have continued to turn out tersely emotional appreciations of the surviving swing giants, or would he have come to terms with those forbidding rhythmic changes the way Budd Johnson and Coleman Hawkins and Woody Herman did? The question matters because funk may well be changing rock and roll as fundamentally as bebop changed jazz. I’m aware that I made a similar claim for the punk forcebeat just four years ago, but one doesn’t cancel out the other. On the contrary, funk is stage two, providing the undeniable popular base that punk (and bebop) never achieved in this country — though it did in Great Britain, probably one reason the top British postpunk funkers make better pop than their American counterparts, wholehearted but never simple-minded.
What rock and roll has always held out — more than any theme or even sound — is the pop edge, the promise that there’s a future out there for remarkable ordinary people to make. Sure it’s possible to say something new from a well-explored place — in a sense, not only Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon but George Clinton himself did just that in 1982. But because pop seizes the moment so decisively, it can be used to fixate on the past as well as ride into the future — it can serve nostalgia as well as progress. In my view, that’s just what Tom Petty (57th) and Graham Parker (50th) and Joni Mitchell (39th) and maybe even Fleetwood Mac (36th) are up to these days. And it’s my commitment to the future that makes my favorite albums of 1982 shake out more or less as follows.
1. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles) 16;
2. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 16;
3. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 14;
4. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol) 13;
5. Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 9;
6. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 8;
7. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia) 7;
8. Kid Creole & the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 6;
9. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Warner Bros.) 6;
10. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) 5
11. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: Juke Box Dury (Stiff)
12. Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.)
13. James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia)
14. Professor Longhair: The Last Mardi Gras (Atlantic Deluxe)
15. Clint Eastwood & General Saint: Two Bad DJ (Greensleeves)
16. Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum)
17. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.)
18. ABC: The Lexicon of Love (Mercury)
19. Ray Parker, Jr.: The Other Woman (Arista)
20. Itals: Brutal Out Deh (Nighthawk)
21. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill)
22. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia)
23. James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder)
24. Gang of Four: Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.)
25. B-52’s: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros.)
26. Chic: Tongue in Chic (Atlantic)
27. Sweet Pea Atkinson: Don’t Walk Away (Island/ZE)
28. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: Good Clean Fun (Slash)
29. Material: One Down (Elektra)
30. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)
31. The Roches: Keep on Doing (Warner Bros.)
32. Van Morrison: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.)
33. Orchestra Makassy: Agwaya (Virgin import)
34. Rank and File: Sundown (Slash)
35. Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles)
36. Tom Robinson: North by Northwest (I.R.S.)
37. CH3: Fear of Life (Posh Boy)
38. David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky)
39. Sound d’Afrique II: Soukous (Mango)
40. Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill)
41. Devo: Oh No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.)
42. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra)
43. Talking Heads: The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (Sire)
44. Bonnie Raitt: Green Light (Warner Bros.)
45. A Flock of Seagulls (Arista)
46. Soweto (Rough Trade import)
47. Ferron: Testimony (Philo)
48. Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now (Columbia)
50. Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Majestics: Mystic Miracle Star (Heartbeat)
51. Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street (Red Star)
52. Jive Five featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound)
53. Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder)
54. Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.)
55. Speed Boys: That’s What I Like (I Like Mike)
56. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic)
57. Alberta Hunter: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia)
58. “D” Train (Prelude)
59. Mighty Diamonds: Indestructible (Alligator)
60. Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns: Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) (MCA)
I ought to mention that this year’s top 60 is less final than 1981’s was. Not only are Roxy Music, Mission of Burma, two Bunny Wailer imports, and other stragglers awaiting judgment, but this turns out to have been a banner year for best-ofs. I like the Ray Parker, Jr. and the Billy Stewart even more than the Squeeze and the Stevie Wonder (which ran 1-3 around Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight in an informal compilation ballot we solicited), and would name John Lennon and the Bellamy Brothers and Ambient Sound’s Everything Old Is New and perhaps Shalamar and even (can it be?) Abba (behind Okeh Western Swing and the Coasters and tied with the reissued Africa Dances in the balloting). I should also announce that with an extra week to think I’d switch Pazz & Jop points and places between George Clinton and Sunny Adé; unfortunately, my ballot was due February 1 like everybody else’s. About singles I’ll say only that my firm criterion — real pleasure imported by the record heard as a single — befuddled me into omitting Flipper’s “Sex Bomb,” which I stopped playing when I got Flipper’s album. Criteria be damned, I’d now rank it number 4 anyway — a “Louie Louie” for our time:
1. The Fearless Four: “Rockin’ It” (Enjoy)
2. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill)
3. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia)
4. New Order: “Temptation” (Factory import)
5. Stacy Lattisaw: “Attack of the Name Game” (Cotillion)
6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA)
7. The Pretenders: “My City Was Gone” (Sire)
8. The Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia)
9. Peech Boys: “Don’t Make Me Wait” (West End)
10. Flipper: “Get Away”/”The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly!” (Subterranean)
11. P-Funk All-Stars: “Hydraulic Pump” (Hump)
12. Yazoo: “Situation” (Sire)
13. Captain Sensible: “Wot” (A&M import)
14. ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury)
15. Anti-Nowhere League: “So What” (WXYZ import)
16. Gang of Four: “I Love a Man in Uniform” (Warner Bros.)
17. Stripsearch: “Hey Kid”/Emily XYZ: “Who Shot Sadat?” (Vinyl Repellent)
18. Cheap Trick: “If You Want My Love” (Epic)
19. Prince: “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.)
20. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: “Shelley’s Boyfriend” (Slash)
21. Joe Piscopo: “I Love Rock n’ Roll (Medley)” (Columbia)
22. A Flock of Seagulls: “I Ran” (Jive)
23. Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience)
24. Treacherous Three: “Yes We Can-Can” (Sugarhill)
25. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy)
26. Dangerous Birds: “Smile on Your Face”/”Alpha Romeo” (Propeller)
27. Eddy Grant: “California Style” (Ice import)
28. Althia & the Donazz: “Virgin Style” (Circle import)
29. Anne Waldman: “Uh-Oh Plutonium!” (Hyacinth Girls)
30. Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America)
I’ve had second thoughts about EPs, too. After scoffing all year I found myself smitten with loads of ’em — haven’t even put my 1-2 in print till now. The EP is a confusing category, conceived by Poobah Tom Carson and me as a disc alternative to the now discontinued local band competition. And once again the winner wasn’t even a local band, but rather a marginal mainstreamer who’s already released five LPs and who with the help of his Lord Jesus Christ came up with what can only be called the most inspired California-rock of the year, wisely promoted by Warners in a budget format. And if T-Bone Burnett only converted me after I returned Trap Door to the active pile in 1983, well, the same goes for R.E.M., his drug-crazed opposite numbers from the Athens of the South:
1. Angry Samoans: Back from Samoa (Bad Trip)
2. The Waitresses: I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts (Polydor)
3. R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.)
4. Oh OK: Wow Mini Album (DB)
5. Minor Threat: In My Eyes (Dischord)
6. T-Bone Burnett: Trap Door (Warner Bros.)
7. Pop-O-Pies: The White EP (415)
8. The Replacements: Stink (Twin/Tone)
9. Mofungo: “El Salvador”/”Just the Way”/”Gimme a Sarsaprailla” (Rough Trade import) 10. Steve Almaas: Beat Rodeo (Coyote)
Return now if you will to my album list and we’ll ponder the future some more. First, count black LPs, not such a clear-cut task in this mongrel-eat-mongrel world. Disqualifying the English Beat and Material, I get 27, only two more than I named last year, but with a striking change in racial makeup on the cutting edge: five (as opposed to two) of my top 10 are black, as are 16 (as opposed to eight) of my top 30. Then try another parameter applicable to our theme: age. Three of the artists in my top 10 are over 40, just like me, and four more (giving Richard Thompson a break) over 35. Youth chauvinists should jeer at my old fartdom now, while they still can — it may indeed be that my chronic indifference to Elvis the C reflects my advancing years ant he complacent rationalism consequent thereupon. It so happens, however, that Marvin Gaye (b. 1939) also made the critics’ top 10, and as we proceed down the two lists something strange happens. Only four more over-40s, including two superannuated (not to mention dead) New Orleans pianists whom I classify as rock and rollers just to be ornery, appear in my top 40; on the critics’ list you’ll find seven more. And where I list seven over-35s in all, the critics come up with a total of nine. Old farts abound.
Fascinating figures, and I mean to have them both ways. On the one hand, they make hash of the ancient canard that rock and roll is strictly for the young — if not literal teenagers then at least untrammeled striplings. The reason outmoded “progressive” standards can rejuvenate pushing-40s like Richard Thompson and Lou Reed — who share 1982 comeback honors with Bryan Ferry (b. 1945) and George Clinton (b. 1940), and may they and others like them prosper for decades to come — as well as suiting such 35-niks as Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon is that they (artists and values both) still actually do (or anyway, can) progress. Richard and Linda’s final album really is their loudest and clearest. Lou’s most contented and apparently conventional album really is (with the aid of Robert Quine and black bassist Fernando Saunders) his supplest. And Avalon, which finished higher than any Roxy Music album since 1975’s Country Life, combines the funk feel Ferry introduced on 1979’s Manifesto with the English electrosheen of his own heirs’ synth-pop for the most unabashedly romantic music this ironic romantic has ever made.
But as much as I admire many of the other oldster albums the critics selected — Morrison’s and McCartney’s and Fleetwood Mac’s and (to be nice) Mitchell’s — they do carry a rather nostalgic collective weight; they recapitulate the past and do what they can to ignore the future. Such encumbrances don’t even touch Adé and Gaye and Coleman and Shannon Jackson, whose mean age must be 43 or 44, because these men are working a tradition — significantly, a specifically musical rather than cultural tradition — that’s just begun to flower. And if I’m doubly partial to George Clinton, it’s not because he’s been in the vanguard of that tradition for so long that he could coast for five years and still be on the one. It’s because he’s also a master of such supposedly Caucasian specialties as stance and persona and pop mind-fuck — and because the humility and vulnerability of his comeback album, an album directly inspired by New York dance radio in general and his heirs Flash and Bambaataa in particular, are sharper, deeper, funnier, warmer, and more irreverent than Lou Reed’s or Warren Zevon’s.
I’m aware that Imperial Bedroom also has its formally progressive rep, but when the best line any of my normally loquacious correspondents can feed me on the album of the year is Roy Trakin’s “tongue-twisting puns for the post-Porter generation,” things are obviously desperate. I know, it’s all about emotional fascism; I know, it’s even got a lyric sheet. Try reading the damn thing — the words are almost as hard to follow on paper as in the air. I say it’s Elvis at his fussiest and I say the hell with it. In fact, like the headline-scrounging old commie fart I am, I much prefer (and was rooting for) the album that handicapped as its chief rival: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. A risky, eloquent, and successful pop mind-fuck, Nebraska cut Reagan to bits with a dignity that screamed no joke and broke AOR without a hook or a trap set. Only problem was, it was — and I use this term advisedly — boring. It was boring even if every one of its 800,000 owners played it obsessively for months on end, which I doubt. It was so monochromatic that even as it screamed no joke it whispered no exit — and maybe no future. It may have been a pop mind-fuck, but it wasn’t quite a pop event, because the very terms of the mind-fuck impelled Springsteen to negate the rock and roll hope he’s always traded in. Next time I hope he puts it all together.
But meanwhile we must take our quest for the future to the only place any sane rockcrit fan would expect it to end — ye olde new wave. As per tradition, numerous debut albums grace our list, and as per neo-orthodoxy, quite a few of them aren’t from England, new wave’s commercial center: New York’s Marshall Crenshaw and Fleshtones (and Laurie Anderson?), San Francisco’s Flipper, Austin’s Rank and File, L.A.’s Dream Syndicate, Boston’s Mission of Burma, and (on the EP chart) Athens’s R.E.M. I like all of these artists, some a great deal. I find Marshall Crenshaw’s pop touch surer and more graceful than that of such top-10 debut-LP predecessors as the Go-Go’s (10th in 1981), the Pretenders (fourth in 1980), the Cars (ninth in 1978), and maybe even the B-52’s (seventh in 1979), and I hope he gets another record into the poll someday, something none of the aforementioned have yet managed. I’m crazy about Flipper and on Rank and File’s side, and I hope that over the next year they gain more in musicianship than they’re certain to lose in conceptual panache. But I sense in every one of the others an insidious postgarage formalism in which hooks and a certain rough emotionality, even sloppiness, are pursued as ends and signify only themselves. That’s why I call them groove bands — they’re more interested in a sound than in what a sound can say. Granted, they do share an aesthetic project — they want to jolt the white rock and roll of the pre-arena era into self-conscious musciality. That’s why I like them. But it’s not exactly what I mean by a commitment to the future.
I can hear my more apolitical white readers snorting even now at the Dean’s latest integration tract. But this isn’t a moral plea — it’s a prediction, not just about critics but about the shape of the popworld. Sure I’ve been an advocate of black pop approximately forever; I dreaded Ferguson’s Syndrome before I ever heard of the man, and I’ve always fought it (in myself as well as others) on the general historical principle that, in the end, black music will out. But that never meant that I believed rock was essentially (as opposed to originally) a black idiom, and it never turned me off good new white rock and roll — it just prepared me to hear great new black albums (and singles, and more singles) as they arrived. In 1982 they arrived in profusion, as did an unprecedented array of successful white imitations and modulations, and while I wouldn’t expect a precise repeat in 1983 — Gaye and Michael Jackson will no doubt be silent, reggae is unlikely to be held to a novelty single — I do sense something seismic happening. In 1978 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll announced a “triumph of the new wave” that seemed certain to crash against an immovable, monolithically profitable record biz; in 1982 the biz was in a panic and new wave looked like one of its only hopes. In 1982 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll suggests (somewhat more tentatively) a reintegration of American popular music in the teeth of the most racist pop marketplace since the early ’50s, and I’m betting that by 1986 some kind of major commercial accomodation will have been achieved. If Sunny Adé can’t be king of MTV, maybe Prince can be prince.
What remains for critics black and white isn’t to praise every half-assed funk crossover black or white. I mean, Men at Work finished a very modest 66th and the Stray Cats got three mentions. But the white critics are going to have to give up a lot of their prejudices — against populism and chic and conspicuous consumption, against homiletics and sexual posturing, and perhaps (although of course this doesn’t mean you) against black people themselves. Even harder, they must learn how to hear how lead basslines and quintuple rhythms and cartoon chants and harmolodic abrasions and party rhetoric can make meaning and reshape time. And hardest of all, they must feel the ways in which funk’s pleasures really are their own — as human beings, as Americans, as rock and rollers. Meanwhile, the black critics, who will almost certainly multiply, have a lot of explaining to do. They’d better insist that the music they love really does make meaning, and get hip to how white music means as well — perhaps even get an inkling that rhythms natural and unnatural aren’t the only way to a better life. In short, rock critics are going to have to stop settling for fandom and/or hackdom and turn into critics for real. And maybe those who didn’t bargain for anything quite so heavy should get off the bus right now.
Oh lordy — it could be the end of us all.
On the next page, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Alternative, Alternative, Who’s Got the Alternative,” a review of the music of ’92, published in March of ’93.
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Alternative, Alternative, Who’s Got the Alternative,” a review of 1992’s music published in March, 1993.
Back in November, nobody knew who would win the 19th or 20th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. By January, everybody did — everybody but me. “It’s not good enough, Joe,” I protested earnestly to Crown Poobah Joe Levy, and of that I felt certain. The kvelling about Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . — the first winning album ever named after how long the band shopped for a contract, but not the first whose title begins with the numeral 3 — started the moment it was released last March. Pumped by a cover that looked as if Dwayne and Freddie had hustled a spinoff from A Different World, I home-taped it, confident that sooner or later one of those juicy titles — “Raining Revolution,” “Blues Happy,” “Dawn of the Dreads” — would grab my mind-ass continuum. But a boring thing happened on the way to the pleasure dome. First Voice music editor Joe Levy found himself unable to land a review — one, two, three excellent writers eagerly signed on, then came up dry. And having run the record through my head a dozen times, so did I. Not horrible by any means. Interesting. But too often the beats shambled and the raps meandered, and though I certainly enjoyed “People Everyday”‘s gangsta dis, the rhymes vagued out as well — or, worse still, preached. So I declared the album a Consumer Guide Dud forthwith.
P.S. — Then I moved my car. And one night in May something relaxed and mysterious punctuated the new jack schwing thwocking out of my Blaupunkt. It was Arrested Development! On “urban” radio! “Tennessee,” great song, how did I miss it? Well, it was the 14th cut on a 57-minute album, and I don’t even know which “Tennessee” I heard — the commercial 12-inch featured four mixes, a subsequent promo three more. But right, I blew it — should have named “Tennessee” a Choice Cut and split. Goofy, deeply downcast, aglow with tragic hope, Pazz & Jop’s overwhelming number-one single is an adamantly spiritual but humbly unpreachy meditation on black pain that stands as a far more startling radio novelty than the number-three “Jump.” If I prefer “Jump,” that’s because popcraft is sacred and “Jump” is an act of God — and because “Tennessee” does meander, even if it seems miraculous as a sunshower after too much slick dance music or hardcore rap.
I’m trying to be nice here. It’s churlish to put down a progressively conceived popular and critical favorite that sounds good on the radio. And compared to Elvis Costello’s Imperial Boredom, the only other Pazz & Jop winner I wished had stood in bed, 3 Years . . . is a funfest. But those three aborted critical paeans stick in my mind, as do all the wan-to-belittling poll comments, not to mention the interested parties who professed themselves as delighted with its electoral prospects as they had been with Our President’s. “Do you ever listen to it?” I’d ask. Somewhat sheepishly, every one allowed as how he or she didn’t. And this unenthusiasm is reflected in our results. The support for 3 Years . . . just about duplicated that of our 1989 winner, which was not only a soft-edged rap debut, but a soft-edged rap debut beginning with the numeral 3: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising got 1070 points from 255 voters, 3 Years . . . 1050 from 253. De La Soul, however, attracted only 89 voters, Arrested Development 97, so that Arrested Development averaged only 10.8 points per supporter, the lowest ever for a winner; in recent years Nirvana got 12.8, Neil Young 12.3, De La Soul a flat 12. Clearly, a lot of people voted for this album because they felt they should, not necessarily as a racial or genre token but simply to reward the band for taking on the thankless burden of rap reform. Tonya Pendleton of The Philadelphia Tribune sums up the feeling: “A welcome relief from the excesses of gangster rap — it’s moving, intelligent music that you can groove to.”
Ah yes, gangster rap. It was a terrible year for gangster rap, whatever that means any more — street, hardcore, I don’t know. The defamation of Ice-T’s dead-eyed metal sendup Body Count (which finished a hard-earned 31st despite scattered copout and antimusicality charges) was only one symptom of a dilemma wracking the rap community, whatever that means any more — constituency, market, I don’t know. Rap is undergoing a crisis of authenticity that makes Philly teen dreams, Hollywood hippies, punk versus new wave, and who’s got the funk look like style wars. Hooked on sexism, blamed for the violence it prophesied, threatened musically by formal quandaries and brute property rights, the talking heads of black CNN found themselves between rock and a hard place. Over in the middle distance was the white crossover audience for four of the five 1992 rap albums to sell a million: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Wreckx-N-Effect, House of Pain, and triple-platinum Kris Kross. And in their face was the spiritual source of the music, the fast-changing core audience of fucked-over young black males, making an unreasonable demand it was hard for any rapper to gainsay: that rap be for them.
Inside the rap world — where artists as diverse as EPMD, Black Sheep, Da Lench Mob, M.C. Brains, and Too Short went gold with barely a pop ripple or critical notice — there were two acceptable responses to this ghettocentric demand, both of which courted up-and-coming hards by rejecting the prevailing orthodoxy of jagged, densely explosive, Bomb Squad mixes. Progressives favored the jazzy swing of Gang Starr (Brooklyn, old jack, 43rd) and the Pharcyde (California, crazee, tied for 100th), while a new neotraditionalist faction stuck to the straight-up funk of 105th-place EPMD (who also produced 106th-place Redman and the trippier 78th-place Das Efx), with the so-called soul grooves of 49th-place Pete Rock & CL Smooth splitting the difference. These artists are also diverse — anyone who believes rap is monolithic has never listened to two decent albums back to back — but while none are gangstas, only Gang Starr and Rock & Smooth try any positive messages; the EPMD crew in particular is waging a de facto rebellion against the calls to self-improvement that trip so readily from the self-appointed race men of the old and new schools, and also against what rappers loosely refer to as “critics,” which means anyone who puts them down. What else can you expect when entertainers barely out of high school become point men in the struggle against a system of oppression that defeated Malcolm and Martin? But it also reminds me of the ’70s, when waves of metal bands led a young, angry, male, working-class audience into its own unreconstructed market niche.
As with metal, I understand in theory and can’t connect in practice — of the 10 albums just cited, only the Pharcyde’s gets me going for more than a cut or two. The same goes for the electorate, where our sizable little contingent of rap specialists — which would be larger if we’d managed to get out the vote in our precinct at the hip-hop nationalist Source, where a ghettocentric response to the crisis has long been in full effect — gave the above-named most of what support they received. Raised on college radio, rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream has its own program — the alternative rap of Arrested Development, Basehead (10th place), and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (19th).
Arrested Development pursues this program consciously, aggressively. AD headman Speech has attacked the sexism of Cube, Quik, and N.W.A in “20th Century African,” a column he cowrites for his parents’ community newspaper in Milwaukee, and was happy to tell an interviewer: “There are a lot of people who look up to rappers, and I want people to be aware that sometimes what artists are saying isn’t always right.” Talking revolution soon-come rather than violence now — “So this government needs to be overthrown/Brothers wit their A.K.’s and their 9mms/Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/Save those rounds for a revolution” — Speech typifies the rarely acknowledged class divisions of a music that seems doomed to romanticize the street even when that’s where it comes from; he’s the kind of young progressive whose parents own a small newspaper. Yet unlike Basehead and the Disposable Heroes, Arrested Development at least squeezed into The Source‘s five-page spread of 1993 “Noizemakers” (though they didn’t make any of the 45 Efx-and-Rock-dominated year-end top fives the mag printed). Their Afrocentric rhetoric, and off in the middle distance their multicultural pop reach, should keep them in some kind of contact with the hip hop community. But it would be easier to believe that Speech is strong enough to negotiate the tricky internal politics any grander reform scheme will require if his music packed more firepower.
As for Basehead and the Disposable Heroes — and my own alternative rappers of choice, Philadelphia’s street-leftist Goats (five mentions) — they’d better settle for college radio. And that’s sad — sad for the hip hop community, but also sad for rock critics. To an extent the almost complete absence of non-alternative rap in our top 40 is a statistical blip, but I’m struck nevertheless by the bare 40th-place finish of Ice Cube’s The Predator, which stormed Billboard‘s pop charts at number one and went platinum in January. (I’ll take this opportunity to run down 41-50 — Ministry, Klaatu Doing Business as XTC, Gang Starr, Skeletons, Suzanne Vega, Sade, jazz champ Randy Weston, Lemonheads, Pete Rock, and pomo diva Annie Lennox — and mention that when I totted up the record-breaking pile of 54 late ballots for my own amusement, I didn’t find an Ice Cube in the bunch. In an expanded 308-voter poll, Cube comes in 49th, Gang Starr 55th, Pete Rock 56th. Tori Amos and the Roches also fall off, while Annie Lennox leapfrogs ecstatically to 32nd.) With nothing more epochal than Arrested Development on the horizon, it bodes ill that the Prophet Cube is losing his crit cred, that Ice-T blinked, that Public Enemy’s avowed nonalbum got only one mention, that the nearest thing to another Cypress Hill coming out of left field was AD itself. It means the critics — and the demanding if faddish consumers they don’t so much speak for as provide a clue to — are rejecting rap’s core audience in much the same way the core audience is rejecting them. And though I hate to say it, I can hear why.
Rap is far too juicy to dry up and go away, and it contributed a respectable quota of albums to my own Dean’s List. So of course I recommend Eric B. and Yo Yo and FU-Schnickens and BDP, Kris Kross too. I just won’t claim that any of them was as momentous as PE and Ice-T and Cypress Hill in 1991 — or as the Goats and the Disposable Heroes in 1992. Whether because the sampler has lost its power to surprise, as the easily bored Ann Marlowe believes, or because the copyright wars have squelched creativity, as I’ll argue until there’s a revolution in capitalist concepts of intellectual property, or just because the wrong artists sat out the year, rap felt a little tired. Moreover, the canard that the alternative pretenders lacked beats is hip-hop chauvinism of no relevance to the omniverous listener. For me the musical failure is Arrested Development’s rootsy post-Daisy Age, which softens established rap parameters, not the pulse of the Goats and the Disposables, who meld hip hop usages into a longer, steadier rock groove (not so different from the swing and straight-up funk strategies, after all), or the wiggy indeterminacy of the private joke on rap that is Michael Ivey’s Basehead. Supposedly, critics flock to alternative rap because they can relate to its corny “liberal” lyrics, and no doubt some do. Me, I don’t think the lyrics are as cliched as they’re made out to be, and I go to these records for music first.
Like the listenability test I threw at AD, music-first is one of those criteria that seems so incontrovertibly self-evident it becomes necessary to point out that it’s not. Even the most enjoyable records don’t suit all occasions, difficult and painful ones can reward your labor tenfold when you’re motivated, and sometimes the keenest artistic pleasure is conceptual, which can mean anything from overall structure to formal frisson to the historical or political or ethical or just plain mental excitement of hearing a stranger choose the right moment to do the right thing — assume the right stance, forge the right synthesis, make the right statement. As you become less inclined to look to music for the meaning of life you discover that music per se endures much better than moments do, and so, although the concept album per se is associated with old fartdom, it’s the excitable young who tend to overlook the messy details of what’s actually in the bytes that underlie somebody’s cool move. But that’s neither reason to deny their concepts nor proof it’s impossible to share them from a distance.
For me, PJ Harvey’s Dry is a prime example. By yoking rock-not-pop late-’60s virtuosity to postpunk neoprimitivism and staking a strong-not-macho female claim on the rockist pose, it’s conceptually powerful two ways, and the music-lover in me would add that the sheer sound is arresting no matter what it means. Unfortunately, I see scant evidence of the profound poet or witchy prankster some also perceive in Polly Jean Harvey, which bothers me more because too often the sound isn’t shaped into fully realized songs (a pop demand, I know — sue me, I want it all). And while I admire her womanism and root for the uprising it spearheads, it’s not my dream come true. So I ended up with Dry in the bottom half of my A list. But I’m not surprised that it came in fourth, nor that only one voter was so smitten that he or she (he, actually; Dry‘s 23 per cent female support was barely higher than women’s 17 per cent share of the electorate) gave it even 20 points. With something to give now and plenty of promise for later, this is the kind of record that always inspire broad-based critical favor. The cult item was Pavement’s second-place Slanted and Enchanted, which averaged almost 15 points per mention — and which to my ears not only packs the conceptual punch Joe Levy describes but stands up to heavy rotation.
That’s the idea, of course — concept that “works,” to use the subjective critical shorthand of artistic gatekeepers everywhere. To my ears, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . doesn’t work, and neither does a rap album I somehow forgot to mention, the Beastie Boys’ fifth-place Check Your Head. Great concept — arty posthardcore band turned world-class rappers address their whiteskin marginality by picking up their instruments again. Problem is, the execution is halfway there at best, and since they’re into New Orleans funk rather than fast garage-rock, it matters — the pleasure and meaning of that style isn’t an idea, it’s the physical reality of the cross-rhythms. But as I know because I’ve asked around, many fans so enjoy the Beasties’ “spirit of playing (and playing with) the grooves” that they listen to Check Your Head all the time. And whatever the limits of the listenability test, I guess I believe the voters also literally enjoy all the other failed concepts to march to the head of the class this year.
Not counting Lindsey Buckingham (and believe me, we were tempted), these failures were all top-20: Los Lobos’s Kiko (sixth, third with the more middle-American late vote), Tom Waits’s Bone Machine (ninth or seventh), K.D. Lang’s Ingénue (12th), Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss (16th), and maybe Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town (17th, though raw critical loyalty certainly helped this ponderous, well-crafted disappointment, a shorter and by most accounts lighter piece of work than its more songful corelease Human Touch, which finished way down at 80). Tastes — and judgments — differ. Others would add or substitute R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (third) or Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew (13th), albums I say “work” despite their seriousness, or perhaps Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World (11th) — maybe even, such is progress, Sonic Youth’s Dirty (eighth). But with Arrested Development setting the tone, few would deny that 1992 was lousy with serious works of art, and not many would declare themselves improved in wisdom by all of them.
Together with Check Your Head, three of the four failures ended up after many, many plays in the computer file I call Neither — neither as dull as a Dud nor as effulgent as an Honorable Mention. More than R.E.M. or Cherry (both high B plusses) or Williams or Sonic Youth (both in my top 10), all these artists progressed, took chances, and so forth with their music, the better to frame their words. But their words don’t justify the effort, or the notice. K.D. Lang casts herself as a cabaret singer and reminds us why cabaret singers dig Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim — hell, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. When Lou Reed writes about Andy Warhol, I listen; when he writes about death, I try to listen, really I do, but soon my thoughts turn to Michael Stipe, to Michael Hurley, to what’s in the fridge. Set on balancing their Hispanic identity and their American prerogatives at a higher level of expressive fluency, Los Lobos prove their command of folk/rock sonics with lovely settings like “Wake Up Dolores” and “Arizona Skies” and their subjection to folk-rock corn with portentous titles like “That Train Don’t Stop Here” and “Angels With Dirty Faces.” And on Bone Machine Waits is an ace arranger under the thumb of a fourflushing singer-songwriter. When he’s got the cards — “Goin’ Out West”‘s petty delusions, “All Stripped Down”‘s final judgment, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”‘s parting shot — the Weillian bite of the junkshop music cuts through his plug-ugly vocal shtick and his fondness for literary subjects like hangings and unsolved murders. But he’s always been a beatnik manque who got away with shit because it impressed pop pygmies, and he always will be.
These are the kind of records rock critics are always accused of falling for — the kind of records Sting makes, you know? But not since 1987 (U2, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Robbie Robertson, and the indefatigable Waits, not to mention Tunnel of Love and Skylarking, which worked) have we put up with so much bigthink. Voters noticed the trend, and their explanations make sense: AIDS, the economy, George Herbert Walker Bush. But what I mostly see is people getting older — young adults fending off intimations of mortality by rejecting the evanescent jollies of stance and synthesis for something more substantial, more verbal, more middlebrow. And if AIDS and the economy obviously fed their sense of rampaging limits, I think it’s possible Nirvana had something to do with it too.
In the wake of Nevermind, critics braced themselves for an “alternative” onslaught of unknown dimensions, and if you like you can find one here. Hard-touring perennial also-rans Soul Asylum sold out and broke out; the Jayhawks relocated their Gram Parsons memorial to a major and soared. Play With Toys started out on Berkeley’s Emigré, the Disposable Heroes as San Francisco’s Beatnigs. Rykodisc’s three charting albums put it in a league with every major except WEA, and three archetypally impecunious indies also made their mark — TeenBeat with Sassy pinups Unrest, who actually would have risen to 30 if late ballots had counted; Bar/None with transplanted Kansan Freedy Johnston, who would have gone all the way to 19 if his Midwestern backers had mailed early; and Matador with shockeroo runner-up Pavement, whose disjointly tuneful, perversely unreadable noise/sound collage would have been our biggest indie album since X’s Wild Gift even if the stragglers had pushed it down to fourth where it belonged. On the other hand, Amerindie product disappeared from the singles chart and didn’t even dominate EPs. Seattle’s only album finisher got most of its points in 1991 and inspired the kind of opprobrium usually reserved for Madonna — Pearl Jam was the grunge band scoffers warned us about. And though 1992’s indie albums aren’t as folky as last year’s, Rykodisc gave us one old-timer, one dead person, and one 46-year-old new Dylan, while Freedy Johnston’s uncannily self-assured piece of singer-songwriter neotraditionalism achieves a, well, maturity that most of the conceptualizers on the chart would be lucky to imagine.
Yeah yeah yeah — maturity, what a drag. But like the man said, it’s only castles burning. And now, in the wake of Lollapalooza and techno and accrued professional responsibility and Nirvana’s dream-come-true-and-then-what and the shift of boomer power from popular music to the federal government (and, oh right, more birthdays than one could once conceive), rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream is wondering what’s next while various collegiate-on-down cults — fanzine separatists, ravers, trancers, riot grrrls, overly self-conscious pop postironists, maybe even alternative rappers, all sniping and crowing and splitting off and dropping out and climbing back in again — are cordoning off whatever turf their immediate elders will cede them and claiming they’re owed more. This dispute defines itself above all in terms of meaning it — of trying to say something even if it makes you middlebrow, because in the face of death and deprivation, irony don’t cut it — and Pavement sets up on its cusp. ‘Tudewise they stand between Sonic Youth, clearly old-guard as of this verbally direct, musically achieved, inexplicably unexciting release, and Unrest, who get over on more stance and less music than any finisher in Pazz & Jop history. Since Unrest don’t lack IQ, they may follow in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and add music gradually, but for now the reaction against their smart-ass pomo irony — not theirs specifically, they’re not that important, but the whole structure of feeling that culminates in Wayne’s World, Achtung Baby, and, er, Malcolm X Park — generates high-concept new sincerity as surely as any underemployment epidemic or killer virus.
We’ve seen this split before, of course — middlebrow concept versus pomo irony is a new one, but the poll often pits meaning against pleasure, which usually reduces to albums versus singles. So it’s fitting that another trend to spark comment was the concept album’s obverse, the novelty record — an analysis that reflects the healthy awareness that a good laugh can help you cope every bit as much a profound insight. Still, even though our singles chart featured two songs about butts and two more about jumping around, I’m not sure I buy the theory that 1992 was a big novelty year, especially if we honor Greil Marcus’s strict definition and insist that they be funny — “Jump” and “Jump Around” are delightful (especially “Jump”), “Rump Shaker” and “Baby Got Back” bodacious (especially “Rump Shaker”), but only the KLF’s delicious Tammy Wynette tribute/exploitation “Justified and Ancient” makes me guffaw. Anyway, in the broader sense rap is always a novelty on pop radio, and all that makes this year different is that out of its identity crisis it’s produced more Pazz & Jop chart singles than ever — six of the top seven and 10 of the top 19, including entries from Source faves Das Efx and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. What cheers me most about the singles chart is that that’s what it is. Of the 28 songs in our jam-packed top 25, only eight are from any of this year’s top 40 albums — and just as impressive in an era when MTV and such have replaced radio as song machines, only three are also on our video list. Although this could also prove a blip, it’s the way things ought to be.
I wish they could be that way for me, but working with your ears is time-consuming. So shortly after discovering “Tennessee” on my Blaupunkt, I bought a newer car with a removable entertainment console, and while this upgrade enriched my music life, it rendered my singles experience more arbitrary than ever. As for albums, well, after you try fending mortality off with meaning for a while you discover why they invented irony, and also why they banned pleasure — men and women who deny themselves Madonna on what are at bottom niggling moral grounds bewilder me. I want it all — meaning and irony and pleasure, in the concept and in the bytes. So I pick and choose — Pavement not Unrest, Freedy Johnston not David Hildalgo, Eric B. not Pete Rock, Wayne’s World not Achtung Baby. Those who know my quiddities may snort at the jewel that crowns my list, although in fact I enjoyed less contemporary Afropop than at any time since the stuff found its U.S. market niche. Nevertheless, the one 1992 release I could always count on for wisdom and fun and pure musical gratification was South African poet-singer Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Resistance Is Defence (87th). Resistance Is Defence is alternative rap at its best. I wonder what Mbuli could do with a sampler.
Get on college radio? If we’re lucky. As you know, Pazz & Jop wasn’t the only place where rock critics’ votes counted this year. The U.S. has a new president, and I’m for him, albeit less passionately than some think meet. But though I believe that culture responds as much to image, mood, zeitgeist as to the economic realities few claim Bill Clinton will change much, I’m not the kind of corny liberal (or convoluted radical) who’s persuaded the musical playing field is about to undergo a drastic change. I’m not even certain that the year’s happiest development, an upsurge in self-determined women that I trust will continue until such time as the fascists win, is totally momentous — not with women generating almost half my top 10 but less than a tenth of what follows. Sometimes it’s salutory to make a point of music’s ultimate dependence on the substructure, but with all the kvelling going on I feel more inclined this year to insist on its relative independence — even to agree that sometimes it leads the way. So I’ll just pray that rap gets through its identity crisis, that public housing is erected where those castles used to be, and that my mind and ass remain a continuum long enough for me to get my sustenance from whatever happens next — and what happens after that.
“Don’t Believe the Gripe: The Death of the Death of the Death of the Death of Rock and Roll,” a review of the music of 1996, published in February 1997.
Let’s see now. Hem, haw. It was the worst year for music since, er . . . 1995.
Guess that won’t do, will it? Well, how about — gripe, mumble — it was the worst year for guitar bands since . . . That’s a peg, I suppose. Since when, though? Make it 1990. It was in 1990, according to a widely cited Billboard article, that for the first time in the post-Beatle era not a single “rock” album hit No. 1, although due to the failure of vaginas to remind Billboard of Jimi’s axe, appropriately arranged efforts by Bonnie Raitt and Sinéad O’Connor failed to qualify. Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the ground-breaking rappers M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice enjoyed their long, silly No. 1 runs. And soon an unknown band from Seattle would usher in a new boom cycle for both the music business and electric guitars. Which brings us to the 1996 bust. Which was real. Right?
Right. The 1996 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll extends the 1995 trend in which the disruptive mix-and-match sampling techniques originally naturalized by hip hop made more waves than the guitar-powered aftershocks of grunge. And this aesthetic development had a commercial correlative. As the Times was so shocked to report, 1996 was indeed the year in which new rock product by such designated sure shots as R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Hootie & the Blowfish failed to attract consumers in the vast numbers the industry had projected, or wished, inspiring much millenarian blather in its retail sector. Of course, as anyone who read Billboard was aware, retail was showing signs of pie-eyed overexpansion and overdue shakeout even during the boom. Moreover, the headlined downturn wasn’t in revenues per se, which continued to rise slightly, but in the steep growth curve of recent years, an unnatural trajectory many attribute to recycled CD catalogue. And anyway, plenty of voters would argue that what’s bad for the music business is good for music. Still, I take the slumplet seriously, not just because I suspect that the diminished seed money it portends is a bad thing, but because after working all my life to get respect for popular music, I believe popularity is a good thing. Decades of Iron Butterflys, Osmonds, Journeys, and Celine Dions have yet to spoil my delight in the risk and mess it entails.
Pazz & Jop generally takes a healthy interest in sales, honoring hits of quality more often than not, and although Johnny Huston huffs that the widely acclaimed winner of our 23rd or 24th poll isn’t “the King of America,” merely “the 100th highest-selling album artist of the year,” the going-on-platinum sales of Beck’s Odelay put it in the black even by today’s advance-bloated standards. Nevertheless, we believe we’re onto something that abides after profits have turned to fertilizer: truth and beauty, justice and pleasure, Art, the Mattering. Few of us are disquieted by the far scanter sales of the 1995 winner, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, or the drastically lower 1993 numbers of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and we’re kind of proud that Hole’s now-platinum Live Through This had barely reached gold when the ballots went out in 1994. So whether or not Polly Harvey’s music is ever taken up by the so-called mass audience, we believe it will be remembered as intensely as that of her superstar stablemates in U2, who are also admired by a good chunk of the electorate (and will still be after their designated sure shot, hopefully entitled Pop, fails to save Strawberries from Chapter 11 in 1997). And we know from experience that the poll is an excellent if hardly foolproof indicator of potential fan appeal.
Yet if some sort of sea change toward soundscape feels like what’s happening, when I got all right-brained and examined the numbers, what they presaged for guitar bands began to seem pretty complicated. To start with, definition is tricky. We clearly can’t limit the concept to “alternative” when artists like Guns N’ Roses and Richard Thompson live off it. [File Under Prince] has to count even if Guy and Tony Toni Toné and the once seminal guitarist Curtis Mayfield do not; latter-day honky-tonkers like Dwight Yoakam and Jimmie Dale Gilmore qualify even if Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash is as folk as Ani DiFranco and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Amy Rigby counts the way Bonnie Raitt does, and so does Iris DeMent, by just a hair this time; austere Gillian Welch does not. And folkie-with-a-sampler Beck, resented in some quarters for putting new juice in a white fanboy form, obviously presents a big problem. But if I’m wrong to rule that Odelay and Mellow Gold aren’t guitar-band albums, for reasons I’ll explain later, that has no effect on my conclusion, which is that Gibson and Fender needn’t downsize quite yet.
In this decade, the worst poll year for guitar bands was the aforementioned 1990, which was also a good one for rappers somewhat more durable than Hammer and Ice — the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 18th that year and 87th this, and Digital Underground, whose best-remembered contribution to the hip hop weal will probably end up Tupac Shakur, two crews now victimized as much by their audience’s appetite for fad and progress as by any dropoff in their own abilities. But ironically, as the saying goes, 1990’s 19 sets of axemen — sole women: the Kims Gordon and Deal on bass, Georgia Hubley on drums — were led by a triumphant Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Ragged Glory inspired our cover line: “Guitars: Live and Memorex.” Subsequently, guitar bands have charted a high of 27 finishers, in 1992, and a low of 23, in all three Pazz & Jops since 1994, which was also the year of Green Day and Soundgarden and a top five that went Hole-Pavement-R.E.M.-Nirvana-Young. And the numbers remain stable when you focus on futures. Narrowing the definitions to favor classic garage-band configurations, filtering out the varied likes of Rigby, the Mavericks, and the eternal Alanis Morissette, you find that seven previously uncharted guitar units made our top 40 in ’94, nine in ’95, and eight in ’96.
This bean-count bears out what ought to be obvious: not only won’t the dominant musical sound of the second half of the 20th century disappear overnight, but that magic twanger is likely to enjoy a maturity so active it will seem oppressive to the prophets of electronica, already impatient for a historical moment that’s sure to take a form they can’t predict. The gender barrier is permanently breached; for the nonce, it’s much higher in techno. And partly as a result, although the simple pressure of history (including technological change) is the biggest factor, the guitar band’s aural profile will continue to expand and evolve, just as the horn section’s did between Sousa and Ellington, and just as guitars themselves have since 1955, when Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and not so many others turned Chicago blues into pop, through the ’60s, when guitars actually took over, through metal and punk and more metal and grunge and, whatcha wanna bet, more metal after that. And through plenty of other stuff, too.
But a closer look at the beans reveals that the electronicats aren’t just whistling “Born Slippy.” For starters, there’s funny stuff going on with Pazz & Jop’s rookies. Anomalously in an era when baby bands hone their skills with indie farm teams before going national, most of 1995’s scored with debut albums, as the irrepressible biz-wise opportunists of Foo Fighters, Garbage, and Elastica concocted professional pop from the grunge aesthetic/moment and Uncle Tupelo bifurcated into down-to-earth Wilco and miasmic Son Volt. Maybe the opportunists are career artists, as they say over in a&r. But the careers in question seem pathologically dependent on catchy singles, a malady almost as fatal (you die of the cutes, humming uncontrollably, Day-Glo puke, it’s awful) as the dread Alternian texturitis (for those who desire a dignified death). And in 1996, with our singles chart sporting a fresh crop of alternanovelties, Eels and Primitive Radio Gods where once Filter and the Presidents of the U.S.A. stood, all but two of our album newcomers reversed the pattern of the previous years by squeezing in on the low end, 24-29-34-35-38. This suggests some combination of diminished critical interest and attenuated talent pool. Whatever you think of Robert Schneider’s weirdo brainchildren, you have to admit that Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control lack the ambitious sweep of the opportunists. Don’t you?
So then. Perhaps it’s time to ac-cent-tchu-ate the progressive. Having debuted at No. 2 in 1995, the bummed-out mixmaster Tricky wasted no time placing a still bleaker follow-up and his Nearly God guest-victim project in the top 20. Easier on the soul and meatier for the right side of the brain was Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow, U.S.-released mid-November by a young Californian so out of step Stateside that he had to go to London to get a rep, which finished all the way up at fourth after barely creasing premature competing polls. With Goldie polishing his Metalheadz and L.T.J Bukem shunted over to a P&J compilation chart I hope isn’t embryonic forever, these two artists represented the legible edge of soundscape in 1996. Tricky was felt and phantasmagoric, Shadow in control of the kind of macrostructures rarely noticed by the voters, who end up depending as much on songs as Alanis and Gwen — a pop predilection that is the secret of their oracular powers. Whether Tricky and Shadow have a growth curve in them remains to be determined. But simply by taking electronica to a recognizable formal conclusion, they gave lots of nonspecialists the touch of strange they craved while preparing them for further developments.
And after that there’s, well, there’s Stereolab seventh and Everything but the Girl 12th. These finishes thrilled my advisors, and I was gratified if hardly surprised by the forward motion they signified. I just wish I was convinced it wasn’t lateral motion. Early proponents of the alternaesthetic in which texture fills in for tune, EBTG have been around longer than, I don’t know, Screaming Trees, and Ben Watt’s drum ‘n’ bass doesn’t enliven Tracy Thorn’s sad croon any more decisively than his protoloungecore used to. So it isn’t that history has caught up with them, it’s that they’ve finally found their retro-with-a-twist niche, and could they have cocktail onions with that? As for the blithe Marxists of Stereolab, I’m down with their newfound knack for splitting the difference between class war and Wrigley commercial, but weightwise it turns them into Fountains of Wayne with a chick singer and longer songs. Once again no future, except perhaps in its synthy wink at the triviality it embraces with such post-Fordist savoir-faire, a fun quality few of us would call — and though I hate to put it this way, what else can I say? — revolutionary. P.S.: Something similar goes for their culture-bending sisters in Cibo Matto, who signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood.
It’s not my (primary) purpose to make fun of an honorable record I don’t happen to care for and a likable one that wears its limitations on its insert. I’m just trying get a grip on the latest death-of-rock rumor, which I’ll call the fifth — 1959 (“the day the music died”), 1968 (nobody believes me now, but it was the talk of the town; Esquire assigned a story, then axed me when I came up with the wrong answer), 1977-79 (disco), 1990 (see above), and 1996. This is a conservative count, of course — every year, every month, artistic malcontents broadcast obituaries for whatever genre isn’t ringing their chimes or providing the wealth and fame they know to be their due. So at this late date I trust my skepticism is understandable. It could actually be, as is oft conjectured, that mindless pop pap — not the Cardigans, but poor Gwen Stefani — has already replaced dire pseudoalternative bellyaching in the hearts and minds of the 18-24s the biz dotes on. But that isn’t what we care about. If Nirvanamania was a fluke, well, who expected anything better after Kurt died? Having survived Journey and Michael Bolton (on the same label, yet never seen on the same stage at the same time!), we can certainly survive No Doubt and even Celine Dion. The question is what music will get us through — if any.
As it happens, I haven’t been much of a “rock” guy myself of late. Looking over a decade’s worth of top 10s, I find that till this year only in 1994, with grunge rampant and hip hop and Afropop losing savor, did more than half my faves qualify; usually the figure has been three or four. Although this year’s six-by-just-a-hair — Rigby, Fluffy, Sleater-Kinney, DeMent, Los Lobos, Nirvana — all got to me immediately, the basic guitar-band format has become so familiar that even the ones I end up enjoying (Girls Against Boys, Sebadoh, the glorious Imperial Teen) can take forever to show me their tricks. Since I disdain the marginal differentiations fanzines are created for, demanding nothing less than true sonic distinction — which often just means astutely produced tune-and-voice combos like Sebadoh’s or Fluffy’s, but sometimes inheres in interplay like Imperial Teen’s, and when the right lyric grabs me by the earlobe I come back for more — you’d think stuff would sink in faster. But for me as for most people, diminished expectations do turn into self-fulfilling prophecies over time. And it’s that formal satiety — often combined with the nervous compulsion to maturity that afflicts not-so-recent college grads as their liaisons turn into relationships and their jobs evolve willy-nilly into careers — that leaves smart young-adult rock and rollers hungry for new. Thing is, this is as true of artists as of fans. Sometimes they’re merely worried about their continued marketability. But they didn’t become musicians to get bored.
With that in mind, ask yourself how many of P&J’s 23 rock acts seem comfortable with the accepted parameters of the form? Musicmeisters R.E.M. and tastemeister Joe Henry working New South neotraditionalism; guitarmeister Richard Thompson on his half-acoustic little double-CD and songmeisters Wilco claiming every parameter they can think of on theirs; reformed country phenom Steve Earle and unretiring grande dame Patti Smith; Sheryl Crow cognizing aural dissonance; Rigby and DeMent with bigger fish to fry; and grunge patriarchs Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, whose big-rock moves are the most conventional pieces of music in this year’s top 40. And while quite a few of these artists mean to break molds (with virtuosity, passion, whatever), the list of those who already have only starts with [File Under Prince]: Sleater-Kinney storming the castle like Nirvana before them; Sebadoh and Imperial Teen playing Marco Polo in the moat; Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control throwing poop on their toy songs; arena-ska Sublime and rap-metal Rage Against the Machine; Jon Spencer avant-travestying da blooze; popmeisters Pulp reigning over a United Kingdom in which dance beats come as naturally as wanking; and the magisterial old cross-culturalists of Los Lobos sampling rhythms and styles live as well as sounds and atmospheres DAT. Obviously these groupings array themselves on a continuum, not in polarity, with the daring of individual transgressions subject to dispute. But to me they make clear that as it generated the inevitable epigones and deracinations, Nirvanamania opened things up even further than outside forces would have opened them up anyway.
And then there are the artists for whom a received form is a shot in the arm, mother’s milk, life itself. Distinguishing between emergent culture, the shock-of-the-new malcontents crave, and residual culture, the old-fashioned staples they resent, Raymond Williams pointed out that the residual is often antihegemonic, affirming values the arbiters up top have cost-cut to pieces. This mechanism is regularly activated when the disenfranchised seize their expressive destiny, as in the P&J counterpart to all the women who took over the Billboard charts in 1996, the three lesbians and one housewife who staged two of the most startling rushes in P&J history — third-place Sleater-Kinney and eighth-place Amy Rigby, who handicapped to come in around 20th and 35th on their tiny labels. Compared to Nirvana’s, Sleater-Kinney’s moldbreaking seems midcontinuum, their less disruptive chops knocking down everything in the music’s path on the strength of a resolve whose steadiness never diminishes its intensity, while all Rigby wanted from her producer was articulate settings for her naturalistic lyrics and tunes, which is all he provided. People who just don’t get these records attend to the instrumentation and say what’s the big deal. But rather than political correctness or some such canard, what propelled them so high was reliable usages imbued with new needs — an urge to grow up without blowing up, an urge to hold fast without getting stuck to the floor. And each of these was conveyed by the one musical element no inanimate device has yet generated: the human voice.
Voices are almost as personal in the reception as the production, and on both ends too many alt types so detest Michael Bolton that they’ve learned to do without what are narrowly designated strong ones. Voice is why Iris DeMent improved her 1994 showing on a robust album cynics found preachy, and because it’s so personal, it’s also why devotees love Cassandra Wilson’s midnight drift and I don’t. The poll honors a few great voices — [File Under Prince] again, and having wearied of poor Eddie Vedder, some would now add Mark Lanegan — plus, as always, a great many canny singers. But it’s our two dark horses who make me wonder whether pipes could be making a comeback with a constituency deeply suspicious of their penchant for corn. Corin Tucker’s power contralto (underpinned by Carrie Brownstein’s power screech) is why so many skeptics quickly get Sleater-Kinney, and as a guy who kept playing Rigby’s record well after he could sing along with the year’s sharpest lyrics, I can attest that it isn’t her words that carry the music, but how warmly they quaver around proper pitch.
What strikes me about Rigby and Sleater-Kinney is that they resist the trend in which four of the five top albums (counting Los Lobos’s Tchad Blake connection) are sample-dependent: the most purportedly direct musical-emotional expression up against self-consciously recombinant bricolage. I wish I wasn’t obliged to point out that such alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive: Shadow topped my list, Rigby ran a strong second. And the finest thing I can say about our sweeping winner is that he doesn’t think anything excludes anything. I don’t count Beck as guitar-band, even though he fronts one on stage and plays the appropriate instruments in the studio, for the simple reason that he wants out the way [File Under Prince] wants in. His legal ID says folkie, but he manifests no more and no less fealty to that niche than to alt-rock, hip hop, or avant-garde — or, let us not forget, biz.
Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight — as critics’ polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the ’90s) hadn’t been equalled since the ’80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck’s written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold — not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness of the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don’t know what to make of them — I infer that, like myself, many of the winner’s more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning — it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother’s milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.
Yet because I respect Beck, enjoy Beck, and like Beck, I have little doubt that he’s humane enough to rectify this absence. I know the prophets among us think his samples are far too jokey and catch-as-catch-can, a rockist insult to the whole-universe soundfields they can hear with their body’s ear in the latest techno subsubgenre, and they’re onto something — hearing, seeing, feeling Spring Heel Jack spin in October was a trip I hope to repeat. But the predictive power of the utopian folderol rock and roll has been fending off since the ’60s is so risible by now that I refuse to waste space on the argument. Extreme states of consciousness are for extremists, and one reason popularity is such a good thing is all the mad visions and overpowering emotions ordinary music lovers get to put to ordinary use. I hope Tricky and Shadow’s growth curve leads us all the way up the mountain, where wizards unknown await. But most of those you read about in the funny papers are apprentices at best.
I began 1996 with dire predictions about the future of music, and I take exception to (or maybe just don’t get) much of this year’s top 40 — e.g., the pleasantly pleasureless Gillian Welch; the politely literary Joe Henry; the archly boho Cibo Matto; Maxwell expiring of Afrocentric texturitis in that midway spot on the poll reserved in past years for such dance/r&b as Lisa Stansfield, Seal, En Vogue, Tony Toni Toné, and (here’s a clue) D’Angelo; the Roots proving that good intentions aren’t enough even if you throw in a human beatbox; and, saints preserve us, future Sleater-Kinney tourmate Jon Spencer. But many of these are what I call Neithers rather than Duds, and it could have been a lot worse. The deadly Tortoise foundered in a 41-50 that went Lovett-Dr. Octagon-Reed-Chesnutt-Germano-Girls Against Boys-Tortoise-Metallica-Cardigans-Fluffy (!). Aimee Mann was 74th, Dirty Three 87th; there were only two votes for Grant Lee Buffalo. The winner in the sadly unenthusiastic singles balloting was at least a dance ditty as dumb and wondrous as “Macarena” itself. And with the inability of the biz to repackage its history in perpetuity causing as much financial distress as Pearl Jam’s refusal to make videos, at least the uncanonical surprise winner of our reissues ballot is a galactic titan. Thank heavens for Sun Ra — he could have been Esquivel.
I was encouraged too by the return of political complaint — Iris DeMent and Zack de la Rocha, Lauryn Hill and Corin Tucker — and note once again that the quality and effectiveness of the ideas matter less than the felt need to express them. This is Art, folks. One would like it to have social consequences and is certain that one way or another it will, but Art is where those consequences begin. That’s why, in the end, I find I don’t much care whether the biz booms or busts. If it booms we get some kind of ’60s-style mass mess, with crazies and communicators expanding and compromising their reinvested emotions and their glimpses of the next world; if it busts a narrower subculture addresses the same issues in much the way Amerindie did in the ’80s. There’s worthy music down both forks — a futurism that isn’t suckered by folderol counterbalanced against an eagerness to reconstitute traditions it would be dumb to throw out with the bongwater. Not what I dream, not what you dream, but what is? For a holding action in what could have been a dismal time, it will definitely keep me hanging on.
“Listening in Real Time: Eclectic neoclassicism versus childhood-oriented avant-primitivism as global warming swamps our history,” a review of 2005’s music, published in February 2006.
It is 2045 and the protagonist of Bruce Sterling’s 1998 novel Distraction, a young pol named Oscar Valparaiso who happens to be a clone, repairs to a half-wrecked Louisiana town where the beach houses were long ago moved up into an abandoned cow pasture. As he sups on a genetically altered crayfish the size of a lobster, a string quartet strikes up a minuet: “Typical Anglo ethnic music. It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene. Anglos seemed to have some talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn’t match.” But never fear. Though the Chinese have destroyed the U.S. economy by putting all our software online, life remains “doable” in this “big, hot, Greenhouse swamp”; as one Cajun operative puts it, “The women are good-lookin’, and the music really swings!” And though many harbor a bias against Anglos — “the most violent ethnic group in America,” with “white-collar crime rates right off the charts” — the best pop music in the world comes from the Netherlands, where holding off the sea is a way of life. Distraction was on my mind in re the 32nd or 33rd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll because it glances off two key but apparently unrelated 2005 music stories. One of these is obvious. Though Nonesuch’s 129th-place Our New Orleans 2005 will go down in history as the finest charity comp since Red Hot & Blue, Katrina didn’t make our album list, poking through only on two singles: the Legendary K.O.’s 15th-place “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” which turned our big winner’s greatest soundbite into an online protest rap that easily outpolled the Bright Eyes download “When the President Talks to God,” and Amerie’s No. 2 “1 Thing,” which came marching in behind an indestructible Ziggy Modeliste beat.
The other story is subtler: what Sterling jocularly slots as Anglo ethnic music. We have long-standing quasi-symphonist Kate Bush at 25 and newcoming Gilbert & Sullivan fans the Decemberists at 33, chamber-pop Stars getting all Canadian on our ass at 37 and Suzuki-method violinist-cum-fiddler Andrew Bird blinding them with science down at 49. We have the new/ny/nuevo prog of System of a Down at 30 and Dungen at 31 and the Mars Volta at 45, the glacial kitsch of Sigur Rós below the sonar at 50 and the parlor-cum-chamber faux gentility/nouveau sincerity of Antony and the Johnsons over the top at 7. And we have three of the five highest finishers engaging 19th-century European notions of orchestration and musicianship: not just Sufjan Stevens’s No. 3 Illinois, but also two that owe concertmeister to the stars Jon Brion. One of these was his old protégée Fiona Apple, who hired Mike Elizondo to get Brion swingin’ before she ran Extraordinary Machine up to No. 5. The other was our hands-down artist of the year, the first consecutive-poll repeat winner since the Clash in 1980 and 1981. You knew who it would be before the paper came out: Kanye West.
There’s more to be said about Anglo ethnic music, and New Orleans too. Both dwarf Kanye West. But they’re whole traditions. He’s a single artist — which doesn’t mean a singles artist, though this year he won in that category as well. Not to hang too much off a two-album oeuvre, but having cruised to first place with The College Dropout last year, West did well just to release a follow-up in 2005. That Late Registration should prove his second consecutive full-length to come on strong and then keep getting better makes him look like one of those rare “actual genius” singer-songwriters that singles consumer advocate Joshua Clover considers an inadequate excuse for our hero-hyping electoral ritual. With The College Dropout it was jokes that remained funny while they got serious; with Late Registration it’s music so rich you never tire of unlayering its meanings. Brion contributes mostly synthesizer parts exploited for organic color — the violent violins that rev “Crack Music” three minutes in are an atypically explicit case. The famed arranger ceded the actual arranging to West, who absorbs Brion’s European bent into a basically black flow. And you’d best believe this Panther’s son with the line of credit at Jacob and Co. is basically black.
I’ve had it with the caviling. In a year when the fashion in hip-hop realness was a grotesque crack nostalgia — powered, in the case of Young Jeezy (No. 39 album) and Three 6 Mafia (No. 10 single), by Anglo-ethnic victory-fanfare and scary-strings beats whose wholly ‘hood authenticity was indistinguishable from their Hollywood schlockitude — moralistic sellouts have got it going on. Knowing you’re the best isn’t arrogance, and knowing what’s right doesn’t require a vow of poverty. The guy rhymes about conflict diamonds and self-appointed Africanists interrogate his annotation; he blurts — or plans out, more power to him if so — an ugly truth about our hideous president and is taken to task for not constructing a platform around it. Then there are the wheezes about his workaday rapping skills, and hey, he’s not the handsomest fellow you ever saw. So let’s bring it.
On the evidence, Kanye West is nothing less than the young century’s most gifted popular musician. Everything indicates a decent man who’s canny about putting his decency into artistic practice — the widespread misapprehension that the poll-topping “Gold Digger” is “sexist” is one of many proofs that he’s smarter than his critics. His rhymes have enormous emotional range — the one about his dying grandma chokes me up every time — and when he falls in love he will write interesting songs about it. Not only that, West produced two other finishers in his spare time: Common’s well-spoken 15th-place Be and John Legend’s super-ordinary 27th-place Get Lifted. He’s turned himself into such a cultural presence that his cameos on these albums are musical highlights — he’s more the voice of common sense than the former Common Sense is.
Yet for all that, this was, extry extry, our closest poll ever — proportionally, Late Registration‘s 107-point margin was the narrowest in Pazz & Jop history. With two more critics voting than in 2004 (795, yet another record!), West’s sophomore album gathered 18 fewer mentions and 301 fewer points, while M.I.A.’s Arular beat Brian Wilson’s 2004 finish by 54 mentions and 284 points. So give it up as well to another critics’ rapper: Kanye’s contemporary, 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam. The U.K.-based Sri Lankan embodies progressive tendencies and grand old P&J traditions. One of three female artists in the top five (sole precedent: Phair-Harvey-Breeders 1993), she is a political provocateur-obsessive who, like West, comes from radical stock, only where West’s revolutionary dad became a marriage counselor hers became a terrorist. She is also an art-schooler turned working visual artist who learned music by fashioning club beats in her bedroom.
M.I.A.’s cheeky flow and slang-tangy rhymes bounce across her beat peaks like she has a right. And crucially, her formerly-known-as-grime has tunes, childish chants anyone can hum. But she’s no rap Art Brut, who are a classic Ramones-model song band — M.I.A.’s tunes serve banging sounds. Align her formally with Congo’s 24th-place Konono No 1, avant-primitives by acclamation whose crudely amped thumb piano and junk percussion generated deeper trance in Brussels than Kinshasa, and with four kiddie-friendly entities: Danger Doom, in which a word-drunk MF Doom alt-raps to Cartoon Network buddies over a comfy Danger Mouse groove; the Go! Team, whose stolen pop tunelets and schoolyard chants get hyperactive over a storm of drums and samples; Deerhoof, who set Satomi Matsuzaki’s high little voice and dream lyrics against proggily structured noise-rock songs whose melodies esteem the simplistic; and — though they already show signs of growing up — the ecstatic campfire freak-folk of Animal Collective. Call these artists the avant-garde opposition. As of now, all except Deerhoof are formally antagonistic to Anglo ethnic music, but only incidentally — their first concern is breaking the guitar-band template. With or without that mysterious soupçon of gotcha, other newcomers’ variations are familiar — Bloc Party’s fashionable tightness, Art Brut’s audacious autohype, Wolf Parade’s double-lead cacophony, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s nerdy power surges, Stars’ young-modern sophistication, the National’s boom and gloom.
This polarity — eclectic neoclassicism versus usually beat-oriented, usually childhood-oriented avant-primitivism, with a bunch of indie/alt newbies in the middle — is a more extreme version of Pazz & Jop’s old song-versus-rhythm schema. But what’s most extreme about it is that almost every artist I’ve named had yet to hit our poll before 2000. Once upon a time Pazz & Jop gave off a whiff of old fart — every damn Van Morrison and XTC album would edge onto our list, and as recently as 1992, nine of the top 20 instead of the customary four-five-six were by veteran repeaters. In 2005, there were three. Newly anointed oldsters Monk-Coltrane and Bettye LaVette don’t count, and neither do newly anointed world-beaters Amadou & Mariam. Nor do artists whose pre-2000 output didn’t chart (Common, Spoon) or even get noticed (Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket). That leaves resurgent-on-principle Sleater-Kinney, young Fiona Apple, and 1996 winner Beck, whose return to whatever finished 17th.
Beck and Sleater-Kinney rank with Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Wilco (2005 live album 91st), Lucinda Williams (2005 live album three mentions), Bj (2005 soundtrack one mention), and Yo La Tengo (2005 comp one mention) as ’90s-based perennials in the Morrison-XTC manner. They finish higher because they still command consensus, an ever rarer thing. Nevertheless, they constitute a rather modest cohort, from which the Roots, 148th-place Stephen Malkmus, 61st-place Madonna (though “Hung Up” scored), and now 95th-place Missy Elliott have apparently departed. This endurance shortage reflects the megabiz crackdown on long-term catalog investments. But it also bespeaks a younger electorate tied to the Web as both writers and consumers. It’s like when three music weeklies competed for the Britfan’s fad-impaired attention span by putting new next big things on their smudgy covers every other issue, only sped up. In principle, file sharing and music blogs mean we can all listen to everything for nothing, and let’s-start-a-webzine content provision exploits what New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki calls “the wisdom of crowds.” Unfortunately for audiotopia, listening happens in real time, something even the nuttiest netcrits don’t have enough of, in part because there’s too much music out there and in part because they’re paid peanuts-to-zip for writing about it. And unfortunately for groupthink, coordinating collective knowledge is impossibly tricky. Pazz & Jop’s methods are imperfect. But so are Amazon’s, ILM’s, and Metacritic’s. So why doncha just listen to your Uncle Poobah?
The blogosphere eats up music so fast that whole backlash cycles are over in weeks. On Metacritic, the enthusiasm of the Pitchfork rave that got the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah thing rolling is now exceeded by, I kid you not, that of Billboard — and also, just barely, that of me, which took months to formulate, after I dismissed a borrowed EP and then decided to buy the album and ran it through my head on cassette (right, cassette, stole that music myself) and finally woke up from a nap one day saying, “Gee, whatever this is it moves.” By this time, CYHSY were a cliché. They’re a nice little band who will enjoy a profitable alt-circuit run. But with bloggers and listserv geeks joking about their name, their hot moment is permanently over. Never before has rock criticism been so into three of its ancient sins: cooler than thou, instant gratification, and what have you done for me lately.
So nuts to the way Bruce Springsteen’s predictably good album just barely snuck on at 40 (behind the National — ridiculous) and the Rolling Stones’ shockingly good album was edged out at 43 (two/three points behind German-techno Isolée and chanteuse-pop Feist, who at least offer alternatives), both with no appreciable help from voters under 35. I can respect that this hyper-precise Coldplay album belongs 23 places behind their warmer 2002 breakthrough, but not that this rocking Franz Ferdinand CD belongs 22 places behind the skinnier 2004 model, the one juiced by a bigger single and a newer band. And even more egregious are two albums that didn’t break 100. Four Tet’s Everything Ecstatic got three mentions two years after the 29th-place finish of their/his Rounds persuaded me to listen till I got it, which I guess I didn’t, because I swear the new one’s dabs of drum’n’bass distinguish it only marginally from its predecessor. You like one Kieran Hebden album, you like the other — unless you’ve decided “folktronica,” whatever that was, is now just too 2003. And then there’s 50 Cent, who came in 137th with a hookier and more seductive version of the debut album that finished 15th. People must have thought they couldn’t vote for the same bullet wounds twice.
What-have-you-done-for-me-lately is evil later. The way music has worked for me as an adult is that something that sounds good one year retains its zip. Timely pizzazz evolves into aesthetic impact; moments have legs. Longing to rewrite history, young crits love them their new oldsters. When an intelligent journeywoman like Bettye LaVette outdoes herself on two straight releases (though her Dennis Walker cheating album had stronger songs and rawer soul than 2005’s better-distributed Joe Henry job), she’s hailed as the new Shuggie Otis, I mean Loretta Lynn. But netsters have made such a life project of hopping on bands that they think nothing of filing Four Tet away with that Limp Bizkit embarrassment they fell for when they were 17. Franz Ferdinand’s 26th place was just a hype correction, and now they’ll fade from view or figure out what they have to say. But learning to hear Kieran Hebden took effort for an old guy like me, and I wish his constituency would show him some love. In years to come he’ll evoke his time more deeply if less acutely than Franz Ferdinand — unless he has to be rediscovered like Bettye LaVette.
Pardon me for breaking wind — after 32 or 33 years, I just couldn’t hold it anymore. Or maybe I mean if you can’t take the stink get out of the john — were I really hoping not to offend, I’d abandon this methodologically challenged enterprise altogether. Instead, here I am musing about posterity and framing an album argument as unnumbered file swappers and music bloggers join Pazz & Jop’s sizable old drink-fuck-and-be-merry singles-are-the-shit contingent. Since the kids were busy cultivating their very own byte-gardens while the old-timers fed dollar bills to the consensual jukebox, however, I had no trouble programming my changer and checking out our top 40 as album tracks. Most of these were masspop at its best, socially accessible songs-as-songs even if I didn’t know them as such. I only wish I could tell you they beat a barrel of monkeys in sequence. Right, Amerie’s explosive “1 Thing” is a machine-gun one-shot on an album with its safety engaged, Mariah Carey’s name-checking “We Belong Together” shines amid the stars, and the Game’s triumphant “Hate It or Love It” is so improved by removal from The Documentary that from here on in I’ll play the Clipse remix and remove it from the Game as well. But most charting “singles” I preferred in their longform contexts. Even Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” and Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly” freshened up their albums for me.
Since I don’t drink in bars or have ear time for radio or TV (or music blogs), my own singles list is always weird. This one is headed by a 48-second, circa 1999 Eminem boot that I played for all my friends, and also includes two candidates for protest song of the year, a 50 Cent sweetmeat that apparently lost its flava on the blogpost overnight, a Black Eyed Peas sex trifle some consider the worst record of all time, “Gold Digger,” and an unprecedented four country titles, all accessed in one midsummer flurry. That two of my country picks also finished in our poll bespeaks both a desire to show love to the red states and a worsening drought in guitar-based representational songwriting.
There are certainly major exceptions on our chart beyond Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol” and Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene,” neither one narrative in form, but both stressing the literal meaning of every well-chosen word: the quick Stones-ish reversal of Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To,” the Kaiser Chiefs’ detailed if not always concrete “I Predict a Riot,” and, were someone else singing, Antony’s depressive “Hope There’s Someone.” But the BS favored by Beck, Bloc Party, My Chemical Romance, Death Cab for Cutie, and even punkoid dreamboats Fall Out Boy makes a fella love love love the White Stripes’ terse, painfully drawn out “My Doorbell.” With his retrograde prejudices fending off faddists, Jack White looks more like Van Morrison every year. That his duo finish high even though they’ll never make a Moondance is a little sick, but they earn the loyal base their knowing commitment to the blues-based attracts. “Hollaback Girl” and “Since U Been Gone” are wordwise too, but they definitely arrive music first. Part of Kanye West’s genius is how easily he straddles that divide, fitting deft narrative and multi-leveled rhetoric to dominant beats like a quality rapper should, only more humanely than Jay-Z, or OutKast either.
If my appetite for the literal isn’t au courant, sue me. These days I’m such an old fart I even use albums to help me understand singles. James Murphy seems like a nice guy in interviews, but as an artist he’s a scenester, and the poker-faced ennui of LCD Soundsystem taught me once and for all that it wasn’t just arthritic knees and parenting hours that kept me away from techno — it was the disco way of escapism. Occasionally the right dancefloor hit — say “Hate It or Love It” or “Get Low,” true electronica being so fungible it rarely makes our charts — can enlarge the soul, but most of them are too generalized to waste fun on. That extends even to the Gorillaz’ fun-enough “Feel Good Inc.” I like their DOR Demon Days better than the DOR LCD Soundsystem because it’s at once more utopian and more pessimistic, meaning full of hope indulged or dashed. But I prefer both artists’ wholes to their singles-charting parts; hell, I prefer James McMurtry’s longform to his magnificent “We Can’t Make It Here.” My long-held belief is that pop music is a way of knowledge as well as a way of pleasure. We need its knowledge desperately right now — that elusive sense of humans-after-all not just struggling for fun, as Simon Frith once put it, but determined to keep living fully while their supposed betters rob or disdain them. As chunks rather than scraps of history, albums — like literalism, come to that — tell us this intuition that comes over us isn’t just a trick of perception, evanescent and disposable.
Although the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday is more literal than the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, both are rock albums of a rather old-fashioned sort. Devoid of guitar pyrotechnics, pop cute’n’catchy, or any version of a hip-hop beat, each leads with a wordy singer who could almost be talking: ex-Lifter-Puller Craig Finn, whose storytelling has never shown more decency or range and whose band has never rocked louder, and Mountain Goat forever John Darnielle, who trades in the social fictions of Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed for less gnomic childhood reminiscences. In each band, strophic intensity packs a very basic musical wallop. Yet here’s the funny thing — each band also packs a classically trained sumbitch. Mahler and Chopin fan Darnielle puts Zorn-connected cellist Erik Friedlander out front, but who would figure that Franz Nicolay, who beefs up the Hold Steady’s guitar riffs with organ fills and varies them with piano figures, would show up on mandolin and accordion in the Zorn-connected avant-chamber ensemble Anti-Social Music?
This apparent coincidence manifests an Anglo culture that in 2005 is ruling-class hegemonic. As rock and roll attracts fewer juvenile delinquents and bored film students and more musos, it will sop up more classical training, because those are the music lessons young musos can get — like for instance Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy, an accomplished double bassist. But at a time when pop eats everything, the sonic repercussions of this regimen ain’t so bad. Those Jeezy and Three 6 appropriations are slammin’. The new prog represents (some) progress. Illinois is good-not-great, its “Casimir Pulaski Day” peak also its barest song, but give the schoolboy oboist credit for thinking “serious music,” asinine term, means Steve Reich — means the postmodern project of reconstituting 19th-century melodicism and color without corning everything up. And give Jon Brion credit for fitting in — if there’s more substance, clarity, and resonance to Fiona Apple’s musicianly songs than to Spoon’s or the New Pornos’, Brion is part of why. You won’t find a bigger inspired-amateur fan than me. Yay Art Brut and yay art brut. But I also like melody and color and, in this vilely Orwellian epoch, any sense of history whatsoever.
Who knows what will become of New Orleans music? With Wynton Marsalis sticking his status in, you can bet it will include classical training, which long before Jelly Roll Morton fed into the racially striated city’s black music, always informing the street culture Katrina swamped. But bet as well that it will include swingin’ — so far, Anglo ethnic music is just a flavor in what remains a fundamentally African American conception. As a particular skill, however, swing in 2005 — whatever the case in 2045, when 2005’s cultural interventions will have vanished into the apparently natural — was also a conservatory matter. Just ask any jazz guy how many Berklee grads he knows. And note that by Marsalis’s standards our most classical finisher is also our most swinging — the Monk-Coltrane find, a major and probably unrepeatable addition to both geniuses’ oeuvres just like everybody claims, and easily the most traditional jazz album ever to convince our voters it was pazz. Yet when I A-B’d it up against Kanye, I found Late Registration not only deeper but just as much fun. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara, which to me sounds as ancient as sand even though it’s modern to Tuareg, Songhai, and Berber ears, is just deeper. You want fun, ask Amadou & Mariam.
Politically, the year wasn’t as disastrous as we’d feared. Some depredations of the Bush regime were turned back as it overreached itself, though not the foul new bankruptcy laws, and don’t ever think that the Bushies will back off, or that the new Supreme Court won’t back them up. But as many P&J voters who promised to keep on pushing withdrew into ever more pressing personal necessities, Katrina — most visible effect so far of the global warning the neocons’ trained seals with Ph.D.’s scoff at — threatened to destroy, and in the case of many artifacts, archives, and of course neighborhoods did destroy, a crucial locus of the history every rock critic owes himself or herself. So here’s a modest proposal for my young colleagues on the Net. I just checked Metacritic, and there is no listing for Our New Orleans. Make it your business to get it up there. Even in these low-promo times, Melissa Cusick at Nonesuch will probably hook you up.
Then call your senator and ask why there was no Alito filibuster. Just to let the bastards know you’re conscious.
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