Music

Pazz & Jop: The Dean’s List

Reports of the album’s death have been greatly exaggerated

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Having invented this poll twice — in 1971 on my way out the Voices door and in revamped invitation-only form when I returned in 1974 — and run it till new owners fired me in 2006, I was proud to pitch in when newer owners invited me to write the theme essay for P&J’s 2017 iteration, its 44th (or 45th). But when my apparently defunct old paper astonished and tickled me by finding funding for a 45th (or 46th) Pazz & Jop, I humbly declined the same request, for two reasons.

First was that women were so certain to dominate the results as never before that it was simple justice, not to mention optics, for women to dominate the commentary as well. But the second was almost as important, because Pazz & Jop is about criticism as well as music per se. Until 2006 I published full-time and edited some at the Voice and freelanced quite a bit too. But in 2019 my rockcrit career consists of a weekly Expert Witness album-brief column at Noisey plus a few scraps — my wife and I live mostly on Social Security and savings. I’m grateful to hold any rockcrit job at 76. But that job wouldn’t cover our rent, and how critics young enough to be my grandchildren experience work that seldom rises to job-level is literally beyond my ken. What percentage of the reviewers I read make their nut as journalists? Are avocationals and hopefuls paid even ten bucks for their scrivening? Whoever holds forth in the lead spot should have more skin in the game.

Nonetheless, fans like me and you are lucky to have another Pazz & Jop for the same reason as always. Whatever its lacunae and limitations, however fucked and suborned its respondents, Pazz & Jop’s multivenue, cross-demographic consensus reveals stuff about pop music’s ever-evolving aesthetic profile that neither streaming-doctored sales charts nor self-branding Top 50s can. Only post-poll, for instance, do we really know exactly what kind of Year of the Woman it was. Although the record-shattering 25 women in the P&J Top 40 are joined by only 22 (and two halves) in the next 60, their dominance is undeniable, as their music addresses more angles on female empowerment, male privilege, male assholery, and female anxiety than anyone would otherwise know were there. But it also turns out that this year’s politics aren’t exclusively identity politics. Young ninth-place alt-rock guitar-bass-drums Parquet Courts embrace the déclassé term collective; old eleventh-place alt-rock guitar-bass-drums Superchunk contextualize their anti-Trump jabs with the Eighties mea culpa “Reagan Youth”; loudly male, loudly anti-sexist 35th-place Idles embrace immigrant punks and dis Eton thugs; 25th-place U.S. Girl Meg Remy saves her catchiest lefter-than-thou for, uh-oh, warmonger Barack Obama. Note as well that although runaway chart-toppers Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe hail from country and funk, and only two of the thirteen women in my own Top 25 are alt-rockers, it was definitely an alt-rock in nothing like decline after all that engendered this Year of the Woman.

And now, before anybody accuses me of theme essay encroachment, I’ll stop the poll-watching and proceed to what I really want to write about: the Dean’s List, which old-timers may recall arranges all the albums I’ve rated A or A minus in a given year in order of preference. Posted on my website mid-January, the 2018 edition nabbed 83 of them. Until 2012 I went to the trouble of adding some singles, but by then I’d long been forcing it. As far back as Run-D.M.C. and Licensed to Ill, in fact, I’ve devoted almost all my professional ear time and pleasure listening to albums, a claim few if any working critics under 35 can make and not many would want to — although album reviews remain a staple of the trade, the song-as-meme and YouTube hit provide crucial fodder in a nonstop news cycle where content providers juice thrill-of-the-week aesthetics by posting and hence positing several thrills a day. In fact, it’s long been theorized that the album format is doomed. Way back in 2003, Wired had me write 100 words (unpaid, naturally) about whether the album was “a dying art form.” In 2018, as sales of both CDs and downloads dove, chatter about the format’s imminent demise rattled on as usual.

Major labels being major labels, which among other bad things can mean Spotify stakeholders, some version of the death of the physical album could happen. But as someone whose professional specialty is finding A albums, I stand by what I told Wired a full fifth of the album’s life span ago: “For as long as artists tour, they’ll peddle song collections with the rest of the merch, and those collections will be conceived as artfully as the artists possibly can.” This is even truer now because the computer giveth as the computer taketh away — quality home recording is now so cheap that making an album is hobby-level stuff not just for duffers but for the statistically inevitable complement of amateur artists whose music ain’t no hobby, or shouldn’t be. And compelled to tour though all now are, few professional bands are in it solely for the roar of the crowd. Writing songs is in their DNA, and if said songs are any good at all, recording them for posterity soon becomes irresistible.

So then it becomes my challenge to find the ones I think are worth my time and yours. And though it’s strange writing rock criticism in isolation, unnourished by conversation with smart fans or professional obsessives, it remains rewarding or I’d quit. In July it will be fifty years since I started grading records, and many still don’t grok the admixtures of taste and judgment, pleasure and analysis involved. For me, grades are objective reports on subjective responses that always meld judgment and pleasure; as I’ve told hundreds of young writers, “First you figure out what you really like, then you figure out the real reason you like it.” So if what you like is eighth-place Low, that’s your privilege — the band has many fans whose intelligence and integrity I don’t doubt. But after four or five passes, I enjoy Double Negative even less than their 1999 Christmas (“beats committing suicide, if that’s your holiday fancy”), and for now let’s leave our differences at that. I have too much Dean’s List to pump to waste space on gripes.

The 83-album 2018 Dean’s List shares seventeen albums with the Pazz & Jop Top 40, and although I A-list pretty much the same proportion of women as the P&J Top 100, fewer women make my Top 40. The inevitability that the female artists I enjoy and admire aren’t always those anointed by Pazz & Jop traces in this case to a 76-year-old’s ingrained aesthetic differences from an electorate that came of age not just post-Fifties but post-Sixties if not post-Nineties. I prefer the blues-based to the classically informed prog tendency the rise of which in 21st-century alt-rock I’ve long lamented, and have been saying “no thanks” to mopey depressives since Tim Buckley and Nick Drake. Snail Mail, Lucy Dacus, Boygenius, or for that matter Earl Sweatshirt? I tried, hard, but they never did it for me, and however crippling this spiritual limitation may be, I still have to start with what I actually like, including female alternatives I’d connect to girl-group, a pre-Beatles tendency stupidly dismissed by sexist rockers and male chauvinist folkies alike. Sweetness as power, call it; nice girls finishing as close to first as they can. In 2018, girl-group surfaced in Riton and Kah-Lo, where a 25-year-old Nigerian-American rapper bridges those two lands via a male Brit techno vet’s inventions and appropriations; in the nice-to-meetcha hooks and stealth romances of Atlanta rapper Bali Baby’s pop-seeking Baylor Swift; in the shy sexual sallies and halting moral qualms of Frankie Cosmos’s Greta Kline; and most explicitly in the sour harmonies and tricky love quests of Madrid-based Hinds’ shamefully neglected (zero mentions!) I Don’t Run.

I could detail the African music I noticed and Pazz & Jop didn’t, but the pickings are getting thinner (try Imarhan’s Saharan Temet). I could dis SoundCloud rap while pumping a conscious hip-hop that seemed a mite tired beyond the now-indie Lupe Fiasco, but having been alerted to Saba’s felt, brainy Care for Me by its 55th-place P&J finish, I’ll decline that option too. After all, the biggest chasm between me and the electorate is that I’m twice the age of half of it. And as anyone who reads me has noticed, I do like to go on about the strange truth that what began circa 1955 as teen music has turned into old people’s music like there’s never been before.

This spin of the wheel has unloosed too much spatter to map here. What it comes down to, however, is simple — people over 50 are recording unprecedented albums that people under 30 don’t have the heart, savvy, or time to enjoy, and although many P&J voters are old enough to tune in, most are either too avocational or too busy with their beat to pay it the mind it deserves. True, John Prine’s creaky provisional farewell finished 18th, Tracey Thorn’s matter-of-fact maturity meditation 30th, Bettye LaVette’s deadeye Dylan canoneering 50th, and long-lost genius Amy Rigby’s undiminished return 79th. I dug all these records, ranking LaVette’s seventysomething double whammy third. I also pumped 81-year-old Elza Soares’s second samba postmodernization, the title of which translates “God Is Woman,” and 75-year-old Maria Muldaur’s Blue Lu Barker tribute, as potent vocally and instrumentally as anything in her sprawling catalogue. And I note too that 85-year-old Willie Nelson’s Last Man Standing, by my reckoning the second full A of his ninth decade (try 2014’s December Day), finished just below 100. But that still leaves guys I need to tell you about.

I say guys because P&J’s Year of the Woman definitely extended to seniors — older women like Meshell Ndegeocello, Neneh Cherry, and Marianne Faithfull were richly honored too, with only Soares lost in the hoo-hah. But Paul Simon recasting old songs he thought needed more work at 76, Wreckless Eric squeezing out his best solo album in decades at 64, Youssou N’Dour ceding his mortality some legroom at 59, Irish subcult hero Jinx Lennon figuring out parenthood at 54? Those garnered two P&J mentions all told. Moreover, guys got way better than that — three middle-aged men, two with sustaining if sublucrative music careers and one out of the blue despite a long bar-band/folk-festival history and quite the outside job. In 2018, all three released albums I hope male and female critics of all ages vouchsafe a stream or two. John Kruth is a master guitarist and the author of three ace music biographies who after two albums set in his wife’s native Croatia hooked up with an Italian band to cut an American album called Forever Ago, which goes places. Hard-strumming Ed Hamell recorded Night Guy at the Apocalypse: Profiles of a Rushing Midnight on his phone while pursuing one of those never-ending tours — unyieldingly hilarious tales of brutally righteous mayhem that cosseted and complemented my political rage as nothing saner could. And then there are these Rich Krueger albums.

These two discs — and they are discs, handsomely packaged too — wouldn’t exist if Krueger hadn’t quit music in 1998 and spent a decade becoming a neonatologist, which means an MD specializing in difficult births. It is his medical income that enabled him to go back to the songs he’d abandoned decades ago and mix in the songs I doubt he stopped writing even when he was publishing all those journal articles. But it’s his quavering, compassionate, observant, imaginative, sometimes overstuffed, always eloquent songwriting that his crack bands are there to put across, as they do, unfailingly. It would be asinine to let this doubleheader from nowhere pass because I don’t see how he can pull a third album off anytime soon. Krueger’s is the kind of miracle that keeps me checking out thousands of albums a year so I can grade a couple hundred for posterity.

And by the way, so is the album of perfectly sequenced rock- and techno-tinged Monk covers I made my number two — and that nobody else voted for even though Miles Okazaki’s six-volume complete-Monk solo-guitar snoozefest got 35 points. Mast is the artist, Thelonious Sphere Monk the title. I downloaded one and then burned it, and many houseguests have thanked me for playing it. Another reason to do the job. There’ll always be more is my theory.

Pazz & Jop essays and results can be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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