Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Resuscitations and Business Plans: The Best Albums of 2009

Click here to see Robert Christgau's 2009 "Dean's List."

News from the record business was grimmer than ever in 2009, as album sales declined even faster than in 2008--8.7 percent to 7.3 percent, legal downloads included. This sucks unequivocally. Whatever its inequities, the biz has long provided a living for music lovers, as well as a revenue stream for my chosen profession of music journalism, which is even more endangered than regular journalism. Nevertheless, my statistical view is somewhat rosier. Every year since 1974 I've toted up the albums I found enjoyable and enduring. In 2002, there were 91 titles on what I'd dubbed the Dean's List, but that was a fluke; more often the total has been in the high 70s, and in 2008 it dipped to 73. So this year I was pleased to find it back up in the 80s.

I don't mean to attach undue importance to this glitch, especially since the Dean's List says far less about any given year than does the list that long occasioned it: the top 40 albums as determined by the top 10s of many hundreds of voters in The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, which passed out of my hands in 2006. Always the dean as a kind of joke, I am now decidedly emeritus, as the 2009 poll will surely reflect. Though Leonard Cohen and Brad Paisley are possible, the only record on my ballot sure to finish in the top 40 due out January 18 is Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali.

It gets worse. The year-end lists of Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, and PopMatters convince me that the winner will be Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, and that the top 10 if not five will include the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca, Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, and Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Except for the teeth-suckingly precious Veckatimest, I've reviewed all these titles kindly, but the only one with a crack at the Dean's List was Bitte Orca. These are very much young people's records--arty young people's records--and they're trailed by counterparts I like much less. Yet this worse has its better side, because for arty young people's music to generate its own canon of longforms only reinforces my hunch that not everything in the record biz is as dire as its balance sheets.

What's great about Pazz & Jop is its ecumenicism. Critics as an interest group will always have their reactive tics and myopic enthusiasms. But at least the poll's size swallows up the editorial positioning and personal posturing of individual lists as it balances young against old and print against online--balances Pitchfork's Animal Collective-Dirty Projectors-xx-Flaming Lips-Raekwon (the mag's most mainstream top five ever, as its clout subsumes its contrarianism) against Rolling Stone's U2-Springsteen-Phoenix-Jay-Z-Green Day (the mag's most retro top five in years, hidden away online-only to make room for the decade lists in the print edition). With economics and mortality shifting the electorate ever younger, I expect the P&J results to trend arty, with somewhat more traditional efforts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' It's Blitz! and Neko Case's Middle Cyclone splitting the generation gap to finish very high. I'll be surprised to see any of the year's hip-hop d'estime--veterans Raekwon, Mos Def, and possibly Jay-Z--in the top 10. And now let me put consensus guesswork aside and parse the list that's nearest to my heart.

The only way I know to avoid positioning and posturing is to report honestly on my own musical pleasure and stimulation no matter how rhetorically inconvenient that may be--to put response before judgment, though of course the two interact. This can be a distressing discipline--it's really not in my professional interest to signify as an old fart. So having failed to grok the arty canon, was I ever relieved to cotton to London's xx, the 20-year-old minimalist electropoppers who were the debut buzz in the critical world--and who could conceivably sell a tenth as well as Lady Gaga, the 23-year-old maximalist electropopper who was the debut buzz in the retail world. But after placing these cool kids in a premature top 10 for December 1, was I ever bummed when they faded slightly as the month went on. At 67, I've been resisting the hipper-than-thou for four decades. Yet still it beckons.

For the critic, however, the discipline has a payoff--it reveals aesthetic tendencies he or she is specially attuned to. Looking the Dean's List over, I see for the thousandth time that genres don't spontaneously deliquesce just because they're old and in the way. I see a theatrical, professional, slept-on punk album by London liggers Art Brut and a bratty, DIY, unnoticed punk album by Carolina gals the Coathangers. I see excellent folk-rock of needlessly divergent reputation by Carolinians turned Brooklynites the Avett Brothers and Chicagoans turned Seattlites the Fruit Bats. I see the Baseball Project rubbing neat's-foot oil into cracked old alt-rock cliches. And in the year hip-hop supposedly lost its hip, I count seven hip-hop albums instead of last year's eight, five of them top 30: K'naan, Mos Def, Serengeti, Ghostface Killah, and Doom, plus Jay-Z and his failed signing Lady Sovereign (and note that to spare delicate sensibilities, I left out the Black Eyed Peas). But I also see new stuff--some of which, as suits my advanced years, might also be called old.

Every Dean's List has its outright resuscitations--Rough Guides cherry-picking non-American genres, finds like the Senegalese ones on this edition of African Pearls, scandalously overdue best-ofs like Sterns Africa's meticulous Franco double up top and Belle Epoque's incoherent Rail Band double at the bottom, guided tours like the cash-strapped '30s arcana of The Panic Is On and the Elizabethan airs gathered by avant-garde lutenist Jozef van Wissem, a Nirvana concert that doesn't know whether it's young or old, Richard Hell re-recording his own 1982 album.

But 2009 also produced three felt, complex resuscitations in the much chancier form of the tribute album, where garbled stopgaps are the rule--and that doesn't count Leonard Cohen's perfectly articulated live tribute to himself. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel's Bob Wills album is self-evident conceptually, but so acutely realized that it stands with the best music of any of the artists involved, Wills included. Forty-nine years younger than Nelson at 27, Nellie McKay reached back half a century to reinvoke the spunk, optimism, and beauty of Hollywood nice gal Doris Day, dumbfounding her contemporaries in the process (though Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef gave her a shot). And Loudon Wainwright III's Charlie Poole twofer is a major work from a 63-year-old whose wise-ass career has epitomized the minor. A portrait of an oft-romanticized past trying to make sense, and fun, of its own older past, it establishes new connections with every cover, floats new conjectures with every original, and has a ball coming and going.

These albums aren't unprecedented, but examining a decade of Dean's Lists I found very few like them--Maria Muldaur's Dylan love songs, the Katrina-inspired Our New Orleans 2005 (which had a lesser 2009 counterpart in Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi), and especially the two collections of Woody Guthrie lyrics the Klezmatics set to music in 2006 (which also had a lesser counterpart, Jonatha Brooke's The Works). Live albums as definitive as Cohen's are even rarer. I get why kids don't grok them, but that's just more reason to take an old man's crotchets seriously. Taken together, these living breathing history lessons refute the naive truism that vital art always looks to the future. Yet as a promise of things to come, the retrospective impulse has obvious limitations no matter how recombinant it tries to be. You could even conjecture that with the biz's scared-witless derivatives traders sounding the album's death knell, artists are rushing to get in under the wire--which would also explain why old-timers as diverse as Moby, PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull, and the Flaming Lips picked this year to finally come up with another good one. On the other hand, maybe these guys just figured that when big statements are automatically suspect, one way to stand out is to make yours bigger.

Looking bravely futureward, however, are 2009's two other great albums. One is ghettoized, the other 'buked and scorned, but my ears and then brain insist that Brad Paisley and the Black Eyed Peas were as substantial as Cohen and Wainwright. Straight outta Nashville though it may be, American Saturday Night was the classic rock Springsteen and Bono were too pompous to juice up--from Paisley's guitar-geek bending and picking to Ben Sesar's boom-bash to songcraft simultaneously lighter and more direct than the old guys'. While remaining hip-hop no matter what the genre's bodyguards believed, The E.N.D. was the catchiest and most confident pop album since . . . Madonna's Immaculate Connection, only with spritzier beats? A key moment on Cohen's record comes when he climaxes "Tower of Song" by revealing "the answer to the mysteries," which turns out to be: "Doo-dom-dom-dom da-doo-dom-dom." To this can only add: "Boom boom pow."

These pop gifts came from nowhere--a fan of both acts, I never imagined either could work up anything as inspired as quality bestsellers like Shakira, John Mayer, or Mary J. Blige, all of whom they left in the dust. And these pop gifts also had something in common: Barack Obama, whose polity both seek to galvanize.'s "Yes We Can" video went viral early in 2008, and though The E.N.D.'s stupidest moment is its only "political" one (something about wi-fi for all), it has winner all over it, biracial all over it, yes we can all over it. Cagier in his "moderate" public stance, Paisley devotes two songs to a very un-Nashville multicultural optimism inextricable from the new president, and cost himself some sales. Deep they're not. They don't try to be. They just want to keep hope alive without getting too soppy about it.

Putting aside the tendency of arty people of all ages to feel betrayed because Obama is the centrist he said he was, these albums are dismissed critically for formal reasons, the usual corn-averse stuff in Paisley's case but something more complicated with the Black Eyed Peas--less the shameless hooks, shallow lyrics, and electro-hop perfidy of anti-pop cant than's determination to transform every song he records into a bundle of rights. I've cited all the records I've described as indication if not proof that reports of the album's death have been greatly exaggerated. Yet go to Wikipedia and you'll learn that what I'm calling a great album, having achieved world conquest via singles sales, remix strategems, and product tie-ins, may well be the group's "last physical CD." Gripes self-made mogul "What is an album when you put 12 songs on iTunes and people can pick at it like scabs? That's not an album. There is no album anymore."

I'm not certain Animal Collective will win Pazz & Jop--there's smart money on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, such a hot band that they got my responses up even though Karen O doesn't cut much deeper than Lady Gaga, who in some respects I prefer. But prog-averse though I am, in a way I'm rooting for them, for formal reasons--their contradictions are so fascinating I want to see how they play out.

Retrospective impulses nothing--these guys are way further from the roots of the rock and roll aesthetic than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were as the decade began. Well before Merriweather Post Pavilion was released on the major minor label Domino, it was a file-sharing sensation, downloaded at bit rates and played through earphones or mini-speakers inimical to full-service listening, and the band never griped. Although MP3s are best suited to individual songs, and their disorganized legions gush about the dubious melodic emoluments of "My Girls," they're a natural album band, known for translating their ramshackle shows into what they've explicitly called "soundscapes." Nevertheless, their impulse seems to be to go with the flow, and if albums fade away that's how we'll roll, man. They just don't want to be moguls, explicitly eschewing "social status" in favor of trips to the playground and "four walls and adobe slabs for my girls."

These three recent NYU grads seem like nice fellas, definitely. I hope music continues to provide them a living. But just as their music doesn't really make sense to me, neither does their business plan. Which for today's musicians is always equivalent to a life plan. That grim enough for you?

Click here to see Robert Christgau's 2009 "Dean's List."

Barnes & Noble Review, Jan. 12, 2010