Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Consensus Has Consequences

Last year we bravely entitled the wrap-up that accompanies my annual Dean's List "May the Consensus Have Consequences." And it did: vastly more consensus. Last year the diametrical titans of what remains of rock criticism, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, demonstrated unprecedented commonality by putting Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Fiona Apple toward the very top of their year-end top 50s. This signified because anybody with a rudimentary sense of how critical status works knew those three artists would top popular and semipopular music's only meaningful top 50: The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. Down below, however, "the representatives of feckless youth at Pitchfork and gaseous maturity at Rolling Stone" agreed scarcely at all--their top 50s shared only seven additional titles.

This year is very different. The Rolling Stone and Pitchfork lists have 23 titles in common, all also in the Pazz & Jop top 50. Moreover, the top two albums were the same in all three, although Pazz & Jop reversed the order to make Kanye West's Yeezus the landslide winner over Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City. As recording artists contend with straitened circumstances in which hurting or merely stingy consumers download digital music free or stream it for next to nothing, this commonality is a small but encouraging sign that the atomization of taste known as the long tail may have a cutoff. Which in turn might just mean a little more money for deserving artists, beginning with the other agreed-upon finishers, most doing fine anyway but a few marginal. In Pazz & Jop order: Daft Punk, Chance the Rapper, My Bloody Valentine, Haim, Kurt Vile, Neko Case, Disclosure, Arcade Fire, Savages, Drake, the National, Parquet Courts, Danny Brown, M.I.A., Waxahatchee, Pusha T, the Knife, Chvrches, Earl Sweatshirt, Rhye.

I've provided the longer list mostly because the outlier in this propitious consensus is me. At 71, I am now but Dean Emeritus of American Rock Critics, if that. The 85-title Dean's List shares only 10 of its own top 50 with Pazz & Jop's (albeit 17 overall). That doesn't mean I believe the Haim, National, My Bloody Valentine, Rhye, Drake, Daft Punk, Disclosure, Chvrches, or conceivably Earl Sweatshirt records are frauds, bores, or empty vessels. It's just that they don't reach me the way I expect to be reached by records I play of my own free will, and if you suspect some of these might be worth your time, you could be right. (OTOH, my skepticism runs pretty deep as regards hard-femme Savages and lo-def Kurt Vile. And BTW, the Bowie comeback that finished 15 P&J and 16 Rolling Stone is a fraud considerably emptier than the McCartney and Elton efforts Jann Wenner strong-armed onto Stone's list.) Maybe you'll agree that the irresistible "Get Lucky" and "Lose Yourself to Dance" carry the rest of Daft Punk's superbly promoted Random Access Memories--or, hell, love its every electrodisco squiggle. Maybe you'll hear the club anthems on a 13th-ranked Disclosure album Stone dubs a "party tape" or feel P4K's Jordan Sargent when he raves that on the third-ranked Disclosure album "the thing I hear loudest is space"--or, hell, both. Maybe you'll be so captivated by Haim's airy "The Wire" and "Falling" you'll rethink your relationship to madrigal--or, hell, don't need to. Me, I find all three enjoyable but attenuated, and in this oft epicene musical epoch, attenuation is less my thing than ever.

Which is as good a segue as any to my, Stone's, and P4K's but not Pazz & Jop's album of the year, behind Kanye by a three-to-two margin and ahead of Daft Punk by just as much, because Modern Vampires of the City risks attenuation while showing its muscles. It simulates predigital warmth by tinkering with a dizzying panoply of studio stratagems and divides the most emotional songs of the band's career into distinct parts impossible to enumerate due to how often the arrangements change up-gorgeous drum tracks, but I dare you to dance to them. Vampire Weekend tried for an art-pop record where their major-alt counterparts in Arcade Fire strove for a groove record and against the usual odds wound up both deeper and lighter. At times they do flirt with fussbudgetry. But whenever I pay moderate attention I'm engaged as a listener--as a living creature processing physical sounds. And not only is the thing beautiful, its climactic "Ya Hey" rhymes with Yahweh.

Cut to Kanye West's Yeezus: "I am a god / Hurry up with my damn massage." I'm a longtime defender of West's "arrogance," which he's justified many times over. And musically this is my kind of record, welding abrasive rock sonics to head-on hip-hop as audaciously as Public Enemy 25 years ago. But I say it's too ugly. The sonics signify right down to the hards who cameo alongside Frank Ocean and Justin Vernon. But the arrogance repels. Most would agree that West's consumerism has become increasingly grotesque--since his mother died emulating her son's lifestyle with plastic surgery, I rationalize, although it could just be star syndrome. What's doubly grotesque here, however, is how conspicuously the women he gets with are reduced to accessories with benefits. Although you may think all rappers do this, the malfunction varies artist-to-artist and has abated steadily among prestige brands, whereas on Yeezus West makes a racially conscious decision to do battle against white deviltry by fully inhabiting the role of a black mack who is hell yeah rich and famous--who is in fact Yeezy himself. Speaking unabashed "Swaghili," he'd rather be a "goon" than a "coon," a "dick" than a "swallower." And he's wordsmith enough to insure that his sexist imagery is very hard to take.

Sexuality signifies differently on an album Pazz & Jop ranked fourth and nobody else caught up with. Where most magazines' lists are branding operations finalized by Thanksgiving, P&J is both a true poll and a true year-end poll. And after Beyoncé surprise-released the iTunes-only Beyoncé on December 13, enough of the 451 voters were happy they'd digitally transferred in their 16 bucks to place her album just behind Daft Punk's. My reservation is that there isn't enough sex on it even though it's half sex--the raunchiest and most convincing I can recall on record, and married sex at that, albeit by a wealthy couple who are never raunchier than when soiling their obscenely expensive fashion statements in the back of a limo. These tracks are anything but attenuated--they're thick, their juicy physicality positing ideals of interactive performance absent from both Yeezus's feckless abandon and the regal self-possession that stiffens Beyoncé's supposedly more serious songs.

Rolling Stone would have gone with Beyoncé given the time, and Pitchfork probably too--one way the two have converged is that the new kid has outgrown its reflexive aversion for the corporate, beginning with hip-hop, which is unavoidable if you intend meaningful coverage, then extending into r&b and pop, ditto only more so, the stretch being respecting these approaches at all. Pitchfork's last area of significant resistance is Americana/dad-rock, which is why it ignored 2013's most noteworthy blip: smart country gals. Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, and Brandy Clark all finished in the Pazz & Jop top 50 and on the Dean's List, although I think Clark rather than Musgraves made the strongest record, perhaps because as one of Nashville's rare out lesbians she's even less inclined to make nice than her independent-minded sisters. But though Pitchfork still supports specialized experiments in the more arid reaches of prog and electronica, and Stone still gives oldsters more slack than their belly fat and enables trad mooncalves like teen folkie Jake Bugg, both outlets now share a taste for legible songs with hooks and bite. This is good for everybody, especially questing listeners and the artists themselves.

As always, the Dean's List is dominated by such artists, especially if you find African music as legible as I do. In this case, a terrible year for Mali was followed by a terrific one for Malian music. Bombino's Nomad, which came with the imprimatur of Warner's invaluable Nonesuch label, finished 29th Stone and 45th Pazz & Jop, yet in my well-informed opinion was outstripped by albums from five other Saharan artists: in ascending order, Tal National, Sidi Touré, Mariem Hassan, Tamikrest, and Bassekou Kouyate, plus a multi-artist showcase recorded live in the teeth of war that grew on me so much I bought my sister the CD for Christmas: Live from Festival au Desert Timbuktu. She loves it.

Mine was the only Pazz & Jop vote for that one, and not just because it's Saharan--Kouyate finished top 100. So if you'll glance down the Dean's List I'll try to explain why. Of the 81 albums, 10 say "self-released" or "free" or "mixtape," and by my count-these things are tricky to calculate--12 more are on vanity or DIY labels, some truly tiny: in addition to the Kickstarted Festival au Desert, the Julie Ruin, Rilo Kiley, Kate Nash, Martha Redbone, Four Tet, The Road to Jajaouka, David Greenberger, Robert Sarazin Blake, Atlantic pizza king Clay Harper, the oddly named Yoko Ono, and Wussy the great. Some of these artists are struggling, some merely contrary; one is a Brazilian genius I celebrated in a 2010 column; perhaps half of the self-releaseds come gratis or quite cheap via Bandcamp, and I recommend you look into downloading them; the debut album by anxiety-prone Chicago joker-sufferer Chance the Rapper finished fourth Pazz & Jop and is definitely worth your time.

Still, a quarter of my favorite albums of 2013, including three of my top 10, were DIY. As Chance the Rapper demonstrates, DIY is not a road to nowhere--many such projects are disbursed by publicists written into their budgets, and although Chance is fishing for corporate support like Kendrick Lamar before him, it's not hard to imagine Kate Nash or the Julie Ruin's Kathleen Hanna going the route of Aimee Mann, who's maintained SuperEgo Records since 2000. For artists with a head for figures or a pushy partner or an outside income stream, DIY can be what they call a viable business model--not only did DIY rapper Macklemore go mega in 2013, he launched his move with a defense of gay marriage. But I have no doubt that venture capital is good for the arts, or that for all the perfidies of the music business we're better off with it than without it--especially given all the DIY alternatives keeping it honest(-er). That's why I find 2013's commonality cheering: DIY definitely diminishes consensus.

So rather than touting the highly DIY Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band--the 75-year-old Stampfel's best record since the even more cooperative Have Moicy! 38 years ago, which I helped propel into enduring cult status in my pre-emeritus days (new one's highlighted by the mortality-redefining "All the Time in the World," which reminds me that, hey hey, the oddly named Ono just made her own second-best album at 80)--I'll go out bitching about 2013's most underrated album. In 2011, supercelebrity Lady Gaga got a B&NR column just like genius Tom Zé because I considered her equally substantial in her own way. Despite selling almost as much as its predecessor, her new Artpop is widely accounted a failure, in part because her social-media army got beat back by Katy Perry's social-media army but also because critical reaction has been clueless. The album hasn't just been berated by online rockcrit's ever-shifting gaggle of dunderheads crying "insincerity" and claiming she's boring because they're bored, but misread by pros as pop-savvy as Jon Pareles, Maura Johnston, and Mikael Wood. Well rationalized or not, I deduced that the pans were more of the old what-have-you-done-for-me-lately once I realized that after spinning the album casually for a week I perked up every time "Aura" and "G.U.Y." and "Manicure" and "Swine" came around again. Maybe it's just my Skrillex problem--since unlike the young I'm never bombarded by EDM synths at medically inadvisable volumes, this was not only the rawk album of the year for me, it sounded fresh. Really, who needs guitars?

I bought Artpop for my sister along with Festival au Desert. She likes it less, as indeed do I. But not by a lot. It takes all kinds. And we're healthier as a culture when we agree on a bunch of them.

Barnes & Noble Review, January 24, 2014