Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Pazz & Idol Product Report

Fact is, one reason I thought to comment--very belatedly now--on the two big rock critics' polls, the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll and its two-year-old rival, now dubbed the Idolator Critics' Poll--was that it would come naturally. And when NARAS deisgnated one of its more outrageously ageist album of the year Grammys--for Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute, River--plus naming the Foo Fighters in the rock album category, I even had the semblance of a news peg. But it didn't come naturally.

Long story short for outsiders, I ran Pazz & Jop for 33 years till it maxed out at 795 voters in 2005. When the Voice fired me in 2006, there was a brouhaha over the fate of the poll, which had evolved into a kind of annual rockcrit forum showcasing backtalk edited from voter comments as well as a breeding ground of meaningful trivia for stat geeks. It wasn't even clear the Voice would continue it. Hence the Idolator poll, which was offered to me and then taken over--against my advice, but only because I knew they couldn't pay him enough for the work involved--by my young colleague, record advisor, pal, and fellow NAJP member Michaelangelo Matos, definitely one of the nation's biggest Pazz & Jop fans. Then the Voice decided to continue PJ under former PJ intern Zach Braff Baron and new Voice editor-critic Rob Harvilla. Many loyalists swore they'd never participate, but I like both these guys and figured it was the Voice's franchise anyway. I voted in both polls and consciously avoided publishing any year-end commentary of my own, just to prove I wasn't an addict. But in April, I did deliver a poll postmortem in lecture form--never published, again by design--at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. My general conclusion: good enough Idolator, but PJ still had an edge, because its electorate was more age-balanced, and because Harvilla, while declining to write one of the 4000-word summations I used to add to the mix, had cannily replaced it with 10 mini-essays of remarkably high quality.

What didn't come naturally this year was reading the pucking things. Having been inside for so long, I took for granted the burst of interest that always followed publication. But I didn't find that I was part of it. I certainly looked at the lists right away, which last year were separated by a month or so and this week only about a week, because Idolator went up later and PJ published earlier. But where last year there was an interesting generational split--TV on the Radio, which won the Idolator poll, lost on points in the closest PJ finish ever--this year the top album was by LCD Soundsystem, a band I like OK but have never quite gotten, followed in PJ by Radiohead-M.I.A.-Winehouse-Arcade Fire and in Idolator by M.I.A.-Radiohead-Arcade Fire-Winehouse. Big deal. There was somewhat more differentiation in singles--Winehouse's "Rehab" won PJ but was only fourth in Idolator, where the winner was Rihanna's "Umbrella" (better record, I say). And generational differentiations surfaced further town in the top 10, where PJ gave it up to old guys Bruce Springsteen and Robert Plant, whose likably overrated albums I preferred to youth faves Panda Bear and Of Montreal, both top 10 in Idolator.

I could go on about this--for 4000 words, were somebody to pay me an arm and a leg and guarantee me an extra two weeks of life to make up for all that 4 a.m. oil. But that is no longer my place in the firmament. Instead I will simply report that while as always I checked out both charts online going down to 300 looking for records I'd missed--futilely, for the most part--reading the rest of the poll material took me till, well, this morning.

In place of last year's essays (long by him, short by others), Matos came up with the very online, post-album ploy of asking favored voters--38 I think, it's hard to count things on separate screens and that's close enough for the blogosphere--for annotated playlists. Some of the annotations were moderately snazzy, most first-draft drivel; after a while I was barely skimming them. And the lists, by me, were useless. I tried to find some of Douglas Wolk's more interesting-sounding obscurities--Sylvia Hall's "Don't Touch That Thing" especially--on Rhapsody and failed. I was pleased to infer that Lindsey Thomas was pregnant (if she is/you are, it was only implied, congrats) and constructed a Rhapsody playlist of her list minus a couple, but when I played it I found what I usually find--I liked the things I already knew I liked and didn't get the things I didn't. (What am I supposed to do, keep playing it till some of her faves breaks through, like my computer was a Lindsey Thomas top 40 station? How do file-sharers do it?) Finally, I was pleased to see that Gabriel A. Boylan, not a name I can place, had put together a list of 10 political songs--but less pleased that I already knew seven of them, and that when I tried concluded for about the sixth time that Ted Leo could be Tom Paxton for all he has to say to me. (Jarvis Cocker and Black Lips--will play once more.)

Pazz & Jop posed a different problem. This year Harvilla assigned not 10 but 12 essays, and the overall quality was lower--Miranda Lambert deserves better, and the dance-music screed by Todd Burns of the late Stylus, as I am not the first to note, was murky and wrong-headed, though valuable in its documentary way for a) telling people with different tastes from his that they should be ashamed of them, which all too many critics feel without being crass enough to say so in so many words (for the record, I highly disapprove of this in both my rap/indie-hating contemporaries and in indie/rap/whatev-propping youngsters) and b) touching on the basic and rarely-explored question of the extent to which certain synthesizer sounds can be perceived as human, a crucial problem in inter-generational aesthetics to which I do not see an easy answer. But when I finally got through them I found a lot of good stuff, including Chris Weingarten on LCD (but not the rest of that jive), Tom Breihan on hip-hop, Harvilla himself on Jay-Z, and two excellent political essays, one by the aforementioned Zach Baron and the other by Julianne Shepherd, who I was dissing here not long ago--both centering on my favorite album of 2007, the year's only masterpiece to my mind and ears, M.I.A.'s Kaya. Kala.

Then I began the comments and ditched the job for another week. The comments are not what they used to be. Rob Sheffield now sits out, for one thing--he was always good for at least a dozen knee-slappers himself. And in general I noticed Harville and Baron relying on loquacious as opposed to epigrammatic voters I read all too much of over the years. But once the top 10 was taken care of, the comments were better than last year's even so. The short deadline must have hurt--the little matter of ID'ing labels, always a pain in the ass that could never be gotten altogether right, seems to have been abandoned by all concerned. But once again I preferred PJ's age spread--popular music is not the exclusive province of the young. And I noticed one other thing. Last year, both polls pulled in around 500 voters for a total of a little under 800 discrete participants. This year, PJ was up about 50, Idolator down about 50.

I really don't have a horse in this race. I like Idolator and have no love for the guys who fired me, and of course there would be a certain schadenfreude in seeing PJ fail without me--I resist it, but it's there. But so far Harvilla's doing OK. This time he snuck a shitload of real rock criticism, some of it real political rock criticism, into a paper that used to publish a whole lot more of it than it does now.

Oh yeah. Hancock finished 80 PJ, 257 Idolator, and is better than I'd imagined before NARAS called my attention to it. Foo Fighters also got some votes and isn't.


By Zach Braff on February 18, 2008 5:31 PM


By Nate P. on February 19, 2008 6:30 AM

the year's only masterpiece to my mind and ears, M.I.A.'s Kaya.

A few years ago I referred to the lead singer of Clinic as Ade Edmondson, so I don't have much right to be snarky, but I will say that I'm interested in hearing what an M.I.A. cover of "Is This Love" would sound like.

By Robert Christgau on February 19, 2008 7:14 AM

I approved the above comment because I assumed it was Zach Baron using his infernal young person's computer skills to josh me by creating a new electronic identity for himself. Now I wonder--could have been anyone (who knew how). In fact, there is no Zach Braff at the Village Voice--Zach Braff, or so I believe, is a cute young actor who needn't support himself selling rock criticism. My mind slipped when I called Zach Baron that, though at least later I used his rightful name. But that at least gives me the chance to apologize for all the other errors in my post. The inconsistent title itals, the typos, the three all/al words in a sentence. And then, in the third graf, "this week only about a week" where it should have been "this year by only about a week," "lost on points" where it should have been "lost to Bob Dylan on points," and not indicating Winehouse's first name--Amy, you know that, but I was brought up to say anyway. Even in newsprint I make too many errors (one is too many), but at least the revision process lets me catch some of them.

By Robert Christgau on February 19, 2008 9:19 AM

P.S. Benighted non-rockcrits (and rockcrits too) who don't understand the Nate Patrin comment above should be aware that my previous comment missed the most egregious error of all: I referred to the year's only great album as Kaya rather than Kala, which is its title. M.I.A: Kala (Interscope). Got it? Now hear it somehow, please. Kaya is an underrated 1978 Bob Marley album that includes the wonderful "Is This Love."

By Matos W.K. on February 19, 2008 2:43 PM

I didn't replace the essays from last year with the (37) 2007 in the Mix pieces, I augmented them. There are three overview essays in the package, by myself, Jess Harvell, and Maura Johnston.

Articles, Feb. 18, 2008

We Could Call Them Rockcrit Rockets No Depression? Let's Hope So