Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 22nd (or 23rd) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Lost in the Soundscape

Buffeted by two equally implacable forces, the advertising department and the hand of God, the 22nd or 23rd Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll got off to a depressing start, and not just because the Blizzard of '96 immobilized New York on our earliest due date since Clay Felker ruled this precinct of Alternia. One of the odd luxuries of our annual retrospective is that it really is one. Where other critics are compelled to sum up a year that hasn't ended yet, our voters commonly spend the fallow weeks of early January finding out which of their fondly remembered or recently embraced favorites stands up to one-on-one comparison and repeated listening. For me it's always a pleasant respite--an excuse to have fun and call it work on a job that too often demands the opposite. This January, however, it felt rushed, forced, pinched, its only blessed moments the night I converted my wife to Eric Bachmann (who he, you wonder, as well you might in this ominously private year) and the midnight of Storm Sunday, when we locked James Carter onto our lists as we sat in the dark watching pioneers traverse a white, still Second Avenue.

But soon Second Avenue was a mess, and so was our poll--for a week the Poobahs and their elves alternated between counting the vote and getting it out. Generous though we were with late ballots, the short deadline daunted some--our 278 respondents represented a slight dip in the decade's 300-ish turnouts. Or maybe the nonvoters just couldn't get revved up for 1995's music. With winner and runner-up foregone conclusions (some would say since April), the biggest excitement of the staggered schedule was provided by Oasis and Björk edging past Son Volt and Joan Osborne, or maybe Alanis Morissette and Wilco supplanting the Roots and Steve Earle. This beat watching paint dry, but not smelling grass grow. With young reedmaster Carter flying and Peter Stampfel and Randy Newman passé, your faithful Senior Poobah was reduced to rooting for Wilco--partly to fend off the complementary contagions of Son Volt and Supergrass, mostly just to stay awake. I mean, what a dull, disheartening bunch of finishers.

Back before Public Enemy plus Nirvana set off punk- if not Beatlemania-scale cultural expectations in rock's long-fractured community, the standard ballot used to lead: "It was the worst year for music since . . . " One wag even suggested we distribute a form letter to that effect. Me, I rarely think in such terms until my rhetorical labors require it, and I entered January feeling neutral at worst. I knew my A list was kinda quirky, and as my points indicate, I felt uplifted by only the tippy-top of a satisfactory top 10. But in the crass way I measure these things--by counting good records--the year more than held up musically. And although too many people I care for are busy dying and three irreplaceable colleagues were fired in the most brutal management action this place of employment has ever known, the ups outnumbered the downs personally and professionally as well. So how would I have begun my ballot? Something like this: "It was the worst year for humanity since . . . "

I mean, right--you love music, I love music. It could even be said that music is my life--hyperbolically ("Your CDs or your wife," sure), but there's a truth there. Only that truth has limits. Assigned to a concentration camp, I'd no doubt gravitate to the guy with the guitar (guitar, hell--flute), but my passions would be putting food in my belly and getting the fuck out. And in a world consumed by a class war in which the aggressors are the rich and the rich are winning, music's power to inspire and console is, I'm sorry, decisively diminished. This might be less true if musicians were responding actively to the crisis. But it's the opposite, and I see no purpose in abjuring what satisfactions remain at my disposal by pretending otherwise. Which I'm afraid makes it the worst year for music since . . .

Ordinarily, I consider it impolite to commence these reflections with my faves--by the fifth graf I should at least have named the winner whose mug is up front selling papers, don't you think? But in this every-person-for-his-or-her-self year I want to note the political inadequacies my own chosen escapes. Joining the gnomic Pavement on the formerly alternative front, Luna's languidly songful 45th-place Penthouse is the cheekily entitled career album of Harvard trust-fund semipopster Dean Wareham, while the Archers of Loaf's cheekily dissonant 82nd-place Vee Vee flexes the muscle of four avowedly apolitical North Carolina road musicians, three of them from homes more comfortable than mine (and one of them Eric Bachmann, who also heads my favorite "post-rock" combo, cough cough hack hack ptooey ptooey, the saxy Barry Black). Randy Newman's Faust (87th) is an insouciantly arrogant El Lay musical comedy, Peter Stampfel's You Must Remember This . . . (112th) a recklessly peculiar cover cavalcade. Carter and [File Under Prince] are no-holds-barred roots innovators whose social ideas are inexplicit and sensationalistic, respectively. And Oruj Guvenc's Ocean of Remembrance, an effort somehow overlooked by the remainder of the electorate, is trance music (the real thing for once) that fuses clinical psychology and Sufism, a faith whose attraction for Western intellectuals I have always attributed to its elitist tendencies.

Except perhaps for Vee Vee--rarely do I so adore a young band so underrated by my young colleagues--my 1995 top 10 achieved a typical consensus: three out of eight in the Pazz & Jop top 40, which makes five out of 10 now that we're finally ready for the big guys. Ladies and germs, I give you THE UNCHALLENGED ONE-TWO PUNCH OF THE 1995 PAZZ & JOP CRITICS' POLL. Put your hands together for PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, which got more points than the numbers two and three albums combined. And before you sit down, let's hear it for Tricky's Maxinquaye, which got just 63 fewer points than the numbers three and four albums combined. Really, these are some numbers. In 1988, a troika comprising Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and Tracy Chapman very nearly outpointed the next nine finishers. But only one runner-up and one winner have ever piled up such margins, and they sure didn't do it in the same year: the Rolling Stones' Some Girls finished second back in new wave 1978, while Hole's Live Through This steamrollered just a poll ago. Trend or blip? Both, probably. But statistical speculations will have to wait until we honor the complementary triumph of two radically dissimilar records.

In only one way is our famously blues-drenched and verity-revitalizing winner more retro than such trendy neotrads as Oasis, Joan Osborne, and D'Angelo, not to mention our raft of roots-rockers: she has the courage to go for a Great Album and the talent to bring one off. Asked to profile its creator for Spin well before the record was released, I've been living with To Bring You My Love for over a year as I write, and while axe-grinders will always finger-point (sings off-key, naughty girl), I'm qualified to affirm what most of you already know: the thing hits hard and holds up even though it's impossibly old-fashioned, arty, Romantic. It addresses universals in a form as much received as renewed; intrinsic, indelible, and inimitable, its power is in its spiritual yearnings, emotional quests, and delved essences. Polly Jean Harvey can make virtues of such hermeneutic indiscretions for only one reason. She is--and I do my very best not to toss this word at people under 30--a genius.

Tricky may be a genius too--let a thousand geniuses bloom, given how much we're accomplishing without them--but although he's put in a proper apprenticeship on the English trip-hop scene, wherever exactly that is, it's too soon to know. Anyway, unlike Polly Jean he doesn't act the genius. Yet even so he's belittled in certain outposts for encouraging a cult of personality instead of letting the, er, culture express itself through him--or maybe just for making a record "everybody" can like. Applied to an enigma known to perform without lights whose album has yet to make the acquaintance of the Billboard 200, I find these complaints obscure. All I know is that Maxinquaye was at once my ear candy of choice and the strangest, darkest, most formally unreceived album ever to bowl over an electorate that always insists on songcraft in the end, however much rap pacesetters Public Enemy and De La Soul stretched that concept. Granted, he's Holland-Dozier-Holland compared to Ritchie Hawtin or the Sea and Cake, even Goldie or Raekwon, and without Martine's spacy vocal stylings his album would barely exist. Nevertheless, Tricky's seductive ability to transmute hopelessness into escape is realized mostly with texture and mood. And in this he is the opposite of anomalous avant-rockist Polly Jean Harvey.

Songcraft versus soundcraft is a crucial polarity this year, fused and deconstructed and recombined and mushed up though these abstractions are at their best. So I don't want to make too much of PJ's and Tricky's confluences, such as the tour they shared last spring--they also share a label, after all, and anyway, Tricky's cooled-out if surprisingly rockish show failed to convert the headliner's followers. And while in each case a woman singer puts a novel emotional spin on a traditionally male-dominated musical approach, Tricky's tradition is unformed and Martine is even more unreadable than he is. Still, that probably helps explain the two albums' otherwise unapproached electoral outreach. Usually four or five records attract at least one in five respondents. But unlike Maxinquaye, Moby's third-ranked Everything Is Wrong (album of the year in Spin, shut out of Rolling Stone's top 10) didn't altogether shake its dance stigma--or else (my theory) didn't cohere as magically as its partisans claim. And while Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters, who finished second in Rolling Stone, got just one fewer mention than Moby, our weighted voting system slotted it as a record more liked than loved--both Elastica and Neil Young/Pearl Jam's Mirror Ball had more passionate stats.

The weakest support ever for top-10 also-rans is the obverse of the chart-toppers' huge margins, and as I said, both are part trend and part blip. Or at least I hope they're part blip--hope the worst year for music since . . . isn't obliterated with all deliberate speed by 1996 and then 1997. Because in a more general sense this dilution of common enthusiasm has been under way for a decade or two--even in the down year of 1985, John Fogerty's 10th-place Centerfield (remember that one, roots guys?) got more points proportionally than 1995's fourth-place Elastica. As taste subcultures are broken down into ever-smaller components by ragged individualists plucking likely-sounding flotsam and jetsam out of a flood of local and specialized releases, diffusion becomes inevitable, and I appreciate its cornucopia effect--on the longest Dean's List ever, 70 strong, I count 24 genuine indie labels, fewer than 10 the rock/dance/alternative outfits that define the term for most voters. But just to look a gift cornucopia in the mouth, let me mix in another metaphor, one that seemed a quaint historical abstraction until Bosnia: balkanization. The cornucopia's glories are best utilized by those with broad taste in comestibles. Balkanization's horrors are best avoided by those with broad taste in people.

Balkanization seemed a distant threat last year, at least to alternarockers, who rooled Pazz & Jop like--well, without trivializing real-life horror, let's just note that Serbs aren't the only folks convinced of their cultural superiority. Semipopular guitar bands romped in 1994, and autonomous women got respect for the second or third straight year. Folk music in the broadest sense had its standard-bearers, and the Mavericks' Nashville country record counterbalanced Johnny Cash's Burbank one. But only six black artists finished, none in the top 20, an alarming nadir, and Britannia sunk even lower: Elvis C., Shara Nelson, and Portishead, who give or take a few poppish singles was also the closest we got to the burgeoning dance world. And except for grunge immortal Neil Young, over-40s charted only under Rick Rubin's or Ali Farka Toure's steam.

All of this made sense critically--it was a hell of a year for semipopular guitar bands. But there was less than no reason to hope it would last, especially given how fast organic culture breaks down into fliers, trends, fads, and tiresome cliches. In 1995, critics made it their business to look askance at the flavor-of-the-month alternapop bizzy being hyped--most visibly on a singles list tattooed with the new wave novelties "Lump," "Name," "Hey Man Nice Shot," and "A Girl Like You." The symbol of its hegemony, who I'll bet the franchise isn't a one-shot in Billboard even if her Pazz & Jop days end as soon as they begin, is the Wicked Witch of the North, Alanis Morissette, reliably reported to have been invented by Madonna herself so she could get away from the publicity machine and have a material child. The symbol of its absurdity was the New South's answer to Michael Bolton, Alanis's close personal friend Hootie Rucker, whom some bizzers initially slotted as alternative because they'd never heard of him before, and whom the voters denied but couldn't ignore.

With no consensus culture to fall back on, the voters listened more catholically and/or grasped at straws. Four Brits (plus one Icelander) in the top 10 and three in the top four constitute the proudest U.K. showing since 1978; four dance albums in the top 40 and two in the top three constitute the most ecstatic dance showing ever (easy). A dozen black artists made the cut, and although only two went top 20, one was Tricky. Hip hop generated Raekwon's populist obscurantism and D'Angelo's minimalist neoclassicism (although Coolio's populist heart was confined to the singles list); jazz and reggae returned to the lists, as did Prince Be and Prince Was. A different and highly disparate bunch of autonomous women checked in--only three of the nine, including our third consecutive female winner, had ever charted, only the winner under her own name--and five top-25 albums wedded male and female energy: Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth from literal married couples, Tricky, Garbage, and the 6ths from professional partnerships of varying conventionality. Dwight Yoakam took the Mavericks' lateral for an end run. Bruce Springsteen embraced the folk music cause, Emmylou Harris cloaked herself in its aura, and four commercially marginal Midwestern roots-rock bands labored to evoke the same soulful past that the original folkie generation had somehow mistaken for the conformist present. Yet all told, more than a dozen noisy semipopular guitar bands also made the top 40--most repeaters and a few brand new, including several alternapop best-sellers who are semi only by association. There was a semipopular piano band too.

All of which looks dandy, and most of which sounds dull and disheartening. It's clear that last year's parochialism fed off a true musical bonanza. If anything, alternarock remained healthier than it got credit for in 1995, as Lollapalooza convinced me: Hole and Elastica, Sonic Youth and Pavement, Beck and Moby, the Dambuilders and Superchunk. Although axe-grinders prog and trad whined about "predictability," I haven't heard so much exciting music in one day since Monterey. As put into practice by Everclear, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, NOFX, 16th-place Rancid, 18th-place Sonic Youth, my beloved Archers, and poor Green Day (who plummeted from 12th place to four mentions atop Dookie's perfectly sincere follow-up, which I hope teaches them never to sell a gazillion records again), Amurrican punk/grunge did more for me than for critics in general this year. Nevertheless, as an old generalist I obviously welcomed their need to seek elsewhere. What dismayed me was what they found.

At my dourest, which is usually, I suspect voters of falling for variations on the very hype they pride themselves on seeing through. Although 27 first-timers made the albums list, this high is compromised by the spinoffs and regroups and past lives that signal gathering professionalism--Bjork and Farris, Son Volt and Wilco, Foo Fighters and 6ths had all put other billings on our chart. Indie action was low-normal at best while the spread among alternifying megacorps broadened notably (WEA led as usual, but PolyGram was a strong second, and the other four majors all charted three or four albums, a first). And I note with serene disinterest that one imbalance the voters failed to right was generational: the edgy returns of Ornette Coleman (47th), Yoko Ono (60th), and (I insist) Randy Newman would have been shoo-ins five years ago, and after a 23rd-place rediscovery in 1991, John Prine put out an equally good record that finished 100th. Instead, voters tried to put their own stamp on history.

I can forgive going gaga over catchy trifles like Matthew Sweet or Garbage or the noble Foo Fighters--I did it with Luna myself, only I did it because Penthouse is beautiful (only you know whose ear beauty is in). But too often records were rewarded for tackling worthy concepts that got away--D'Angelo's Marvin Gaye abstraction, P.M. Dawn's sample-free r&b, Wu-Tang's hip-trop, Joan Osborne's gotham blues mama, Dionne Farris's intelligent black postdiva, Emmylou Harris's grievous angel, Smashing Pumpkins' rock slopera, Ben Folds's Todd Rundgren tribute, and let us not forget Oasis's phony Beatlemania rising from the dust (just what we needed--a Cheap Trick revival). No doubt converts will call me a philistine as regards this or that treasure, to which I can only reply, So's your old man. Except for the slopera and the Rundgren, I have nothing against the concepts, but the basic thrill of these records is that they're doing the right thing even when they're not doing the thing right.

About two touchstones I don't much enjoy I'm less cocky. Like Maxinquaye, Björk's hiply well-named Post and Goldie's schlockily well-named Timeless are formal coups--their mix of song and sound points directions many will follow. Paradoxically, Post registers as one of our most grooveless top-10 albums ever, with the basswise productions of Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper (and the noisescape Tricky kicks in) reduced to orchestral settings over which Björk can recite and emote and shriek and coo and generally dramatize. And if Goldie is to jungle what Tricky is to trip-hop--the "accessible" name brand for strangers in wonderland--then Martin Denny was Dr. Livingston. Occasionally some diva takes up a tune, but this pleasant, far from arhythmic soundspace posits an impressionistic respite from hard-core techno, with warm links to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Rick Wakeman.

Both coups have their connection to the post-rock fiddle-faddle you may have read about, as do several of the weaker finishers on our new compilations list (all but the winner, that means). These were somewhat more grooveless than the dance- and perhaps "world"-friendly finds I'd envisioned, although the category's instigator, Junior Poobah Ann Powers, harbored no such illusions--or desires. As Erik Davis's sane if overly visionary counterview emphasizes, dub is the most crucial source of the hipster vogue for slow, exotic instrumentals, and also the most unimpeachable. Hence the real numbers for Macro Dub Infection in an otherwise inconclusive competition that I expect to heat up next year, and hence my critical insecurities, for despite Bruce Sterling, Augustus Pablo, and my friend Greil, I've been not getting dub for over a decade, always with the uneasy sense that I'm missing something. But never forget the hipsters' fatal attraction to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Holger Czukay--the real-life consequences and/or correlatives of the silly loungecore bubble. Also note that Ennio Morricone did better with reissue voters than Can, all of whose albums were rereleased by Mute for a grand total of four mentions--and that just as I prefer Sufis when it comes to trance, I prefer Pygmies when it comes to jungle. Heart of the Forest, the real thing--dig those crazy water drums.

If the futurism doesn't look so bright this year, the sense of history is also dim. I actively deplore only two of what I count as seven arrantly trad finishers (eight if you buy this thing about the Geraldine Fibbers being country), and actively admire Steve Earle's 41st-place Train a Comin'. (The 42-50 also-rans: Cesaria Evora, the Roots, Portishead, Luna, Mary J. Blige, Ornette, Supergrass, Vic Chesnutt, Helium--as varied as the top 40, and as full of grasped straws.) But my choices and the electorate's vary inversely: the Bottle Rockets' stroke of local color is down in the thirties with the light, smooth Wilco and the soulful, densely worked Jayhawks, while Emmylou Lanois and the revolting Son Volt crowd up behind supposed blueswoman and nice enough gal Joan Osborne, who might at least offer them a few tips on avoiding sanctimony. These priorities befit an escapist, soundscape-ridden year. The Bottle Rockets rock out more than they root around, and achieve what I like in my roots-rock: class consciousness, which usually requires words. They're specific, strike one, and funny, fouling the next pitch into the seats. Son Volt's Jay Farrar is too smart and too stupid to take such risks. His lonesome drawl as redolent of PBS docudramas as his meticulously cornball music is of honky-tonks imagined at hootenannies, he subsumes his songs in the soundscape he hopes sells them. As for Emmylou, her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it's fraying with age is ripe for Daniel Lanois's one admittedly beguiling trick: gauze over every aural detail and call the soft focus soul.

Harris's instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, because this inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup (check her out on Earle's similar career move) has no vision of her own for Lanois to obscure. Tragedy was left to the self-determined Springsteen, whose soundscape was at once the most courageous and the most depressing of the year--and since a soundscape was hardly Springsteen's intention, also the most contradictory. Springsteen's motives were even better than usual. Astonishingly and disgracefully, he was (with partial exceptions for Buju's bondage, Rancid's solidarity, and Moby's jeremiad of a CD booklet) the only artist in the entire top 40 to do more than hint with the odd tale or image that 1995 might have been the worst year for humanity since . . . --to directly address the war on the poor (and, increasingly, what is called the middle class) that is now the political agenda of the industrialized world. Of course there were moral outcries and desolate backdrops from Tricky to Neil Young to Raekwon to the Bottle Rockets to the Geraldine Fibbers. Of course improving society isn't what artists are for. And of course my own faves are just as clueless. But when the political culture is healthy, a portion of artists will preach and protest and prophesy, even if it's only talk. I mean, four years ago I was apologizing for the ideological fecklessness of an album list with room for Public Enemy, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Billy Bragg, the Mekons, and, Lord-a-mercy, Linton Kwesi Johnson. I'm appalled by what's been lost--by what no longer seems possible to artists I'm used to expecting great things from. As most of its admirers realize, that sense of impossibility is the ultimate message and underlying burden of The Ghost of Tom Joad.

The album reads well enough. But supporters should ID its "Atlantic City" or "Highway Patrolman" before citing Nebraska, and listen to Struggle before they go on about Woody. Guthrie is less literate and detailed, but he's figured out a way to sing his bare-bones horror stories of battles mostly lost. He's outraged rather than sad, and his outrage is almost jaunty at times--even, dare I say it, ironic (bitterly ironic, that is). Maybe he had the guts to come on so cool because he wasn't beset by class guilt (although in fact his background was more genteel than Springsteen's, his everyman persona a construction), but he was abetted by, dare I say it, the Communist Party--a bunch of acquaintances who shared his anger and believed they could do something about it. Springsteen plainly doesn't, and in addition is so frustrated by the paradoxes of his outreach--by his conviction that the very gifts that enable him to engage a large audience will distract it irrevocably from what he has to say--that he chooses to muffle his songs, so that only those who really want to hear their despair will bother trying. His tunes, arrangements, and mysteriously praised "phrasing" aren't just forbiddingly minimal--often they're rather careless. This Brechtian strategy may be justified aesthetically. But it's no paradox that it fails to engage--and no capitalist plot that it's sold dick, either. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a bore. It is recommended to the many people of conscience who've developed a taste for ambient techno and the Sea and Cake.

In short, the bravest artist of 1995 ended up in the same trap everybody else claimed as home. Reading the comments, I began to think the voters were angrier about Hootie and Alanis than Gingrich and Giuliani, and it could be. What's the point of getting mad at a system you've long assumed has nothing in it for you? A general resignation has clearly set in, and grasped straws won't prevent younger critics' now habitual us-and-them skepticism--as regards Washington, music they didn't know about first, whatever--from slipping into garden-tending know-nothingism. Alternative cultures seem self-sufficient when they're peaking, as alt-rock did in 1994. That's why the inevitable 1995 commercialization/rationalization of grunge/punk excites such fear and loathing. It's also why a clutch of self-defined pioneers is convinced the Next Significant Thing will be found at that spot just over the horizon where their personally rediscovered disco, art-rock, crappy jazz, minimalism, and electronic music must certainly converge--the perfect site for New Alternia, where a person can live or at least listen free forever if only he or she is hep enough. And though some may take hope in all the less arcane directions voters pointed, it just ain't healthy when artists as apparently dissimilar as Raekwon, Emmylou Harris, D'Angelo, and Son Volt--or, hell, Yo La Tengo, maybe even James Carter (not Tricky, he builds the horror right in)--devote themselves to soundscape construction instead of working to make themselves understood. If these soundscapes were marked as respites, aural environments where the beleaguered can replenish their energies, it might be different--that's the Sufis' gift. Instead they posit a self-sufficiency that is one more metaphor with depressing real-life correlatives and consequences.

I'm a fan of bohemias, and a bigger fan of the postpunk music and sensibility that generated the counterculture this poll now quantifies. I have scant tolerance for the puritan distinction between "new" and "novel" that would deny us both transient thrills and a greater array of genuine innovations than the puritans admit (or want any part of). And I'm proud of all the artists Pazz & Jop has gotten to first. In recent years, however, the impulse to get there first has looked more and more like a reflex in the service of a lie, whether that lie be the aura of hip, the myth of progress, the dream of eternal youth, the chimera of immortality, or the story you need to sell to pay the goddamn rent. That's why those 27 first-timers obviously aren't the hook here. Rather than portending a brave new anything, they merely signify an endangered counterculture desperate to make of its raison d'etre--and a journalistic culture eager to make of its subject--a system that isn't just self-sufficient but self-renewing. It will come as no surprise that I'm unconvinced. All of us--musicians, listeners, and the writers who at their most effective serve as an interface between them--are implicated here. And I say that only if all of us make it a priority to assure that our pleasures mean outside themselves, those pleasures will seem more rushed, forced, and pinched every year. Until finally the pleasures dry up, we give up, or both.

Village Voice, Feb. 20, 1996

1994 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1996