Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Listening in Real Time

Eclectic neoclassicism versus childhood-oriented avant-primitivism as global warming swamps our history

It is 2045 and the protagonist of Bruce Sterling's 1998 novel Distraction, a young pol named Oscar Valparaiso who happens to be a clone, repairs to a half-wrecked Louisiana town where the beach houses were long ago moved up into an abandoned cow pasture. As he sups on a genetically altered crayfish the size of a lobster, a string quartet strikes up a minuet: "Typical Anglo ethnic music. It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene. Anglos seemed to have some talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn't match." But never fear. Though the Chinese have destroyed the U.S. economy by putting all our software online, life remains "doable" in this "big, hot, Greenhouse swamp"; as one Cajun operative puts it, "The women are good-lookin', and the music really swings!" And though many harbor a bias against Anglos--"the most violent ethnic group in America," with "white-collar crime rates right off the charts"--the best pop music in the world comes from the Netherlands, where holding off the sea is a way of life. Distraction was on my mind in re the 32nd or 33rd Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll because it glances off two key but apparently unrelated 2005 music stories. One of these is obvious. Though Nonesuch's 129th-place Our New Orleans 2005 will go down in history as the finest charity comp since Red Hot & Blue, Katrina didn't make our album list, poking through only on two singles: the Legendary K.O.'s 15th-place "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," which turned our big winner's greatest soundbite into an online protest rap that easily outpolled the Bright Eyes download "When the President Talks to God," and Amerie's No. 2 "1 Thing," which came marching in behind an indestructible Ziggy Modeliste beat.

The other story is subtler: what Sterling jocularly slots as Anglo ethnic music. We have long-standing quasi-symphonist Kate Bush at 25 and newcoming Gilbert & Sullivan fans the Decemberists at 33, chamber-pop Stars getting all Canadian on our ass at 37 and Suzuki-method violinist-cum-fiddler Andrew Bird blinding them with science down at 49. We have the new/ny/nuevo prog of System of a Down at 30 and Dungen at 31 and the Mars Volta at 45, the glacial kitsch of Sigur Rós below the sonar at 50 and the parlor-cum-chamber faux gentility/nouveau sincerity of Antony and the Johnsons over the top at 7. And we have three of the five highest finishers engaging 19th-century European notions of orchestration and musicianship: not just Sufjan Stevens's No. 3 Illinois, but also two that owe concertmeister to the stars Jon Brion. One of these was his old protégée Fiona Apple, who hired Mike Elizondo to get Brion swingin' before she ran Extraordinary Machine up to No. 5. The other was our hands-down artist of the year, the first consecutive-poll repeat winner since the Clash in 1980 and 1981. You knew who it would be before the paper came out: Kanye West.

There's more to be said about Anglo ethnic music, and New Orleans too. Both dwarf Kanye West. But they're whole traditions. He's a single artist--which doesn't mean a singles artist, though this year he won in that category as well. Not to hang too much off a two-album oeuvre, but having cruised to first place with The College Dropout last year, West did well just to release a follow-up in 2005. That Late Registration should prove his second consecutive full-length to come on strong and then keep getting better makes him look like one of those rare "actual genius" singer-songwriters that singles consumer advocate Joshua Clover considers an inadequate excuse for our hero-hyping electoral ritual. With The College Dropout it was jokes that remained funny while they got serious; with Late Registration it's music so rich you never tire of unlayering its meanings. Brion contributes mostly synthesizer parts exploited for organic color--the violent violins that rev "Crack Music" three minutes in are an atypically explicit case. The famed arranger ceded the actual arranging to West, who absorbs Brion's European bent into a basically black flow. And you'd best believe this Panther's son with the line of credit at Jacob and Co. is basically black.

I've had it with the caviling. In a year when the fashion in hip-hop realness was a grotesque crack nostalgia--powered, in the case of Young Jeezy (No. 39 album) and Three 6 Mafia (No. 10 single), by Anglo-ethnic victory-fanfare and scary-strings beats whose wholly 'hood authenticity was indistinguishable from their Hollywood schlockitude--moralistic sellouts have got it going on. Knowing you're the best isn't arrogance, and knowing what's right doesn't require a vow of poverty. The guy rhymes about conflict diamonds and self-appointed Africanists interrogate his annotation; he blurts--or plans out, more power to him if so--an ugly truth about our hideous president and is taken to task for not constructing a platform around it. Then there are the wheezes about his workaday rapping skills, and hey, he's not the handsomest fellow you ever saw. So let's bring it.

On the evidence, Kanye West is nothing less than the young century's most gifted popular musician. Everything indicates a decent man who's canny about putting his decency into artistic practice--the widespread misapprehension that the poll-topping "Gold Digger" is "sexist" is one of many proofs that he's smarter than his critics. His rhymes have enormous emotional range--the one about his dying grandma chokes me up every time--and when he falls in love he will write interesting songs about it. Not only that, West produced two other finishers in his spare time: Common's well-spoken 15th-place Be and John Legend's super-ordinary 27th-place Get Lifted. He's turned himself into such a cultural presence that his cameos on these albums are musical highlights--he's more the voice of common sense than the former Common Sense is.

Yet for all that, this was, extry extry, our closest poll ever--proportionally, Late Registration's 107-point margin was the narrowest in Pazz & Jop history. With two more critics voting than in 2004 (795, yet another record!), West's sophomore album gathered 18 fewer mentions and 301 fewer points, while M.I.A.'s Arular beat Brian Wilson's 2004 finish by 54 mentions and 284 points. So give it up as well to another critics' rapper: Kanye's contemporary, 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam. The U.K.-based Sri Lankan embodies progressive tendencies and grand old P&J traditions. One of three female artists in the top five (sole precedent: Phair-Harvey-Breeders 1993), she is a political provocateur-obsessive who, like West, comes from radical stock, only where West's revolutionary dad became a marriage counselor hers became a terrorist. She is also an art-schooler turned working visual artist who learned music by fashioning club beats in her bedroom.

M.I.A.'s cheeky flow and slang-tangy rhymes bounce across her beat peaks like she has a right. And crucially, her formerly-known-as-grime has tunes, childish chants anyone can hum. But she's no rap Art Brut, who are a classic Ramones-model song band--M.I.A.'s tunes serve banging sounds. Align her formally with Congo's 24th-place Konono No 1, avant-primitives by acclamation whose crudely amped thumb piano and junk percussion generated deeper trance in Brussels than Kinshasa, and with four kiddie-friendly entities: Danger Doom, in which a word-drunk MF Doom alt-raps to Cartoon Network buddies over a comfy Danger Mouse groove; the Go! Team, whose stolen pop tunelets and schoolyard chants get hyperactive over a storm of drums and samples; Deerhoof, who set Satomi Matsuzaki's high little voice and dream lyrics against proggily structured noise-rock songs whose melodies esteem the simplistic; and--though they already show signs of growing up--the ecstatic campfire freak-folk of Animal Collective. Call these artists the avant-garde opposition. As of now, all except Deerhoof are formally antagonistic to Anglo ethnic music, but only incidentally--their first concern is breaking the guitar-band template. With or without that mysterious soupçon of gotcha, other newcomers' variations are familiar--Bloc Party's fashionable tightness, Art Brut's audacious autohype, Wolf Parade's double-lead cacophony, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's nerdy power surges, Stars' young-modern sophistication, the National's boom and gloom.

This polarity--eclectic neoclassicism versus usually beat-oriented, usually childhood-oriented avant-primitivism, with a bunch of indie/alt newbies in the middle--is a more extreme version of Pazz & Jop's old song-versus-rhythm schema. But what's most extreme about it is that almost every artist I've named had yet to hit our poll before 2000. Once upon a time Pazz & Jop gave off a whiff of old fart--every damn Van Morrison and XTC album would edge onto our list, and as recently as 1992, nine of the top 20 instead of the customary four-five-six were by veteran repeaters. In 2005, there were three. Newly anointed oldsters Monk-Coltrane and Bettye LaVette don't count, and neither do newly anointed world-beaters Amadou & Mariam. Nor do artists whose pre-2000 output didn't chart (Common, Spoon) or even get noticed (Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket). That leaves resurgent-on-principle Sleater-Kinney, young Fiona Apple, and 1996 winner Beck, whose return to whatever finished 17th.

Beck and Sleater-Kinney rank with Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Wilco (2005 live album 91st), Lucinda Williams (2005 live album three mentions), Bj (2005 soundtrack one mention), and Yo La Tengo (2005 comp one mention) as '90s-based perennials in the Morrison-XTC manner. They finish higher because they still command consensus, an ever rarer thing. Nevertheless, they constitute a rather modest cohort, from which the Roots, 148th-place Stephen Malkmus, 61st-place Madonna (though "Hung Up" scored), and now 95th-place Missy Elliott have apparently departed. This endurance shortage reflects the megabiz crackdown on long-term catalog investments. But it also bespeaks a younger electorate tied to the Web as both writers and consumers. It's like when three music weeklies competed for the Britfan's fad-impaired attention span by putting new next big things on their smudgy covers every other issue, only sped up. In principle, file sharing and music blogs mean we can all listen to everything for nothing, and let's-start-a-webzine content provision exploits what New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki calls "the wisdom of crowds." Unfortunately for audiotopia, listening happens in real time, something even the nuttiest netcrits don't have enough of, in part because there's too much music out there and in part because they're paid peanuts-to-zip for writing about it. And unfortunately for groupthink, coordinating collective knowledge is impossibly tricky. Pazz & Jop's methods are imperfect. But so are Amazon's, ILM's, and Metacritic's. So why doncha just listen to your Uncle Poobah?

The blogosphere eats up music so fast that whole backlash cycles are over in weeks. On Metacritic, the enthusiasm of the Pitchfork rave that got the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah thing rolling is now exceeded by, I kid you not, that of Billboard--and also, just barely, that of me, which took months to formulate, after I dismissed a borrowed EP and then decided to buy the album and ran it through my head on cassette (right, cassette, stole that music myself) and finally woke up from a nap one day saying, "Gee, whatever this is it moves." By this time, CYHSY were a cliché. They're a nice little band who will enjoy a profitable alt-circuit run. But with bloggers and listserv geeks joking about their name, their hot moment is permanently over. Never before has rock criticism been so into three of its ancient sins: cooler than thou, instant gratification, and what have you done for me lately.

So nuts to the way Bruce Springsteen's predictably good album just barely snuck on at 40 (behind the National--ridiculous) and the Rolling Stones' shockingly good album was edged out at 43 (two/three points behind German-techno Isolée and chanteuse-pop Feist, who at least offer alternatives), both with no appreciable help from voters under 35. I can respect that this hyper-precise Coldplay album belongs 23 places behind their warmer 2002 breakthrough, but not that this rocking Franz Ferdinand CD belongs 22 places behind the skinnier 2004 model, the one juiced by a bigger single and a newer band. And even more egregious are two albums that didn't break 100. Four Tet's Everything Ecstatic got three mentions two years after the 29th-place finish of their/his Rounds persuaded me to listen till I got it, which I guess I didn't, because I swear the new one's dabs of drum'n'bass distinguish it only marginally from its predecessor. You like one Kieran Hebden album, you like the other--unless you've decided "folktronica," whatever that was, is now just too 2003. And then there's 50 Cent, who came in 137th with a hookier and more seductive version of the debut album that finished 15th. People must have thought they couldn't vote for the same bullet wounds twice.

What-have-you-done-for-me-lately is evil later. The way music has worked for me as an adult is that something that sounds good one year retains its zip. Timely pizzazz evolves into aesthetic impact; moments have legs. Longing to rewrite history, young crits love them their new oldsters. When an intelligent journeywoman like Bettye LaVette outdoes herself on two straight releases (though her Dennis Walker cheating album had stronger songs and rawer soul than 2005's better-distributed Joe Henry job), she's hailed as the new Shuggie Otis, I mean Loretta Lynn. But netsters have made such a life project of hopping on bands that they think nothing of filing Four Tet away with that Limp Bizkit embarrassment they fell for when they were 17. Franz Ferdinand's 26th place was just a hype correction, and now they'll fade from view or figure out what they have to say. But learning to hear Kieran Hebden took effort for an old guy like me, and I wish his constituency would show him some love. In years to come he'll evoke his time more deeply if less acutely than Franz Ferdinand--unless he has to be rediscovered like Bettye LaVette.

Pardon me for breaking wind--after 32 or 33 years, I just couldn't hold it anymore. Or maybe I mean if you can't take the stink get out of the john--were I really hoping not to offend, I'd abandon this methodologically challenged enterprise altogether. Instead, here I am musing about posterity and framing an album argument as unnumbered file swappers and music bloggers join Pazz & Jop's sizable old drink-fuck-and-be-merry singles-are-the-shit contingent. Since the kids were busy cultivating their very own byte-gardens while the old-timers fed dollar bills to the consensual jukebox, however, I had no trouble programming my changer and checking out our top 40 as album tracks. Most of these were masspop at its best, socially accessible songs-as-songs even if I didn't know them as such. I only wish I could tell you they beat a barrel of monkeys in sequence. Right, Amerie's explosive "1 Thing" is a machine-gun one-shot on an album with its safety engaged, Mariah Carey's name-checking "We Belong Together" shines amid the stars, and the Game's triumphant "Hate It or Love It" is so improved by removal from The Documentary that from here on in I'll play the Clipse remix and remove it from the Game as well. But most charting "singles" I preferred in their longform contexts. Even Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" and Three 6 Mafia's "Stay Fly" freshened up their albums for me.

Since I don't drink in bars or have ear time for radio or TV (or music blogs), my own singles list is always weird. This one is headed by a 48-second, circa 1999 Eminem boot that I played for all my friends, and also includes two candidates for protest song of the year, a 50 Cent sweetmeat that apparently lost its flava on the blogpost overnight, a Black Eyed Peas sex trifle some consider the worst record of all time, "Gold Digger," and an unprecedented four country titles, all accessed in one midsummer flurry. That two of my country picks also finished in our poll bespeaks both a desire to show love to the red states and a worsening drought in guitar-based representational songwriting.

There are certainly major exceptions on our chart beyond Brad Paisley's "Alcohol" and Miranda Lambert's "Kerosene," neither one narrative in form, but both stressing the literal meaning of every well-chosen word: the quick Stones-ish reversal of Franz Ferdinand's "Do You Want To," the Kaiser Chiefs' detailed if not always concrete "I Predict a Riot," and, were someone else singing, Antony's depressive "Hope There's Someone." But the BS favored by Beck, Bloc Party, My Chemical Romance, Death Cab for Cutie, and even punkoid dreamboats Fall Out Boy makes a fella love love love the White Stripes' terse, painfully drawn out "My Doorbell." With his retrograde prejudices fending off faddists, Jack White looks more like Van Morrison every year. That his duo finish high even though they'll never make a Moondance is a little sick, but they earn the loyal base their knowing commitment to the blues-based attracts. "Hollaback Girl" and "Since U Been Gone" are wordwise too, but they definitely arrive music first. Part of Kanye West's genius is how easily he straddles that divide, fitting deft narrative and multi-leveled rhetoric to dominant beats like a quality rapper should, only more humanely than Jay-Z, or OutKast either.

If my appetite for the literal isn't au courant, sue me. These days I'm such an old fart I even use albums to help me understand singles. James Murphy seems like a nice guy in interviews, but as an artist he's a scenester, and the poker-faced ennui of LCD Soundsystem taught me once and for all that it wasn't just arthritic knees and parenting hours that kept me away from techno--it was the disco way of escapism. Occasionally the right dancefloor hit--say "Hate It or Love It" or "Get Low," true electronica being so fungible it rarely makes our charts--can enlarge the soul, but most of them are too generalized to waste fun on. That extends even to the Gorillaz' fun-enough "Feel Good Inc." I like their DOR Demon Days better than the DOR LCD Soundsystem because it's at once more utopian and more pessimistic, meaning full of hope indulged or dashed. But I prefer both artists' wholes to their singles-charting parts; hell, I prefer James McMurtry's longform to his magnificent "We Can't Make It Here." My long-held belief is that pop music is a way of knowledge as well as a way of pleasure. We need its knowledge desperately right now--that elusive sense of humans-after-all not just struggling for fun, as Simon Frith once put it, but determined to keep living fully while their supposed betters rob or disdain them. As chunks rather than scraps of history, albums--like literalism, come to that--tell us this intuition that comes over us isn't just a trick of perception, evanescent and disposable.

Although the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday is more literal than the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree, both are rock albums of a rather old-fashioned sort. Devoid of guitar pyrotechnics, pop cute'n'catchy, or any version of a hip-hop beat, each leads with a wordy singer who could almost be talking: ex-Lifter-Puller Craig Finn, whose storytelling has never shown more decency or range and whose band has never rocked louder, and Mountain Goat forever John Darnielle, who trades in the social fictions of Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed for less gnomic childhood reminiscences. In each band, strophic intensity packs a very basic musical wallop. Yet here's the funny thing--each band also packs a classically trained sumbitch. Mahler and Chopin fan Darnielle puts Zorn-connected cellist Erik Friedlander out front, but who would figure that Franz Nicolay, who beefs up the Hold Steady's guitar riffs with organ fills and varies them with piano figures, would show up on mandolin and accordion in the Zorn-connected avant-chamber ensemble Anti-Social Music?

This apparent coincidence manifests an Anglo culture that in 2005 is ruling-class hegemonic. As rock and roll attracts fewer juvenile delinquents and bored film students and more musos, it will sop up more classical training, because those are the music lessons young musos can get--like for instance Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy, an accomplished double bassist. But at a time when pop eats everything, the sonic repercussions of this regimen ain't so bad. Those Jeezy and Three 6 appropriations are slammin'. The new prog represents (some) progress. Illinois is good-not-great, its "Casimir Pulaski Day" peak also its barest song, but give the schoolboy oboist credit for thinking "serious music," asinine term, means Steve Reich--means the postmodern project of reconstituting 19th-century melodicism and color without corning everything up. And give Jon Brion credit for fitting in--if there's more substance, clarity, and resonance to Fiona Apple's musicianly songs than to Spoon's or the New Pornos', Brion is part of why. You won't find a bigger inspired-amateur fan than me. Yay Art Brut and yay art brut. But I also like melody and color and, in this vilely Orwellian epoch, any sense of history whatsoever.

Who knows what will become of New Orleans music? With Wynton Marsalis sticking his status in, you can bet it will include classical training, which long before Jelly Roll Morton fed into the racially striated city's black music, always informing the street culture Katrina swamped. But bet as well that it will include swingin'--so far, Anglo ethnic music is just a flavor in what remains a fundamentally African American conception. As a particular skill, however, swing in 2005--whatever the case in 2045, when 2005's cultural interventions will have vanished into the apparently natural--was also a conservatory matter. Just ask any jazz guy how many Berklee grads he knows. And note that by Marsalis's standards our most classical finisher is also our most swinging--the Monk-Coltrane find, a major and probably unrepeatable addition to both geniuses' oeuvres just like everybody claims, and easily the most traditional jazz album ever to convince our voters it was pazz. Yet when I A-B'd it up against Kanye, I found Late Registration not only deeper but just as much fun. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara, which to me sounds as ancient as sand even though it's modern to Tuareg, Songhai, and Berber ears, is just deeper. You want fun, ask Amadou & Mariam.

Politically, the year wasn't as disastrous as we'd feared. Some depredations of the Bush regime were turned back as it overreached itself, though not the foul new bankruptcy laws, and don't ever think that the Bushies will back off, or that the new Supreme Court won't back them up. But as many P&J voters who promised to keep on pushing withdrew into ever more pressing personal necessities, Katrina--most visible effect so far of the global warning the neocons' trained seals with Ph.D.'s scoff at--threatened to destroy, and in the case of many artifacts, archives, and of course neighborhoods did destroy, a crucial locus of the history every rock critic owes himself or herself. So here's a modest proposal for my young colleagues on the Net. I just checked Metacritic, and there is no listing for Our New Orleans. Make it your business to get it up there. Even in these low-promo times, Melissa Cusick at Nonesuch will probably hook you up.

Then call your senator and ask why there was no Alito filibuster. Just to let the bastards know you're conscious.

Village Voice, Feb. 7, 2006

2004 Critics Poll | Dean's List 2017