The 34th Annual Pazz & Jop Critic’s Poll (published in the Feb. 7 Village Voice) is doubly anticlimactic. First, because the proposed assault on the poll—in the name of all the Voice staffers axed by the paper’s new owners, especially venerable rock critic Robert Christgau—didn’t come off. Only 494 critics participated this year, down from 795 last year, but it’s not clear why 300 people defected, though a new online poll, idolator.com’s Jackin’ Pop, was inaugurated as an alternative for P&J boycotters. (Since Christgau himself didn’t advocate any action against the poll, I submitted a ballot.) And those 494 were enough to provide a bland mainstream consensus that leads to the other anticlimax: Pazz & Jop endorsed pretty much what all the other American music polls did, just a month or two later.
Being the last big critics’ canvass of the year is not a bad thing. The scramble to get everything sorted out by December has a distorting effect on judgments, especially for those polls conducted by monthlies with long lead times. (I note with approval that Harp‘s 2006 poll was published in the February ’07 issue.) But arriving later with roughly the same list that everyone else had two months ago is no way to grab people’s attention.
I’ve heard at least part of 33 of the 40 albums of the Pazz & Jop poll, which is pretty good for a part-time rock critic who doesn’t get free stuff from most of the major labels (and some of the mini-majors). And I never write about jazz or mainstream pop-country, so I feel no remorse at being unfamiliar with the latest albums from Ornette Coleman, the Dixie Chicks (didn’t see their movie, either), and Rosanne Cash. Or for that matter, the new ones from Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, performers I’ve considered overrated since, respectively, 1975 and 1977.
But having some experience of most of these albums doesn’t mean I’ve had time to investigate each one of them properly. And one of the albums I’ve never heard is Pazz & Jop’s number one, Bob Dylan‘s Modern Times. Is this a great record? Having conscientiously listened to a lot of Dylan comebacks, I really doubt it. But I can’t say, and if I ever come across a reasonably priced copy of the thing, I’ll probably do my duty and buy it.
I’m not waiting for Dylan, the remixed Beatles, or any other ’60s act to redeem pop music. But at the end of 2006, I did feel like something of an old guy. Several of my favorite albums were comebacks (of various kinds) by ’70s punks, proto-punks, or postpunks. Of these, the only one I insist is a masterpiece is Scritti Politti‘s White Bread Black Beer (which didn’t make the P&J 40). But New York Dolls‘ One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This is remarkably good and would be even better if they’d scrapped a couple of Bon Jovi-ish clunkers. (At least “Dance Like a Monkey” made the Pazz “singles” list.) As for Tom Verlaine‘s Songs and Other Things—well, I love the guy, and the best stuff on the album is great, even if the album isn’t.
Maybe it’s wrong to vote for an album I don’t consider excellent, but then the P&J list is packed with records that I would rate as respectable but not great: In the top 10 alone, TV on the Radio, Neko Case, Joanna Newsom, and Tom Waits. Another four of that 10 I would rate as sonically interesting but conceptually empty (Ghostface Killah), sonically less interesting and conceptually empty (Clipse), and you gotta be kidding (the Hold Steady and Gnarls Barkley, the latter being the latest example of a single mistaken for an album—and I don’t like that single all that much).
More out of sync with Pazz & Jop than ever, I concurred in exactly one of the Top 10, the Arctic Monkeys‘ undeniable Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. But I don’t feel bad about being estranged from an electorate that doesn’t listen to music from Japan (I chose OOIOO‘s Taiga) or Africa (my ballot has Salif Keita‘s M’Bemba, Etran Finatawa‘s Introducing Etran Finatawa, and Ali Farka Toure‘s Savane, but P&J voters didn’t even go for the latter, featured in most other serious-minded ’06 polls). The 2006 voters proved as Euro-American-fixated as any previous group of supposedly worldly music critics.
(For the record, my other two P&J album votes went to Archie Bronson Outfit‘s Derdang Derdang, which made a few other major lists, and The Evens‘ Get Evens, which didn’t. I also put some other stuff on lists I submitted to Washington City Paper and the Washington Post, but explaining those deviations is hardly worth the time it would take.)
Among the P&J top 40, some acts—TV on the Radio, Cat Power—were clearly rewarded not for greatness but just for substantial jumps in coherence or listenability. Others were sentimental New York favorites—Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo—who made albums that don’t screw around as much as their recent predecessors.
The most striking development was that many of the 40 appeared to be stand-ins for P&J favorites (or even some pre-P&J types) that weren’t active last year. While the ’06 electorate jettisoned most of the perennials save Dylan—Neil Young and Ray Davies rightly didn’t make the cut, although they did in other polls—it did choose a lot of ringers. Here’s a quick guide to some of the more conspicuous:
The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (#4)—OK, so I’m not a Springsteenian. But I am a Velvets fan, and I never thought that the Dream Syndicate were anything more than a nifty gimmick. Just because you write originals doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a tribute band.
Joanna Newsom, Ys (#9)—An eccentric neo-hippie defies rock conventions and swathes her squeaky voice in lush but not very interesting orchestra arrangements. If only she were Icelandic.
Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit (#14)—finally realized that you can rhyme “painfully withdrawn” with “bang a gong.”
Knife, Silent Shout (#16)—These Swedes proved that electronica is not dead. And that it still basically sounds like Depeche Mode.
My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade (#17)—Nice of these emo-progsters to try and head off the Smashing Pumpkins reunion. But since it didn’t work, to hell with ’em.
Band of Horses, Everything All the Time (#23)—Built to Spill learns something about concision from R.E.M. Or, the almost-great American guitar band, but without too much of that annoying guitar stuff.
Perhaps these albums struck their partisans as fresh. Or maybe—the Hold Steady seems most applicable here—their boosters just wanted that sound so bad they didn’t care where it came from. But that’s just another sign of the growing irrelevance of rock critics; when most people want to hear Born to Run, they play Born to Run. For reviewers and musicians alike, that’s the real challenge. It’s not the future that’s bearing down on them, it’s the past.
Meanwhile, I finally got a copy of Burial‘s Burial (#89), and I like it, even if “dubstep” is just a rebranding of the now-reviled term “trip-hop.” And does anyone know what Hot Chip (#22) sounds like?
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