Sunday, February 20, 2011

2009: Armchair Music Critic

These were the comments submitted with my ballot for the Pazz & Jop music critics' poll for 2008:

Ironically, I finished my ballot the same day the lame-duck congress authorized the massive music industry bailout. There was a great deal of wrangling on both sides, but in the end it was agreed that without any action, the music biz as we know it would cease to exist. Record company weasels did their cause some damage when they were caught snorting coke in a Capitol Hill restroom, and so had to agree to some painful concessions. Among them:

• No more three-, four-, five-word (or more) band names. Panic at the Disco would have to be renamed Disco Panic, TV on the Radio would be Radio/TV, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead would be Dead Trail, and so on.



• Moreover, Deerhunter, Deer Tick and Deerhoof would be required to merge into one band.

• k.d. lang would have to use capital letters.

• iTunes software will ignore ‘los,’ ‘les,’ ‘la,’ and ‘el’ the same way it alphabetizes without the ‘the.’

• Republicans demanded that anti-Bush songs be deleted from back catalogues, but in the end this was deemed to be too gargantuan a task. They settled for a quota of anti-Obama songs in upcoming releases, first fulfilled by Neil Young with his stinging polemic against the selection of Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary.

• And on a unanimous vote, it was agreed that Axl would need to go back and do a bit more work on Chinese Democracy.

The most dramatic moment in the hearings came when Trent Reznor paraphrased John Kerry’s famous query: “How can you ask a man to be the last chump to pay for a CD?”

With that in mind, I recalled John Lennon’s comments about how he just didn’t have time to listen to entire albums, and that there were very few artists he wanted to listen to a whole album of, anyway. He preferred singles, and kept a jukebox in his home. Nothing against the individual artists, he just liked to jump around from one to the other. He would have loved iPods.

That’s the way most people listen to music now, with their own jukebox in their pocket. But the best albums of 2008 had to be heard in their entirety; the choice cuts just didn’t tell the whole story. Taken together they capture the contradictory emotions prevalent in the late Bush era: the dread, anger and exhausted disgust at the heedless damage done to our republic, the shock and awe of the bill coming due, and the first tentative, then surging hope that we might yet take our country back.

Nick Cave’s louche tales of the oversexed and overeducated, TV on the Radio’s fraught despair and freighted optimism, Dylan’s ongoing saga of sin and redemption, Santogold’s exubert, beat-happy nod to the future, and Erykah Budu’s joyfully indignant funk manifesto all encompassed contradictions.

You couldn’t play any one track from the albums by the Black Keys, Lucinda Williams, My Morning Jacket, Randy Newman, or my dark-horse favorite, Deerhoof. Or you could, and I did, but it wouldn’t give you the sense of how they add up to a larger statement. So the album is dead, long live the album. Whether we listen on discs or drives, collections of songs endure.

But at the same time, singles are resurgent. MIA’s wildly popular “Paper Planes,” the #1 vote-getter on the Pazz & Jop singles list, was probably enjoyed by millions who never touched an MIA album. The singles I voted for mostly came from albums I never heard all the way through. I downloaded the songs on the strength of their reputation, and I wasn’t disappointed.

With Sam Phillips, the rest of the album - good as it was - never grabbed me as much as that one haunting song. With Blitzen Trapper, the disc was strong enough - and eclectic enough - to make my albums ballot, but was bumped off, the best song jumping to the singles list.

With the rest, the album may well be as great as the song I picked, but I just didn’t have time (or funds) to get to it. But Ron Sexsmith’s “Impossible World” has to have one of the most impossibly perfect melodies I’ve heard in years. I was the only critic to vote for it. The album itself slipped through the cracks, like scores of other worthy efforts in the great music biz collapse. But that was the best 99 cents I spent all year.

The other singles got there by sticking to my brain. Just one listen to “Cheap and Cheerful” or “Bang! Bang!” and it was bouncing off my skull for days at a time. I fell in love with “Blind” off of a remix that grabbed a few key vocal hooks and repeated them endlessly. The actual song was a bit of a letdown at first, but it grew on me sufficiently – it’s Antony Hegarty’s voice that seals the deal, either way.

Lil’ Wayne is proving that hip-hop will never die, but to this old rocker, some of the most interesting African-American musicians – TVotR, Santogold, Badu – even rappers like Kanye and the Knux - are working with rock idioms. Most rock idioms are heavily influenced by A-A culture anyway – and after all, one of the most convincingly black records of the year came from a diminutive Swedish woman named Robyn. But the renewed cross-pollination between Euro and Afro traditions, after a cycle of insularity, is an apt metaphor for the Obama era.

Both my lists are evenly balanced (though not by design) between the artsy-fartsy, neo-boho, urban sensibility on the one hand, and the traditional, rootsy, retro-rural outlook on the other. The mighty My Morning Jacket offer the best synthesis of the two, but to my mind, the Pazz&Jop winners of Radio/TV offer the most unique. The Euro/Afro, urban/rural meld arose in part from a co-leader whose family bounced him back and forth between Brooklyn and Nigeria. The record is suffused with dread and optimism, pummeled by the planetary insults of the Bush years, but insistent that a “Golden Age” is still possible.

Do check it out – but please, listen to the whole thing.

Here are my votes (http://www.villagevoice.com/pazznjop/critics/2008/685661):

Albums
1: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
2: TV on the Radio, Dear Science
3: Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs - Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006
4: Santogold, Santogold
5: Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
6: The Black Keys, Attack & Release
7: Lucinda Williams, Little Honey
8: My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges
9: Randy Newman, Harps and Angels
10: Deerhoof, Offend Maggie


Singles
1: The Kills, "Cheap and Cheerful"
2: The Knux, "Bang! Bang!"
3: Hercules and Love Affair, "Blind"
4: Lil' Wayne, "A Milli"
5: Robyn, "Konichiwa Bitches"
6: Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, "Magick"
7: Sam Phillips, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us"
8: Ron Sexsmith, "Impossible World"
9: Blitzen Trapper, "Furr"
10: Conor Oberst, "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)"

Honorable mentions:

If I had heard Paul McCartney's new Electric Arguments before I voted, I would have had to have found room for it. Macca has put out his most exhiliarating music in many years, albeit pseudonymously, as The Fireman.

I have to give a nod to Skeletal Lamping, by Of Montreal, whose delicate, colorful, self-indulgent, and difficult to unfold cover artwork perfectly mirrors the music inside.

Vampire Weekend isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but if you liked the Talking Heads, or Paul Simon’s Graceland, you might enjoy them. I kept them off my albums ballot because unlike the others, I really prefer their songs one at a time instead of grouped together.

Aging Boomers who feel alienated from most 21st century bands may want to check out the Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver for a gentler approach from the traditional, rootsy, retro-rural side of things. She and Him are also quite charming.

If you miss straight-ahead rock and roll, go with the Hold Steady or Kings of Leon. And Alejandro Escovedo. He is the man.

R.E.M. and David Byrne, you’ve heard of, and they both made strong comebacks.

Motown die-hards, you want to listen to Rafael Saddiq.

Country fans want to try Jamey Johnson and Hayes Carll, and see if you can resist Taylor Swift.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling adventurous, download some Girl Talk or MGMT. And Q-Tip makes hip-hop for people who hate hip-hop. (Try saying that five times real fast.)

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