Critics Poll XXVI — Miscellaneous Categories

We must begin here and now -- a new continent of earth and fire.
Tear down the wall.

At the time of David Bowie’s death, the poll ballot had been up on the site for a couple of weeks. Many of you had already voted; a few people even used the miscellaneous section to register disappointment with Blackstar. Once Bowie was with us no longer, that stopped — although I did get a couple of expressions of bewilderment from younger voters about the ensuing wall-to-wall coverage. I was a latecomer to the cult of Bowie: I first encountered him while he was singing “China Girl” into a thin white microphone. This was not my favorite song or my favorite video; even at the time, I found it kinda exploitative. Later I would learn how many of the songs that were favorites were total Bowie rehashes, and this knowledge sent me to the record store to grab the back catalog. I discovered that David Bowie was an absolute master of the architecture of pop songwriting — one of the best to ever do it — and an excellent singer, too. But my emotional relationship with Bowie never went much beyond that. I did not develop the powerful feelings of identification and fellow-outsider recognition that many of you wrote so eloquently about elsewhere. He made music that I admired, and danced to, but, with the exception of “Life On Mars,” nothing I took into my heart.

But a little more than two weeks after the death of Bowie, we lost another rock star. This one shared with David Bowie both an interest in science-fiction and a dim, dystopic worldview. But while Bowie was fascinated and inspired by the questions sci-fi asked about the mutable nature of identity, Paul Kantner was drawn instead to its sociopolitical implications. I haven’t seen too many panegyrics for Kantner online, so if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take a moment to explain to you what Jefferson Airplane meant to me:

There was a social history course offered to sophomores in my high school. It was spring 1987; I didn’t take it. I had no interest whatsoever in the 1960s — I’d never heard of Haight-Ashbury or the Monterey Pop Festival, or the Summer of Love. I didn’t watch the news, I watched MTV, and MTV meant Debbie Gibson and Glass Tiger and “Livin’ On A Prayer.” If I was very lucky, I might catch a Suzanne Vega video. Randee of the Redwoods was my idea of what a hippie was like. Woodstock was something for grownups to reminisce about, only none of the grownups in the staid automobile suburb where I lived would have ever admitted to attending.

Then somebody sent a copy of Jefferson Airplane’s 2400 Fulton Street collection to the shopping mall record store where I worked.  And I did something that I never did before or after, and, to this day, I still don’t know where I got the nerve: I stuck the two cassettes in my bookbag and dashed out.

Would Grace Slick have approved of my petty theft? Probably not. By then, she was trying to hammer out a living on mainstream radio, singing with Starship in a connection I wouldn’t make until months after my initial introduction to the Airplane. The entertainment industry runs on property rights; nobody gets any money without them. But 2400 Fulton Street told me that all my private property was target for my enemies. It seemed a reasonable outlook. It still does.

I could trace the beginning of my musical education to the moment I pressed play on my cassette player in ’87 and heard the Airplane for the first time. That would be accurate, but I’m afraid that it would shortchange the band’s power. Midway through my first listen to that collection, the walls of the high school and the shopping mall and my suburban bedroom started shaking. All my life I’d been taught that black was black, white was white, sky was blue, and that was that. Paul Kantner suggested that if I was a cloud, my sky would be green. I got the point.

Remember that I knew nothing of the Airplane’s history: the first tentative flights through the San Francisco underground, the unlikely chart successes in 1966, the controversies, the collaborations, the counterculture reputation, the riots, the exhaustion, the psychedelics. The only drug I was doing at the time was Cap’n Crunch. With no context whatsoever, Jefferson Airplane spoke directly to me, trapped in the 1980s, just as they once spoke to thousands liberated in the ’60s and the ’70s. Open your mind, they said, use your imagination, do things that don’t have a name yet. The proper response to abusive authority is laughter, because that’s the one thing they can’t take, or take away from you. And if all of that makes you an outlaw in the eyes of America, well, there’s plenty of harmony on the other side of that line.

They became my favorite band. Though I considered myself surrounded by people whose ideas and values opposed mine, the Airplane was my proof that there once existed people who felt the way I did — and my promise that it could happen again. When Kantner and his bandmates raised their voices together, it sounded to me like an entire nation was singing. That nation certainly wasn’t the one I was living in. But it didn’t sound undiscoverable, either. It sounded like it was right there beyond a thin barrier; a wild world, a playful world, a world where people of all kinds could be together without losing their individual personalities. Paul Kantner’s music was, essentially, an entreaty to go out and find it — and if you couldn’t find it, go ahead and make it. Because he was generous, he even gave us a cryptic recipe, right there on his best-ever song, an anarchist’s pamphlet set to glorious music. “We must begin here and now,” he sings with his mates, “a new continent of earth and fire.” No matter what’s happened since 1967, I still believe it’s possible. 


 

Okay, I’m gonna hit you with some plurality favorites in the miscellaneous categories, and then I’ll turn the floor over to You the Voter:

  • Best singing: Laura Marling. Erykah Badu and Father John Misty got some love, too.
  • Best rapping: Kendrick Lamar by a landslide.
  • Best lyrics: Joanna Newsom. Bet you guys like Thomas Pynchon, too, huh?
  • Best album title: Earl Sweatshirt‘s antisocial I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
  • Best album cover: No plurality at all.
  • Biggest disappointment: The Decemberists and Panda Bear.
  • Nicest surprise: New Order minus Peter Hook is still pretty damn good. Carly Rae Jepsen, too. I’m listening to her right now.
  • Thing you don’t know, but you know you should: A few votes here for Vince Staples.
  • Hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire: Some more votes for the Boss, but I’m sorry to say Damon Albarn takes the category.
  • Young upstart who should be send down to the minors for more seasoning: Ed Sheeran. A nice handful of votes for Tobias Jesso, too. Ben Krieger voted for Chelsea Clinton, and… yeah, that’s a really good answer.
  • Most overrated: Grimes and Drake. Only one vote for Kendrick, by the way, and my location app suggests that the call might be coming from inside this very house. Poll runner-up Courtney Barnett got more blowback than I expected her to.
  • Album that felt most like an obligation to get through: Titus Andronicus. 
  • Thing that wore out the quickest: Chvrches by a nose over Metric.
  • Artist you respect, but don’t like: Bjork.
  • Worst song of the year: “BB Talk,” Miley Cyrus. Some scattered loathing for David Guetta songs, too.
  • Album that turned out to be a hell of a lot better than you initially thought it was: Four votes here for Drake‘s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and four more for Honeymoon by Lana Del Rey. Nothing decisive, but that’s good enough for me.

Trends for 2016

Zach Lipez: Filling out Conde Nast paperwork.

Jay Braun: Recording music and playing it back again.

Brad Krumholz: A return to ragamuffin in mainstream hip-hop.

Hilary Jane Englert: Songs sung from the perspective of animals.

Katherine Furman: The robots are coming!

Mike Cimicata: Bieberification.

Brian Block: Computers overthrowing the producers and making their own soundscape records. Oddly, most of their albums will be full of vocals, but most of the vocals will sound like either Miss Krabappel from the Simpsons, the elementary school teacher from Charlie Brown, or the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Different theories will be advanced on what this indicates, but none of them will be flattering.

Thomas J. Snow: Hyperanxiety masquerading as nonchalance.

Jason Paul: Dance music producers Diplo and Skrillex went pop and proved to be really good at it, keeping eccentricity. Trap is mainstream and proved it could make hits in Fetty Wap.

Jim Testa: A reawakening of politically-aware pop, rock, and rap.

Andrea Weiss: Musicians finally smashing rock’s sexism and homophobia.

Ben Krieger: Sorry, I’m all out of clever. It’s an election year, so I’m sure some artist will annoy me.

Steven Matrick: Pink Floyd.

Matt Houser: Overlord. [We’ll see, Matt.]

George Pasles: Finishing albums.

Best shows you saw in 2015

Steven Matrick: Laura Marling at a church during South By Southwest.

Stephen Mejias: Thurston Moore Band at Monty Hall, JC.

Terrance Pryor: Between The Buried and Me @ Irving Plaza.

Allison Tuzo: Jason Isbell @ Prospect Park.

Dillon D.: Jason Isbell.

Steven Slagg: Tenement.

George Pasles: Jupiter Boys, anywhere.

Pat Pierson: Marjorie Fair (Evan Slamka) solo acoustic @ Mexicali Live, Teaneck, NJ, Hamell On Trial at Sarah Street Grill, Stroudsburg PA (Dec).

Brad Krumholz: Eleanor Friedberger @ Pianos.

Jason Paul: Shilpa Ray album release @ Rough Trade guest James Chance.
Morrissey @ Madison Square Garden.

Brian Block: Rasputina, with Daniel Knox opening, at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Rasputina because Melora Creager is a delightfully droll frontwoman, improvising some of her jokes in direct response to crowd suggestions while never losing her pseudo-upper-class-Brit cool. A new album she’d made all by herself for cd-only release was worked smoothly into the trio format, and old band songs had been overhauled to accommodate keyboards and beat-boxing along with the electric cellos. Knox, meanwhile, has the cranky self-effacing drunk-tavern-piano thing going on; nothing novel, but fun.

Jim Testa: I spent 90% of my weekends in 2015 working at Aviv, so I didn’t see a lot of other shows and I don’t think I attended one “concert” per se at a large venue. But… best live bands I saw at Aviv: Ronnie Hunt,
Deerpeople, PWR BTTM, Donovan Wolfington, Kal Marks.

David Nagler: FKA twigs presents Congregata @ The Hangar, Neneh Cherry @ The Highline Ballroom, Stevie Wonder @ Barclays Center, Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.

Mike Cimicata: Brian Wilson at The State Theater, Future Islands at Terminal 5, Stevie Wonder at Prudential Center, My Morning Jacket at Beacon Theatre, The Original Pinettes Brass Band at Bullet’s Sports Bar, New Orleans.

Bob Makin: Experiment 34.

Zach Lipez: The Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.

Paula Carino: Even Twice & Fireking @ Freddy’s 1/17/15.

Matt Houser: Weird Al @ Mann Music Center, FFS @ Terminal 5, Death by Unga Bunga @ Cakeshop.

Andrea Weiss: R. Ring @ Jonny Brednda’s Philadelphia PA, Dar Williams/Jill Sobule @ World Cafe Philadelphia, PA.

Katherine Furman: The stage show of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore was amazeballs!

Jonathan Andrew: Nada Surf @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 11/14/15, Hum @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 8/13/15 Ben Nichols & Rick Steff (from Lucero) @ The Shop, Brooklyn, 6/12/15.

Anna Howe: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.

Hilary Jane Englert: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.

Oliver Lyons: Mark Burgess (Chameleons Vox) @ The Middle East, Cambridge, MA.

Ben Krieger: Rush’s farewell tour @ MSG. [snif.]

Random comments and various wiseguy category answers

George Pasles: Best video — Peaches, “Rub”. It’s porn, in the way ’50s rock started. It’s the last gasp of Big Mama Thonrton left in music.

Jer Fairall: Kendrick Lamar was not at all overrated in 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly is one for the ages. My #1 choice [FIDLAR’s Too], I suppose, hints at both my contrarian streak (rank an album at #1 that everyone else in the world is touting? What?!) and my self-consciousness about loving something I am unqualified to understand. Granted, a white 37-year-old doctoral candidate claiming to identify with a band of booze-‘n-drug-addled twenty-something punks is probably no less laughable than identifying with the current voice of Black America, but it is less offensive.

Ben Krieger: Kendrick Lamar is King Of The World this year. And that’s outside of the fact that it was a ho-hum music year for me; in terms of quality, I could fit at least 5 of my favorite records since 2012 between To Pimp A Butterfly and everything else I enjoyed in 2015. I don’t think there’s been as deserved a consensus on a #1 record since Elephant, and To Pimp A Butterfly is much better.

Steven Slagg: We expect our black laureates to save the world as troubled, brilliant, tireless crusaders/saints (Kendrick, Chance, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brittany Howard), but we only really ask our white laureates to be clever, self-aware, and charming (Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, Destroyer). Seems like the arrangement’s unfair to everybody.

Ben Krieger: Whitest album – The Sleeping Tapes by Jeff Bridges. But hey, I got into it, go figure.

Thomas J. Snow: Drum-geeks among us have to appreciate the fact that the hi-hat patterns on the Drake album could have been lifted straight from George Lawrence Stone’s “Stick Control for the Snare Drummer” (see page 14, “Short Rolls and Triplets.”). Rudiments: they’ll never let you down.

Jonathan Andrew: Adele sold 15 million copies worldwide in 10 weeks on the strength of her songcraft, her extremely down-to-earth (and thus likable) persona, and that effing voice. She’s not an Aretha- or Whitney-level virtuoso, but there is something incredibly relatable about the way she puts her songs across. It is a joy to hear.

Thomas J. Snow: Not that I was camping out in front of Sam Goody waiting for 25 to come out, but I kind of expected a little better from Adele. “Rolling in the Deep” had a winning vocal performance and some thoughtful production; “The Other Side” is not just bad; it’s uninteresting and bad.

Brian Block: Tunde Olaniran doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet; that’s serious oversight territory, because his Transgressor could easily have been the massive hit it deserves to be. Olaniran is an excellent singer and good rapper (reputedly a fine choreographer as well), and his album’s seeming influences are multiracial mega-sellers: Kanye’s Yeezus and U2’s Achtung Baby, Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Art Pop and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. He puts interesting new spins on their ideas and seems like a thoroughly decent, pleasant person. He’s young; perhaps the world will catch up soon.

George Pasles: Will still be making good albums in 2025 — United Pressing.

Brian Block: Best lyrics — Joanna Newsom, obviously. Or I say obviously; according to my best of 2012 ballot, where I discussed Ian (Aesop Rock) Bavitz, I was still hesitant about brilliant lyrics best approached using Wikipedia and the collective annotations at genius.com. Now it feels entirely normal to me to learn new things about birds, 19th century politicians, and 26th century interplanetary wars in the cause of approaching an album. Maybe now I’m ready to enjoy Shakespeare? I’ve had a bit of leftover sympathy for Couch Flambeau’s lyric (“I hate Shakespeare! He’s boring and he’s too hard to read! I wish he was dead!… He is? Good”), but of course he’s dead. That’s what happens to folks. Newsom almost summarized one of her key themes in Divers’s last song title, but — distracted by another interesting idea — she misspelled “Time, as a Merciless Bastard”.

Thomas J. Snow: Allow me a moment of blasphemy, but I found it almost impossible to listen to Divers from start to finish. As thematically and technically impressive as she is, Joanna Newsom seems to have mislaid her groove. The fussy arrangements, with every little penny whistle and bassoon and tasteful tambourine shake in the mix like tchotchkes in your grandmother’s china cabinet, are simply hard to live with for a full long-player. I wish I could blame Van Dyke Parks or Dick van Dyke or Andy van Slyke or whoever that guy was who produced Ys, but, looking at the liner notes, it looks like Joanna took the reins on Divers herself, so…ah wait! Steve Albini was involved in this project! Let’s blame him.

Zach Lipez: I still love pop-punk. Feels great.

Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year — The Apartments – No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. The first proper album from The Apartments (who were always just Peter Milton Walsh anyway) in almost 20 years. Of course it was crowdfunded. In The Apartments long history of would have beens, should have beens, a stable label is the least of its problems. Regardless, with 20 years to prepare, Peter Milton Walsh has had plenty of time to pick the best of what he’s written over the past two decades and it shows. The songs on No Song… can compete with anything going today. You think the guy who wrote “Mr. Somewhere” is here for the play play? No. Singing about the death of a relationship or the death of his son, PMW can sew heartache to melody like almost no one else. No Song…combined with “hip” “”Brooklyn”” label Captured Tracks reissuing The Apartments first album, I’m sure The Apartments won’t stay secret much longer.

Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year Runner-up: The Unlovables / Dirt Bike Annie – Reunion Show – A Split LP from two of NY’s best early 2000’s pop-punk bands and they don’t miss a beat. Besides my hair and these bands, there’s not much else I miss about that time.

Matt Houser: My Kids (age 4 + 6) liked: Caspar Babypants, Plastic Bertrand “Ça plane pour moi”, The B-52s “Rock Lobster”, Basement Jaxx “Take Me Back to Your House”, Chipmunk Punk album.

Terrence Pryor: 2016 needs more obscure bands reuniting than well known acts. Also, someone needs to do a concept album about sloths because those cute creatures deserve some love.

Zach Lipez: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Loving the abhorrent, the racist, the dishonest, until, say, three other people call them out…then everybody jumps on. If it took you till 2016 to realize Tao Lin or Kil Sun Moon were fucked as humans, i don’t know what to tell you.

Steven Slagg: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Female country artists fighting tooth and nail for success, brilliantly walking the cultural tightrope. Male country artists coasting on bland tastefulness.

Andrea Weiss: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — More musicians coming out — more power to them.

Hilary Jane Englert: Prevailing theme(s) or trend(s) of 2015 — Use of the beach as a figure for a less difficult, troubled life, ruminations on the relationship between the mind and the body, abbreviated song titles.

Oliver Lyons: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Bands still hate vowels.

Mike Cimicata: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Blinded by science.

George Pasles: 2015 was an ominous year for too many friends and for the world in general. Hard to watch. My year was largely nondescript, spent listening to podcasts or WFMU. I spent my nights with rats in the basement of Saltlands. I started and completed ZERO songs for the first year since 1990. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Steven Slagg: Six queer artists I paid close attention to — Courtney Barnett is casually out and tremendously popular and her gayness doesn’t factor much into the narrative around her; Shamir is also very popular, identifies as genderqueer, SOUNDS fashionably queer, while Le1f, Ezra Furman, and Angel Haze deal directly with all the troubled, knotty parts of queer experience in a way that strikes me as more interesting and in-your-face but less palatable (though I like Shamir too); and then Sam Gleaves, a traditional country/bluegrass singer who writes about gay coal miners and country boys, and who splits the difference between some really fascinating storytelling and sort of patronizing pride exercises that feel about 15 years behind their time.

Jonathan Andrew: I really shouldn’t weigh in since I haven’t given her a fair shake, but I can’t believe the enjoyment many seem to get from listening to Courtney Barnett. I find it far more charming when my pop singers can sing.

Brian Block: I’m torn between being happy for Courtney Barnett, because she’s smart and amusing and I enjoyed her songs “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” in 2014; and being puzzled because I don’t think putting 11 of her songs in a row, with almost one combined melody and a musical style centered around “the part of a Bonnie Raitt song where they’re just trying to pad everything out to radio length”, does her any favors at all. Apparently I’m outnumbered.

Brian Block: I hope your poll is much more loyal to Belle & Sebastian than the Pazz/ Jop poll was [no worries there, ever, Brian], because Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is, for me personally, their breakthrough album. I’m not saying it’s objectively better than your poll-winner If You’re Feeling Sinister — they’ve always written well — but I’ve rarely liked my music wispy or pastel, and my liking for B&S has generally risen during the moments when they’ve asserted pop and dance smarts. For me Girls in Peacetime was like an entire album imagined outward from “I’m a Cuckoo”, “Stay Loose”, and “the Blues are Still Blue”, sometimes even converted into ‘80s synth-pop…. which, by being straightforwardly fun for me to listen to, also helped me attend to and enjoy their lyrics more than ever. Obviously, the rest of the world is entitled to dislike polish, jauntiness, and synth-pop; but with Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes near the top of the polls, I don’t think that’s the issue. It feels more as if the smart kids will be loved if they know their place, but aren’t welcome at the dance. I like to dance, and I like to bloviate smart-kid style, so I’m not super-delighted if those are the rules.

Ben Krieger: Most sympathetic perspective — Fenton Lawless on the song ‘Chicago, Chicago.’ Like many local artists who spew their dregs all over Facebook, Lawless is best when he’s sitting behind his guitar. ‘Chicago, Chicago’s “what about black on black crime” perspective is not one that I agree with, but I get that—in what I feel is a misdirected way—he means well. For a full albums worth of songs about what drives many of Trump’s supporters, you need to go back to Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class record. All I’ll say here is that the Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame for the cultivation of frustrated white Middle America; liberals fucked up big time. Randy Newman was trying to warn us about this all the way back in 1974 with Good Old Boys: there is no cause righteous enough to be excused from the necessity of respectful dialogue with people who don’t seem to agree with you. I don’t blame oppressed and underprivileged groups for this. I blame what I can only describe as the New Yorker crowd, who have the responsibility of creating a dialogue bridge between the disenfranchised and the more-privileged groups who don’t quite understand what all the anger is about. If you’re the type of white, middle class liberal who is fond of using the term “flyover country;” if you think that anyone who votes Republican must be an idiot; if you memed something condescending over that fucking asinine image of Kermit sipping tea; if you snickered and jabbed at mainstream country music, then you failed. I don’t think that the internet is necessarily set up to communicate peacefully with others; lord knows I’ve left enough Facebook threads foaming at the mouth. But when I finally got around to listening to “Chicago, Chicago,” I was reminded that behind many a person with whom you don’t agree with is someone who, in their own way, wants the world to be a better place, and is worth having a sit-down conversation with. (https://soundcloud.com/fenton-lawless/chicago-chicago)

Jim Testa: Pop music really let me down in 2015. Where was the “Shake It Off,” the “Call Me Maybe,” the “Best Song Ever?” Everything sounded safe, tired, boring. I am tried of Nickelodeon child actors being groomed into pop stars – Ariana, Demi, Selena, Miley, go home. I am tired of Taylor Swift surrounding herself with female pop stars and supermodels and branding it as “feminism.” I am tired of a hip-hop community that’s still more consumed with bling than Black Lives Matter. I am sick of an alternative rock community that doesn’t seem to realize there’s a crucial presidential election on the horizon.

Katherine Furman: Worst song of the year — All the manufactured indie songs with big choruses. I don’t belong to you, you are not my sweetheart. Stop trying to play me!

Stephen Mejias: I’m somewhat troubled by how similar my list is to Pitchfork’s. Ah well. Whatever.

Jonathan Andrew: Most alienating perspective — “Only by returning to vinyl (which has doubled in price since the early 2000s when one could purchase Oh, Inverted World! for $7.99 at Vintage Vinyl) can we combat the irresistible, instant-gratification, ADD-addled experience of listening via streaming services!” I was raised in the Church of Townshend, Springsteeen, and Waters. Whatever medium I am using, I listen to albums in sequence, all the way through, and evaluate them according to classic rock and pop orthodoxy: the album is the unit of measure by which we judge artistic greatness. It is still possible, denizens of 2016. You just need to exercise impulse control. Now, to Spotify to stream The Division Bell yet again (which is way better than its critical reputation would suggest).

Jer Fairall: Most welcome surprise — how much I’ve come to love and depend on Spotify now that I live in an area that offers high speed internet.

Ben Krieger: I made a pact with the Devil this year and signed up for an Apple Music subscription. I don’t know what else to do; I’ll gladly buy anything that appeals to me, but I couldn’t figure out another way to afford listening to a lot of music that, after a spin or two, I realized I had no desire to ever hear again. I figured at least this way the artist got royalties of some sort, as opposed to if I’d streamed the songs off of YouTube.

Oliver Lyons: Everyone who slept on the Mini-Disc is in for a rude awakening.

Matthew Sirinides: You’re doing the Lorde’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXVI — Singles

I got a bone to pick.
I got a bone to pick.

I used to think of Pitchfork as the critical equivalent of the Outback Steakhouse — not a destination in itself, but a place you might wind up at for reasons beyond your control. There you’d be served up something thick and oily, overseasoned yet somehow bland, and you’d consume it joylessly. At the end of your visit, you’d wonder why you bothered. During the long Outback period, I barely mentioned Pitchfork in any context. There wasn’t much to say. It was sort of bad and sort of boring, and it wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well let it carry on with its brand development effort.

But during the past decade, Pitchfork has gradually been deteriorating, and in 2015, it fell off a cliff. Just as the 2008 Merrill Lynch meltdown had to worry you even if you don’t own stock, Pitchfork’s abominable year ought to ring the alarm for all critics, regardless of where you direct your web browser. Somebody in power seems to have decided to turn the the most visited review website in the world into People Magazine plus bad cultural studies jargon. Pitchfork’s new interest in consumer feminism clashes with its apparent mandate to cover — and praise — every crappy, two-bit mixtape released by a coterie of misogynist rappers, and like many institutions on the wishy-washy left, it is currently groaning under the obvious contradictions of its own worldview. These people are absolutely, embarrassingly determined to show the reader that they’re down with various liberation movements and worldwide underclass struggles, which is odd, considering most people still go to the site in order to find out how the new Modest Mouse compares to the old one.

The turd pimento atop the crap sandwich that was Pitchfork ’15 was the Year in Rap piece. It’s worth checking out, because without meaning to, the author does illuminate much of what’s wrong with contemporary writing about music — particularly writing about hip-hop. The Pitchfork piece attempts to summarize the year in rap by fixating on the one and only thing in hip-hop that’s not particularly interesting: beefs. The main reason why beefs are uninteresting is because they are 99% bullshit. They tend to start as childish tiffs that would dissipate on their own were they not seized upon by managers and marketing people and gullible journalists. Mainstream writers love beefs because they’re a prime source of clickbait; also, whether or not they’re willing to admit it, they love to watch black people fight. They’ve got click quotas to meet and they can’t help themselves. Music writers should know better. All the crappy, half-assed diss tracks on mixtapes and internet-only releases ought to tell critics everything they need to know about the true importance of beefs to artists. Not quite zero, but pretty damn close.

The beefs examined in the year end summary both involve Drake — an artist not exactly known for battle rapping. To make matters worse, one of them is, I kid you not, imaginary. The front half of the article addresses Drake’s dreary engineered exchange with Meek Mill, which dominated garbage-press headlines in July, and the back half attempts to trump up, on the scantiest of evidence, a “cold war” with Kendrick Lamar. Who knows?, Drake and Kendrick might indeed not like each other. Chances are, they’re too busy making music to give it much thought. It’s justifiable, if more than a little reductive, to cast Drake as the protagonist of hip-hop 2015: he put out an album and a half, sold more than a million records, and continued to exert influence over his peers. But after years spent fellating him in posts, reviews, features, and what have you, it’s now clear that Pitchfork doesn’t understand Drake at all.

Drake’s beef with Meek — which will continue as long as they’ve got upcoming releases to promote — was an old-school hip-hop authenticity feud the likes of which we’ve seen a hundred thousand times since De La Soul wrote “Potholes In My Lawn”. Meek Mill, rambunctious Philly emcee, accused Drake of buying his rhymes, which is technically true: Quentin Miller, an Atlanta rapper, contributed verses to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. A dis track was cut, Drake responded with a couple of dis tracks of his own, and when the digital dust settled, the blogs agreed that Meek had gotten the worst of it. (Some of them said he was “murked” or “bodied” in, I suppose, an effort to sound like idiots.) That was Round 1, mind you; round 2 is going on right now. Having seen a few Rocky movies and knowing how this goes, I suspect that Meek will now land some effective counterpunches only to be decisively rebuffed right before Drake decides to release Views From The 6.

Pitchfork pointed out that Drake’s battle verses were not particularly adept or scathing. This is true. But instead of concluding the obvious — that Drake wasn’t really motivated to damage Meek Mill’s career but was instead beefing for the headlines — the year-end piece decried the verdict and shat all over Drake in the process. According to Pitchfork, the inauthentic Drake “won” over the authentic Meek because he understood Instagram and Twitter better than his opponent. A Year in Rap summary piece in a major publication claimed that Drake had attained an unearned win by, essentially, Internet-bullying his peer.

This is a conclusion that could only have been reached by a critic so caught up in the social media spin cycle that he cannot see the world beyond his computer. There was never any possibility that Drake could lose a feud with Meek Mill. Meek is a talented emcee who has yet to figure out how to translate the energy of his live show to the studio; his records sell well, but so does Campbell’s soup. Drake, on the other hand, has been making popular musical history since the release of So Far Gone. He hatched out of his egg with a sound all his own, and that sound is one of the indelible cultural artifacts of the second decade of the 21st century. Real music listeners know this, and would never accept a version of events where Drake was humbled by a mere genre practitioner. Drake “beat” Meek Mill for the same reason that 50 Cent beat Ja Rule, or, for that matter, a diminished 50 was unable to lay a glove on Rick Ross: the battle is an illusion. It’s nothing more than a ratification of the facts in the air.

It is also preposterous for Pitchfork — still allegedly a music publication, at least for the moment — to imply that Drake simply hopped into Kanye West’s lane. Like everybody else in contemporary pop, Drake owes plenty to Kanye and his successful experiments in sound and storytelling. But Drake and his producers have a peculiar and flexible sense of melody derived from Southern soul and blues records, and which does not overlap all that much with Kanye’s own harmonic vocabulary. From the very beginning, Drake has been toeing a narrow line between the arty midwestern style of Kanye West’s records and the swampy blues-rap favored in his beloved Houstatlantavegas. Drake recognize both the pop audience’s appetite for blues melody and the growing blues strain in his songs released by his principal competition (Young Thug, Future, Boosie, et. al.) — and he’s been able to anticipate and co-opt their moves. It’s no coincidence that he went shopping for verses in Atlanta, or that he pinched the groove for “Hotline Bling” from a Virginia artist: instinctively, he realizes that an American pop audience that’s been force-fed soulless Eurodance for the better part of a decade is desperate for a little Mississippi grit. Unlike many other celebrated storytelling vocalists, he does not cut corners by lifting his musical backdrops from filmed entertainment. The emotional effect of a Drake song is generated by sonic phenomena alone: muffled kick drum, distant synthesizer and guitar, and the rapper’s own introspective vocal performances. One of the reasons I find If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a more compelling album than To Pimp A Butterfly: while Kendrick’s producers work in a sophisticated jazz and soul idiom that’s been covered to fuck and back and therefore capitalize on the resonances produced by familiarity, Drake continues to push his own sound into uncharted territory while paring it back to its unsettling essence. He now owes very little to anybody he’s not crediting in the liner notes, and it’s not hard to argue that the paranoia and detachment that he communicates through his music is every bit as trenchant a reflection of the current American predicament as Kendrick’s poetry is.

Since they’re both late-twentysomething rappers making essential music, it’s inevitable that Drake and Kendrick will be compared. Yet to imply that they’re currently locked in a rap war is sheer bloodthirsty wishcasting. The evidence Pitchfork gathers is circumstantial and scanty at best: a few Kendrick lines from Compton: A Soundtrack that allude to Drake lyrics, and the umpteenth airing of the “Control” verse that felt to me like a simple challenge made among colleagues to shoot for excellence. The core of Pitchfork’s case is “King Kunta,” on which Kendrick famously complains about “a rapper with a ghostwriter.” But the emcee doesn’t specify the target of what is a pretty standard hip-hop putdown — he could be rhyming about anybody. For what it’s worth, Quentin Miller isn’t a ghostwriter; just as Kanye did after he bought the first verse to “Jesus Walks” from Rhymefest, Drake credited his collaborator in the liner notes to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Moreover, “King Kunta” was released months before Meek Mill accused Drake of inauthenticity, and was presumably written long before that. Kendrick Lamar is a writer of uncommon depth and perspective; he has, as I am sure you’ve noticed, a lot to say about race, power, the police, surveillance, yams, what have you. To suggest that the first single released from his third-album megastatement was written about Drake is unbelievably insulting.

But Pitchfork is oh so eager to register that insult. They really, really want Drake and Kendrick locked in mortal combat, trading subliminal insults and sucking up the attention that would otherwise go to real reporting. They want blood on the floor and all the filthy clicks that go along with it. They’re willing to simplify and reduce Drake’s artistry to do it, and if that requires making Kendrick look like a battling idiot, too, they’re willing to accept that collateral damage. They’re even willing to map Drake vs. Kendrick on top of Jay-Z vs. Nas, and never mind that Kendrick shares little with Nas and Drake shares even less with Jay, and never mind that 2015 is not 2001, and also never mind that there isn’t even any Drake vs. Kendrick in the first place. This would be unfathomably irresponsible if it wasn’t so consistent with the voyeuristic trash heap that the Internet has become.

The irony, of course, is that Pitchfork is in the best position possible to know better: their writers deal with artists all day, and must realize on some level that this is not how musicians operate. Musicians tend to be collaborative people; they’re magpies, they like to borrow ideas and lose themselves to dance. They’re not boxers or gladiators, and they do not, in general, care about the authenticity of their peers or wipeout supremacy unless their feelings get hurt. The best way to hurt their feelings is to provoke them in a public forum, and as far as I can tell, many so-called journalists do nothing all day but attempt that provocation. Let it be known: in 2015, this is what the biggest and best-known music site on the Internet decided it’s going to use that pitchfork for.

  • 1. Drake — “Hotline Bling” (162)
  • 2. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (140)
  • 3. The Weeknd — “I Can’t Feel My Face” (118)
  • 3. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug and Popcaan — “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” (118)
  • 5. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta” (114)
  • 6. Courtney Barnett — “Pedestrian At Best” (112)
  • 7. Belle & Sebastian — “Nobody’s Empire” (112)
  • 8. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue” (111)
  • 9. Adele — “Hello” (108)
  • 9. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey” (108)
  • 9. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away With Me (108)
  • 12. Fetty Wap — “Trap Queen” (103)
  • 13. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach” (102)
  • 14. Drake — “Energy” (100)
  • 15. Grimes — “Flesh Without Blood” (94)
  • 16. Kendrick Lamar — “The Blacker The Berry” (93)
  • 16. The Decemberists — “Make You Better” (93)
  • 18. Kanye West, Rihanna & Paul McCartney — “FourFiveSeconds” (90)
  • 19. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams — “WTF (Where They From)” (88)
  • 20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy” (84)
  • 21. Tame Impala — “Let It Happen” (81)
  • 22. David Bowie — “Blackstar” (80)
  • 22. Courtney Barnett — “Depreston” (80)
  • 22. Miguel — “Coffee” (88)
  • 25. Hot Chip — “Huarache Lights” (77)
  • 26. Hop Along — “Waitress” (74)
  • 27. Unknown Mortal Orchestra — “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” (71)
  • 28. Sleater-Kinney — “A New Wave” (69)
  • 28. The Front Bottoms — “HELP” (69)
  • 30. Speedy Ortiz — “Raising The Skate” (68)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXVI — Results

Corn-on-the-Cob
“I’ll tell you how much a dollar cost — the price of having a spot in heaven. I am God.”

Consensus worries me. When I was seven, a strong consensus developed at summer day camp that I was funny-looking. Nobody wanted to sit with me. This consensus opinion may well have been accurate; current conditions around the orbit of my face suggest to me that it was. But you can see how I might be drawn to dissenters and their alternate theories.

By the time I was a college-aged record collector and amateur critic, I was enchanted by the aesthetic of opposition, and I wasn’t the only one. There were the many, who listened uncritically to whatever played on the radio and played beach volleyball in the beautiful sunshine as they did, and then there were those like me for whom the music was crucial to our lives and required dedication, and who would spend hours ferreting around in dusty shops for discs unsung. Only a few recognized our favorites, and this was okay — as pluralist culture fragmented, it made sense to celebrate the infinite permutations of taste. By the time 2015 happened, there’d be no overlap between the records I would love and anybody else’s collection. We’d each have our own personal artist to call ours. The popular music we tolerate would, in due time, be replaced by unpopular music we adored.

Boy howdy has this not happened. There is no shortage of unpopular music to explore or subcultures to experience, but with a few exceptions, modern critics do not tend to make the case for the rare, unloved, and weirdly personal. Instead, we’ve turned our attention from the art to the culture, which in practice means engaging with the records that reach the largest audiences and broadcast universal or sociopolitical messages. I am not sure we really trust ourselves to write about taste anymore, which is messy and subjective; instead, modern reviewers too often use records as a pretext to engage with various movements and -isms, and opinion tends to coalesce around a handful of widely distributed artifacts that provide for the listener some readily accessible talking points. For instance, there were an estimated million zillion albums released in 2015, every one of which was a potential favorite. But nearly everybody with a podium agreed that the very best one was made by a Christian rapper from the culturally significant town of Compton, California. The press said so, the polls said so, even the President of the United States said so — and unless they want a meltdown on their hands that’ll make the protests over the whiteout at the Oscars look like a game of patty-cake by comparison, the Grammy Awards will soon say so, too.

Don’t look here for an alternate pick. The 71 voters of Critics Poll 26 also chose To Pimp A Butterfly by a comfortable margin over Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Kendrick Lamar’s third album was named more frequently than any other, and topped more ballots, too. It was a solid win for a confrontational, uncompromising rapper on a poll that has not always embraced hip-hop.

I, too, loved To Pimp A Butterfly. I didn’t have it at the top of my list, but there was no album I thought about more frequently. I further admit that when I did think about it, it wasn’t always the outstanding musicianship or the virtuoso rapping that was on my mind: more often, I thought about the relationship between Kendrick’s poetry and the Baltimore riots, or the Cleveland police department, or the Cosby case, or the centrality of the black church in the civil rights movement. Just like you, I was impressed by Kendrick’s challenge — he set out to make a nation-sized record that elicited a thoughtful response from everybody who heard it, and he got what he wanted. To Pimp A Butterfly entered the culture, and insofar as it was judged as a cultural artifact, we deemed it laudable. The Black Lives Matters protesters who integrated the chorus to “Alright” into their chants understood that the power of pop was worth harnessing. Those of us who love popular music had to be heartened by this demonstration of its capacity to inspire.

Yet inspiration is only a small piece of what pop music is about, and although Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles might tell you differently, it’s not the desire for self-affirmation that compels most listeners to play and play and replay a tune. I do sometimes wonder whether any of us who make criticism our business were ever really able to hear To Pimp A Butterfly through the noise, or if we were too swept up in the narrative concerning the album’s cultural importance to judge it fairly. No anarchist collective recorded and distributed this record. Its ascendance was engineered by Kendrick, Top Dawg Entertainment, and their many friends and supporters in the same mainstream music industry that gave us Meghan Trainor and “Cake By The Beach”. Patrick Stickles’ dismissal of Kendrick as a “shoe salesman” was crass, but not entirely inaccurate — marketing is one of the rapper’s many talents, and one of the things he successfully sells (in addition to shoes) is Significance. Or to put it another way: To Pimp A Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. By April Fool’s Day, it had already been anointed the year’s best, and you knew and I knew that it was going to win this poll and every other poll under the sun. Instant unanimity ought to make you queasy, regardless of the album’s quality.

“Impact,” a horrible term that’s been ported over from military applications and weapons demonstrations, is used all too often when discussing works of art. In 2015, an album was quite frequently judged by the size of its impact, as if the listening public was a placid lake, and the record was a boulder-like projectile slung into it by a catapult or other violent siege-breaking implement, and the task of the critic was the measurement of the splash. No album caused a bigger wave than To Pimp A Butterfly did. But the height of the crest is really only relevant in those Internet dick-slinging contests decided by numbers of followers or retweets or blog posts or dittos. As I type this, the embodiment of arithmetic thinking stands before the electorate in Iowa, where he has made the case, over and over, that he is worthy because of his poll numbers and his opponents are losers because people don’t like them as much. The critic needs to stand against that kind of thing, and make the harder, trickier case that 1.) merit is ultimately subjective, and not contingent on the ratification of the crowd, and 2.) works of art should, nonetheless, be put in context with other works and evaluated on the basis of how well they deliver the experiences they promise.

All records are examinations of the times and places in which they’re made, and it’s possible to argue that the political situation in America has deteriorated so badly that it’s irresponsible to write a review that does not also double as cultural commentary. I get that. Then again, our world is already lousy with punditry, and I would like something better for you, music critic, than that. The reason that cultural commentary is always so uninviting is because the culture itself is pretty dull: it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be given the advanced state of capitalism we’re living through. (That’s also what makes it easy to do.) Music criticism has been, at its best, an escape from all of that, but as the standardization of taste continues, it may turn into simple balls-and-strikes umpiring: Album of the Year and Song of the Summer determined somewhere else, possibly by strategy and generally by algorithm, and the critic left to pick up the pieces, report about the size and velocity of the associated trending topic, and invited to rhapsodize about What it All Means.

This year, we were, in a way, lucky. To Pimp A Butterfly really is a great album, and it deserves the accolades it’s gotten. If a rapper really does feel the need to deliver a State of the Union address (and, honestly, I hope they’re not going to start making a practice of it), this is how to do one. But nobody could deny that there was real pressure — some of it accompanied by a moral charge — on music listeners to appreciate and celebrate the Kendrick Lamar album. Much as we critics love to believe we stand up for the underdog, nobody was impervious to the centrifuge of 2015 conventional wisdom. Unpopular music never stood a chance.

Here goes:

  • 1. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly (347)
  • 2. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (269)
  • 3. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (250)
  • 4. Tame Impala — Currents (205)
  • 5. Laura Marling — Short Movie (203)

Kendrick is such a talented rapper and writer that nobody ever seems to notice what a total cornball he is. The seductress named “Lucy” who is secretly Lucifer? Television-movie corn. How about the song the President likes — the one where the homeless man he disrespects turns out to be God in disguise? That’s the sort of corny plot twist you’d expect to get on a Kenny Chesney album. What about the Al TV-style interview beyond the grave with Tupac, the spoken-word “Dick Ain’t Free” interlude that feels lifted from Spike Lee’s freewheeling, imaginary jazz clubs, the fight that breaks out in the audience during “i” that the rapper pacifies with powerful words of unity and inspiration? All of this works, of course, but what it demonstrates (at least to me) is that Kendrick is far more of a showbiz kid than a revolutionary, steeped in the tropes of the entertainment industry and well aware of the tasty applications of American cheese. Nothing new there: Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was loaded with melodrama, some of it as emotionally manipulative as anything you’d find on the Lifetime Channel. I don’t fault him for a minute, mind you. Like prior conceptualist crowd-pleasers — Michael Jackson, Roger Waters, Barack Obama — Kendrick Lamar realized early that it isn’t enough to demonstrate excellence in craft and make a strong, smart argument: for the mass audience to eat it up, some hefty helpings of corn and cheese need to be ladled on top. Strip To Pimp A Butterfly of its cheesy elements and you’re left with something like Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 (number 11 on this poll)another masterpiece of Southern Californian hip-hop, albeit one that didn’t score anybody’s social movement, and one that sold a mere fraction of Kendrick’s total.

For another example of the power of cheese, consider Currents, the third full-length by Tame Impala. On Lonerism, Kevin Parker added a little modern pop sparkle to his ’60s-psych swirly-eyed throwback sound, and won the 2012 poll. Nobody was beating Kendrick in 2015, but Currents, the follow-up, got plenty of love from critics while charting a new direction for the act: Parker dove into the vat of Velveeta headfirst. Parker traded the guitar workouts tailored to hit the sweet spot of the psych subculture for an overload of Wang Chung synthesizer and rubbery basslines reminiscent of ’80s cheese-R&B. “Maybe fake’s what I like,” he sang on the last song, and has been rewarded for his faith in the artificial with a Rihanna cover and a seat in the canoe riding the rapids of the pop mainstream.

  • 6. Carly Rae Jepsen — E-mo-tion (188)
  • 7. Joanna Newsom — Divers (174)
  • 8. Hop Along — Painted Shut (159)
  • 9. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (152)
  • 9. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear (152)

See, we critics like Rihanna now — or, rather, we won’t be caught dead suggesting that Rihanna’s approval might be indicative of an ideological problem. (Leave that to Max Bemis.) Once upon a time it would have been scandalous in certain circles for, say, D. Boon to be caught hanging with Jody Watley, but since there’s no real underground anymore and no standard of value but popularity, it’s assumed that everybody with a guitar simply wants as much exposure as he can get. These days everybody is under the same umbrella ella, and even weirdos who really ought to be interested in nonconformity applaud loudly when “perfect pop songs” are correctly identified as such by the great unwashed, and are spun at bars and become “songs of the summer” and what have you. This is why critics tore their hair out over the conundrum of Carly Rae Jepsen: E-mo-tion checked all the boxes of solid formula art, so why oh why wasn’t it selling? For awhile, everybody with a platform and a will to compose thinkpieces became Jepsen’s business councilor, alternately chastising the marketplace, Scooter Brown, the star’s producers, and the star herself for failing to achieve the financial returns commensurate with such a thrilling capitulation to formula. I know I did. I dedicated a scandalous amount of thought to Jepsen’s portfolio — it monopolized my thinking on several long bike rides — and I still couldn’t figure out her problem. What did she do wrong, America? Was it the sweater? Because I think the sweater is sensational. E-mo-tion is designed to fit right in the sweet spot between Heartthrob and 1989, which means that digital cash registers filled with Bitcoin ought to be spewing whatever cryptocurrency the crazy kids are spending these days. Granted, Jepsen does not have the microphone presence or airtight authority of Taylor Swift, but in all other ways her disc measures up well to its models.

My great fear is that Jepsen has been damaged by her reluctance to sing bland self-actualization anthems, preferring instead to concentrate on songs about how horny she is. Back in the good old days, this is exactly what we asked of pop stars — shut up about your interiority and, instead, point at your genitals and howl animalistically. Basically, that was pop music in the ’80s, which suited me fine. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. But end they did, and at the end, we got Rachel Platten singing inspirationally about taking back her life from whatever it is that’s dogging it. And this, not that pretty business over there, is what rides high on the charts. My hypothesis is that all the Adderall and legal doobage has withered the private parts of a generation, and people are no longer sensitive to Carly Rae Jepsen singing tell me that you want me that I’m all that/I will be there I will be your friend. In 1985, that would have worked. If you were at those bar mitzvahs too, you know it.

Further proof that pop ’15 was inundated by a wave of cheese: even Joanna Newsom was susceptible. Last we heard from her, she complained about “dulling and dumbing in the service of the heart”; now, she is peddling a bunch of winsome hooey about the time-transcendent power of love. Hey, I’m a hippie, too. I hope she’s right.

  • 11. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06 (151)
  • 12. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (149)
  • 13. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon (141)
  • 14. Grimes — Art Angels (131)
  • 15. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People (130)
  • 15. Chvrches — Every Open Eye (130)

To Pimp A Butterfly was the year’s landmark album, but to really understand 2015, you have to listen to the celebrated Art Angels. Grimes, in case you don’t know her, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved notoriety and critical acclaim in 2012 with a mildly experimental electropop album called Visions. While it was clear even then that she had mainstream aspirations, she hadn’t quite shaken off her youthful ambivalence; for instance, rather than the requisite big ole butt, there’s a cartoon skull on the album cover. At some point between Visions and the release of Art Angels, the artist shook off her hesitancy, and decided that if Lady Gaga was going to run off and join the cast of Planet of the Apes, or whatever the hell she’s gone and done with herself, Grimes would just go ahead and become Lady Gaga. Art Angels, which Grimes produced herself, is 100% cheap-seats pop in the Gaga freaks-but-not-too-freaky style, complete with streamlined dancefloor numbers, periodic stabs at cartoonish aggression, and occasional independent-woman sloganeering. In other words, it’s the exact album Gaga should have made after The Fame Monster, or, at any rate, the album her accountants would have liked her to have made. Unfortunately, on her very best day, Grimes, whose vocal resemblance to Alvin the Chipmunk has been noted, cannot begin to approximate Lady Gaga’s singing. The result is an album that treads the line between ingratiating and irritating: a set of critically approved “perfect pop songs” made by a pseudoalternative artist who really has no business singing pop. Mind you, I am not bothered at all by the flood of hyperbole that this album rode in on, and I’m even happy to contribute to it. Every era has its figures who are hailed by the press as supergeniuses for no discernible reason. Grimes just happens to be one of ours. In ’93, it would have been a grueling, goatee-having dude who sang YAHHAHAUUUGHAR about his Oedipal rage. In ’93, a trip to munchkinland such as Art Angels would have been a fucking delight.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in twee little Glasgow, a not-dissimilar act made a not-dissimilar move. Apparently Chvrches is a stadium rock band now. Not what I expected from Lauren “Bro” Mayberry, but hey, she and her bros have identified an opportunity and they’re going after it while they’re fetching. “Empty Threat” is practically a Paramore song, which makes me wonder why they didn’t cave and employ a real drummer who could have made the song what it wants to be. The self-affirmation anthems range from summer festival-blithe (“bury it and rise above”) to downright meatheaded (“we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold,” eww.) By the way, I hope Vince Clarke is getting some residuals for the massive “Just Can’t Get Enough” bite in the middle of the best song on Every Open Eye. He’d probably settle for a hug.

In 2015, there’s really no such thing as a sellout: for there to be, there’d have to be a counterculture with elements that could be raided and packaged for sale on the mass market. In the absence of one, it’s natural for these guys to shoot for the top — if the only place they’re ever going to experience any kind of artist’s community is by dancing with Taylor Swift at the awards shows, they might as well crank up the EDM, hold their noses, and take the dough. As for all the cheese and corn and crowd-pleasing gestures, well, you might have noticed the big blue “like” button appended to your songs and statements. When everything you do is immediately evaluated — in a public setting by your peers, no less — that’s a lot of pressure to conform to popular demand. It takes an asshole with the stature of Kanye West to say “as soon as they like you, make them unlike you.” From what I can see, he’s been test-marketing Waves out the wazoo, so maybe even he’s become a slave to the approval rating. We are playthings for historical forces. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s so.

  • 17. FFS — FFS (129)
  • 18. Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material (128)
  • 19. The Decemberists — What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (124)
  • 20. Speedy Ortiz — Foil Deer (122)

Let’s check in with some poll veterans to see how they’re weathering the hurricanes of time. If you’re a newcomer to this game, you might have been surprised to see the latest Belle & Sebastian set at #3. Don’t be: they’re the house favorites. B&S is one of only two acts to win this poll twice — If You’re Feeling Sinister in ’97, and The Life Pursuit in ’06 — and any time they put a record out, they’re a threat to take a third title. I’ve never made a secret of my affection for them, and several bands I’ve played with (including my own) have profitably ripped them off, I must have bumped into ten regular poll voters at their Radio City show this summer, and I’m the goon who counts this up and writes it up. Sufjan Stevens, regular high scorer, didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but Carrie & Lowell did place in the top 30; Destroyer, a frequent top ten finisher, crashed to #32. Drake, on the other hand, made a return to the upper reaches of the poll after an album cycle spent missing in action. For reasons I still can’t figure out, nobody voted for Nothing Was The Same. This year, you all remembered your awkward cousin Drake on your holiday list. Must have been “Hotline Bling” that did it. After a strong 2013 finish for Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the more complicated and darker Of Montreal album Aureate Gloom lands at 30 — a relatively unimpressive landing place for a perennial contender that took the ’07 poll. Metric squeezed into the top 40 with the widely-maligned Pagans In Vegas, while the Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ hardly got any support at all. Guess you folks don’t love professional wrestling like John Darnielle does. Richard Thompson didn’t get much love on the poll for the iffy Dream Attic or its superior followup Electric, but Still put him back in the top 30, where he was a regular finisher in the ’80s and ’90s. I believe he’s got a future in showbiz. Lana Del Rey continues her grim-faced march up this list; she remains a pretty good bet to win one of these contests someday now that she’s been exonerated for her capital crimes.

The Decemberists deserve their own paragraph. Since Her Majesty, the group has always placed on the poll, but enthusiasm is waning. This I know because you told me so: many of you who put What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful world on your ballot expressed your disappointment with it. I, too, was partial to the version of Colin Meloy who sang goofily about chimbley sweeps and bombazine dolls and who stuffed unsingable words into his lyrics like a Victorian infantryman with a musket and a ram. In his old age, he’s become a singer that even your momma would recognize as good — although I think he was more fun when he was sloppier. But Meloy in ’15 is like a guy who used to be a polymath and a mischief-maker, and who grew up and took a position at a respectable NGO. On some level you admire it, but the constriction marks are visible all over his personality.

  • 21. Lupe Fiasco — Tetsuo & Youth (119)
  • 22. The Front Bottoms — Back On Top (114)
  • 23. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (110)
  • 23. Miguel — Wildheart (110)
  • 25. Ashley Monroe — The Blade (106)
  • 26. Oneohtrix Point Never — Garden Of Delete (100)
  • 27. Richard Thompson — Still (98)
  • 27. The Chills — Silver Bullets (98)
  • 29. Beach Slang — The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (96)
  • 30. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom (93)

Jersey alert: the Front Bottoms continued to run strong in this poll, placing 22nd and gathering plenty of votes and mentions from the lands beyond the Delaware. All that touring pays off, kids. Meanwhile, the Roadside Graves picked up where they left off four years ago with Acne/Ears, the band’s first disc for Don Giovanni. The Graves slightly outpolled their labelmates the Screaming Females, who finished in 43rd place. Deliverance, which turned out to be a swan song for River City Extension, came in right behind that at 45th. Once again, Titus Andronicus barely got a handshake on this poll. What do they have to do to impress you folks, I ask? — if a five-act rock opera doesn’t get your attention, maybe nothing ever will.

  • 31. Jeffrey Lewis — Manhattan (92)
  • 32. Destroyer — Poison Season (91)
  • 33. Bjork — Vulnicura (89)
  • 33. The Roadside Graves — Acne/Ears (89)
  • 35. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf (87)
  • 35. Dawes — All Your Favorite Bands (87)
  • 37. Hot Chip — Why Make Sense? (86)
  • 38. Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free (84)
  • 38. Metric — Pagans In Vegas (84)
  • 38. Blur — The Magic Whip (84)

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ll check in tomorrow with the singles, and another long and cranky essay about a certain media company that bugged the heck out of me in 2015.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

  • Alberta Cross — Alberta Cross
  • Algiers — Algiers
  • Bob Dylan — Shadows In The Night
  • Bruce Springsteen — The Ties That Bind
  • Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up
  • Dornik — Dornik
  • Enter Shikari — The Mindsweep
  • FIDLAR — Too
  • FKA Twigs — M3LL155X
  • Future — DS2
  • Haitus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon
  • Jamie xx — In Colour  (narrowly missed the top 40)
  • Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede
  • Kamasi Washington — The Epic
  • Mac McCaughan — Non-Believers
  • Palehound — Dry Food
  • Pollyester — City Of O
  • Quarterbacks — Quarterbacks
  • Rachel Grimes — The Clearing
  • Snacks For Y’All Qaeda — Snacks For Y’All Qaeda (note: probably imaginary)
  • The Apartments — No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal
  • The Unthanks — Mount The Air
  • Wilco — Star Wars
  • Young Thug — Barter 6
  • Young Thug — Slime Season

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXVI: a return to form

Last year at this time, my brain was on the DL with a repetitive stress injury.  One of the ways this manifested: I asked you to do the Critics Poll sans form.  Sorry about that.  I am happy to say that I have rehabbed my brain, and it is now in the best shape of its life — a grey, pulpy mass, located somewhere behind my eyeballs. Also and not coincidentally, the form is back. Deadline for voting: January 29, 2016. As always, fill out as much or as little as you wish, but do your man a favor and give me some means by which I can contact you. Thanks for playing.

Conspiracy!

Although his killing made the news and was officially acknowledged by the President, I’d wager most Americans don’t know who Ahmad al-Awlaki was. Members of our government sure did, though: before al-Awlaki’s death by drone strike and maybe even after, he was counted among the most dangerous people in the world. The San Bernardino mass murderers, the Fort Hood shooters, the Tzarnaev brothers, the so-called “underwear bomber,” and, depending on which account you’re reading, the 9/11 pilots were all said to have been inspired by al-Awlaki’s rhetoric. Google pulled his speeches from YouTube; even in Yemen, which was his last port in the international storm, he was wanted, dead or alive but preferably dead, by the police. In 2011, the Yemeni government and the CIA got the scalp they were after, proving once again that assassination is always the worst thing a regime can do if it is trying to keep dissent from resonating with a mass audience.

Al-Awlaki’s worldview, as it turns out, wasn’t too complex. While he was a cleric of sorts and did write and speak about religious subjects, he was mainly interested in geopolitics. Al-Awlaki believed that western authorities were privately determined to eradicate Muslims, and, therefore, Muslims had a moral obligation to fight back, by any means necessary and as violently as possible. It goes without saying, I hope, that this is repellent. It is not, however, unreasoned. Al-Awlaki was not into mayhem for its own sake; he wasn’t a cartoon villain. After reading Qutb and thinking long and hard about the world, he convinced himself that American authorities and the Israeli government and the societies they represented were fonts of evil, and wrongdoers had joined hands across the globe to smash the pious and downtrodden. In short, regardless of his stated affinity for world Islam, al-Awlaki was, at heart, a Western-style conspiracy theorist. Those who found his speeches online and were drawn to his messages — including those willing to become martyrs in the name of resistance — shared his conviction that the international order is illegitimate, pernicious, decadent, and kept afloat by lies. They were conspiracy theorists, too, and they either died or headed off to supermax with the belief that their cause was a righteous one.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post ran a story that claimed that conspiracy theory was on the wane. The Post can seem a little detached from time to time; this, though, had to have been a missive from outer space. Conspiracy theory has never been more prevalent than it is right now. It has moved from the margins — the province of John Birchers and moon-landing doubters and such — to the very center of public discourse. In 2015, most political action is motivated by one conspiracy theory or another. Candidates running for President of the United States now draw their biggest applause by vocalizing their suspicions: about Muslims, about Planned Parenthood, about global warming, about rogue police departments, about banks and the predatory one per cent. Even Hillary Clinton, who might be the most boring Presidential candidate of my lifetime, is famous for her belief in a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit her family. Everybody wants to be the lone man (or woman) speaking truth to power and exposing the lies of the cabal in Washington, or on Wall Street, or the United Nations, or your municipal machine. Conspiracy is the bread and butter of modern political campaigns, and lest you think I think I’m an enlightened observer sneering at all the paranoia, let me assure you that I’m guilty of it, too. I, too, am desperate to see the mask torn off and the curtain pulled away and the spotlight shone on the seamy underside of whatever official story I’m being asked to swallow. And since it’s the modern condition, it is virtually certain that you, too, believe in some kind of conspiracy. You don’t need to be a bomb-chucker, or even a blogger. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been jeopardized by the misrepresentations of those in power over you — and of course you have — you’re doing conspiracy theory. You’re sinking in an epistemological tar pit, but at least we’re going down together.

There are a few reasons why conspiracy theory has devoured public discourse since the millennium turned. Only one is incontrovertible, though (it is the prerogative of the conspiracy theorist to insist that such-and-such is beyond argument) and since I want you to keep reading, I’m going to discuss it last. I’ll start with something that’s tough to dispute: more people have greater access to partial information than ever before. Chances are, if you’re an American with an internet connection and an ounce of curiosity, you’ve bumped into alternative accounts of world events, and unless you’ve got no imagination at all, you’ve tried some of these on for size. They’re much more fun than sawdusty old mainstream accounts, and it’s always a thrill to feel like you’re privy to knowledge that’s been withheld from those who aren’t as enlightened as you are. Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out. Human beings prefer to listen to arguments that validate what they already know, or what they think they know, so one conspiracy theory blog post reinforces the next, and one radio-transmitted broadside against the powers that be, once entertained, makes it that much easier to accept the next one.

Alas, each step along the path of conspiracy theory renders us more inscrutable to those who aren’t fellow travelers. The more I convince myself that my alternate story is the correct one, the more committed I become to speaking in a tongue that can’t be translated to the rest of the world. The result is the strange public biome we’ve got right now: political actors who believe that their arguments are airtight, but who look to outsiders like madmen.

Mainstream journalism does bear part of the blame. Because of shrinking budgets, big news outfits have closed down overseas bureaus; accordingly, their programs are choking on second-hand smoke. It is possible to watch a program on CNN, or MSNBC, or FOX, or a local TV affiliate, and see nothing but talking heads, sitting at a table and mouthing off. Punditry is a poor substitute for actual reporting, and viewers are right to get suspicious and seek the real story elsewhere. But real reporters are, increasingly, screwed by the pace at which partial information now travels. If a correspondent has any journalistic ethics at all, she’s not going to tell your tale until she knows enough to get it right. This means she’s always going to be beaten to the punch by both the sensationalist press and the people on the ground with Twitter accounts. From the outside, it’s going to look like she’s holding back — like she knows something she’s unwilling to share, or, worse, that her corporate overseers have deemed unsharable. Actually, it’s far more likely that her bosses are pressuring her to tell an incomplete story as fast as possible, and to forego the kind of verification that would have been standard in the 20th century. So she makes mistakes — and those mistakes are, for conspiracy theorists, evidence of a cover-up.

All that is small beer, though, compared to the major driver of conspiracy theory. The expansion of the security state has driven a wedge between Western governments and the people they represent. Over the past two decades (and certainly since 9/11), authorities have become far more secretive, and the nebulous official explanations we’ve gotten about many major happenings have been delivered grudgingly at best. At the same time that our leaders have grown parsimonious about details, they’ve abridged our privacy rights in the name of national security. Constant surveillance is now a preoccupation of the authorities, and the federal government circumvents our elected representatives and operates through executive orders. Congressman Paul the Elder — a popular conspiracy theorist if there ever was one — suggested that we were headed toward an event horizon where the government knows everything about us, but we don’t know anything about the government. That’s a politician’s hyperbole, but anybody who has ever run up against the forcewall of government press agencies will assure you that nobody in power is talking anymore. They may believe that their silence contributes to national security. They may just be jerks. Regardless of their intentions, it always looks like they’re hiding something. And it’s not just the feds — from the schools, to the courts to the corporations, all American institutions have grown more authoritarian and inflexible, more suspicious of outsiders, and more determined to snoop on customers, associates, and employees. Paranoia is a reasonable, inevitable response to conditions like ours.

Conspiracy theory contradicts everything I’ve learned about the way people operate. For starters, human beings don’t conspire very well. Groups are fissiparous, everybody wants to be the top dog, and the bigger the secret, the harder it is for blabbermouths to keep. Yet I am drawn to conspiracy theory nevertheless. The rate at which conspiracy theories are proven true, or partially true, has accelerated since the 1980s, and it’s likely that this trend will continue. Edward Snowden exonerated those of us who believed that the domestic spying apparatus was larger and more insidious than anybody was willing to say, and his revelations were a shot of oxygen for dissidents everywhere. (Yes, I know that some conspiracy theorists consider him a “limited hangout,” but he was brave enough to blow a whistle, and he sure doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself over there in Russia.) Black operations and extraordinary renditions sound un-American, but did become downright common practices during the worst days of the Iraq War — and since they occurred by fiat and were sustained without legislative oversight, there’s no reason to believe they’ve ceased. Those of us who’ve dipped a toe into the muddy waters of Jersey politics are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theory; from Bid Rig to Bridgegate to McGreevey’s resignation, there’s always another story behind the story, and then a story behind the story behind the story, and so on until we go home, lock the door, and play video games.

Since we are all justifiably paranoid now, and there’s no escape from the fearsphere, and, as we’ve established, we’ve all gotten comfortable playing with fire, I thought it might be prudent to establish some ground rules for navigating the modern world:

Rule #1: Own it. It no longer makes any sense for anybody to dismiss ideological opponents as cranks or tinfoil hat-wearers. Remember always that you’re a conspiracy theorist, too. The stuff you believe in is as inscrutable to them as the stuff they believe is to you. You believe it’s different in your case, because you’re right and they’re wrong. Unfortunately, that’s the exact thing they believe, and they’re just as passionate about it as you are. If you knew only Swahili, and they knew only semaphore, you wouldn’t have any harder time communicating. There is no way you’re ever going to be able to have a conversation, which means that civility now depends on extradiscursive stuff like mutual respect and acceptance of our common humanity. Ergo,

Rule #2: Watch with all the dehumanization, buddy. It’s okay to believe that you’re on to something that few other people are, because if nobody had the courage to take that kind of leap into the unknown, there wouldn’t be any investigative journalism. It isn’t a problem to hold beliefs that are wildly at variance with the people around you; it isn’t even a problem to try to convince those people, loudly and obnoxiously if you care to, that you’re right and they’re wrong. But when you begin to disparage others for their reluctance to adopt your conspiracy theory — when you call them unenlightened, or idiotic, or mindless sheeple — you’re taking the first step on a dark and terrible path. Down that road is pain and alienation and maybe some violence, too. When you divide humanity into the enlightened few (which you’re part of) and the great unwashed, it becomes very easy to place yourself above your neighbor, and deny him the basic dignity that is the oxygen of civil society. Here’s a good way to know if you’re drifting in a dangerous direction: you compare yourself to any of the characters in The Matrix. You laugh, but I’m sure you’ve noticed otherwise intelligent people going on about the red pill and the glitches in the system and the rest of it. Because if you’re Neo, then the rest of the planet is either willfully or congenitally unaware — and you’re free to treat everybody else as a cowardly slumberer. Life is not a Hollywood cartoon, arrogance is never a pleasing trait, and, as a wise man once said, if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow. Our best bet is to proceed like we’re all in it together, and that “it” can be defined as a state of society where everybody is under suspicion and official stories keep flying apart like dandelions under the stiff wind of investigation. This is our best chance for peaceful coexistence. As for consensus, forget about it. No chance of that until the emergency state is dismantled.

Rule #3: Don’t disengage completely from the mainstream media. That includes the corporate-owned news channels. The real problem with them isn’t that their coverage is compromised by the ideology of its overseers, it’s that it’s driven (as it always has been) by public interest. It is no simple thing to manufacture a trending topic; try though news editors may, it will always be more economical to borrow one from the Internet. Yet journalistic integrity remains a real thing, and the practical skills and ethical standards of trained reporters have never been needed any more than they are now. People do not get into journalism for moneypowerandglory. They do it because they’re born storytellers, or because they’re dangerously curious about something, or because they’re compelled by the prospect of a life of travel and adventure and relative penury. Some reporters are gullible, but few of them are corruptible — if they were, they’d have been drawn to a more profitable line. Real reporting is a pain in the tush: an editor worth anything is going to insist on verification before running with a story, and those assurances can be awfully hard to get, especially if the correspondent is working on a sensitive story in a country with a disinclination to guarantee the safety of reporters. How many times have you, conspiracy theorist, sat in frustration in front of a CNN report and wondered aloud why the woman with the microphone won’t connect the dots? Chances are, she’d like to do that as badly as you would, but since what she knows doesn’t meet the standards of verification, she’s muzzled. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: news outlets get in far more trouble when they act in haste than they do when they play it cool.

Your corner blogger, by contrast, is free to speculate wildly, and his flamethrower prose has its own cleansing appeal. But no matter how trenchant it is, an analytical piece from a man sitting on his ass half a world away is going to be less valuable than a report from the ground — and that includes stories by correspondents whose paychecks are signed by companies that have a vested interest in the status quo. There is simply no substitute for eyewitness accounts — especially since physical presence has a funny way of turning previous ideological commitments upside-down.

Before a mainstream network or newspaper reporter is an agent of an imperialist interest, she’s a human being and a storyteller. Regardless of your beliefs, you should listen to her; you’re armed with enough skepticism to appreciate her position and to adjust your expectations accordingly. You don’t want to be one of those people who demand purity and consistency from your news correspondents anyway. A good reporter will be confused most of the time. That’s how you know she’s doing her job. The world is a mess, and that incoherence and destabilization ought to be inscribed in her stories.

Rule #4: Interrogate your motives. Ask yourself this question: If the conspiracies you entertain were ever proven, incontrovertibly and publicly, to be true, who benefits? Who profits by the embarrassment and public ridicule of the orchestrators, and who loses popular esteem, and maybe even liberty? If it turns out that the answer is, in all cases, that you and your people are exonerated and/or exalted and your enemies are jailed, then there’s a good chance that revenge fantasies have stained your worldview. Now, it could always be true that the universe is arranged in a manner that holds you down, and if that’s the case, I feel for you. But even if you’re forever cursed, it still might be a healthy thing for you to try on a conspiracy theory in which your affinity group is among the bad guys. Trust me — somebody has beaten you to it.

Rule #5: Remember that you are (probably) not as persecuted as you think you are. There are Yazidis in the world, and they’re under the gun. You aren’t one of them. Hegemony is never as total as we might think it is during our darkest nights, and every American does have some latitude to act — however limited it may be by circumstance. We forget that. I know that I do, and as a white guy in this society without any outward signs of disfigurement, I should be able to make my influence felt. Of course, the alleged persecution of white guys by a conspiracy of “politically correct” elites, minorities, and opportunistic politicians has been a major driver of several notable presidential campaigns. There are men who feel victimized by a conspiracy feminists and their beta-male slaves who impinge on their rights to self-expression and self-determination; poke around the Internet, they’re pretty loud about it. You may shake your heads at these people, and I’m not going to stop you — but I do ask you to note the structural similarities of their arguments to those who shake their fists at the one per cent, or those who believe there is an international conspiracy to hold the Muslims down. It’s been a brutal year for the peacemakers, and we can all afford to step back, take a deep breath, and let a few of our grievances go. Should we do this, I think it’ll help our conspiracy theories, too. The more disinterested the reporter, the harder it is for his opponents to dismiss him as a crank with an axe to grind. Proceed as a truth-seeker, and not a self-appointed crusader for justice. As an American, you have no claim whatsoever to the moral high ground. You’ve spent your life enjoying the fruits of the two greatest (proven) conspiratorial arrangements on the globe — the dollar as reserve currency and the U.S. military control of the commons. You can afford to conduct your claims from street level, rather than a high horse.

Friends, we need no crystal ball to see that there is trouble ahead. In the history of the world, there has never been a better time to be a ragemonger than right now. Many of the communications systems we’ve set up are best calibrated to be carriers of vicious messages. Broadcast media rewards outrageous behavior, and gives people an incentive to play to captive crowds, throw punches against straw men, and film the reaction. In an atmosphere like ours, it is virtually certain that somebody, or somebodies, will ride a conspiracy theory to a position of great authority. Given how irresponsibly this could be done, we’ve all got to be doubly circumspect. My best hope is that the paranoia we’ve been forced to cultivate by 15 years of emergency authority will serve as a check against violent extremism of all kinds. May our uncertainty and destabilization be a reminder that the scariest man is the one who believes he’s got it all figured out.

 

tris@trismccall.net

A tribute to Thirty Acres, in eight dinners

Ambitious restaurants in New Jersey don’t get much attention from the national press. They aren’t the beneficiaries of much regional attention either. We tend to pay more attention to burger battles and pizza shootouts and rankings of the best food trucks than we do to sit-down neighborhood places with creative cooks. As long as there are hungry people in the Garden State, there will always be many places to get ace pizza, and cake, and sub sandwiches. But there was only one place to get Thirty Acres — and we don’t have that option anymore.

Thirty Acres was the rare Jer-Z restaurant that NYC critics took seriously. Pete Wells of the Times, who is usually a stranger to these shores, crossed the river and gave it two stars. Eater had it on its list of 38 essential New York restaurants; for awhile, there was even an interactive recommendation feature on the site that felt calibrated to suggest a trip to Jersey and Thirty Acres for any New Yorkers who used it.  Gina Pace of the Daily News used Thirty Acres as one of the two anchors of her 2013 article that called Jersey City a budding food destination (the other was Talde, which hadn’t yet opened.)  Nine months ago, critic Ryan Sutton wrote a long piece called Jersey City’s Thirty Acres Shows Bright Future of America’s Tasting Menus, and hung three stars on the restaurant.  The Infatuation — a NYC-centric publication that has often had dismissive words for the Garden State — claimed that Thirty Acres “firmly plants Jersey on the culinary map.”

It helped that Kevin Pemoulie, the chef at Thirty Acres, cooked for David Chang at Momofuku. But Pemoulie’s imagination helped more. There are thousands of accomplished cooks in the NYC environs, but a only handful of chefs with a signature style that is immediately apparent from the first bite of their food. Kevin Pemoulie was one of them. At its best, the restaurant he ran with his wife Alex (she was the business manager, he handled the small kitchen) was unlike anything else on either side of the Hudson: a tiny thirty-seat spot where a patron could get an innovative dinner cooked at Michelin-star quality for a reasonable price.

Thirty Acres was a five-block walk from our house, which meant we were there all the time. Before you call me Moneybags McCall, know that one of the reasons we went so frequently was because it was so affordable. Pastas at Thirty Acres — which were as good, if not better, than those served at the great Italian restaurants across the river — went for $14-$18. Excellent appetizers were often priced under $12. Given how I like to eat, I could often get a first-rate dinner at Thirty Acres for about thirty bucks. It is possible that my cheapskate eating habits were more damaging to the restaurant’s bottom line than a coordinated team of Yelp assassins could ever be. If that’s true — and it probably is — I’d like to extend my apologies to the Pemoulies, along with a thanks for all the noodles.

I am not a food critic. My tastes render me totally unqualified to review restaurants: I don’t drink, I don’t tend to order very much, and I eat meat once in a blue moon. I’ll leave the real evaluation to writers like Wells and Sutton. But I do know what I like, and during its run, Thirty Acres was, hands down, my favorite restaurant — not just in town, but anywhere in America. In tribute, I’d like to tell the story of my own engagement with Thirty Acres through descriptions of eight nights I spent there. No Instagrammable pictures, but plenty of purple prose. On all of these nights, I was accompanied by Hilary Jane Englert, who shares my assessment of Kevin Pemoulie’s cooking. We’re already contriving an excuse for a trip to Seattle, because that’s where the Pemoulies are headed.  We’ll get to their new place somehow.  We sure got to the old one.

February 7, 2013

I ordered: Pork meatballs with rye berries and cranberry, uni with apple, lemon bar

The only weird dinner I ever had at Thirty Acres was my very first. In winter ’13, the word around town was that this was a challenging restaurant — although that challenge sure wasn’t putting off the crowds. We tried to go to Thirty Acres a few times without landing a table; we were told that we could wait down the block and grab a drink at the old Sushi Tango, and we weren’t interested in that. Finally, on our third try, they were able to squeeze us into two seats at the bar — which, at that point, didn’t serve anything stronger than a birch beer. I was fine with it. Sitting at the bar meant I could catch glimpses of the kitchen in action. As a studio rat, I’ve always appreciated the insight into the creative process.

Whenever I’m at a restaurant with a reputation for weirdness, I always try to order the oddest thing on the menu. I do it to go with the program, and also because I kid myself into thinking that the chef will appreciate my willingess to check out his creations. I didn’t know what rye berries with pork meatballs would be like, but I figured I’d give it a shot. What I got was something like a plate of Thanksgiving leftovers: cranberry sauce poured over golfball-sized spheres of meat and a bed of grain. I confess I was put off at first. But as it turned out, the rye berries had a nice crunch and tasted like a cross between barley and oat groats, and the cranberry sauce was way better than any I’d been coaxed into eat at a family holiday.  Midway through dinner I realized my preconceptions of cranberry sauce were getting upended, which wasn’t exactly like the moment I discovered I actually liked screamo, but it had its charms nevertheless.  As for the pork, well… as I said before, I eat meat once in a blue moon. Usually when I do, it reminds me of why I don’t: it quickly takes up all the real estate in my belly that I could have otherwise devoted to pasta. This would be the last meat dinner I’d order at Thirty Acres (Hilary usually ordered fish), so if you’re a carnivore yourself, you might have had a completely different experience than the one I’m describing.

April 11, 2013

I ordered: Gnocchi with mushrooms, Hilary ordered (and I shared): snapper with almond-ancho sauce and asparagus. I recall there were also some fiddlehead ferns involved, though I don’t really remember where.

I grew up eating pasta. As a kid, there was pasta and then there was everything else, and I suffered through everything else and delayed gratification so it would be all the sweeter when the bowl of rigatoni with tomato sauce was placed in front of me. A thousand years have passed and my tastes haven’t evolved very much. Main courses?, you can keep them. What I really want from a restaurant is a bowl of noodles, plain and simple. So the move toward New American (or Californian) cooking and small plates over the past ten years has been a mixed blessing for me. More good restaurants — even restaurants with no pretense to Italian influence — have pasta offerings on the menu. Unfortunately those pasta plates are never anywhere as substantial as the entrees, which can cause a pace problem if you’re dining with people who’d rather have a huge steak. I understand that in the sophisticated Old World, pasta plates are never very big. Me, I don’t care how they do it in Italy; I care only about how they used to do it in Newark.

Most of the time, I’m disappointed to find a gnocchi option on a menu, since I think of gnocchi, like risotto, as almost-pasta: close enough to tantalize, but still far enough removed from a plate of orecchiette that it doesn’t satisfy the craving. But I still had a partial misapprehension that Thirty Acres was a “weird” restaurant — though by April ’13 the menu had become pretty approachable — so even though there were pasta dishes available, I still made the perverse choice. I was glad I did. When it’s good, gnocchi is often described as pillowy, which, if you think about it, is a horrible adjective to affix to something you’re about to put in your mouth. Pemoulie’s gnocchi wasn’t nebulous at all: it was a neatly-defined bullet of deliciousness. As he always would, he drew briny magic out of those mushrooms, too, and made sure he didn’t overwhelm his dumplings with condimento.

As good as that gnocchi was, it had nothing on Hilary’s dinner. This was our first encounter with Thirty Acres’ distinctive style of fish presentation: a filet parked on one side of a flat dish, in close proximity to a heap of vegetables and surrounded by dots of brightly-colored sauce. Not only did the snapper have that rich, creamy taste that whitefish takes on at its very best, but the ancho-almond paste was both unlike anything I’d ever tasted and such a natural pair with the snapper that it took on a feeling of inevitability after a few bites: why didn’t every fish dish come with flavors like this? It was at that dinner that we realized we were dealing with an artist — not merely a skilled chef who could execute flawlessly, but a guy with a real vision who was going to throw us some curveballs, and we were going to hang with them because we trusted the purity of his intent. When you’re dealing with an actual artist working in any medium, you don’t always know where he’s headed — but you go along with it anyway because the rewards of discovery will always outweigh the risks. We decided that night that we were awfully lucky to have this place in the neighborhood, and we were determined to hang with it as it developed.  From then on in, Thirty Acres became a place to go regularly to debrief after a week of work, or to strategize before a new assignment or project, or to celebrate the many strokes of good fortune that had brought us to Jersey City in the early years of the new millennium.

May 15, 2013

I ordered: cavatelli with stinging nettle pesto, grilled asparagus with crab and mushroom

Stop the presses, wipe the slate, ring the bells, plug in the Stratocaster and strum the power chords. This wasn’t merely a great dinner — the first of many I’d have at Thirty Acres. This was pasta perfection. Allow me to explain.

Pasta perfection is rare for any cook to achieve. In order to attain it, the noodle needs to be lifted from the water at the optimal moment, added to the sauce and kept there just long enough to absorb some of its flavor, removed before that absorption becomes too extreme, served with the proper amount of condimento, and brought to the table before the crucial firmness starts to vanish. Moreover, pasta perfection can only be achieved with the best stuff: noodles that are plump, and sufficiently chewy, and made from the proper wheat. Any minor misstep and the chances of pasta perfection are lost forever, or at least until the next attempt. When it’s done right, it’s visible. As the waitress lowers the plate to the table and you see the noodles glisten, without a trace of sagging, snug in the sauce like village houses under a blanket of snow, or curled up like kittens in a basket, you know what you’re going to get: the very best supper it is possible for a diner (like me) to have.

Even at the nation’s great pasta palaces — L’Artusi, say, or Osteria Morini, or Cotogna in San Francisco — pasta perfection is never guaranteed. A restaurant that can produce pasta perfection one time out of every three visits is worthy of an bronze noodle plaque on its door and lifelong customer devotion. There are excellent Italian restaurants that never get within a mile of it. New Jersey has many outstanding pasta places, but, sadly, a low incidence of the perfection that gets a pasta fan dreaming the next day of a bowl of cacio e pepe done properly.  I say with the enthusiasm and authority of a lifelong pastamaniac that no restaurant in the Jerz was a better bet for pasta perfection than Thirty Acres at its peak. I am not sure whether Kevin Pemoulie’s training at Momofuku accounts for this, and I’m not sure I care. All I know is when I had this bowl of cavatelli with stinging nettle pesto, my socks were knocked clear off and were later recovered in Bayonne.

Why did it take me four visits to Thirty Acres to order a proper pasta dish? Looking back, I’m not really sure. I think my first three experiences at the restaurant led me to believe (maybe not inaccurately?) that Kevin Pemoulie was drawn to Eastern European flavors. While I was intrigued by this, I also worried that any noodle dish I ordered would be some sort of pan-fried blintz jammed with sour cream. What I did not realize at the time was that Pemoulie had Cranford in his background, and Cranford is in Union County, and Union County is, and always will be, in Newark’s cultural orbit. In Newark, the pursuit of pasta perfection was, for women like my momma and my grandmother and my aunts, a lifelong chase. The noblest chase, mind you. At Thirty Acres, they knew what they were after. They were born to it.

October 3, 2013

I ordered: tortelloni with hazelnut, butternut squash, and mushroom, sea scallop crudo with yuzu, Hilary had a piece of swordfish with bok choi

Mine was a magnificent filled pasta — something like a burst of autumn leaves at peak foliage — preceded by a sensationally bright dish of raw scallops. Hilary’s swordfish was so good that she kept having to gather herself and rave between bites. By now, this was the sort of experience we’d come to expect from Thirty Acres: adventurous, but unpretentious, too, and always at a fraction of the price of similar meal we’d had across the river. I recall saying that the tortelloni and scallops compared favorably to the anniversary dinner we’d had at Marea, where most dishes go for about zillion dollars.

Anyway, that’s not what I remember best about that night at Thirty Acres. What I remember best is that the roof fell in. One of the ceiling panels by the ductwork overhead shook loose, and my crudo was very nearly seasoned with cement. Hilary’s instinct was to stand on a chair and pop it back in place: by now we felt like Thirty Acres was our place, too, and anything we could do for the restaurant we were willing to do. But Kevin Pemoulie came out of the kitchen and, quite brusquely, ordered everybody away from the panel.  He looked disdainful. I recognized his expression from rock shows. He was like a guitarist who’d been forced to put down his instrument to attend to something technical onstage, and as he does, it’s apparent to the audience that all he wants to do is grab his axe, turn up, and play. As annoyed as he was at the ceiling mishap, principally, he was dying to get himself back into the kitchen and fire the burners.

Pemoulie comped our meal that night, which made me sad. The cave-in hardly interfered with the value of the food we were getting. We tried to pay, but the restaurant insisted that we treat the night as a freebie, so we resolved to make it up to them by coming back as soon as we could. Which we did. But I also recall thinking about all the things we don’t like to consider when we go out to eat — for instance, the sheer cost of running an operation like Thirty Acres. Not only were there maintenance fees for fixing a wonky ceiling, but the price of the top-drawer ingredients that Pemoulie insisted on cooking with couldn’t have been cheap. Swordfish, sea scallops, yuzu, uni: this is not stuff you grab off the shelves of the P&K Market on Newark Avenue. I reasoned that if Thirty Acres was good enough to attract attention from New York critics and draw Manhattanites across the river, it was also likely that one of those high rollers would fall in love with the place and shepherd it through any financial difficulties it might encounter. The Pemoulies, I figured, might have an angel investor.

They did not.

June 16, 2014

I ordered: pici with stinging nettle sauce, yellow squash with mint, cashew, and hot yuzu sauce, charred sugar snap peas with cloumage.

David Lowery sang it in 1989: there is nothing in this world more bitter than love/in the long days of June. I love Camper Van Beethoven, but I’ll be damned if I know what he’s talking about.  Because how nice it to sit in a table for two at the end of the dining room — right on the corner of Jersey and Wayne, with early evening city-style illumination coming through the big windows — on a day that lasts forever? Maybe the weather outside is perfect, and there are friends and could-be friends waving from the sidewalk, and the whole little thirty-seat room is lit up from front to back like we’re in a neon tube-light and the sun is providing the current. It’s moments like these that remind me of why I bother to go out to restaurants in the first place: why I don’t just sit at home, watch baseball, and raid the crackerjack drawer.  Our apartments are small; that’s the price we pay for living in the city. What we really want is to extend our homes outward — to find a few places in town that feel open to us and familiar to us, and feel like extensions of a living room, or the living room we wish we had, and never mind that we’re paying for the hospitality. A good restaurant creates the illusion that it’s as much a part of your life as your refrigerator, or your balcony, or your toothbrush. That’s what calls us out — that friendliness, that promise that we live in a town, and we aren’t just asphyxiating in a pod on the third floor of a narrow building on a busy street, with no connection to the other pods in other buildings around us. Well, that and the pici. Which was not in this case pasta perfection, but still awfully, awfully good.

July 18, 2014

We shared: Corn gnocchi with shrimp and lime, pasta “greco”, salad with stravecchio and cherries, green beans with cloumage and chestnuts

This, I think, was the pinnacle: not only the best dinner we had at Thirty Acres, but the best meal we’ve ever had together in any restaurant in New Jersey. There’d been times we grabbed pizza and cookies on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, or scones in Spring Lake, and ate them while the sun went down over the ocean and the waves splashed on the jetties, and there’s no beating that. But as sit-down dinners out go, I can’t think of one better, more satisfying, and more complete than this one was. So good was this dinner that we went back a few days later and repeated it, dish for dish, in a doomed attempt to recapture the magic. Take two was pretty great in its own right. But you only get the view from the peak once.

A year and a third later, I can still remember how every part of this dinner tasted. I don’t expect those sense memories to last forever. So as much for me as for whoever might read this in the future, I’d like to go through the evening — which was, I remember, another beautiful summer night — and reconstitute some of its elements.

Whenever a restaurant claims to use locally sourced ingredients, I never entirely buy it, because I’m a cranky skeptic and there’s no way to check. Thirty Acres called itself “a Jersey restaurant;” that could be a statement of attitude rather than a comment on the food. But our nickname is the Garden State for a reason: farmers around here are working with some of the most fertile soil God ever bestowed upon man, which is why it’s a curious thing that so many of our towns choose to raise subdivisions rather than crops. The Pemoulies lived in town, right by Thirty Acres, and I’d see them looking over the produce at the Hamilton Square Farmers Market. July is berry season and cherry season, and I’m accustomed to buying huge bags of them in the park and motoring through them as I write. These cherries are so good that it’s impossible to overdose on them, so even though I’d probably had a bunch that morning, I was excited to see some more show up in my salad: big, juicy slices scattered on top of the lettuce and tucked under a blanket of salty stravecchio. And there’s your Italian flag, or maybe your Italian-American standard — red, green, and white, all in equal measure, contributing a little sweetness, a little tang, and a little roughage.  Much of what I like to eat is, essentially, bread, butter, and berries: bruschetta, oil, and homegrown tomatoes, or pasta with mozzarella and red sauce. Like a refinery sunset or “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” it’s tough to improve on. Get perfect ingredients and don’t screw them up; that’s the basic strategy. Everything else is filigree.

Cloumage started showing up on Thirty Acres menus in mid-2014. Maybe it had been there long before I considered ordering some, but I was scared away because I’d never heard of it.  Was it a clump of plumage? A clot of roughage?  As it turned out, it was a smoother, wetter version of ricotta, which suited me fine: I grew up with the yellow Polly-o container in a sacred spot in the refrigerator. Over the last ten years, house-made ricotta has become a thing at neighborhood restaurants — usually it’s served as a snack or a starter, as it was at the lost, lamented Louro in Greenwich Village, which is kind of insane. The ABC Kitchen house-made ricotta is a dinner in itself, at least for me; once I’m done mopping up all the cheese and fruit with the sourdough slices, I’ve had my ration of bread, butter, and berries for the night, and everything else feels unnecessary. I don’t think anybody in my extended family would ever order something called cloumage, but if Kevin Pemoulie had dubbed it ricotta, I am pretty sure my aunts would have given it a thumbs-up and asked for more.

Should you see corn anything on a New Jersey menu in the middle of July — and the restaurant isn’t the kind that serves its produce defrosted, or adulterated — order it. It is practically impossible to get a bad corn dish in Jersey in the summer. A farmer in Hunterdon County once explained to me that the Garden State soil is optimized for the growing of the popular variety called Silver Queen, which is characterized by those very small French vanilla-colored kernels that zip off in your mouth in tight sequence when you bite into a cob. I don’t know if Pemoulie worked the corn into his gnocchi dough or if the broth at the bottom of the dish was just sufficiently concentrated to put an exclamation point on the flavor, but I do remember that the dumplings were fried a little and had the color and texture of a tater tot. Hopefully, he’ll forgive me for that comparison if he reads this. Like I said, I’m no food writer. What I do believe is that if a seafood dish can’t accommodate lime, it probably wasn’t worth cooking anyway.

I’m saving the best for last. Pemoulie’s version of a pasta greco was something like a plate of cut noodles with a Greek salad used as a sauce: black olives, fennel, zucchini, feta cheese, and no overabundance of any of it. The noodle itself was the chef’s own invention — a semi-corkscrew thick and chewy like a cavatelli, but twisted a bit like a cavatappi. I thought I’d tried every pasta shape under the sun; here was a reminder that noodles, like symphonies, exist first in the mind of their creator.

Innovation and pasta perfection don’t usually go together, since the easiest dishes to knock out of the park are always the simplest. But this foray into Southern European fusion hit every mark with a satisfying thump. I’ve had Greek-inspired pasta dishes at other restaurants — Sarma in Boston, for instance, and Stella’s in Richmond — and those were very good, but they felt like self-conscious culinary experiments next to the Thirty Acres dish. It’s an Iron Chef (Japanese version) cliche to say that the taste of a dinner reminded me of my childhood, but in this case, there’s no other way to say it: here was a dinner I could have had somewhere in the Ironbound, at a relative’s house in summertime, the screen door open to an alley with tomato vines growing near the bricks, and Ralph Kiner calling the Mets game in the other room.

All of these dishes were, in taste and presentation, creative. Yet none was particularly weird. Thirty Acres’ pasta greco felt, to me, like a puttanesca with really good feta added to it. The salad was a basic Italian number with summer cherries in the place where you’d expect tomatoes. None of the music coming out of this kitchen was atonal — it was just using variations and chord substitutions to keep things interesting. That was Pemoulie’s basic strategy as a chef, and it’s one that’s pretty common in New York City. I did have a few appetizers at Thirty Acres that threw me: I remember, for instance, romaine leaves liberally dusted with bottarga, and I was not ready for that jelly. That hot yuzu sauce I mentioned above was a bit much for this bland, milk-drinking North American to handle. But at no point did Thirty Acres have a forbidding menu.  t would be a terrible shame if the restaurant was remembered as some Jersey side outpost of WD-50 — an arrogant imposition of New York culinary values on burger-hungry bruisers.  Unlike Kevin Pemoulie, whose sad post-mortem for his restaurant is a must-read for anybody concerned about the state of commercial development on either side of the Hudson, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pretensions. Before something can become real, it must first pretend to be that thing. When curious New Yorkers were actually taking the PATH Train to Grove Street to try Thirty Acres — during that short window before Carrino Provisions sunk and Talde was deemed nothing special — we were able to pretend that Downtown Jersey City was a budding culinary destination. That was fun while it lasted.  If it ever does happen for us, we ought to look back in thanks to those business owners who were willing to run their establishments on hope and ambition and little else.

September 11, 2014

I had: tagliatelle with mushrooms and thyme, tomatoes with celery vinegar, wintergreen ice cream

By now I was starting to get worried.  The food was as good as it had ever been, but the tables weren’t filling up.  A year before, it had been tough to get a table at Thirty Acres; in autumn 2014, it was possible to eat a full dinner at the restaurant without ever fretting about loud diners at your elbow at the table next to you. More intimate than it had been, and that was nice, but my worries about the fiscal well-being of the operation kept puncturing the romance. It was tough to see how the Pemoulies could have afforded to serve top-shelf ingredients when the place was jammed.  With the room half-full, it had become impossible.

After the closure was announced, Alex Pemoulie blamed the slowdown on the decision to drop the original BYOB policy and introduce a wine list. Getting a liquor license in New Jersey is onerous, and the chase for one has buried many good neighborhood places under heaps of debt. According to the Pemoulies, the initial BYOB crowd didn’t like the change, and abandoned the place. That liquor license was supposed to make Thirty Acres — a restaurant originally launched via Kickstarter — financially sustainable; instead, the move backfired.

We never brought any booze to Thirty Acres, so we can’t speak upon this. But the Pemoulies’ experience does make me wonder whether a nice restaurant that puts creative cooking first and treats alcohol as an afterthought can ever hope to compete with the many Hudson County places that not-so-secretly treat dinner as an excuse to sell drinks. I do understand that it’s far easier to make it as a bar than it is as a restaurant; all mark-ups aside, what you’re selling is nowhere near as perishable.  I am glad to say that we were never pressured to drink at Thirty Acres, and never treated any differently by the waitstaff after it had become clear that we were happy with sparkling water and didn’t require any intoxicants. This is not always the case in New Jersey restaurants. Even in really good ones, the pusherman’s grip on your shoulder can be awfully firm.

But there’s another reason for the waning interest in Thirty Acres, and it’s one that the Pemoulies were too polite to talk about. Any New Jersey operation with a New York pedigree will, sooner or later but usually sooner, face a vicious populist backlash. There are sound economic reasons for our defense mechanisms, but for a small business owner looking to do something different — something that could, potentially, be called pretentious — they can be crippling.  Some of our businesses survive by overcorrecting; they become shadows of themselves and reinforce stereotypes about the difference in quality and attitude on this side of the Hudson.  But sometimes the business owners cannot or will not alter the vision, which leads to charges of recalcitrance and tone-deafness, whisper campaigns, and nasty anonymous message-board posts. They don’t understand that this highfalutin stuff won’t fly in New Jersey.  These portions are too precious; I left hungry and was forced to drive to the Outback and down a water-buffalo steak like a real man should. These people are Manhattan wannabes. This is the kiss of death, and for people like me and Hilary who believe strongly in Jersey excellence, it can be oh so hard to watch. How I wish that Luke of Luke’s Lobster had talked to me first before choosing to open an outpost of his chain right next to the Black Bear in Hoboken; I would have had some pungent words for him. And how I wish I could have another bowl of that Thirty Acres wintergreen sorbet. Maybe in Seattle someday.

February 27, 2015

We had (at the bar): Fetuccine bolognese and butternut squash, fry bread

In 2014, Thirty Acres was the restaurant we went out to most frequently. In 2015, we barely went there at all. What changed? Everything, really; at least for us, and probably some of its other big fans, too. Last winter, the Pemoulies announced that Thirty Acres was adopting a tasting-menu format: seventy-five bucks for the Kevin Pemoulie omakase experience.

I hate tasting menus. Eating dinner out is fun; sitting at a table for hours and consuming everything under the sun feels more than little obsessive. If you’re presented with something you really like, naturally, you’re going to want more than a bite or two of it. If you’re presented with something you don’t, there’s no graceful way to swerve around it. No fancy preparation by any cook in the world is going to convince me to like animal livers, or sweetbreads, or seaweed, any more than I do, which is not very much, thank you. I would like to look at a tight little list of pasta options and select the one that best matches what I’m hungry for — usually the simplest one — eat it cheerfully, leave a big tip, and go home.  Even prix fixe menus have begun to feel coercive to me. These days, I don’t worry about being unimpressed by the food I’m served at restaurants. I worry about being overwhelmed by it.

Tasting menus are supposed to be high class. But whenever a restaurant I like adopts a tasting menu, I always assume it’s a desperation move made by an owner on the ropes. (Sushi places are an exception, but even there, I’d much rather order from a menu than surrender my agency, and my digestive system, to the chef.)  I can understand how an artistic cook would like the widest possible canvas on which to present his point of view, and a tasting menu affords him an opportunity for storytelling that a la carte dining cannot. When I step back and look at it cynically, though, the tasting menu begins to look like a clever way to deal with the problem of un-ordered ingredients and unpopular dishes. That’s probably unfair for me to say, since I’ve never worked in a kitchen and I don’t have the first clue how ingredient acquisition happens. Yet I can’t help but think that one way for a restaurant to unload something nobody really wants is to make it impossible for the diner not to get it.

Thirty Acres offered a bar menu for walk-ins, too. At first, it was extremely limited and required diners to actually sit at the bar; by the end, when it expanded to resemble the old menu, the damage had been done. I hate the bar menu option, too. Just as I really wish restaurants would cut it out with the tasting menus, I also wish they’d stop dividing diners into grown-ups who are with the real program and timid creatures who are forced to eat at the kids’ table. (Worse still, I hate that the kids’ table is always facing the booze.) It’s insulting, and for a diner like me who is prone toward feelings of guilt anyway, it’s an invitation to feel, straight through supper, that I’m letting the chef down.

I had a similar experience recently at Piora, which, unlike Thirty Acres, really is a restaurant that will empty your wallet in a hurry, and is therefore reserved for birthdays and/or dates with Saudi oligarchs. All I wanted was a bowl of Christopher Cipollone’s pasta perfection, and I was more than willing to pay top dollar to get it. This time around, we found the three pasta dishes relegated to the middle column of a prix fixe arrangement that cost $85 before dessert. If I only wanted the pasta, I could have ordered from the bar menu, but that decision would have exiled us from the beautiful Piora dining room — one of the restaurant’s selling points. Since I have nothing but the highest respect for Cipollone, we went ahead and ordered the prix fixe, which meant that I ended up with a halibut main course that, delicious as it was, felt superfluous to the experience I was after that evening.

The visit made me worry about the financial health of Piora, which, as a Michelin starred restaurant, ought to be in an impregnable position. Somehow, I now feel that it isn’t. I know that chefs like Cipollone and Pemoulie are never going to compromise the quality of the ingredients they use, or take shortcuts, or allow anything that lacks he artist’s signature to arrive on your table, no matter what the cost. Their reputations as kitchen magicians depend on that. So what do they do a few years in when sales take a dip, or when it becomes apparent that the cost of the expensive stuff that the chefs want to serve can no longer be covered by diners? They don’t put a cheeseburger on the menu. They come up with pricing schemes that make it easier for the kitchens to manage costs. If you already know how many orders of uni you’re going to sell, it’s a lot less likely that it’s going to go to waste.

Hopefully Piora is fine. They do things differently over there in New York, I am told — people aren’t quite as incredulous; they’re willing to believe things about the history of CBGB that would make a real punk rocker blush. Maybe Simon Kim, who owns the place, has super-deep pockets, or the angel investor that the Pemoulies’ didn’t. But I can’t help noticing that Piora does not enjoy the backing of a name restauranteur, isn’t part of any large group of hype restaurants like Union Square Hospitality or Major Food, and can’t depend on the backing of a hotel the way, say, Narcissa, or Little Park can. It is, so to speak, an independent, and if creative independents of all kinds face an uphill battle in New York City, just imagine what they’ve got to deal with on the (still) lower-rent side of the river. We don’t have a heavily-funded boutique hotel on Newark Avenue that might be willing to foot the bill for an experimental kitchen. Talde and Carrino did not start a gold rush. Local developers seem content to attract big-box retail and chain operations to their McSkyscrapers; it’s a buyer’s market, and you take what you can get. It ought to go without saying in a city of a quarter-million that there’s no shortage of kitchen talent in town. There’s also a fair amount of disposable cash: maybe not Brooklyn level, but enough to sustain good restaurants. But I worry that the closure of Thirty Acres might prompt a chef to conclude that there’s not much audience in Jersey City for adventurous cooking. That’s not the lesson I want anybody take from the Thirty Acres story. But hey, I’m just paying for noodles here.

In a context like ours, the miracle is not that Thirty Acres lasted as long as it did, but that Alex and Kevin Pemoulie decided to throw the dice on us in the first place. It was a nutty decision, but hey, many artists and almost all visionaries are a little nuts. In order to convince themselves that their enterprise could work, the Pemoulies had to have faith in a version of Jersey City that could sustain a place as unusual and imaginative as theirs. That town may or may not be coming into being, but as of December 1, 2015, it hasn’t arrived yet. If theirs was, ultimately, a foray into financial folly, I’m unashamed to have capitalized on it. For two years plus, I was able to get pasta perfection at my doorstep. I don’t expect that to happen again, And even if it does?, well, they get to say that they were here first. They’ll be remembered.

 

tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, Mr. Trump — thousands of Muslims did not celebrate in the Jersey City streets on 9/11

ISIS wants to create enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims.  That’s their game. Donald Trump’s game turns out to be pretty damned similar. While it pains me to draw a comparison between the frontrunner of a major American party and a bunch of homicidal thugs, it is Mr. Trump himself who keeps forcing the issue.  It is not enough that he proposes surveillance of mosques; now, he’s determined to resurrect a vicious Islamophobic urban legend that I though we’d put to bed fourteen years ago. He’d like you to believe that he saw thousands of Muslims dancing and cheering in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11.  Again, this baseless, unsupported accusation comes from the putative leader of a major American political party.

If you were actually in Hudson County on 9/11, there is almost no chance you heard Mr. Trump’s story as anything other than the divisive, exploitative bullshit that it is.  I’ll bet your memory of that day is painfully clear. But Jersey City has seen a spike in new residents since September 11, 2001. Some of them might have taken the word of a politician who is, for some inexplicable reason, treated by the mainstream press as an amusing comedian-provocateur rather than a blowhard who is constantly talking out of his ass.

Cheering was the very last thing you were likely to encounter in Jersey City on 9/11.  Everybody in town was frightened and confused.  Nobody was pointing fingers or thinking too hard about geopolitics — instead we were all trying to find out if our friends were alive.  If they were alive, we were preoccupied with the sticky task of getting them home across the Hudson. We were worried that more attacks were coming, and we wondered in horror whether there was any fissile material in the explosives.  Even the official timeline presented to us by the news didn’t seem to correspond to what we were witnessing.  We couldn’t make heads or tails of anything.  I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Jersey City residents — including our many Muslim residents — first heard of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden from George W. Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress.

The dust soon settled. Once it did, the finger-pointing and scapegoating and enemy-finding began in earnest. One of the nastiest rumors that began to circulate was the one about the wicked Arabs dancing in the street. I have a cousin who has a friend who was driving by a mosque overflowing with joyous Arabs. My son in law is a policeman and his off-duty partner saw evil Muslims popping champagne bottles on 1 and 9. Etcetera.  In retrospect, it was natural for survivors to visualize a boogeyman behind every bush. It was also possible to imagine that disaffected jerks who felt they’d been given a raw deal by American society might welcome a firm blow against the empire.

But in order for Trump’s cheering Muslims story to be true, the following would also have to be true:

  1. Thousands of Muslim Americans would have had to have extensive prior knowledge of the coming strike — extensive enough to be able to recognize, through the smoke and confusion and contradictory reports of the day, the attacks for exactly what they were,
  2. Everybody in these groups of Muslim Americans would have had to have been comfortable enough with carnage to keep their lips sealed,
  3. They would have had to have accepted al-Qaeda’s ridiculous perversion of Islam — one in which it is somehow spiritually permissible to be a mass-murderous bastard,
  4. They would have had to have gathered together on the day of the attacks as if they were going to watch the Super Bowl,
  5. They would have had to have been willing to make horse’s asses of themselves in public, right in front of a grieving city.

Do you know anybody like this? Of course you don’t. People like this exist in bad television programs and in the daydreams of demagogues.

Should you need further persuasion, consider that September 2001 wasn’t quite as far back in the Stone Age as we sometimes think it was. Nobody had an iPhone then, but amateur digital photographers and videographers were general throughout the city. If thousands of Muslims had been partying in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11, don’t you think some shocked bystander would have taken a shot of it? Wouldn’t you have? Since no footage of partying 9/11 Arabs exists anywhere, we must conclude that the story of the thousands of cheering Muslims is akin to Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness monster, or your date with Jennifer Lopez. To revive a meme that’s almost as old as the urban legend: pix or it didn’t happen.

As for Governor Christie’s mealy-mouthed reply to Trump’s calumny, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from this phony tough guy.  Apparently his present constituents are Islamophobic caucusgoers in Iowa, not the defamed residents of the state he’s supposed to be representing.  When Mr. Trump makes believe that thousands of Jersey Muslims were celebrating 9/11 — that a lethal fifth column was operating out of Ibby’s Falafel — he insults all of us. I wish we had a governor proud enough of New Jersey to respond, forcefully, to those insults.

Nobody knows for sure what Donald Trump’s damage is. He may actually be a delusional person. His headspace could be haunted by specters from the dark side of the American collective consciousness — crazed blacks on the loose and bomb-throwing Arabs and angry feminists out to Bobbitize him. We’ve all met people like this, although usually they’re drunks in a bar, not billionaires. Conversely, this may all be some perverse form of street theatre — a exercise in public credulity orchestrated by a confirmed huckster who may be seeing how far he can push his abject nonsense.

In either case it’s worth our while to sort this out before he starts winning primaries. In the meantime, I expect everybody in town who has a pulpit or a platform to say something.  If you’ve got a congregation that listens to you, you have a responsibility to take this personally, and to do what you can to repudiate this smear campaign against other Jersey City worship communities.  It is incumbent on you to demonstrate that we won’t be divided by an out-of-town oligarch determined to use our town as a backdrop for his Islamophobic fantasies.  The holidays are coming; what we ought to be organizing is an interfaith celebration in which we can pray together for the peace, humility, and reconciliation that all genuinely religious people seek. Wouldn’t that be a nice counterpoint to the scaremongering of the past two weeks? Churches, synagogues, mosques: I call on you.

 

tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISIS is baiting you. Don’t fall for it.

Grief, as C.S Lewis explained, can prompt a rational man to do foolish things.  For instance, just last night, I read the comments.  Not just the comments — I read several articles in famous publications that may as well have been comments, and I listened to the words of politicians who seem determined to be YouTube comments made flesh.  When you’re attacked, it’s logical and healthy to want to kick back as hard as you can.  I get that.  But everybody with access to a working modem (or a working political party) needs to take a moment and get serious. Because when we act like ISIS is, in any way, representative of Islam, we’re doing exactly what these jerks want us to do.  We’re stepping directly into their trap.

The entire business model for groups like ISIS depends on widespread Western failure to appreciate the distinction between devout Muslims and crazed nightclub shooters.  ISIS wants you to treat the Muslim on your block as if he’s packing heat in the name of Allah.  That way, you will support nativist politicians who aim to make life uncomfortable for outsiders, and those who practice Islam will become angry and (they hope) susceptible to their hate propaganda.  Life in the West gets harder for Muslims, suspicion builds, politically convenient battle lines develop, and ISIS’s grotesque parody of a caliphate begins, in theory, to look like a valid alternative to Western inhospitality.  They’re begging for us to seal the borders and treat Muslims like prospective criminals.  That’s their aim.  Let’s not take the bait.

Islam is a religion about submission to God’s will.  A real believer walks a path of humility and nonviolence and spends his life in the pursuit of holiness.  The moment he considers blowing up a theater or a cafe, he’s no longer a Muslim — he’s a murderer.  There is no resemblance between true Islam and the idiotic beliefs of ISIS, and anybody who tries to tell you otherwise needs to go read the Koran. Miley Cyrus occasionally raps; you don’t mistake her for a genuine emcee, right? Just because this al-Qaeda spinoff operation calls themselves Islamic State doesn’t mean they know thing #1 about the religion they purport to represent.

Luckily, there is a word for what the members of ISIS are, and it’s a word we don’t use nearly enough.  These people are fascists. Their movement conforms to everything we’ve learned — mostly the hard way — about international fascism: their thirst for purity, their fear of human sexuality, their faith in strength through violence, their intolerance and illiberalism, and their antisemitism, too; all of that stuff is straight from the fascist playbook. Their appeal to disaffected young people with a belligerent streak and a desire to lash out against modernity is the same one used by the Brownshirts — with remarkably little altered in translation.

Fascism needs to be opposed, hard, at all times and in all places.  Sometimes that means physical fighting.  More often, it needs to be dismantled ideologically. We have to make it clear, and convincing, that a culture of Yes is always preferable to a culture of No, and we have to stay true to that idea.  We can’t be hypocritical; we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged toward the fascist murk by people who’d like nothing better than to see an authoritarian clampdown across the Western world. The Syrian refugee crisis was a source of immense embarrassment for ISIS — not because they give a damn about the fate of the people displaced by sectarian violence, but because the millions seeking asylum made it clear, with their own two feet, that they’d sooner wander around Europe than support the imaginary caliphate. ISIS had to watch while the leaders of the Western world — the world they need to demonize in order to keep their campaign going — opened their doors to Muslims in need, and made them welcome.

Sometimes we call ISIS “radical”, or “radicalized;” this, too, is totally unearned.  There’s nothing radical about shooting the poor merch guy at a rock concert; that kind of brutality and mindlessness has, sadly, accompanied the human race for centuries.  What Angela Merkel did was radical in its courage. Openness is radical precisely because people who can’t manage it can never imagine that other people are capable of it; thus, it stands as a challenge to jerks everywhere. Radical compassion jeopardizes their mission, their narrow worldview, their entire reason to be.

I read today that France wants to suspend the Schengen agreement that has, for decades now, insured that national borders within the EU remain open. Several U.S. states have decided to refuse Syrian refugees. Mr. Trump is angling for surveillance of mosques. ISIS could not have scripted this any tighter. Don’t take my word for it; take theirs. Since their emergence as a blot on the world map, they’ve made it theiraim to drive wedges between Western governments and ordinary Muslims. Our prejudice is their best propaganda. When we act like the actions of ISIS somehow follow from the precepts and tenets of Islam, it is a monumental insult to centuries of Islamic scholars, statesmen, scientists, artists, craftspeople, and everyday believers.

Don’t mistake this for a pacifist appeal, or an understatement of a genuine threat.  There are indeed people out there who want to blow you up, not all of whom live in the Middle East. The success of the anti-fascist movement — and if you are a rocker, or a writer, a lover, a real Christian or a real Muslim, you’re part of it — depends on you keeping your head.  Violent provocation can’t go unanswered. This is, however, not a predicament we can bomb our way out of. If it was as easy as leveling Raqqa, the battle would have been over long ago.

Many factual questions remain unanswered: for instance, Mr. Hollande needs to explain to people how it was that eight maniacs on the loose in Paris had access to giant arsenal. Before any sweeping geopolitical conclusions are reached, the exact link between the shooters and the landlocked gunmen in Syria who call themselves the Islamic State has got to be established, and firmly. But all of that is the easy part (or it ought to be if our governments are honest.) The hard part: convincing bewildered and frightened Westerners that Islam isn’t the enemy. No civilizations need to clash. Allow me to lend my hand, small as it is: I, an American Bible-thumper, stand today with millions of my Muslim brothers and sisters in abhorrence of the violence in France and elsewhere. Better than the secular can, we recognize that these were not the acts of God-fearing people. God-fearing people know that judgment will come, in ways sublime and profound — and that that judgment does not begin on some mystic day of reckoning. It begins right now.

tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

Jersey City, please pave my street

It is with mixed emotions that I read in the Journal of the municipal government’s satisfaction with the progress of our bikeshare program.  Apparently it is going well: a couple thousand people have signed up for it.  Does that sound like a lot? I don’t know. I am not sure whether this constitutes success, or justification, or whether the public response to the newly available CitiBikes has secretly underwhelmed its backers.  Nor do I ever expect to know: this is an administration obsessed with appearances, and the bikes would probably have to be radioactive for the government to admit disappointment in a signature project. When I see CitiBikers on the street, I’m always happy. I like to imagine that they’re people who’ve made a decision to leave the automobile at home.  Maybe they are, and maybe they’re just bicycle enthusiasts.

Trouble in the bike lane.
Trouble in the bike lane.

I would like the bike share program to succeed.  I ride my ike around Jersey City every day, so I would like to see this town become a good place to cycle.  Right now, it isn’t; not at all. A cyclist taking my daily route — which takes me from the Downtown to the University — can expect extreme turbulence, and close encounters with our town’s crippling construction mania. My block is a patchwork of pavement, applied by road crews at different times and at various elevations and thicknesses, in order to cover holes dug during sewer excavations and cable burials. For awhile this summer, the street outside my house was, for all intents and purposes, a parking lot for huge service vehicles. Gravel from various construction projects is regularly strewn all over the road. Our sorry-looking crosswalk has been eaten away by roadwork. Around the corner, the city has slapped several of its ubiquitous metal plates over a crater big enough to swallow a Honda.

These are not inviting surfaces for bicyclists. Navigating the road closures, traffic detours, and man-made sand traps of the Jersey City downtown requires active ingenuity and serious concentration. I can see a certain kind of cyclist finding it fun — somebody who is excited by the prospect of parkour on wheels. But that’s the kind of cyclist you find on an Appalachian mountain, not an urban commuter who expects the street to be acceptably paved. What good is a bikeshare program if the streets are going to remain in such deplorable condition?

The sand hills of Jersey City.
The sand hills of Jersey City.

It’s not just the Downtown. Cycling on Kennedy Boulevard south of Ege — that’s the stretch by the University — felt, for weeks, like a trip on the surface of an English muffin. Grand Street between the Turnpike entrance and Communipaw has always been treated like a speedway by motorists; add uneven pavement and potholes along the curbs and you’ve got yourself a black diamond ride. Because it’s diagonal, Grand connects several neighborhoods that don’t always talk to each other. During the launch of the CitiBike program, the government made a big deal about its decision to put cycle stations all over the city — as if any other other programme would have been morally acceptable. Instead of fishing for congratulations for a commitment to unity that ought to go without saying, how about making it possible to actually get from neighborhood to neighborhood without falling into a hole or getting flattened by a muscle car?

I understand that Jersey City has a serious problem with its sewer system, and I also recognize that Sandy exposed that problem to a wider audience. I can’t knock the city for moving with with urgency before the next drainage catastrophe happens. But simple politeness dictates that if you tear up my street to get at what’s underneath, you put it back the way you found it.  Macadam costs money, of course, and I’m assured this municipal government is always looking for novel (and often self-serving) ways to cut costs.  I have noticed, though, that there is always money available for cheesy self-promotion: like the 1.2 million dollars the city spent on an embarrassment of a destination marketing campaign meant to rebrand Jersey City as hip and cool. Do you know who spends fistfuls of dollars trying to convince you they’re hip and cool? Poseurs. The genuinely hip and cool never need to spend a dime.

The west side of the block.
The west side of the block.

Does the government recognize the magnitude of the problem?  I don’t think so. Our elected officials are always around when there’s a parade or a press opportunity, but I somehow doubt they contend with the same exigencies that we do. Otherwise, how would you explain the recent, completely bonkers proposal by the Downtown councilwoman to expand parking hours for visitors?  In twenty years in Hudson County, this had to have been one of the least timely ideas I’d ever heard.  Congestion on Jersey City streets is already ridiculous. Monmouth Street has become an extension of the Holland Tunnel.  Parking is tight — and the road work and Emergency-No Parking signs on every pole and every bush have only made it tougher. After an outcry from residents, the proposal was struck.  But it’s pretty damning that anybody in power thought this was a reasonable idea in the first place. It betrays a troubling degree of disengagement.

I complain because I still have some doe-eyed faith left in the power of representative democracy. That faith leads me to believe that our public servants do not want me to fall off my bike and break my neck. But when I’m coming home to my one-streetlight block late at night, and I’m contending with pavement salad, hell, that’s pretty dangerous. The city wants me to ride my bike, which is great: that coincides nicely with my own desires. Now how about making it possible for me, and others, to ride safely? It is irritating that Jersey City blew a chance to design a bike share program with other Hudson County towns, choosing instead to make its campaign a rolling blue billboard for a bank that isn’t even headquartered here.  It’s irritating that, given any opportunity, this administration will always import ideas, design, brands, you name it, from New York City. The CitiBike docking stations sure were put in strange places. But all those are minor issues compared to the state of the roads. The state of the roads is a crying shame. City government, before the snow falls and really makes a mess of things, please pave my block. And the next one over, and the next one over, and the next one over, and etcetera.  It’s long overdue.

Tris McCall lives on Fourth Street between Monmouth and Coles.  tris@trismccall.net.

 

 

 

 

 

I hate the Shepard Fairey mural

Mayor Healy used to like to talk about the wave. During his re-election campaign in 2009 — this was well before Solomon Dwek and Bid Rig ended his political relevance — he liked to say that Jersey City was hot, and we were all about to ride the wave to some unspecified shoreline. But the wave metaphor precedes Healy by decades at least: from the moment I moved to Hudson County in the early ’90s, people have been forecasting a great surge of creativity in Jersey City. Years have gone by, Downtown property values have gone way up, developers have gotten rich, politicians have come and gone (some to jail), and the promised upsurge has never arrived. And as these things generally go, the non-appearance of this wave has flustered local boosters. Over time, reports of the coming wave have grown more hysterical, and tougher for anybody with an ounce of discernment or perspective to have any faith in.

Now the metaphor has reached a cheesy apotheosis. In an embarrassing gesture of overcompensation, alleged artist Shepard Fairey has painted a gigantic wave on the side of a building fronting the Grove Street PATH plaza. Because Fairey has an international reputation, certain celebrity-impressed Downtowners have rushed to hail this corny cliche of a mural as a landmark of sorts and proof that, by gosh, this wave is imminent. If we paint it big enough and bright enough, and make it so that every visitor and commuter has no choice but to be confronted by it, we might be able to convince ourselves that it’s here.

But if it was here, would we need to turn to an out-of-town huckster and obviousness-peddler like Shepard Fairey to create our public art? We would not. We would be able to do much better. Fairey is notorious for plagiarism, uncredited appropriation, and the commodification of images associated with assorted leftist causes. Even when he’s ripping things off right and left, his art still feels generic; yes, I realize that the interchangeability of images is part of his point, but that’s no excuse for broadcasting imaginative bankruptcy. Frankly, I don’t think a Jersey artist would have it in him to be as craven, or as guileless, as Fairey has been over his career. I also don’t think a Jersey person would hide behind fair use or chase celebrity as grotesquely as Fairey has. That’s never been our style, and, hopefully, it never will be.

Fairey is probably best known for the 2008 “HOPE” propaganda poster that packaged and branded Barack Obama as if he was a can of beans. This was a major component of the landslide of hooey that helped the packagers pretend that candidate Obama was a transformational/messianic figure rather than a talented machine politician from Chicago. You might have liked this poster; you may have, God help you, even found it heartwarming. What can’t be denied, though, is that the basis of the image was swiped without attribution from AP photographer Manny Garcia — something Fairey tried, clumsily, to cover up. When the AP sued Fairey, his response was far more Gordon Gekko than Che Guevara, and got him into the sort of hot water that might convince sober locals to bar the door. But legal trouble has never prevented anybody from doing business in Jersey City in the past, so why start quibbling now?

The wave painting is the latest example of Jersey City’s mural addiction, which, as developers race to find more filling for their cheese-stuffed marketing materials, only appears to be worsening. The municipal government seems intent on treating the whole cityscape like a children’s coloring book. Come to think of it, this is actually a pretty good metaphor for how things are done around here: no deep structural changes, but a fresh and distracting coat of paint on the same old stuff. I can see the appeal to the suits in charge. A city wall is, on its own, a very pretty thing — it takes a truly notable painting to improve on the natural rhythms of brick and concrete. The area around the Grove Street PATH station plaza was already rich in signification and didn’t need any additional decoration. Mostly, the mural we’ve gotten will be a daily reminder of our town’s willingness to indulge copycats.