February 11, 2014

Critics Poll XXIV — My Ballot, Part 2

The furthest thing from perfect, like everyone I know.


The front of Paramore gives you everything you need to know going in. The band is now a trio. Hayley Williams is on the right side and she isn’t looking directly at the camera; she’s trying to convince you that she isn’t the focus, but of course she is. It’s pitch black behind them ‘cuz they’re coming out of the darkness, see. They are stained with pigment like they’ve been to a paint party, which advertises their awareness of present trends and an allegiance to new wave. Also, they’re mad as hell and not going to take “it” anymore, where “it” is defined as opprobrium from anybody who willfully misunderstands the band, including former members of the band. So that was the most helpful album cover. My favorite image, though, is the Munch-influenced moon face on the cover of Steven Wilson’s haunted The Raven That refused To Sing (And Other Stories). As I wrote when St. Vincent won this Poll two years ago, prog-rock confronts existential anxiety better than any other style. Here’s your latest visual representation of the void. I think Roger Dean would approve.


I wanted to vote for Adam Ant Is The Blueblack Hussar In Marrying The Gunner’s Daughter because I applaud how Adam Ant has extended a costume party into the new millennium that by all rights should have ended in 1983. Also, I dig the specific way it doesn’t make sense. But the announcement of the handle of Yeezus kicked off a rhetorical knife-fight that shows no sign of abating. Not even Nas’s Nigger, which he didn’t go through with, put the same kind of dent in mass consciousness. C’mon, you’re a heathen — you dig blasphemy. Give him this one at least.


The photo essay inside Meet Me At The Edge Of The World by Over The Rhine sure is purty. But the Okkervil River album came with a map, and gosh am I a sucker for that.


I love Say Anything, I love Eisley, and most of all I love love. But I wasn’t sure I needed to hear Sherri DuPree and Max Bemis singing love songs about each other to each other. This is what Paula Carino calls Mertzcore — twee married-couple rock — and it can be too damned much, even for Romeo over here. I expected Perma to be a mason jar of homemade mush. Instead I got a tight little set of barbed reflections on romance, dumb jokes and living room hooey, theater-major mischief, all-purpose make-believe. Bemis and DuPree have done a swell job of harmonizing their distinctive songwriting styles; even more surprisingly, they’ve done a swell job of harmonizing, period. I wasn’t sure that Max had it in him. Say what you want about that homeschool the DuPree family is running out of Tyler, but they do seem to be preparing the graduates well for regional community theatre. They don’t even have to get the leads necessarily. Let Nate Ruess and Pink play Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown; Sherri and Max can be Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. Marry the man today, and change his ways tomorrow.


The Pistol Annies. Not so much Ashley Monroe, who is justified, I guess, in saving her best stuff for her solo project. Not so much Miranda Lambert, either, who must have had the devil’s own time reconciling her participation in an equal-partners singing group with her Us Weekly cover girl status. No, I’m principally disappointed in Angaleena Presley, who went from a self-sufficient trailer park hellion to a soppy dependent overnight. She was thinking about setting the house on fire, and now she’s craving a hard-workin’ greaseball who won’t do the dishes? She was sick to death of squirrel stew and hunting shows, and now she’s fretting about the moral implications of single motherhood? What happened to the woman with the Honk if You’re Horny bumper sticker on the back of her Caddy? The whole point of the Pistol Annies was that they were women facing the economic downturn on their own terms, good sense be damned. If they’re going to play ball with the patriarchy, the bottom falls out of the project.


Pure Heroine. It starts with pure teenager talk — bravado, in the artist’s own words — that multiplies and deepens with each line until you’re standing outside your high school on a forty degree morning in November, dreading the opening bell. Remember how Andre 3000 rapped in “The Real Her” about how he understood Adele? That’s how I feel about Lorde. In “400 Lux” she gives you orange juice and an aimless cruise through the suburbs and a half-conversation so real that you can practically see the condensation on the windshield. There’s the boyfriend, wrists on the steering wheel, trying and not trying to impress, and then she drains a bottle and he drains a bottle, and they don’t have to say anything. They know the moment will hang in the air forever, daring to be plucked but always out of reach. Years later, some crazy kid will put out a record like Pure Heroine, and they’ll both snap back to that cruise on a tree street, and they’ll remember that one day when nothing happened, something happened.


Uh-huh, honey.


People who don’t like pop will often complain about how locked down it is: eight bars to the chorus, and then another verse, and then another chorus, and maybe a bridge for variation if the songwriter’s McCartney aspirations haven’t been beaten out of him by the marketplace. He did not learn this in church. What I have come to appreciate about gospel music is that any song can burst into flames at any moment — and this is meant to be a foretaste of the sudden transcendence you’re supposed to feel when you’re lifted to glory like Elijah on the whirlwind. Good gospel singers feel no need to hard-sell you a hook: they know you know something big is coming. Tye Tribbett’s Greater Than contains songs that sound like they aren’t going to do anything until they do, and when they do, you know you’ve been spoken to. “Beauty For Ashes”, for instance, glides along like a boring ballad for about three minutes until the downstroke when Tye and his choir start shouting about how God won’t let them be. Although Tribbett keeps switching up beats and styles from Caribbean music to Stevie Wonder soul to prog to ragtime, “He Turned It” isn’t like that: it’s ten minutes of everything he’s got to give. That’s my runner up. But Tribbett’s mastery is actually outdone by Bishop Hezekiah Walker, who lets the non-radio edit of “Every Praise” build for what seems like forever, and he certainly wants it to seem like an approximation of forever, and there he is with the shepherd’s staff in his hand, driving the flock higher and higher without pausing to catch his breath. At Gospelfest in Newark, Walker brought out an 80-voice choir to do “Every Praise,” and he kept them at it for a quarter of an hour. Every time I thought he couldn’t push it any harder, he found another gear. Every time I thought he’d made it to the summit, another peak would materialize, and he’d be scaling the heights all over again. By the end of the song, he had everybody in the congregation  — because by then it was a congregation — on their knees or standing on the chairs or hugging or handshaking or itching to pass out. And the Bishop did it with a piece of straightforward, Commodores-style ’80s pop-soul that should should not have accommodated a rapture. If God can make loaves and fishes out of this, what, I ask, can He not do? Hence:


  • 1. Bishop Hezekiah Walker — “Every Praise”
  • 2. Sky Ferreira — “I Blame Myself”
  • 3. Lorde — “The Love Club”
  • 4. Tegan & Sara — “Closer”
  • 5. Donald Lawrence — “There Remaineth A Rest”
  • 6. Lorde — “Royals”
  • 7. Kanye West — “New Slaves”
  • 8. Drake — “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
  • 9. Janelle Monae — “Dance Apocalyptic”
  • 10. Gerardo Ortiz — “Damaso”
  • 11. Rihanna & Mikky Ekko — “Stay”
  • 12. Beyonce — “Pretty Hurts”
  • 13. Eleanor Friedberger — “Stare At The Sun”
  • 14. The Wonder Years — “Dismantling Summer”
  • 15. Tye Tribbett — “If He Did It Before (Same God)”
  • 16. Drake — “Started At The Bottom”
  • 17. Pink & Nate Ruess — “Just Give Me A Reason”
  • 18. CHVRCHES — “Recover”
  • 19. Janelle Monae & Erykah Badu — “Q.U.E.E.N.”
  • 20. B.o.B & 2 Chainz — “Headband”


Janelle Monae.


Honestly? Janelle Monae. Many other rappers did more, but nobody’s verses excited me the way hers did. Yes, she sounds like Lauryn Hill. That’s a problem? One of these days, she’s got to drop a mixtape.


The DuPree Family Players. That troupe gets larger every year.


Who plays on Personal Record? I only got the promo. No liner notes for me.


Omar Hakim on Random Access Memories. Two other performances to single out, too: Marco Buccelli on Xenia Rubinos’s “Cherry Tree”, and whoever it is rapping the snare on Gerardo Ortiz’s modern-day narcocorrido “Damaso.” They demonstrate the multidimensionality of hyperactivity. Both of these drummers are loaded with nervous energy, but Ortiz’s man plays with murderous precision, and Buccelli is like a friendly octopus under the influence of Cap’n Crunch.


“Started From The Bottom”, just for that what-is-it digital washboard sound effect.


The firm of Cook, Doherty, and Mayberry; aka CHVRCHES.


Rostam Batmanglij, and don’t try this at home. Every musician who has ever suffered through years of piano lessons fantasizes about justifying the pain and suffering by inserting classically-inspired arpeggios into world-famous pop songs. Vampire Weekend isn’t quite world-famous yet, but they’re well on their way, which means that this has worked exactly once. Everybody else who has tried it has left a mess on the steps of the conservatory. I’d love to know how Batmanglij gets away with half of what he does.


Richard Thompson and Brad Paisley both put albums out this year, and I’m having a harder and harder time telling those two sproingy characters apart. If you need somebody to go SPROINGGG, mid-solo, on a Stratocaster, you can’t get a boingier sproing than they can provide. Yet I’m going to go with Josh “Dior” Homme for electric six-string, and Laura Marling for acoustic six-string. Hey, did you know that Laura Marling is actual nobility? She’s descended from the First Baronet of Marling. There’s a family crest and everything, which would sure look swell on a kick drum head. In other words, she actually could be royals. Right, like you couldn’t tell.


Guthrie Govan on Steven Wilson’s “Drive Home.”


Laura Marling.


Power up, as they say in the android wonderground, to team Sky Ferreira for “I Blame Myself.” Justin Raisen, who is the fullback on Team Sky Ferreira, also did some nifty writing for Charli XCX, too. These scientists have isolated the stem cells that created “Borderline” before they evolved into “Material Girl” and “La Isla Bonita” and a whole bunch of other crap songs I never want to hear again in my life.  Lady Gaga is pounding on the door of the lab with both fists. She wants in. Put down that chair, Lady Gaga, and let Sky Ferreira have her turn. That aside, my enthusiastic triple-exclamation-point answer in this category is Tye Tribbett, who managed by a thunderclap of divine grace to simultaneously be 100% gospel and 100% prog. If you have any remaining doubts that Tribbett (!!!) is the name you need to know regardless of your religious faith or lack thereof, check out these two amazing YouTube clips of South Carolina ringers tearing through his songs. Peep the harmonic structure and the audacity of the composition. Charlie Daniels said it in 1979: against a great musician on his purpose, the Devil stands no chance.


So this has become like Division III athletics. You don’t put New Jersey City University up against UNC, and you can’t expect your basic fader-pusher to hang with Yeezus. It is, as we used to say on the playground, cream teams. Consolation prize goes to Greg Kurstin for his work on Heartthrob, but everybody is playing catch-up and they know it.


One more thing, and then I promise I’m going to stop talking about Kanye West and his minions. C’mon, don’t click on that cute otter video yet. Hang with me. If Kanye is really the asshole that he plays on TV and in various radio appearances, why is it that nobody — and I mean nobody — ever jumps ship or talks shit? He has never discarded a single collaborator. Everybody who has ever made music with this purported insufferable megalomaniac says the same thing: Kanye is a tireless worker and an inspired idea man who makes everybody around him better. Other rappers beef with each other. Kanye beefs with the President(s) of the United States. I’ll tell you what I think: I think the “real” Kanye West is a studio nerd who screws around all day with synthesizer sounds, shoe designs, and filthy punchlines. I think he’s just a guy driven to make tons of stuff — a volcano eruping stuff — and he’s decided that the best way to defy those who want to put limitations on his creativity is to lead with a performance of arrogance. But when you scan his music for evidence of that arrogance, it’s not there. He’ll defer to Jeff Bhasker and Mike Dean. If Noah Goldstein has a good idea?, sure, Noah, come out from behind the board and get your production credit. If the record isn’t coming together the way he wants it to, he’s willing without hesitation to hand the tracks over to Rick Rubin for reduction. This is not the behavior of a guy who thinks he knows best and screw you if you believe you’ve got an edit for the great infallible me. Maybe you can’t tell him nothing about his chain or his girlfriend or the suicide doors on his Bentley. If you’ve got a good idea for something he’s working on, he’s all ears. As music fans, that’s the only thing that ought to matter to us.


A Is For Alpine.


Vienna Teng, “Hymn Of Acxiom”. A less sensitive lyricist would have demonized the data mining company. “Hymn Of Acxiom” brings out surveillance culture as a byproduct of our too-human desires. If it sounds like sympathy for the devil, rest assured that she places the song within the “Critique” segment of the Venn diagram she includes in the liner notes. Moreover, let’s have a few more pop singers comfortable using Venn diagrams.


Pure Heroine. The reason I get the chills every time she sings “we’re on each other’s team” is because she’s just spent twenty minutes setting up the punchline, and making the stakes crystal clear. As a reluctant grownup, I don’t get to identify anymore. But boy do I remember.


  • 1. Paramore @ Susquehanna Bank Center
  • 2. Bishop Hezekiah Walker @ Gospelfest
  • 3. Kendrick Lamar @ Summer Jam
  • 4. Paul McCartney @ Barclays Center
  • 5. Taylor Swift @ MetLife Stadium
  • 6. Frightened Rabbit @ Webster Hall
  • 7. Brandi Carlile @ The State Theatre
  • 8. Miranda Lambert @ PNC Bank Arts Center
  • 9. Kirk Franklin @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center
  • 10. Bruno Mars @ Prudential Center
  • 11. Tegan & Sara @ Starland Ballroom
  • 12. Taylor Swift @ Prudential Center
  • 13. Drake @ Prudential Center
  • 14. Kanye West @ Barclays Center
  • 15. Elvis Costello @ Bergen Performing Arts Center
  • 16. Diana Ross @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center
  • 17. Hall & Oates @ The Beacon Theatre
  • 18. David Byrne & St. Vincent @ The Wellmont Theatre
  • 19. Little Big Town @ Irving Plaza
  • 20. Nine Inch Nails @ Prudential Center


A Tribe Called Quest, warming up the Barclays Center for Kanye West. Okay, I lied; I guess I have more to say. Here’s what a Kanye audience is like: the two guys sitting behind me were discussing sabermetrics before the show, the guy to my right was reading Hulk comics, and the girls in front of me knew every word to “Buggin’ Out” and “Scenario”. I’m hopeless. Go on, hit that otter video.


Bon Jovi at MetLife Stadium. Making nice with Bon Jovi is part of the job description, but when Jon Bon apologized to the fans for Richie Sambora’s absence with that politician’s grin on his face, I snapped. They played in front of a gigantic simulated car, and I just wanted it to run them all over. Sorry.


  • Rihanna, “Stay”
  • Beyonce, “Rocket”
  • Chance The Rapper, “Everybody’s Something”
  • Janelle Monae, “Q.U.E.E.N.”
  • Lorde, “Royals”


Beyonce Knowles. Seventeen videos — all really good videos — released at once? MJ never did that. Do you know that there were only three clips shot for Thriller? Different era and all, but still. I, too, wince when Beyonce  uses the b-word in “***Flawless”. I know she didn’t wake up like this. But the point of the song as I take it is not to present Beyonce as a perfect person, but to reassure you that no matter how you woke up this morning, you should not spend the rest of the day beating the shit out of yourself over it. If Beyonce still feels the need to hurt herself in the name of prettification, she’s telling you that you don’t have to follow her example. Just like you, she’s slouching toward feminism. Just like you, she’s going to make mistakes and say the wrong things and look like an idiot from time to time. But look how far she’s come: four years ago, she was telling you that if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it, and now she’s hanging with pissed-off Nigerians who want to call your attention to the double standard in modern marriage. This is modern pop: we’re never going to get Luce Irigiray on the mic. A former perfectionist star is willing to put her own very real struggle to be a better person in the spotlight and risk a stumble. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be the first one to give my sister a hand if she happens to fall.  


Eisley, “The Night Comes”. I also dig Perma’s “Let’s Start A Band”, which is half a justification for the project, and half a big old sloppy Valentine to rock music.


I’m partial to the DJ Crash Crash bits on The Electric Lady, especially the one with Peggy Lakeshore and Josh the android conspiracy theorist. But those aren’t songs. My vote is Of Montreal’s “Hegira Emigre”. Like everything else about Kevin Barnes, his development has been singular. First he wanted to write character songs. Then he wanted to tell you that George W. Bush was bad (this was a rough period). Then he was all about Scandinavian desolation. After that, he had some things to tell you about his penis. Now he just wants to be the most vicious attack dog in the kennel. It’s an unrepeatable trajectory, and I’m not sure anybody would ever want to try. 


Terry Allen, “Emergency Human Blood Courier”. Kiss Land was supposed to be scary, but isn’t. Beyond the stories of vaguely coercive sex and drunk limousine drivers, it’s a Hardships of the Road album just like Jackson Browne or the REO Speedmiller Band used to make.


The Wonder Years, “Dismantling Summer”. More on this in the concluding essay.


Alpine, “Gasoline”.


“There Remaineth A Rest” inspires me to read scripture. Why don’t my vocals ever come out like that? Doesn’t YHWH want a goddamned joyful sound out of me, rather than this proletarian pipsqueak he’s blessed me with? When I was a kid, I dreamed I’d play second base for the Mets one day. Now all I want to be when I grow up is Donald Lawrence. Yeah, I know, I’ve got a better chance of suiting up at CitiField this summer.


The prevailing theme in 2013 music went like this: I am an important artist man, and I can’t make this relationship work. Plus, I cheated on you, and somehow, you should feel responsible for this. We got this from the Weeknd, Drake, Jimmy Eat World, Kanye, the Alkaline Trio, Biffy Clyro, and a landslide of lesser acts with lesser perspectives. The Front Bottoms’ album was, at base, pretty vicious, too. But the coldest version of this story came from Frank Turner, whose emotional manipulation and self-entitlement on Tape Deck Heart makes Abel Tesfaye look like a model boyfriend by comparison. I get it, Turner: music is your mistress. On the vicious “Tell Tale Signs”, Turner’s supercilious narrator attempts to convince “Amy” that she’s too small-minded and inexperienced for him given his profound rock and roll experience, and then he acts surprised when she shows him the door. “You should be more to me by now than just heartbreak in a short skirt.” And if she isn’t, whose fault is that, pal?


The Pet Shop Boys’ electropop reading of Springsteen’s “Last To Die.” Neil Tennant has been making me laugh out loud for the last 20 years, and I sure appreciate that, but it would be a terrible shame if all anybody remembered about Electric was “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct.”


Ella Yelich-O’Connor.


I settled on Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, but it’s been a long century already. My favorite song, though, is “If She Wants Me” by Belle & Sebastian.




Desire Lines by Camera Obscura.


Cassadee Pope’s Frame By Frame. I thought that if I squinted as hard as I could, I might mistake it for a new Taylor Swift album. Eventually I realized that you can’t squint your ears.


Rats, I forgot to pick up this year’s Black Milk album.


I love him and I’m glad he’s been elected president of Detroit. But the back half of Danny Brown’s Old is a chore. Drug experiences always seem super fascinating to those who are having them, but that’s because they’re high on drugs. I understand when people say that Danny is pure schtick, because he is, and he’s unapologetic about it. He’s a cartoon character like Pogo or Bill The Cat. His music will work on you to the degree that you buy the story: if you think that the horrors of growing up in Detroit justify drug abuse later in life, then you will also think that the first half of the album justifies the second. If not, you will have migraine.


Acid Rap. Who was in control of the button that triggered the sample of Chance going IGH! IGH! IGH! He was like lemme just pound the fuck out of this IGH straight through IGH the IGH album. Whee!


Say, did you know that Jay Z has money? What about power, did you know he has both money and power, and also girls? Did you realize this stuff? Also, did you know that his status as an African American in America from the P.J.s made his rise to fame and fortune more unlikely than it would have been had he been a white person from Maplewood? He is truly an unusual man.


I’d like to know what a Japanese Christmas is.


Long.Live.A$AP. Rocky has very little to contribute besides rhymes about cars and girls, but that is enough. Cars and girls are the bread and butter of pop. There’s no way to improve on it, so you may as well go with it. State of the art production, too, but that’s not the reason to tune in.


Random Access Memories


The Greatest Generation by the Wonder Years. The problem isn’t that it all sounds the same. It’s pop-punk; of course it all sounds the same. The problem is that they got good.


Days Are Gone. A big trend in ’13: major label acts minting Fleetwood Mac and early Madonna fakes. The songs are all bathed in semi-cheesy period reverb, and toward the end of each track, a guitarist pops up and plays something that sounds like Lindsey Buckingham with a severe hand cramp. There’s a lot of this stuff out there on the MP3 weblogs at the moment, and what it actually resembles is Under The Blacklight minus Jenny Lewis’s organizing intelligence and personality. Now that I have joined the parade of jerks kicking the Haim sisters, allow me to say that I dig their album. Sometimes the marketing department really does identify a lane.


Jason Aldean. I defend him because he’s polite in interviews, and because his rap-country single featured Ludacris on a remix, and because he’s got a chip on his shoulder about East Coast attitudes toward flyover states. But his music is lunkhead stuff. I used to like Limp Bizkit, too, and this isn’t much better. Or much different.


Janelle Monae


Dev Hynes.




MGMT. What the hell was that?


Britney Spears, “Chillin’ With You”. Do you want to hear Britney Spears and her little sister do trap music? Because it is the in thing. Not for her in particular; for all white female pop stars. Lady Gaga did her awful trap record, and Katy Perry, who knows no other way, took hers to the top of the charts. I actually point the finger at Nicki Minaj for this development, but some of the blame has to go to the stars, who should have resisted this with all the clout they had in reserve. Not only are these records awful, but they’re stupendously racist, too. “Jewels and drugs, baby, hustle,” this is what the former Stefani Germanotta, resident artist at Rockwood Music Hall, has for us these days? Gaga, you’re not a killer, you’re a thespian, and to thine own self be true. It says so right on my copy of Born This Way.


Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. One way to make sure that people don’t think you’re “soft” is by running sound effects from a shootout over your love ballad. It’s also a way to make sure people don’t hear your love ballad.


The oddly bulletproof Pharrell Williams. One day he’s not going to have a rhythm section to bail him out, and things are going to get mighty sticky for him.


Miley Cyrus.


Justin Timberlake. Kill me with the coochie-coo, indeed. Then there’s the one where he rides the ass to the stars and makes love on the moon. I realize he thinks he’s so smooth and funky that it doesn’t matter what comes out of his mouth. It matters.


Ashley Monroe, “Hey Blues, You’re A Buzzkill”. No shit. How much bourbon have you had tonight, anyway, Monroe Suede?


Action Bronson.


Kacey Musgraves. There’s plenty about her that’s promising, but even if you think “mama’s hooked on Mary Kay/brother’s hooked on mary jane/daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down” is a witty chorus (it isn’t), there’s no excuse for the platitudes of “Silver Lining”, or the pettiness of “Step Off”, or the downright cruelty of “The Trailer Song”. She left that last one off of her debut album — but she also forgot to include “Undermine”, which remains her best song. Musgraves gave the most listless performance I saw in 2013: she came out onstage to a lukewarm reception in her support role on the No Shoes Nation tour, took the temperature of the crowd, sang like she was double-parked, and got the hell out of there. Forgive me if I found her perky act among the electric cacti at the Grammy Awards offensive in that context. You aren’t as good as your sets at awards shows; you’re as good as the sets you play when nobody’s watching. Even if the drunks were chucking red solo cups full of beer at her, I guarantee Miranda Lambert would have busted her ass out there.


12 Reasons To Die. I guess the RZA was playing chess against Deep Blue.


“Wake Me Up”.


“Nobody Asked Me If I Was Okay”.




Britney Spears.


Jimmy Eat World.


Time And A Word. Holy crow, this album is amazing. I don’t know why I didn’t realize this when I was 17 years old. I think the strings turned me off. As I have come to realize, the man Yes couldn’t afford lose was Bruford, and that’s because Squire plays so heavily that the band needs a drummer with a light touch to keep the music lively. On Tales From Topographic Oceans, Yes is crawling toward a new equilibrium — but when they find it on Relayer, it has none of the buoyancy of the first five albums. Yes, I am currently listening to Tormato as I type this; why do you ask?




Elvis Costello.


Icona Pop.


Surprise non-physical releases.


St. Vincent.


Previously on Critics Poll the Vampire Slayer:




My top 20 list and accompanying essay.





























February 8, 2014

Critics Poll XXIV — My Ballot, Part 1

The ghost of Kanye Joad.

On May 17, 2013, a man’s face appeared on the side of a building in the heart of the city. We recognized this man, but his face was defamiliarized by the context and the message. He began saying things that, for fear of getting called hypocritical, pop stars don’t ordinarily say. For instance, he said that materialism had made us slaves. He referred to the prison-industrial complex and the drug war as tools of underclass control. The images he used were violent: he alluded to lynchings, surveillance, slavery, forced miscegenation, institutional racism. It was designed to shake you up. It was a transmission from within the entertainment industry, but it did not seem to be ofthe entertainment industry. Maybe it was a tricky bit of marketing. Maybe somebody had gone rogue.

Three weeks later, the Guardian broke the story that the American government had been systematically spying on its citizens. This is something that we had all long suspected. Now we knew it for sure. Our first black president had authorized and extended a massive data collection operation begun under prior administrations and perfected in the new century. What followed was a chase from a bad thriller. The man who pulled the cover off of PRISM — the new abomination of Obama’s nation — spent the rest of June on the run, searching for a government that would shield him from retribution for blowing the whistle. As he petitioned unsavory regimes, a Florida court deliberated over the fate of a off-duty neighborhood watchman who’d shot and killed a black teenager. And on July 13, as Edward Snowden hid out in the international zone of a Moscow airport, George Zimmerman was acquitted.

In the midst of a summer of unease, the man from the building threw a bomb. The name of the bomb was Yeezus. Like all works of art built to detonate, it was funny, offensive, obscene, confrontational, ugly, and, above all else, loud. Reports of injury from the explosion were greatly exaggerated, but if you were sleeping at the time of the bomb, Kanye Omari West wanted you to wake the fuck up. The column of smoke that rose from the Yeezus crater took the shape of a demon from the popular American imagination: the unfettered Black Brute who will rape white women, endanger children, tear down middle-class morality and, through recidivism and indifference to education and self-restraint, destroy the established order. It was fear of the Brute that prompted Americans of all races to become the very worst versions of themselves. We put on white hoods and burned crosses. We segregated towns and scared women and children indoors. We supported laws that have led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans, and, as Michelle Alexander has written, more blacks under the control of the corrections industry today than there were in slavery at the time of the Civil War.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a complicated album. Yeezus is a simple one. Kanye West, whose work contains more Christian imagery than that of any other artist who is not classified CCM or gospel, recognizes something about the Jesus story that his critics — many of whom only pretend to read the Bible — have forgotten. The Jesus of the Gospels was a badass. He hung with criminals and whores. When he determined that commercialism was crowding out the temple’s message, he went in and wrecked shop like Maseo on “Pease Porridge.” It was for that, and for his refusal to bend to imperial authority, that representatives of a repressive regime decided that he had to be eliminated. West is not the first artist to draw a connection between the brown man who hung on a tree two thousand years ago and the brown men whose blood stained the leaves of the poplar trees of a New World founded in Jesus’s name. Yet West’s understanding of Christianity in its thorny totality gives his work the power to shake up listeners who are, whether they know it or not, always responding to the cornerstone story of civilization.

As for the charges of blasphemy that always accompany writing done after a genuine handshake with the Gospels, well, he made “Jesus Walks;” he’s never going to Hell. Besides, Yeezus knows that he isn’t Jesus. Jesus returned to establish man’s dominion over death and consecrate self-directed rebellion. Yeezus returns with an accusation of widespread illegitimacy — a suggestion that the flimsy ethical system that underpins our society is rotten and needs to be demolished. Yeezus has leapt off the noose, resurrected in the flesh but half wolf-flesh, running amok in America, scaring the hell out of moral guardians, upsetting apple-carts, fomenting general revolt.

You may well be revolted. Wanton disregard for the order of things may throw your digestive system into involuntary upheaval. West’s Yeezus bangs on your sternum with an open hand; he’s trying to get your heart pumping . Intertwined with the rebellion — and always germane to it — is a love story, and in its beautiful dark twisted way, it’s a moving one. The Brute stumbles from the wreckage of a past relationship (probably the one torched on 808s & Heartbreak, since Yeezus is loaded with musical and lyrical callbacks to West’s masterpiece) with far more guilt than grace. He crashes, filthy and hung over, on the couch of an ex-girlfriend. He loses himself in the raunchiest sex acts he can arrange, and blames money and the culture industry for a divorce that leaves him emotionally devastated and confused. Yeezus asks whether love between two people is even possible in a world that runs on inequality and exploitation. The answer, given on the last song, is a provisional yes, but Yeezus has to put himself through hell before he can achieve emotional rebirth. Kanye’s last two sets have ended with the narrator lost in the world and freezing in the coldest winter. Yeezus ends with a wedding. It’s as happy an ending as can be expected under the circumstances, and further proof that the album is not the nihilism exhibition that some of its detractors have said it is.

The music on Yeezus has been called minimalist, and compared to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is, but so is everything else. The brutality of the record obscures the complexity of the productions; West might be mixing slightly fewer elements this time around than he usually does, but he makes sure he squeezes as much juice as he can from everything he introduces. Rick Rubin deserves the credit he’s gotten for applying his usual reduction methods to West’s runaway imagination. The album benefited from his editorial oversight: there isn’t a second of wasted time. But beyond that, the music doesn’t bear Rubin’s thumbprint. Yeezus sounds like Kanye West much as Yes always sounded like Yes no matter what crazy direction they took in the studio. This is true even as Yeezus takes cues from styles that West hasn’t featured much on his recordings before: blues, industrial music, Chicago house, New Orleans bounce, filthy reggae. He and his co-producers have stuck these together at funny angles and left serrated edges for you to cut your fingers on (or to point at your enemies, or yourself). Towards the end “I’m In It,” he’s got his own hook, a vocal by Bon Iver, and that crazed Jamaican deejay all going at once; three songs later, “Send It Up” glides along on a beat that sounds like my old Commodore 64 spitting out a floppy disc. These productions should not be able to exist outside of laboratory conditions. They are justified by faith: Rick Rubin’s faith in Kanye, and Kanye’s faith in his own choices.

He was always going to lose people. Some old-school Kanye fans couldn’t hang with the blown-out synthesizers and the dirty new wave and West’s nasty habit of teasing listeners with bits of vintage sped-up soul before yanking them away. If you found Yeezus abrasive, or accusatory, or an ice bath, you weren’t alone. This is not constructive critique he’s doing, and the many people who hated the album — and West’s apparent indifference to their hatred — aren’t wrong to locate contagious, incendiary, all-consuming rage in its grooves. Yet I passionately reject the argument that Kanye West isn’t entitled to his anger because he’s a member of the one per cent, or because it shouldn’t matter to us that no magnate would fund his fashion line. No matter what inspired this meltdown, Yeezus isn’t about the fashion industry. Yeezus is a middle finger raised at everybody who believes that we’ve addressed — or that we’ve even begun to address — our most intractable social problems by locking up millions, tapping phones, flooding the market with cash and cheap goods, and electing a black president.

This includes the black president himself. Obama has always been uncomfortable with Kanye West, and for good reason: unlike big brother, who clocks in for Samsung and abets racial profiling at Barneys, West was always likely to challenge institutional authority. This is why his monumental arrogance is culturally beneficial and ought to be encouraged. As one of the few remaining mainstream artists who does not measure success by how efficiently he pleases the crowd and how skillfully he greases the gears of commerce, he has the moral authority to raise hell. Geezers offended by West’s appropriation of civil rights-era tropes on Yeezus ought to give him the respect he’s earned. Unlike his peers, he is willing to misbehave, in public, on behalf of a principle. Alone among pop stars, he actually knows how to protest. A real protest isn’t a chant and a smile and a folk song. A real protest is mischievous, upsetting, and maybe even disgusting. Kanye West was never going to grab an acoustic guitar and sing broadside ballads, and I doubt Pete Seeger would have encouraged him to do so. In the ’60s, folk songs were the thing to do: “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi” was brilliant, repugnant, and absolutely irresponsible, and songs like that one probably got Phil Ochs choked by the CIA on the beach in Africa. Nobody in power is scared by folk songs anymore. But an indignant black man with an MPC and a history of high-profile confrontations with white American icons? That’s a different story. In an era of Instagram, the PRISM program, data mining and the nonstop policing of what ought to be private activity, Yeezus is what protest music sounds like. It’s troubling how many of the people who have been calling for protest albums ran for the hills the minute they got one.

What’s that you say? Yeezus is degrading toward women? Kanye West is a sexist pig who needs to be hit in the balls with a mace? Maybe he does. It is a sad fact that many of the world’s best artists have used their powers to construct an imaginary world in which women are used for target practice. Woody Allen, for instance, is one of my favorite filmmakers, and there’s a good chance he’s one of yours, too. Offscreen controversies aside, his movies aren’t going to win any awards from NOW. You don’t want to be a woman in Bob Dylan’s orbit, and the next time somebody calls Joni Mitchell a feminist hero, spin him “Shades Of Scarlet Conquering.” (Don’t even get started on Elvis Costello.) Yet still I must ask who you all have been listening to — and voting for — for the last ten years. Kanye West is the same rake he always has been. Yeezus isn’t even the most derogatory album in his catalog. His lyric sheets have, since forever, been slimy with descriptions of sex in the baffroom stall and golddiggers who blow the child support money on liposuction. Everybody thought this greasy kid stuff was hilarious. How come you aren’t laughing anymore? Is it the ass eating? Is it that he told you it was time to take it too far? Or is it the juxtaposition of raunchy sex talk with references to Martin Luther King and Nina Simone? If it’s that — and I do think it is — it’s helpful to remember that Yeezus is no more Kanye West than Martin Lawrence was ever really Jeromey Romey Rome. This is a monster mask the artist is wearing, and the American revenant that he has animated is pantomiming disrespect for the civil rights movement. This doesn’t absolve Kanye West the Actual Guy from responsibility for his representations of women any more than the consumerist satire of American Psycho gets Bret Easton Ellis off the hook for the gleeful descriptions of prostitute-slashing. The pointed, parodic misogyny of Yeezus isn’t any better than the casual, self-entitled misogyny of Late Registration. But c’mon, let’s stop pretending he’s getting worse. He’s got a problem with women and he always has. If you put up with it before, this isn’t the time to disengage.

Friends, I fought this outcome for months. How desperately I wanted to place Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle atop my list and duck this entire controversy. I even had an essay half-written in my mind about how Marling had surpassed most of her sources. I do believe that. It’s a magnificent album. But it isn’t number one and could never be. In the summer of Edward Snowden, and George Zimmerman, drones over U.S. airspace, “Accidental Racist” and Paula Deen, there was no other possibility but:

  • 1. Kanye West — Yeezus
  • 2. Laura Marling — Once I Was An Eagle
  • 3. Paramore — Paramore
  • 4. Tye Tribbett — Greater Than
  • 5. Tegan & Sara — Heartthrob
  • 6. Beyonce — Beyonce
  • 7. Drake — Nothing Was The Same
  • 8. Vienna Teng — Aims
  • 9. Janelle Monae — The Electric Lady
  • 10. Xenia Rubinos — Magic Trix
  • 11. Lorde — Pure Heroine
  • 12. Chance The Rapper — Acid Rap
  • 13. Brad Paisley — Wheelhouse
  • 14. The Front Bottoms — Talon Of The Hawk
  • 15. Steven Wilson — The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
  • 16. Eisley — Currents
  • 17. Pet Shop Boys — Electric
  • 18. Okkervil River — The Silver Gymnasium
  • 19. Ashley Monroe — Like A Rose
  • 20. The Wonder Years — The Greatest Generation 

Continue with Part II.









February 7, 2014

Critics Poll XXIV: Miscellaneous Categories

The Front Bottoms: Sella and Uychich use the facilities.

The miscellaneous categories section is usually a hoot — a place to blow off steam for eight thousand words or so. But this year, it cannot be, as Matthew Sweet once put it, 100 per cent fun. Negative categories lead to mentions of Miley Cyrus, and mentions of Miley Cyrus leads to writing about Miley Cyrus, and there was nothing I enjoyed less about 2013 than writing about Miley Cyrus.

Now you might think that as a card carrying member of the news biz — a fellow who literally carries a NJPA card around all day — I would be happy as hell for the existence of Miley Cyrus, a guaranteed page-turner and online rainmaker. Indeed there were many people in the industry who were thrilled about the direction Miley Cyrus’s career has taken. Editors found that VMA performance fascinating insofar as it remained a wellspring of manufactured, easily circumscribed controversy. Headline writers learned that the quickest way to search engine optimize or social-media optimize their stories was to insert a mention of Miley Cyrus into the lede, a la GAY GOVERNOR CHRISTIE RUMORS CITE MILEY CYRUS (SEO optimized) or 5 WAYS TO KNOW WHETHER MILEY CYRUS IS PREGNANT OR GAY (SMO optimized). Writers who had once gotten a B/B+ at Wesleyan on a cultural studies essay changed a few proper names and sold their pieces to major publications. The Twitter comedians found new markets for twerking jokes. Over at MTV, they must have been bouncing off of the walls with joy. The label had to have been thrilled. The foam finger industry was suddenly flush, and the Moral Majority got a new villain to cluck at and threaten to spank. Miley Cyrus got to shoot Hannah Montana in the head, in front of a worldwide audience, which surely was a great relief for her.

It was also very smart. Like much of what Miley Cyrus did in 2013, it exhibited the long-range strategic intelligence that the Pentagon is always after. But you don’t care about smart; otherwise, you’d have Einstein on the top of your list instead of We’re Up All Night To Get Lucky. Like Dee-Lite in 1990, you just wanna hear a good beat. And the irony was that Miley Cyrus’s beats were actually pretty good. But who could hear them above all of the white noise that she was generating? You don’t enjoy being baited; I get you. You don’t like getting caught up in somebody’s dreary marketing plan, let alone a marketing plan masquerading (poorly) as juicy provocation. You are vaguely aware of this thing called the Internet, which means that you are aware of Internet trolls. Unless you have an incredibly high threshold for annoyance, an Internet troll pop star is not somebody you want in your life no matter how shrewdly she’s been gaming the system. It does not make you an old square if Popular Internet Troll Star Miley Cyrus — or PITS MC, as I like to call her for short — bums you out.

I’ll tell you another story, and then I’ll get to the categories and quotes: This autumn, I had dinner with a nice teenaged kid with severe Asperger’s syndrome. He had virtually nothing to say to me until he discovered that I covered arena shows and sometimes talked to pop stars. Once he did, he couldn’t stop asking me questions. He went through the entire Top 40 name by name: Had I interviewed Justin Bieber? Had I interviewed Justin Timberlake? Any other Justins out there that I might have spoken to? What was really striking about his voracious hunger for answers to these questions was that he knew next to nothing about any of the artists. He couldn’t name a song by any of them. He had, instead, memorized a procession of trending-subject factoids and LinkedIn-type associations: Ed Sheeran is friends with Taylor Swift, Beyonce is married to Jay Z, Kanye West had a baby with a Kardashian, etcetera.

Okay, yes, but he was on the autism spectrum; superficial engagement is what you’d expect from him. But a few weeks later, I was up at the University, and I fell into conversation with a humanities professor in the midst of a project with a musical dimension. She began to speak with absolute authority about the relative merits of popular musicians. She did so as if she knew their catalogs backward and forward. But when I pressed her on some of her more dismissive claims, it became apparent to me that she’d learned everything she knew from Twitter, social media shares, and snippets of talk show interviews. In effect, this very educated and intelligent woman had the same relationship to music as the teenager with Asperger’s. And I realized at that moment that this is what all of us who love pop music are currently dealing with: People aren’t listening to the songs, they’re listening to the controversies. Armed with what they’ve heard, they believe they know everything they need to know to render absolute judgment. The part that hurts is that it isn’t even their fault — this is how music is presently getting marketed to them. If it doesn’t fit in 140 characters, it’s worthless, and as we’ve found out, audio clips rarely get shared. Miley Cyrus didn’t create the conditions that we’re all coping with, but her manipulation of the Internet news cycle is exacerbating the problem. It’s not a liberation of anything. It’s a pain in the ass.

Usually I put the quotes at the end. The spirit moves me to drop one here. This is from Oliver Lyons, who has been voting in the Poll for many years. He doesn’t exactly corroborate what I just ranted about, but he’s dealing with some of the same frustrations. He dropped his protest into one of our most beloved cranky categories. Take it away, Oliver:

“Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire: Think pieces on young, female artists either dismissing them for being too Disney or condemning them for being sluts because they play an award show in their underwear. I mean, the internet basically plies us with disgusting pornography or cute puppy videos 365 days a year but when Miley Cyrus sings a song about blowing a dude, its monocle falls out in horror. I get that a lot of freelance writers (present company excluded) are making $$$ from these pieces, but stop and think about how crazy sexist this practice is. Young men, once again, fly right over this judgement. The other negative effect is that artists (like Lilly Allen) are now just courting controversy over creating dope music just because that’s what will get written about. Critics — go back to just writing about the music and watch things turn around.”

I’m gonna do my best.  Okay, on to the awards segment of tonight’s programming.


Flatfooted tie between one of our annual favorites (Neko Case) and a vocalist who has never got much love in this category before (Hayley Williams). As an old emo codger, I have to wonder if the many people who voted for Paramore for the first time in Poll 24 went back and reassessed Brand New Eyes or Riot!, or if they really think that the band is better off without the Farro brothers. Those guys were fitted with lead shoes and sent to the bottom of whatever river flows through Franklin, Tennessee. Don’t cross Fueled By Ramen Records, kids. Just ask the guys who left Panic! At The Disco, all of whom, to quote Buckwheat, will never murk in this city again. George “Frisco” Pasles, a guy who knows a thing or two about singing, voted for “subtle Auto-Tune.” I don’t know, George, it never helped me very much.


Kendrick Lamar flattened the competition in this category last year, and although he didn’t put out a new album, his verse on “Control” was arguably the most consequential set of rhymes anybody spit in 2013. In general the responses by the rappers cited weren’t worthy of the original, but B.o.B., who wasn’t named, did come with a pretty nifty rejoinder. I also thought that Drake acquitted himself very well in the aftermath of the challenge, and did so without bothering to go toe to toe with Kendrick, which, good as he is, is something he can’t do. Drake tried to reframe the debate so that it wasn’t about moments of fire-spitting tucked into the verses of forgettable songs, but instead about who was more consistent, and whose records had the most replay value. He invited Kendrick to play on his home court, in other words. Anyway, nobody voted for Drake in this category, and Kendrick got six votes, so the belt goes to the challenger. Our plurality winner  is too new to have gotten caught up in the “Control” controversy, but Chance The Rapper will be included in any subsequent battle roundup record. He had that kind of a rookie year. Mister West always gets his votes in this category, and 2013 was no exception: “Funny how many people (e.g., Childish Gambino) are biting Kanye’s style these days,” writes Tom Snow. I think of Doley Bernays, one of my favorite new NYC rappers, who broke off Yeezus flows all over his free mixtapes. They all work, too. Nobody has yet lost his shirt imitating Kanye West.


Once our hearts were young and gay, and we voted for covers that, like Ween’s Quebec, reminded us of the cartoons in childrens’ books. Now we are grownups, and grownups like menacing, ambiguous black and white photographs. You gave nods to Nick Cave’s creepy clothed-man-naked-woman fantasy on the cover of Push The Sky Away, the Civil Wars’ smoky what-is-it, the National’s mirrored guillotine, David Bowie’s repurposed Heroes image, and the Savages’ throwback ’80s tough-guy photo essay. Jim Testa gave the Made You Look award to Sky Ferreira, whose nudity on the cover of Night Time, My Time was supposed to incriminate oglers, not attract them. Perhaps that’s impossible to realize, and the VMAs were correct to deny Rihanna the Video of the Year trophy for “Stay.” Me, I give points for trying. My favorite pick came from Ben Shooter, who tipped me off to the brown beast on the cover of Monster Magnet’s Last Patrol. If I was playing Dungeons and Dragons and my wizard encountered that guy, let’s just say I’d attempt to negotiate. Or flee.


Yeezus had its intended effect: it pissed off the people Kanye wanted to piss off, and made everybody else giggle. The Catholics and conservative Baptists make him feel like the black kids in Chiraq, and I do often get the sense that he wouldn’t know one of those if he tripped over him, but I’m no stickler for street authenticity. West’s four votes were matched by Childish Gambino, who repackaged the old Because The Internet meme and was rewarded by voters for his web citizenship. Maura Johnston tapped Marnie Stern’s Chronicles of Marnia, which sure makes Mr. Tumnus over here smile; Roc Marciano’s The Pimpire Strikes Back, another fantasy classic pun, won the approval of Jer Fairall. But it was Neko Case’s mouthful The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Try, The Harder I Try, The More I Love You that took the category with seven votes. Jonathan Andrew called it a bruised love song all its own. Maybe she’s just tired of Fiona Apple hogging all the run-on sentences.


“Women in country,” answered Will Fabro. Others named them: Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe. I am happy to second all of these nominations as long as we can all acknowledge that none of this would have happened without Taylor Swift. Well, it would have happened, but you would have had to go to Nashville to hear it. Carpetbaggers get a bad rap — many of them stood up to the KKK, and founded schools, and helped Abigail get over her first heartbreak. They both cried. Our clear leader in the category, however, was Beyonce Knowles, who also gets the blue ribbon for best kept secret. That’s getting harder and harder to win.


Scattered votes for the My Bloody Valentine comeback and the Daft Punk barrage, and a few of the only mentions poor Lady Gaga, who has become pop’s forgotten superstar, merited on the Poll. Yeezus took the category, however, and I noticed an interesting correspondence between those who felt let down by the latest Kanye and those who loved Kurt Vile. I have no idea what to make of this; clearly both of these characters like drugs. Maybe it’s that Vile is about as easygoing as it gets, and Mr. West has been trying to set a Guinness Book record for longest spazz-out. The astute Brad Luen submitted a comment on Run The Jewels that, upon reflection, I absolutely agree with: “Not just less than the sum of its parts: less than either part.” Here, too, is where I have to throw some cold water on the fun and report that many Polls mentioned Scott Miller’s death in this category — too many for me not to acknowledge the disappointment, although I really don’t want to write about it and never have. Game Theory and the Loud Family attracted fans who were obsessed with pop music, which Miller should have taken as a supreme complement. I’m not certain he did, and now I wish I’d asked. Game Theory fans remain one of the biggest contingents of voters in this Poll — there are about fifteen regulars who have been casting ballots since the early ’00s. Surely they were readers of Ask Scott, Miller’s life-advice column. Last April, at least a few of those readers must have felt like Cliff in Crimes And Misdemeanors. And that’s all I’m going to say on this painful subject tonight.


PITS MC. Let me reiterate that the singles are good, especially “We Can’t Stop.” Which plays like a Rihanna reject, but don’t they all. The first song on Bangerz, which was done by the guy responsible for the first Asher Roth record, has a nice cushy vibe to it, even if he and Cyrus won’t really take it anywhere. But when she starts rapping, I advise you to run for the hills. This is not because she is a cultural appropriator, or because she did or did not spend a summer carjacking in Detroit, or because she is ruining little kids’ memories of Hannah Montana, or because she slaps her African American dancers on the butt. It is because she is really, really bad at rapping. By comparison, she makes Ke$ha sound like Lauryn Hill.


A few of you played out Modern Vampires, but Justin Timberlake swept this category. In the paper, I think I called the 20/20 Experience albums dazzling but thinner than the gold leaf on wedding cakes.


This Poll is always so much better when Jens Carstensen participates. Here he is on the band that stole the raspberry from “Wrecking Ball” and Ylvis’ “The Fox”: “Last night, while trying to sleep, I tried to figure out why I hate Imagine Dragons so much.  My first stab was this fun formula: ‘Inanity + Volume – Moxie = Imagine Dragons.’  Then again, that same equation seems to apply to roughly 80% of the hermetic, rock-flavored bands out there right now; almost everything I hear lately sounds like I’m sitting in the last row of Nassau Coliseum.  So, singling out Imagine Dragons somehow feels like giving them more credit than they deserve.  After all, in what way is this bunch of stiffs any worse than Mumford + Sons?  Okay, they don’t even have the decency to be gimmicky and slather their material with banjo sauce, that’s probably it.  They don’t reek of $14 toad-in-the-hole and not-nearly-spicy-enough Bloody Marys, like Vampire Weekend does.  Arcade Fire’s unearned grandeur is steeped in megalomania, but nope, not good ol’ Imagine Dragons.  They’re not even particularly shlocky. They don’t look into their nephew’s eyes. Listening to them, I don’t get any indication of where they are from, or if they’re particularly interested in drinking or sex or or their own instruments or superstardom.  Or anything.  It’s not even enjoyable to dislike this band.  Maybe that’s it.”


Dead heat between “Get Lucky” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” And you all say you don’t listen to the radio. Hey, speaking of D&D as I did above, one of the things I like to do around this time of the year is look through the huge stack of CDs and determine which album best fits each of the nine alignments. Sometimes it’s easy: Janelle Monae and her ain’t no order in this courtroom and up with the android revolution exemplifies Chaotic Good. Danny Brown has become a safe bet for Chaotic Neutral. The Weeknd has cornered the market on Neutral Evil; he’s got Neutral Evil on lock like he’s been reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide for inspiration. Mind you, I’m not saying that Abel Tesfaye himself is evil — I just mean that’s the prevailing perspective expressed on his records. Annually, the toughest one to locate is Lawful Neutral, which makes sense once we remember that Lawful Neutral characters Cannot Be Bards. There aren’t many modern musicians who want to make the case for order and tradition and subsuming individuality in the name of a greater impersonal force. Spoon has the necessary meticulousness, but Britt Daniel only occasionally backs it up with the ideology his arrangements imply. Anyway, Random Access Memories gets my pick for the year’s most Lawful Neutral album. Not only does the music feel squared away and rigorously controlled by a dominant central intelligence, but these guys keep singing about doin’ it right in order to lose yourself to dance. Plus, they’re robots. Yes, I think they’ve got this.


Usually this award goes to a kid. But as we all get older, we’ve begun to honor persistence and determination, and we wish that we might also keep on rocking well into our retirement years. I hear Boca Raton is pretty hot right now. Pharrell Williams got a couple of votes, and since that guy is ageless, it’s a pretty good guess. The votes for Bowie, on the other hand, feel like pure wishcasting. Before “The Next Day,” everybody thought he’d retired and were more or less fine with this. Also, in 2024, Petula Clark will be 91. I’ll cross my fingers if you’ll cross yours. This leads us straight into:


“I’m old now,” says Zach Lipez. “Everybody gets to stay in the game.” At least our respondents have stopped voting for themselves. They’ve passed the point of embarrassment over the stray grey hair and have taken to shaking their walkers in defiance. Here’s Jens again, defending one of our favorite senior citizens: “I really hope David Bowie gets some love in the poll this year; that album was fantastic. (It got plenty.) In fact, my vote for your Hoary Old Bastard category goes to anyone who votes for David Bowie in this category.” Nobody did. This was also the first year in the history of the Poll that Rod Stewart drew no votes, and I checked through 24 years of ballots just to be sure. He hasn’t retired — he and Steve Winwood came to the Prudential Center last month. Jon Bon Jovi, Springsteen, and Paul McCartney all drew calls to step down. But the winner by a landslide was President Carter, whose latest album, which attracted no apologists, was a gold-plated Faberge goose egg. Somehow I can’t see Beyonce wanting him around the house all day. Maybe he and his kid can occupy themselves by defacing Picassos.


By now I feel I hardly need to tell you that PITS MC took this category in a landslide. Miley Cyrus was named on eleven ballots. I’m not certain what more seasoning is going to do for her. Lorde got a few mentions, which tends to happen any year a teenager (again, for the sake of argument) comes out of nowhere to top the charts. Here’s Steve Carlson, who does like a bruiser: “I’d like to say Lorde, but I feel like I should go with someone I truly like. And that someone is Tyler, the Creator – a wildly talented fellow with a lot to say. Probably too much. Wolf runs just as long as Goblin, and both albums are jam-packed with terrific songs, miles of atmosphere and surprising turns of phrase… but where Goblin got to be a bit much by the end, Wolf gets to be a bit much about halfway through. I really don’t want this guy to burn himself out. A little quality control can go a long way. I’d love to see what he can do given a Weeknd-style restriction to only ten tracks. I suspect he’d turn out the tightest, most ferocious set you ever did hear.” Brian Block registered a similar complaint about a pop star who was riding high a few years ago. “Is it too late to name Lady Gaga? Who actually recorded my three favorite songs of her career this time out (‘Aura’, ‘Swine’, ‘Mary Jane Holland’). But there’s only so much use for a power hitter who strikes out 250 times a year.” The Giants just signed Michael Morse to play left field, so I guess I’m about to find out the hard way. Also, do you not like the way the phrasing of this prompt elicits baseball-related replies? I like it. Even if you don’t care for baseball, I’ll bet you care for spring.


A sprinkling of votes for Kanye in this category. He doesn’t want your respect, fool! Okay, that’s a total lie; he definitely wants your respect. He just wants to reserve the right to rant about you onstage for fifteen minutes if you look at him crooked. Personally I like “Runaway” better when it doesn’t contain an interminable assault on the fashion industry. Less talk, more rock, Kanye. Our winner, however, is James Blake, who is somewhat Lawful Neutral himself. Q for Gary Gygax (who, alas, is in no position to answer): Given the police state as an uncomfortable fact of modern living and a nonstop Law and Order marathon on the TV, should D&D allow for LN bards? Somebody has to sing us to the Supermax.


“I gave Vampire Weekend another chance,” says Zach Lipez. “Everybody is insane.” Mr. West drew predictable opprobrium here, and Daft Punk did, too. For the third album in a row, Arcade Fire continued to be the safe bet in this category. Heck, let me give you the totals for every act listed on more than one ballot. Arcade Fire (9), Kanye West (7), Daft Punk (5), Vampire Weekend (3), The National (3), Neko Case (2), Beyonce (2), Avicii (2). Many ballots only list albums; others only list albums and singles. There are years when some categories dry up: In ’13, I barely got any Songs That Would Drive You Craziest on Infinite Repeat, which, given the nature of our digital devices, is less of a threat than it used to be. But I have noticed that Overrated perennially outpaces the other miscellaneous fields. 55 of 124 respondents listed an Overrated artist — more than voted for Worst Song, Hoary Old Bastard, or even the reliable Most Unsexy. This suggests to me that irrational exuberance gets under our skin like nothing else does. If you look at old reference books like the Rolling Stone Record Guide, you discover that there’s nothing particularly new about this, and it was probably way worse in the past than it is now. Critics used to appoint themselves humility enforcers. The worst thing a record could be was pretentious. I think this is one of the many old locks on the river of creativity that hip-hop swamped, because no grouchy white man at Rolling Stone is ever going to accuse Kendrick Lamar of overreach. It was much easier to throw stones at Yes.


“This is quite the glass-house category, no?,” asks Maura Johnston. Yes. Yes it is. I won’t defend us; we’re indefensible. All I can say about those of us who still get up onstage is that we take it pretty hard in the Brooklyn Vegan comments section. Should Miley Cyrus somehow stumble upon this Poll and end up with bruised feelings, Mr. Internet Tough Guy over here would probably start to cry. Cyrus’s dance partner Robin Thicke almost caught her. He is indeed a smarmy feller.


Jer Fairall: “Surprise” releases (Beyonce, mbv, Bowie).

Jason Paul: Non-decadent music.

Bobby Olivier: No one records real drums anymore.

Mike Dos Santos: Bad 80’s Shiela E / Morris Day rip-off acts.

Jim Testa: Ukuleles.

Steven Matrick: Portishead-sounding bands.

Richard Antone: Return of vinyl.

Hilary Jane Englert: Music that thematizes or figures weather phenomena.

Brad Krumholz: A resurgence of Pink Floyd influence on the heels of pot legalization.

Ben Krieger: It’s only a matter of time before some asshole drops a Song-On-A-Different-Drug-A-Day project.

Zach Lipez: Doing your heroin BEFORE you leave Hudson. More critics complaining about other critics not “writing about the music” because culture makes them uncomfortable, they just want to talk about chords. Fuck a chord, I want to talk about culture.

Maura Johnston: Thinkpiece-core—songs and albums designed to be digested by deeply superficial 850-word essays.

Marisol Fuentes: Artists will stop releasing music and instead release controversies. The new Miley Cyrus controversy is coming out August 15! Now streaming all over the Internet!

Mike Cimicata: Selfie rock.

Oliver Lyons: That “e-cigarette swag.”

Tom Snow: I think that “Timber” may have mercifully marked the end of the four-on-the-floor hoedown trend.  I’m going to give a self-serving and hopeful answer here and say Anglophone cover bands in Suisse Romande.

Paula Carino: The Welsh Invasion continues apace…

George Pasles: ABBA reunion.

Bradley Skaught: No surprise — the ’90s!

Andrea Weiss: The ’90s revival.

Travis Harrison: Nu-metal.

Brian Block: Throat-shredding Cookie Monster vocals, having gained widespread critical acceptance in the context of black metal, will spread to other black genres like reggae and soul. Soon Ariana Grande will take them to the pop charts and prove she can manage the style without any mechanical assistance, but her vocals will be put through the Automangler every couple of lines anyway because hey, that’s what the kids expect.

Steve Carlson: I’d love for it to not be beard-tugging weenies. But it’ll probably be that.

Brad Luen: Radio gets even worse, music continues to be great anyway.

Stephen Mejias: A return to guitars.

Ethan Bumas: New Zealand.


Ben Krieger: I didn’t see any live shows.

Tom Snow: I am horrified and ashamed to admit that I saw exactly zero live shows in 2013, unless you count “Fandango,” the house band at Toad in Porter Square, Cambridge.  I have plans to improve on this in 2014, starting on February 27th.

Ronni Reich: Beyonce!

Paula Carino: The Muffs at Bell House.

Andrea Weiss: Breeders The Trocadero Philladephia, Neko Case Electric Factory, Philladelphia, Tegan and Sara Mann Music Center Philadelphia

George Pasles: Moonmen on the Moon, Man.

Brad Luen: Parquet Courts; Bassekou Kouyate.

Mitchell Manzella: Jamcruise 1/7 -1/12 2013: Femi Kuti, Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Lettuce, Eddie Roberts Superjam. Bonnaroo 6/5 – 6/ 2013: John Oates & Jim James Superjam, Lettuce Hip-Hop Superjam with RZA, Method Man, Redman, Paul McCartney, Frank Turner, Bustle in your Hedgerow, Tame Impala, David Byrne & St Vincent.

Ben Nelson: Nine Inch Nails, Against Me!, Jessie Ware.

Hilary Jane Englert: Paramore, Nov. 8, with Metric and hellogoodbye.

Maura Johnston: Fall Out Boy, Webster Hall/Metro, Dead Sara, Orion Festival, Angel Olsen, Pitchfork Music Festival, Nine Inch Nails, TD Garden, So So Glos, Great Scott, The 1975, Music Hall Of Williamsburg

Bradley Skaught: Johnny Marr, The Rolling Stones, Dodos, The Sonics, Paisley Underground (Rain Parade, Three O’clock, Dream Syndicate, Bangles), Tommy Keene, My Bloody Valentine.

Bobby Olivier: City and Colour in Central Park, Bayside at Starland, Killswitch Engage at Starland, Saves the Day at Starland.

Will Fabro: Taylor Swift.

Zach Lipez: Watain, Violent Bullshit.

Terrence Pryor: Texas is The Reason @ Maxwells, Mykki Blanco/ Chuck D @ 2013 Afropunk Festival, Dir En Grey @ Irving Plaza, Anathema @ Gramercy Theatre, Glassjaw @ Skate & Surf, Josh Groban @ Prudential Center.

Matt Houser: The Photon Band, July 5 at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, PA = SO GOOD

Brook Pridemore: Swans, Warsaw, Brooklyn, June 13. Holy fucking shit. Like being pounded in the chest with a sledgehammer, for two and a half hours.

Steven Matrick: Foxygen at Pianos.

Vrinda Patel: Tie: Julie Ruin, Bruno Mars.

Jason Paul: Tesla Boy.

Ben Shooter: Wheatus, Late Cambrian.

Brad Krumholz: Buke and Gase.

Oliver Lyons: Eyehategod at St.Vitus. You’d think a 20+ year old sludge band made up of ex-drug addicts would have given up pushing the envelope a long time ago? But the fact that they ripped the face off of the jaded Brooklyn crowd with more energy than all the 20 year olds in the room combined AND with new material more punishing than their old stuff says -hey-maybe a heroin habit isn’t the worst thing in the world? One of the opening bands was called Mutilation Rites and was full of dudes in their 40’s with shirts off playing Darkthrone-type riffs. The drummer looked exactly like Michael “PS” Hayes and I kept picturing him bleaching his hair in a Roy Rogers bathroom in some rest stop somewhere while vacation dads in fanny packs hurried their children away from him. This show kept on giving.

Matt Sirinides: 1. Bill Callahan at Bowery Ballroom, 2. Destroyer at Webster Hall, 3. Start Making Sense: Talking Heads Tribute on Rocks Off’s “Half Moon” vessel, the evening of NYU/Columbia’s graduation day. Fireworks. Sweat. Amazeballs.

Mark Maurer: Lee Ranaldo at Maxwell’s, DIIV at Baby’s All Right and the Alabama Shakes at Firefly Music Festival.

Jim Testa: Front Bottoms – Bowery Ballroom 12/27/13, Bongos/Individuals/a – Maxwells 7/31/13, Mission of Burma – Maxwells 7/15/13.

Jonathan Andrew: Kevin Devine, The Stone Pony, 11/27/13; Lucero, Terminal 5, 11/8/13; Vampire Weekend, Barclays Center, 9/20/13

Stephen Mejias: Jenny Hval @ the Mercury Lounge, Tony Joe White @ Joe’s Pub.

Brian Block: Holy Ghost Tent Revival at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro. They aren’t religious; they do have elements of jam-band in them (albeit with a great horn section), which could arguably bode worse. But the “tent revival” feel is there, and it is used for communal happiness, and their drummer is family with one of my best friends, and a fine time was had by all.

Richard Antone: Pablo Mayor/Folklore Urbano, Gregorio Uribe Big Band both at Encuentr Festival, Le Poisson Rouge

Ethan Bumas: As someone who doesn’t go to shows much, my favorite show was by the Replacements, a show I didn’t see. I think it was at a festival in Chicago or Toronto.  The Replacements record Let it Be was one of the very few I recently put on the old turntable. After a few decades, I usually change my mind about works of art, but this held up pretty well. I was especially struck by the quiet song “Androgynous.” It’s about people who don’t care if they fit into some official gender role proscribed by some gender police working for a gender state. But then I paid attention to something I hadn’t before. There’s a line at the end about people “today” dressing the way that they please, which rhymes with what they couldn’t do in the last centuries. It was a new century and like Tlön, the song had changed and the Replacements would probably be singing it in probably Chicago or Toronto. I wasn’t going to go, and I couldn’t imagine the performance being any better than what I was already imagining.  I listened to the record with a very young daughter of mine who wasn’t born yet in that other century. Her eyes rolled when I tried to explain what androgynous meant. The word was more common now. One friend she’s very fond of has so far bravely and poetically (the parents, too) evaded the gender police’s edict for specificity. That century, the one that seemed to have been invented by Kafka, was over.


Richard Antone: Biggest disappointment — Not seeing the Everly Brothers live.

Jonathan Andrew: Even thought I dig Reflektor, I remain puzzled as to why Arcade Fire has been anointed the most important band of this era.

Brian Block: Lyricist that most perfectly portrays what I would talk like if I was a total asshole, thus making me laugh *and* saving me the trouble of becoming one — Kevin Barnes.

Tom Snow: Kevin Barnes 2013 lyric most likely ghost-written by Steven Matrick –“You post naked GIFs of your epileptic fits and keep track of your hits and your friends don’t give a shit.”  Come to think of it, Steve may have written that whole song.

Steven Matrick: Meanest song — Of Montreal, “Sirens Of Your Toxic Spirit.”

Brian Block: Best song titles — “Advice on Bioluminescent Bears” (the Boats). “Unhand Me, You Horrid Thing” (Liam Singer). “A Lot of People are Dead Wrong Most of the Time” (Jack o’ the Clock). “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” (Pet Shop Boys).


Jens Carstensen: Did you, reader, like “Call Me Maybe” less when you found out Carly Rae Jepsen was 26?  If your answer was no, can we agree it doesn’t matter how old Lorde actually is?

Brad Luen: Most overrated — Daft Punk. Finally rewarded by America for a hot single and an album based on the lie that they were cheeseballs all along.

Tom Snow: I *do* turn the dial when “Lose Yourself To Dance” comes on.  No matter how faithfully they can replicate 1970’s soul train, Daft Punk has a very annoying tendency to be soul-less and also kinda stupid.  And I’m still not sure if they mean “lose yourself in order to dance,” or “lose yourself to the art form of dance.”  Daft Punk would probably claim that this was their intention all along.  As I say every time I run into lousy driving in Geneva: fucking French people.

Mitchell Manzella: There are some great bands that put out records in 2013, but very few (if any) masterpieces. I doubt we’ll be saying years from now, “His/Her/Their 2013 album was their best.”

Zach Lipez: This was such a solid year for music. I was, however, VERY surprised how much I enjoyed the FallOut Boy record.

Tom Snow: Best production — Yeezus, despite the incredibly high bar that he has set over the years.  Imagine if you had never heard anything by Kanye West before, and then one day someone gave you a copy of Yeezus.

Ben Krieger: Best editor — Rick Rubin on Yeezus. This record would have failed without Rubin’s help, and it’s a credit to West that he chose him to handle the post-production. The record was refreshingly short, and there was an Eno-like discipline in the way they trimmed the record back to a skeletal punch. But this is as good a place as any to address why I didn’t rank the record higher. Look, it’s just me, but I could care less about Kanye West party crashing the Hamptons. The rhymes were clever and I didn’t care. The tour looked epic and I didn’t go. The synths were abrasive and I’ve heard enough of that. He said that he was giving me what I needed. I didn’t need him screaming in my ear. I didn’t want him screaming in my ear. I had other shit to do.

Oliver Lyons: Man, Yeezus was straight garbage and that’s a shame because he’s never been more interesting and had better ideas. It’s cool Rick Rubin introduced him to the Mute records catalog but, ugh, this music sucks. It’s like a broken fax machine. That’s not what’s poppin’! I guarantee if Yesus was 14 “Slow Jamz” he’d be running for state senate right and would win with 100% of the vote and everyone would be wearing leather jogging pants. Amen.

Marisol Fuentes: Sweet and sour sauce! I get it! Boy that is a clever fellow you all have at Number One.

Tom Snow: I imagine I’m not the only poll voter whose kids have begun to have an influence on his ballot for better or worse.  While they have exposed me to a lot of pop music that I probably wouldn’t have listened to on my own, I probably listened a lot less to some music that, despite my progressive and cool parenting sensibilities, I can’t really see as appropriate for children.  For example, one can’t really flip the old iPod dial to “I’m In it” when there are three pre-teenage girls in the car, if you hear what I’m saying.

Steve Carlson: Yeezus. So tempted to list this in every category and call it a day. Been wrestling with this for months, and its glory and horror and beauty still confound me. And I think that’s the point — it’s not to be easily digested or forgotten. It’s meant to be a burr in the ass, something that sits uncomfortably and forces you to keep on knowing it’s there. ‘Yeezus’ is as violent and confrontational and angry as Kanye has ever allowed himself to go. It opens with that vicious blast of white noise and holds true to that from there — this is meant to rattle you. Even the parts that are meant to seduce or sway come barbed. For instance, ‘I’m in It’ is a sex rap that, with its far-off sirens and barking dogs, conjures the image of someone trying to forge a connection in the middle of an alienating urban hellscape and being mostly unsuccessful, resulting in more feelings of post-orgasmic confinement; meanwhile, ‘Blood on the Leaves’ uses an old West production trick — the sample as harmonious counterpoint — but allows himself to slip out of tune with Simone, so it sounds like they’re singing against each other… and then the horns rampage in like angry elephants and trample over everything, giving us a song at war with itself. Like the late Aleksei German (and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky before him), Kanye knows it’s hard to be a god, a lonely and infuriating and arrogance-making position; in “Power,” he asks, “Do you have the power to let power go,” where here, he declares himself a deity, talks to Jesus like it’s no thing and then has a shrieking nervous breakdown. I can understand why it’s been polarizing in certain circles (mostly commercial ones), but for a noise addict like myself who cherishes songs with elbows that stick out and beats that won’t play nice and smooth, this is master-class stuff. Also “Hold My Liquor” makes me want to dissolve into a puddle of tears every time; also the autotuned scream of orgasm in “I’m in It” makes me roar with laughter every time; also holy shit what the fuck is that holding the beat on “Send it Up” a burglar alarm going off in the warehouse across the street or what.

Ben Krieger: For some reason, 2013 seemed to highlight more disturbing attacks against artists based on the content of their art, and stupid debates on whether or not we can enjoy art if the artist is a creep. The Beastie Boys found one of their songs hijacked by a toy company, who used the sexist content as justification for pilfering. The whole Miley Cyrus brouhaha. I think Kanye West might have said something stupid about Jews. Woody Allen has been accused of child molestation and since none of us know him I can only assume that the peasant arguments in his defense stem from some fear that their enjoyment of his work will be tainted. Look: watch the fucking movies. Let this woman say what she has to say. More likely than not, it happened. Do you want me to ruin Wagner for you? Posdnuos is complicated. Great artists put their best selves into their art. If you want to munch on the dregs, knock yourself out.

Stephen Mejias: Hoary Old Bastard — Hate to say it, but Bruce. Actually, I wish he would start acting his age. He’s got a great old-man album in him, I’m sure.

Steve Carlson: Single Honorable Mention — I’m liking “High Hopes” more than any other Springsteen song of the last few years. So there’s that.

Zach Lipez: Savages. God, people are fucking credulous. THEY ARE DOKKEN. Which is fine, but it’s major label gloss hard rock with Rowland S Howard’s corpse propped up against the mixing board. And their manifesto is completely inane. And I generally love inane. Having said that, as long as Vampire Weekend exists, everyone else will have to settle for second worst.  Also, everyone should buy the Beyond Inversion comp. Finally, “something about 285 Kent closing.”

Tom Snow: Most unwelcome trend — bands choosing all-caps names that look like luxury watch brands.  See DIIV, AVICII, DVBBS, CHVRCHES, et al.  This is beginning to rival the [word + random number] convention of the 1990s.

George Pasles: In 2014, we’ll probably have to change the band name to OVRLRD.

Steve Carlson: Most Unsexy Person in Pop — The expected answer, given our societal parameters for “sexy,” would probably be Danny Brown. But then, nothing in his image and none of the tracks on ‘Old’ suggest he’s trying for sexy — he knows what he looks like, he knows you know what he looks like, and he’s still gonna come at you and command you to open wide, ho, because when you look like that you’re on some mercenary shit. The honest answer here is Robin Thicke. Not because he’s a doughy, pasty white guy with pretensions towards soulfulness or because he’s jacked so many moves from Marvin Gaye by this point that he’s gonna need to get divorced just so he can be justified in stealing from ‘Here, My Dear’ or that “Blurred Lines,” no matter how danceable or hummable or catchy or all-around enjoyable, is just chock fulla rape. No, the reason Thicke gets my vote here is because I just found out this year that he’s Alan Thicke’s son. He is the spawn of the warm, nonthreatening avatar of Canadian patriarchal benevolence, the very embodiment of a comfy plaid Christmas sweater tousling your hair, and I have a hard time seeing an emissary of that man’s balls as sexy in any way.

Brook Pridemore: Robin Thicke-“Blurred Lines”– I don’t give a fuck, what anyone says about this song. It’s triply controversial (considering its’ open celebration of rape culture, the obvious comparison to Marvin Gaye, and dehumanization of women), catchy as fuck, and complete with a ridiculous, scuzzy video (which I had to watch three times to even notice the song). It’s everything pop music is supposed to be: trashy, controversial, scuzzy, and catchy. Fuck off.

Zach Lipez, on Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should: No way, man, I’m not falling for this again. Every year, I check out some disco nerd shit that everyone loves and it’s never actual disco. It’s ALWAYS indie. Never again.

Stephen Mejias: Beyonce’s self-titled record could easily fall within my top 5, but it was released so late in the year, I’m not sure if it really qualifies. Yeah, I woke up like this, too.

Oliver Lyons: Young Upstart — the tactic of suddenly releasing unannounced albums. Part of me understands the desire to not spend money to promote an album people are definitely going to buy, and to try and avoid losing money to early internet leaks. But the fact this is mainly done by established artists yet being touted as a revolutionary act just smacks of business as usual to me. It’s once again the top tier of artists who can do what they want while the other 99.9% of musicians would KILL to have even a small mention of their upcoming album in ANY music press. Bypassing early critical reviews, listening parties, SNL appearances, etc not only may end up biting the artist in the ass, but also risks their work remaining stagnant (you’re guaranteed favorable reviews selling directly to wanting and in-the-know fans) . It also makes me think that releasing an album in this manner is just the artist putting contractually obliged, half-baked product into the world and hoping it dies quickly (or that the hype about the sudden release overshadows it) before people dig into the album and discover there’s really nothing there. It’s the same thing as all those artists from the 90’s who thought putting out double albums was a good idea. When you’re hit with a ton of weight or you’re sucker punched out of nowhere , you get disoriented and can’t react in time. And the attacker has usually made off with your money while you’re still trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Thanks, Beyonce. It’s either that or Haim.

Jens Carstensen: Traditionally, I’ve awarded the Snake on a Plane to a musical act. [Note: Jens gives the Snake on a Plane award to the act that goes from unknown to wildly popular to essentially over in a calendar year.]  If I were doing so this year, I’d be torn between Macklemore and Pussy Riot.  Mind you: I’ve never actually *heard* Pussy Riot, and I’m pretty convinced no one else has either, typically a guaranteed shoo-in for this award.  But I voted along those lines last year with Amanda Palmer (who I still haven’t heard either), so it seems cheap to repeat myself.  Besides, I’m always a sucker for someone tempted to apologize for their success (and in the case of “Thrift Shop,” I understand the impulse.  Cute song, but still).  Every generation needs an MC Serch to call their own, I guess.  But he peaked a little late to really count, and besides, I’m getting away from the main point: the Snake on the Plane this year goes to the television show “Arrested Development.”  Admit it, you already forgot the 4th season even existed, didn’t you.

Matt Houser: Old, but new to me in 2013: The Hollies “Clarke, Hicks & Nash Years: The Complete Hollies April 1963 – October 1968.” Amazing. I also revisited + really got into Graham Nash’s “Wild Tales” while reading Nash’s new autobiography. I loved reading Peter Guralnick’s “Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.” The first Wings album (“Wild Life”) is a lot of fun. When I had bad colds this year, this album made me feel better: The Meditations “I Love Jah.” My kids’ favorite songs this year: King Kong “Tornado,” Bay City Rollers “Saturday Night,” everything by Caspar Babypants.

Bradley Skaught: I listened to the same number of records I generally do, but more than ever I didn’t listen to any actual “pop” music — things on charts, meme music, hot new songs/acts/etc. It wasn’t out of any kind of deliberate action, I just didn’t click on any of those links as they floated by. I feel more out of touch than ever, but I feel every bit as engaged with new music as ever so maybe that’s some kind of reflection of the odd musical landscape we exist in. But also, maybe, about how much freedom we have to build our own little cultural worlds around whatever aspects of the massive trove of art we have at our disposal that interests us most.

Hilary Jane Englert: Prevailing theme of 2013 — the passage of time, memory, representing and coming to terms with the past and their role in shaping the present. Okkervil River and Vampire Weekend thematize these things most explicitly and persistently but Nothing Was The Same, Days Are Gone, RKives, and Paramore all do it, too.

Jonathan Andrew: In terms of new music, my 2013 was solid, through and through. I consumed lots of great stuff, including a few records that I’m guessing will be in the rotation for years to come. I can’t say that I discovered anything from 2012 that I overlooked this time last year, although I warmed up to fun. a bit. “Carry On” has been ubiquitous in the Rite Aids and Wendys’s of our fine state of late, and I am fine with this. Over the course of 2013, I listened to a whole lotta Queen. Can’t believe I slept on Freddie and the boys for so much of the last 15 years. And I finally starting getting into Stevie, Lindsey, Christine, John, and Mick: the mighty Mac. Holy hell, is Rumours good. Maybe Grammy voters do have merit, occasionally.

Tom Snow: Most Convincing Simple Minds Imitation — Okkervil River on “Stay Young.”


Ben Krieger: Back in high school I was one of three choirs at my school. There was the Singers, where all the future frat and sorority kids gathered to sing show tunes. There was the original Heights Choir that I was in, which tackled anything from Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” to “River in Judea,” and then there was the Heights Gospel Choir. At some point during my senior year I experienced by first gospel concert outside of The Blues Brothers and was astounded. It rocked. People were going nuts. Someone’s mother was finding the spirit in the front row and wailing her brain off. I’d never heard anything like it, but I will always remember the speech that the choir director made mid-show, about how kids were often sentenced to perform “community service” as a punishment. But here were kids, he pointed out, performing a community service, and very idea that helping out others should be some sort of punishment was wrong. The idea stuck with me. During my junior year of college I decided to join the gospel choir. I was one of two or three white students in a group of about 30, and I got a sense like I was probably alone in not having at least some faith in Jesus Christ. We met once a week for 2-3 hours, preparing material for a gospel festival that was taking place on campus at Miami University. The single, most profound and spiritual musical experience that I have ever had, by a holy mile, occurred one afternoon as we were rehearsing a song that closed with the choir clapping along with an ascending, 8-note string of moaning “whoas” that were repeated until the director the coda to an end. Except for this particular rehearsal, during this particular song, there was an energy in the room that couldn’t really be described as much as channeled; the choir began the closing loop, repeating it once, twice, for a minute, two minutes, five minutes…we couldn’t stop singing. It’s hard for me at this point, almost 20 years since, to articulate exactly what it felt like except to say that we were saturated with a profound sense of joy. A serious joy. We sang that coda for at least 10 minutes, perhaps 15 and maybe even 20. And when we finally brought the song to a close, it was like a giant wave that had been building from miles off shore and finally reached its destination and crested. Students were weeping. The piano player was layering washes of McCoy Tyner chords. The guy next to me seemed to be mumbling involuntarily. I just sat there trying to comprehend what was going on. I had never had music elevate me like this before, and at the same time I felt myself slammed hard against the glass ceiling that my own lack of faith presented to me. I couldn’t ever truly get in the spirit. But I got as close as I ever have on that afternoon. God, whatever God is, was in that room with us. If atheists have an explanation for what happened, I don’t want to hear it. Gospel Fest was heavenly, and we rocked the same song with a full band behind us. But it wasn’t the same as that afternoon rehearsal. And that was alright. Tye Tribbet’s new record is fantastic. This is why I love gospel music, what little of it I know. I have no illusions about the problems that Christians are wrestling with within their faith right now. Tribbet’s last record kicked off with an angry war cry, complete with a cut at gays and premarital sex. So there’s that. But whatever the reason, the five years since Stand Out have steered Tribbet towards a new record that’s all joy, worship, and dancing. I give it a high recommendation, and I realize that won’t really make a difference for most people.

Mike Dos Santos: Biggest disappointment — The Pixies releasing new music without Kim Deal.

Andrea Weiss: Would people stop thinking the 90s were a golden age musically? Yes it’s great that so many musicians, all women, are getting their due as musicians first and foremost, maybe that “Women In Rock” crap is finally over, but we also lost Kurt Cobain.

Steve Carlson: Push the Sky Away is as quiet as Nick Cave has allowed himself to go in many years, which brings with it an intimation of fragility. Repeated listens allowed that fragility to fall away and reveal an occasionally sinister robustness – just because it’s not noisy (and indeed is often gorgeous, e.g. “Wide Lovely Eyes”) doesn’t mean this album didn’t come ready to fight if need be. (Listen to “Water’s Edge” and tell me how comfortable you feel.) Also, dude somehow made that instantly-infamous “Hannah Montana” line in “Higgs Boson Blues” work, which deserves several pats on the back. (“Higgs” is itself a superficially-benevolent successor to the thunderous “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry.” But whether it’s a roaring torrent of rain that does it or a quiet pop and blink into nothing, the world’s still ending.)

Brad Krumholz: I know everybody is noticing the Fleetwood Mac influence, but Robert Fripp influence was all over 2013.

Oliver Lyons: Earl Sweatshirt — I’m late to the party on this dude mainly because everything OF produced so far was dumb (Tyler the Creator), boring (Frank Ocean), or “I just don’t have the time right now” (every other OF offshoot). However, when I started reading reviews that this Earl Sweatshirt kid had promise but that his album was lo-key and miserable, I figured I had to hear it. Mainly because white critics always seem to be talking out of their asses when discussing hip hop (present company excluded.) And that “miserableism” was something that so excited young, suburbanites like myself. Sure rapping about killing cops and smoking weed is cool, granted. But it was that “stuck in a rut-ness” that aligned rap with punk and metal and sold a bazillion copies of “Ready to Die.” Hip hop these days has turned “miserable” into “whining.” Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye walk around in $700 t-shirts while claiming solidarity with the kids from broken homes, still hustling on the corners. Back in the 90’s, we called people like that “posers.” Earl Sweatshirt is as miserable as he seems. He could be where Kanye is if life hadn’t beaten him down to the point where giving up not only seems like the easy thing to do, but the CORRECT thing to do. There’s flow, intelligence, and humor in earl’s verses but it’s wrapped up in world-weary cynicism. Yes please! I hear he may be giving up the rap game for good and I hope he does. When the world looks back on 2013 it’s going to realize that “Doris” was the realest thing going.

Jens Carstensen: You know what I really like?  Songza.  Finally, somebody figured out how to curate Pandora, and they’re doing a bang-up job.  Proof again that people generally like being told what to like.

George Pasles: For me, 2013 was the year of Giorgio Moroder, the way 2012 was the year of the Four Seasons (Genuine Imitation Life Gazette) and 2011 was the year of Del Shannon (Further Adventures…). Each year, I acquired a forgotten collection of old songs from a name artist. I should know better by now, but the lack of exultation, then and now, for these works elicits equal parts desperation and confusion. How did they go on? In each case, how did they abandon their – in my opinion, unequivocally successful – experiments and, especially in Moroder’s case, go in a completely different direction? Anyhow, the Daft Punk connection was the least of his 2013 accomplishments for me, though seeing him walk on stage at the Grammys blew my mind.

Bradley Skaught: More than anything else on The Next Day, it was the lyrics that really knocked me out. That he came back with musical swagger was awesome, but that he came back with so much to say and such rich language to say it with was particularly special.

Brook Pridemore: In the fall of 1993, I made a They Might Be Giants mixtape for a classmate of mine named Holly. The first of many mixtapes I’ve made for girls I’ve had crushes on (though I’m sure Holly had no idea I had a crush on her), They Might Be Giants were my first favorite band. I’d discovered their music on an episode of Tiny Tunes, earlier that year. It spoke to me. Nascent grunge was too outwardly self-loathing. Hip Hop (except little bits of that hippie-infused stuff) was too violent. Country, just…no. No music made by a Cyrus has ever welcomely penetrated my ears. You get the point. I was a nerdy little kid, my recent growth spurt saw me at 5 foot eight, 110 pounds. I was in the drama club, at a sports school. I couldn’t play an instrument, yet, so I hung out with the band kids. They Might Be Giants were so fucking nerdy that their music could be CARTOONED. I had known of music, before, but this was my gateway drug. I was hooked. Holly told me, later, that she thought the mixtape I gave her was hilarious. And the songs were funny, on the surface. But that assessment always rang false to me, upon more critical listening to TMBG records. The songs were quirky, yes. Accordions and baritone saxes were not exactly commonplace instruments in rock and roll, ca 1993. Both Johns sing as though they’re still getting over a cold. But take a look at any given TMBG lyric, out of context. “Stormy pinkness, set me thanklessly free.” “Don’t let’s start, I’ve got a weak heart.” “Ana Ng and I are getting old, and we still haven’t walked in the glow of each other’s majestic presence.” This has been discussed to death, I know, but beneath TMBG’s quirky outer layer resides a pathos that rivals the most tortured poetic souls in rock music, and the lyrics’ juxtaposition against the oddball time signatures and quirky instrumentation makes the songs seem that much darker. I was very quickly hooked, and snapped up every TMBG recording I could find. When, in 1994, They went “electric,” hiring a full studio band for the first time, on John Henry, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I had just started playing guitar, and would take tapes of their songs to my guitar lesson, each week. I watched my instructor shake his head, tab out the chord progressions to songs like “AKA Driver,” and take my mom’s money. I must have learned something, because soon I started teaching myself the songs, instead. I finally got to see them, and THEY LOOKED LIKE ME. I’m not exaggerating in any way when I say that the first six They Might Be Giants changed my life. And, of course, a lot of things changed. TMBG took five years off between Factory Showroom and 2001’s Mink Car. I went to college and discovered a treasure trove of quirky, ballsy music at my college radio station, WIDR Kalamazoo. I fell in love a couple hundred times, They got older, their tastes changed. I moved to New York, They released The Spine, followed quickly by a series of children’s albums, each more baffling to a non-parent than the last. I started to notice an unpleasant shift in direction in their style. While the music continued to get more traditionally “rock,” the lyrics started to sound more purposefully quirky. I had to set my cup of gin down, the first time I heard The Else, and I actively avoided 2011’s Join Us. I gave up caring; I had enough other favorite bands. TMBG had made enough world changing records for one band. I was just starting to learn how to let them go quietly into that dark night. And, just as They started to fade over the horizon, I heard a lot of noise about a new album, and a return to form. I asked around. My question to Twitter was, “Hey, fellow nerds. Is the new #tmbg any good?” My tweet got over a hundred responses (a record for my Twitter acc! ount), al! l of them in the positive. I took a chance, and bought a vinyl copy of Nanobots. Wouldn’t you know it? TMBG have surprised even me, with this late-career return to form. After opener “You’re on Fire,” the album plays like an LP-length version of their 1992 “song,” “Fingertips.” Johns F. and L. sing together on songs more often than I can remember them ever doing, before, John F.’s high harmonies lending that old screechy sound I’d been missing. The accordion, or at least a convincing accordion patch, is thankfully present, as is John L.’s baritone sax. Songlets like “Destroy the Past,” and “Hive Mind” provide jarring sorbet cleansers between the real meat of the latter half’s songs. I have listened to this album a number of times, and I’m still not quite sure of the deeper meaning herein. But, huzzah. A reasonable facsimile of my once-favorite band, ever. Welcome home, nerds. It feels like you never left us.

Jay Braun: Lou Reed.

Jens Carstensen: The death of Lou Reed is the only celebrity death I, to date, have felt sadder about than the death of Sterling Morrison.  I guess I really like the Velvet Underground (except for the third record.  Zzz.)  Anyway, I’ve been binging on VU – and Lou solo – since and it makes me remember being in my teens, how much I wanted to be in a band, and how much I wanted to live in New York City.  I got to spend a gratifying amount of time doing both, and now I’ve since left both much behind without regret.  But it’s Lou’s passing that convinced that neither music nor New York City is ever going to be nearly as cool again. Also, every time a legendary rock and roller dies, I’m even more impressed that Chuck Berry is still alive.

Andrea Weiss: On a worldwide level, RIP Lou Reed, Richie Havens, and many more. But on a more personal level, RIP Scott Miller and Faye Hunter. Scott’s music, as well as Let’s Active got me through so many things, bad and good, and to know that they’ll won’t be any new music from them, especially as Scott was planning to record a new Game Theory album SuperCaliFragile.

Anna Howe: Biggest disappointment — the loss of Scott Miller and Maxwell’s.

Tom Snow: Biggest disappointment — I want to say Scott Miller, of course, but who am I to ask anything of him, or Kurt Cobain, or DFW, or anyone else?

Maura Johnston: In 2014 I would like to spend more time listening to music and less time arguing about it on the Internet.

Mike Dos Santos: 2013 was a great year for music.


First I posted the album results.

Then I posted the singles results.

Then I posted my own results.

As it turned out I had so many results that I had to keep on going the next day.




















































February 4, 2014

Critics Poll XXIV: Singles

Not caught up in your love affair.

I hoped against hope that at least one could be put to bed. I told my editors that if the cold and snow held through the Super Bowl, it would finally drive a stake through the conspiracy theory about weaponized meteorology and weather control. The national security state wouldn’t jeopardize its big showcase event, right? The NWO wasn’t going to make its fighter jets fly through the hailstorm, right? No slush on Old Glory during the anthem, right?

Then the temperature spiked, and it was a suspiciously pleasant 40-something at kickoff.

The very next day… well, you’ve got a window.

So this one is going to hang around, and hey, maybe if they really are manipulating the weather with HAARP or orgone boxes or chemtrails, they’re just doing it to have a good laugh at your paranoid ass. Look at the grins on the faces of our last few national security advisers. I’ll bet they’re not above using the climate as a canvas for their practical jokes.

Debunkers like to talk about the improbability of a successful cover-up in an age where everybody has cameraphones and cheap wireless access. People blab, and no organization is airtight, and eventually Deep Throat spills the beans to the Washington Post. Someone forwards an e-mail, and suddenly that George Washington Bridge closure you ordered isn’t so funny anymore. This seems reasonable. Given that journalism is driven by trending topics, it’s hard to believe that a sizzling hot story could stay under wraps for very long. Only, one did: just this December, Beyonce Knowles, a woman whose every move is chronicled obsessively by a thousand news sources, released an album on the Internet that nobody knew she was making. “Beyonce” was accompanied by 17 videos, which were shot all over the world. Think about this for a moment, Bob Woodward — extras in locations on seventeen different film shoots, all of whom had a pretty good incentive to tip off TMZ about what was happening, chose instead to clam up. Then there were all of the passersby (some of the clips were shot on the streets), camerapeople, the security guards that must have been hired to escort her motorcade, etcetera. In order to preserve the surprise, Beyonce had to drop a cone of silence the size of the globe. If she could do it about something that people are desperate to find out about (the music) why are we so disinclined to believe that the authorities couldn’t do it about something that nobody really cares about (the government)?

The standard cute answer is that Beyonce is more powerful than the government, ha ha. Behind that chuckle is the sound of some serious wishbone-breaking. Civil libertarians all, we’d like to believe that Beyonce can crush nations under her high heel. But the truth, as we saw with Lil Wayne, is that popular entertainers only look like they can make the rules. Sometimes the President shows up at their concerts. This should not be confused with political influence. The size and scope of executive oversight seems to double like Moore’s Law with each successive administration, and the greyest, most anonymous stooge in the Justice Department has leverage over our lives that our favorite public figures can’t even begin to imagine on their most outrageous fantasy records. No one man should have all that power. No one government should have it, either.

This puts you and me in a terrifying position, when we choose to think about it — which we mostly don’t, and for good reason. Looking at it will give you the willies. The security state has grown so large and so secretive that we can’t begin to box it with authority. You’re here on the ground, flailing your arms, and they’re up in the sky, tracking everything you do through the gadgets you’re using. We used to get accused of paranoia when we said stuff like this. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know it for sure, but it’s not like that knowledge can help us very much. And in our absolute ignorance about the motivations of the people who’ve got power over us, we’ve taken to investing in stories to explain things that will not ever be explained. Spray planes are saturating the air with Morgellons disease. Bush blew up the Towers. Your underarm antiperspirant is killing you. Vaccines are giving everybody autism, if they aren’t giving everybody Alzheimers, if it isn’t the cellphone towers giving everybody Alzheimer’s, if it isn’t the cellphone towers killing the bees.

You do it, too. As a nonconformist American, it is virtually certain that you believe in some kind of conspiracy. It is the spirit of the age — a great big leering ghost that hangs over us and disappears like a hologram if viewed from the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at things) angle. There are people who believe that the security state is hunky dory and are fine with nonstop surveillance. Seen from the outside, a newsroom is the smoking cauldron of conspiracy. Our newspaper cannot make a move without getting accused of complicity in some kind of cover-up. A popular one among internet commenters is that we refuse to publish the race of murderers in Newark if they’re African American. Every time it snows, we’re told climate change is a hoax, and it’s suggested that we’re in the pay of people who’d like to impose a carbon tax for their own profit. My positive reviews of Bruce Springsteen are ascribed to a desire to get front-row seats at his concerts. Everybody is suspect. During the heyday of Occupy, the Occupiers felt that they could not get a fair shake from a corporate-controlled publication. I could say that the editors were dying for additional Occupy stories, but I know I wouldn’t change anybody’s mind. I could be in on it, hey? Or I could be brainwashed.

This is the logical outcome of the world we’ve created: endless speculation about the unknowable. Again and again, I return to this clip of KRS-ONE, interviewed just after Barack Obama ascended to the presidency. KRS compares the President to the manager of Burger King — the simpering frontman for a global shakedown — and implies that Americans are being kept in line by the promise of material reward. He is, as he always is,  simultaneously incendiary and goofy, which is exactly why he’s always been indispensable; this is a rapper who was proud to call himself a teacher while everybody else was competing for the crown. As always, you take everything he says with an entire Morton’s container of salt. But his central point is a tough one to write off completely. The state of the world is such that no matter what you do, you never get to see the franchise owner of Burger King. The person who acts like he is calling the shots is almost always fronting. Real power stays quiet. Consider your own life, and the people who hold sway over your destiny. Do you know who they are? Do you ever get to see the franchise owner of Burger King? For months, I have been trying to get an audience with the people who run the company that runs the newspaper’s sorry website. I imagine they’d sooner let a wet dog into their office than open the door for me. I work for the franchise owner of Burger King, but I don’t get to see him. In exchange, I can rhapsodize about the gospel tradition in Newark in a publication that reaches tens of thousands. Is that a worthy exchange? What do you think?

When our number one song dropped, some listeners heard it as a critique of hip-hop. It is that, but it’s more than that, too. If you listen to what Lorde is trying to say, it’s the exact same thing that KRS-ONE is saying in the clip above. It addresses the same anxiety: the royals are out of reach, and protected from overthrow by an ideological apparatus that keeps telling us that we can have whatever we like. Lorde’s narrator does not believe that it is by accident that she and her friends are suffocated by images of wealth. She believes, as many young people do, that this line of bullshit has been orchestrated by the franchise owner of Burger King. And who better to deliver conspiracy-theory pop than a teenager — let’s presume for the sake of argument that she really *is* a teenager — since those of us who do get uppity from time to time are frequently accused of adolescent behavior?

Well, if adolescents are instinctive conspiracy theorists, there are some awfully good reasons for that. Grownups have conspired to put adolescents in debt to the tune of seventeen trillion dollars. This was done to benefit programs and policies that Americans of Lorde’s age were legally prohibited from voting on. If the Occupy movement did nothing else, it deserves our respect for raising consciousness about the student loan crisis. This, too, is a conspiracy orchestrated by institutionalists looking to preserve their material comfort: Young people, already saddled with ridiculous deficits, are threatened with unemployability if they don’t place themselves on the debt cycle as quickly as possible. Lorde’s critique of materialism only looks unfocused to those who refuse to understand what her peers are up against. Look, I hate generational spokespeople, too, but somebody had to stand up and put this in a record. Much as I dig it, “Thrift Shop” wasn’t going to cut it.

“Pure Heroine” is powerful precisely because it does not take assimilation to adulthood as a given. This makes it unlike any other pop album written by an adolescent (again, let’s go along with it), including the Taylor Swift sets that examine the teenage predicament with great care and insight, but which treats the glory of the adult sphere as the natural birthright of every child. This is why Swift’s writing on “Fearless” resonated so deeply with teenage girls: It reassures the listener that every duckling will grow up to be a swan, and will be taught all the secret handshakes in due time. But few kids are handed the code. It’s only the ones who seem likely to play ball and join the conspiracy of adulthood who’ll get in the club. Grownups are constantly vetting kids and looking to shake more change out of their pockets, and the gulf between the old and empowered and the young and dependent, which is so beautifully drawn on Lorde’s album, is going to be dispiriting to any young person who sees it clearly.

As for me, I still don’t believe that 9/11 was an inside job. I think. Okay, what the hell, I don’t know, and all I know is that I’m never going to know. I will continue to try not to think about it, and I will intermittently succeed, which is better than living in fear that the government is trying to kill you or jail you. I will continue to jump out of my seat when I hear unexpected fireworks. And I will keep searching for the F.O.B.K.  If you happen to see that guy, do me a favor and punch him in the face for me.

  • 1. Lorde — “Royals” (307)
  • 2. Daft Punk — “Get Lucky” (296)
  • 3. Tegan & Sara — “Closer” (172)
  • 4. Kanye West — “New Slaves” (166)
  • 5. Kanye West — “Bound 2″ (162)
  • 6. Sky Ferreira — “I Blame Myself” (146)
  • 7. CHVRCHES — “The Mother We Share” (139)
  • 8. Haim — “The Wire” (134)
  • 9. Paramore — “Still Into You” (128)
  • 10. Kacey Musgraves — “Follow Your Arrow” (122)
  • 11. Neko Case — “Man” (114)
  • 12. Drake — “Hold On, We’re Going Home” (112)
  • 12. Vampire Weekend — “Diane Young” (112)
  • 14. Kanye West — “Black Skinhead” (108)
  • 15. Mariah Carey & Miguel — “#Beautiful” (104)
  • 16. Robin Thicke — “Blurred Lines” (103)
  • 17. Drake — “Worst Behavior” (101)
  • 17. Charli XCX — “Superlove” (101)
  • 19. Beyonce — “Drunk In Love” (100)
  • 20. Petula Clark — “Cut Copy Me” (97)
  • 21. Chance The Rapper — “Cocoa Butter Kisses” (94)
  • 22. Miley Cyrus — “Wrecking Ball” (86)
  • 23. Ace Hood — “Bugatti” (82)
  • 23. Okkervil River — “Down Down The Deep River” (82)
  • 25. Pink & Nate Ruess — “Just Give Me A Reason” (81)
  • 26. Pet Shop Boys — “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” (77)
  • 26. Pusha T — “Numbers On The Boards” (77)
  • 28. Empire Of The Sun — “Alive” (75)
  • 29. One Direction — “Best Song Ever” (73)
  • 30. Pistol Annies — “Hush Hush” (71)
  • 30. Rihanna — “Stay” (71)
  • 30. Yo La Tengo — “Ohm” (71)

Go back and read the album results.

Go forward and immerse yourself in the miscellaneous categories section.

Put on your space-suit and moonwalk across the first part of my ballot.

Splash back down to earth with the second part of my ballot.

February 3, 2014

Critics Poll XXIV: Albums

Does each face outside collide against your heart?

I think back about a quarter-century. If I’d been asked then if there were any other people writing unsolicited Top Ten lists anywhere on earth, I probably would have answered no. I knew about the Pazz & Jop poll — I started this Poll because of my teenage frustrations with Pazz & Jop consensus — but I figured that those characters were out there hitting deadlines. The writer at Newsday couldn’t possibly be motivated by the same pathological desire to adjudicate between the merits of pop albums, could he? That would suggest he was driven by the same furies I was. And if he was, there’s no way he’d ever be able to hold a desk at a city newspaper.

Once the world achieved mass connectivity, I learned that people all over the globe had the same impulse. Listeners liked to make lists. Or maybe what they really liked was the act of commemorating the year they’d just lived by honoring the records that moved them. Now that we’ve been doing this for 24 years, we’ve created an archaeological record of opinion and experience — and music is a powerful preservative. When I go back into the filing cabinet and re-read the forms from, say, 1993, I’m taken right back to my first astonished listen of Exile In Guyville and arguments we had about The Chronic eerily similar to ones we’re currently having about Yeezus. I’m taken back to an Ultra Vivid Scene show at Maxwell’s where Kurt Ralske insisted in keeping all of the house lights up. I’m taken back to Maxwell’s, period, and the motivation it always gave me to make music.

Maxwell’s won’t be doing shows anymore. We’re still doing the Poll. For the first time since 1995, I seriously considered retiring this project. I saw the end of Todd Abramson’s long tenure at Maxwell’s much like those breaks in the geological charts from science class: That all belonged the Cambrian period, marked in purple, and now it was the Ordovician period, and all organisms had to evolve or choose extinction. Many of the best musicians on that scene during my early adulthood had in fact hung up the ole guitars and made the decision to reconstruct their lives according to saner models. Ask one for a list of modern albums and he’d laugh at you and maybe say something about how it’s all been downhill since Pavement.

Which is a lie, of course, and one of the oldest and sorriest in the book. If you’re alive and you live in the city, you’re aware of pop music. You can attempt to plug your ears when you’re in the deli or the public swimming pool, but at some point you’re going to bump into “Royals.” If you had an opinion about Portishead or Primitive Radio Gods in the ’90s, you’ve got something to think about Lorde now, and repressing that won’t do you one bit of good.

Like a lot of music listeners in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I assumed that the trajectory of my own tastes were going to take me straight underground, and the ongoing fragmentation and decay of the record industry would destroy the mainstream (for me, at least) once and for all. I looked forward to a lengthy future of productive, principled, tight-assed alienation. The opposite happened: The Internet has broadened the mainstream to the point where it’s now virtually impossible for an oppositional artist to hide. It’s also no longer possible to submit the kind of Poll ballots we used to make when we believed that nobody was looking and this was all just a crazed frolic of our own. I often had to wait until the end of the year and Pazz & Jop to learn what critics thought of a particular album. Now, conventional wisdom coalesces online before the release date, and you’ve got to apply yourself seriously to the difficult act of disconnection to dodge an early judgment.

So while it was always tough to disentangle a personal reaction to an album from the reaction happening all around you, it’s become harder than ever to say: Never mind what site X or pundit Y or source Z thinks of this record; what does it mean to me? I have noticed that many present critics strain to get the right answer on their ballots — as if one even exists; as if the album you listened to while you were cramming for your year-end essay could ever be as important as the one you played while you were falling in love. (I believe the sages One Direction addressed this on their latest album.) I’ve also noticed a surprising number of critics grumbling about the whole exercise. It’s turned into a big homework assignment, it’s stressful and overwhelming, I have a thousand other deadlines, I am going to lose credibility by listing Bruno Mars, etcetera.

Well, if this isn’t fun, it isn’t anything. Making a Top Ten list of anything subjective should never feel like an obligation, and that’s because it’s an intrinsically perverse thing to do, and we do it to satisfy a real human need to chronicle and commemorate the passage of time. We all made it through 2013; can you believe it? There have been days in 2014 when I can’t, and if your year had any intersection with mine (and if you’re reading this, it probably did), I’ll bet you feel the same way. You might not want to back in the filing cabinet and unearth anything about the year we just struggled through. I say surviving is achievement enough. As my man Brad Paisley so persuasively put it, congratulations — you’re officially alive.

And since you’re alive, and since your indissoluble human subjectivity carries on — possible even after death, if you believe in certain religious systems — you may as well get down your opinion on Miley Cyrus. Probably it’s going to be dumb. Mine is. I had half the state of New Jersey after my scalp after I put it in the newspaper. But the magnificent thing about pop fandom is that nobody can mark you wrong, and those who try to are being jerks. I began my big adventure at the Ledger four years ago with the conviction that if a reader had fallen in love with an album, the worst thing I could do as a critic was manhandle the object of that affection. With the finish line in sight, I hope my desire to spread the joy of pop music has outpaced my puerile need to put down the music that doesn’t move me. Because every album is somebody’s number one, even if it’s just the people who made that album.

I decided to bring this Critics Poll cruise back for its 24th trip because of you. I’d lost faith; you hadn’t. Many of you asked for it in November, and I’m glad you did, and not just because I’d otherwise be wasting time with video games right now. There’s a particular personality to this Poll that distinguishes it and keeps people coming back, and that’s all the evidence I need to conclude that it isn’t my personality, it’s yours. I’m just the goof who types it up — you’re the ones who give it character. While many of the acts that did well on this year’s Poll were the usual accepted customers, I believe our winner was only named on five Pazz & Jop ballots. Nevertheless, it’s a group we’ve been supporting for a decade, and if you’ve been following the Critics Poll, you won’t be surprised by the results.  It’s got all of the hallmarks of a Poll winner: It’s a concept set, it’s wordy, it’s passionately sung, and it is obsessed, as our last two top albums have been, with anxiety, memory, and the passage of time. In the newspaper and elsewhere, I’ve been flying the flag for this band for years, which makes it ironic that…., well, we’ll get to that soon enough. Here’s the final score:

  • 1. Okkervil River — The Silver Gymnasium (338)
  • 2. Kanye West — Yeezus (319)
  • 3. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires Of The City (306)
  • 4. David Bowie — The Next Day (256)
  • 5. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories (243)

We had 124 voters in the Poll 24, which matches our 21st C. average. That’s a tick more than we managed last year, and it reverses a slight downward trend. Often when our two top albums have finished within twenty points of each other, it’s the sign of a split down the middle of the electorate; in 2004, for instance, the older voters supported Smile and the younger ones backed Arcade Fire, and there was little overlap between the groups. This year, there was considerable correspondence between the Okkervil voters and the Yeezus voters. The difference: while the polarizing Kanye cleaned up in the negative categories, Will Sheff has no detractors. Nobody punished Okkervil River, for instance, for defecting to the Dave Matthews Band’s label and producing The Silver Gymnasium in a style palatable to bearded Bob Seger listeners. Hey, don’t look at me; I love Bob Seger. Also I lack sufficient testosterone to grow a beard. Modern Vampires Of The City was named on 29 of the 124 ballots, which outpaced both Yeezus and Silver Gymnasium, but only topped 3 lists (Silver Gymnasium led the field with 8 number one votes.)

  • 6. Tegan & Sara — Heartthrob (238)
  • 7. Paramore — Paramore (223)
  • 8. Danny Brown — Old (203)
  • 9. Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Try… (203)
  • 10. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle (194)

About a week ago, I though Tegan & Sara had won this Poll. Without giving away too much of my own ballot, I would have loved that. It would have been our first pure pop winner since who knows when, and further evidence that the long, cold era of obscurantism and misdirection in music was over. Alas, all of the T&S voters got in early. The last week belonged to Okkervil River. Yet 238 points and 20 votes is not nothing — especially for an act that has never gotten much love on our Poll. The alignment between album number six and album number seven was stronger than any two sets in our Top 40. If you had Heartthrob, odds are, you had Paramore, too. If you only listed one, maybe you should consider picking up the other. I associate the albums, too, although I’m not sure I could tell you why. Maybe because “Closer” and “Still Into You” were two new wave throwback singles crushed by the disco landslide of summer 2013. Usually it pays to sound ’80s. This year you had to make like Kool and the Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire. A good half of that Daft Punk album sitting at number five is unashamed mirror-ball revivalism. Why did you think it won that Grammy Award last week? It’s not because industry insiders like dance music, or robots, or freedom fries. To paraphrase Kate Miller-Heidke: the ’70s were forty years ago. It’s time we started making some memories of our own — randomly accessed or otherwise.

  • 11. Of Montreal — Lousy With Sylvianbriar (193)
  • 11. Kacey Musgraves — Same Trailer, Different Park (193)
  • 13. Janelle Monae — The Electric Lady (191)
  • 14. Queens Of The Stone Age — …Like Clockwork (190)
  • 15. Chance The Rapper — Acid Rap (182)

One of the more hotly debated subjects in the Garden State is whether Red is a country album or if Taylor Swift is a fiendish Pennsylvanian carpetbagger who got what she needed out of Nashville and has subsequently retired her twang. We debate this because Taylor Swift owns New Jersey; if you’ve never seen a Taylor Swift concert in Newark or the Meadowlands, it’s sort of like the last scene in Return Of The Jedi only with little girls and moms instead of Ewoks. (Also, Jersey is Dixie now.) Given what she’s done to popularize the genre, it’s my opinion that any country insider who doesn’t embrace Taylor Swift is an ingrate. I realize I’m a newcomer to the party, and many fans probably don’t care very much if city slickers ever get with the program. But despite all of the think pieces about a potential emo revival to follow the critical recuperation of Southern hip-hop, it’s pretty clear to me that the most likely candidate for assimilation into the “cool guy” playlist is Nashville country. First of all, it’s pretty great, and it’s unjustifiably ignored by critical listeners who’d otherwise appreciate its virtues — lyricism, storytelling, personality, chops, a terrifying degree of quality control in the studio. It’s also as star-driven as hip-hop is, and as search engine and social media optimization continue to influence what gets written about, getting celebrated names in ledes and headlines is only going to become more important. That’s good news for Kacey Musgraves, who probably ensured stardom with her turn under the neon cacti at the Grammy Awards, but was heading there anyway. Musgraves is as blue-state-friendly as a country singer can get: she rips on small towns, she’s got no time for organized religion, and she’s cool with kissing girls and smoking marijuana. She was the highest scoring Nashville artist in this year’s Poll, but there were others: Brandy Clark came in at #22, Ashley Monroe at #32, and the Pistol Annies scored 59 points and made the top 50. Given that we’ve had many years when no Music City artist has ever gotten any traction on the Poll, I make two predictions for 2014. 1.) This is not a flash in the pan; we’re paying attention to Nashville now, and more to the point, they’re paying attention to us and figuring out how to supply us with artists who, like Musgraves, speak our language. 2.) The upcoming set by Miranda Lambert is going to make a lot of noise.

Chano didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but this was a pretty good year for hip-hop, too. Our voters didn’t quite know what to make of Danny Brown in 2011; now we’re all used to that tongue and that broken tooth and that haywire delivery. Janelle Monae is a great singer, but when she emcees, she’s Lauryn Hill rejuvenated. Earl Sweatshirt (#27) Run The Jewels (#31), Pusha T (#34), A$AP Rocky (#64) and others all drew support on a Poll that has not always been kind to rap music. (There’s a name I’m deliberately leaving out here, and we’ll get to him soon.) The loss leader, here as it is elsewhere, is rock, but Queens of the Stone Age are still howling away in the desert to justifiable acclaim, and 2007 Poll winner Of Montreal is back in the voters’ good graces after a turn back toward guitars and live instrumentation.

  • 16. Eleanor Friedberger — Personal Record (177)
  • 17. The Front Bottoms — Talon Of The Hawk (172)
  • 17. Haim — Days Are Gone (172)
  • 19. CHVRCHES — The Bones Of What You Believe (168)
  • 20. Sky Ferreira — Night Time, My Time (167)
  • 20. Lorde — Pure Heroine (167)

Jim Testa’s (and New Jersey’s) favorites pull into a seventeenth-place tie with Jim Testa’s bane. To be fair to Haim, who faced a ferocious backlash before their career even got started — a happenstance with 2013 written all over it — the group never claimed to be anything other than a major label guitar-pop act. I’m not certain why Haim was held to a different standard than, say, Vampire Weekend, another group of appropriators with no qualms about chasing a big audience or a mainstream-friendly sound. Haim and Vampire Weekend — and, for that matter, #20 finisher Night Time, My Time — were produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, who applied many of the same strategies and tricks to all three albums. Rechtshaid was the man behind the boards for Valencia’s We All Need A Reason To Believe, a fantastic-spastic album you don’t know because that emo revival is still mostly confined to think pieces. Since then, he’s learned to use the fashionable reverb, or maybe it’s better to say he’s learned to control reverb so it doesn’t splash out of its sonic confines and swamp the entire song. This earned him many votes in the Best Producer category on this Poll, and, less impressively, a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year. Yet given that all three of these albums were basically pop records, it is fair to ask how popular they actually were. The answer: Not popular enough. For an album with “The Wire” and “Forever” on it, Days Are Gone hasn’t done so well. Neither song has been the smash that it could have been, and while it’s not fair to blame Haim or Rechtshaid for the lack of imagination or courage of American radio programmers, the sound they created did not force ears open. Rechtshaid also produced Sky Ferreira’s “I Blame Myself,” a melody and lyric that had “can’t miss” written all over it until it did. Ferreira’s label didn’t even see fit to release “I Blame Myself” as a single, and then they refused to put out physical copies of Night Time, My Time, which from this distance looks less like an example of the Beyonce-future we inhabit than old-fashioned industry shenanigans. Part of the pop producer’s responsibility is to make the record so good — and so undeniable — that the artist is sprung free from the demands of her handlers. For all its acclaim, Modern Vampires Of The City didn’t exactly tear up the charts, either.

Somebody named Lordy came in at number twenty. Don’t know a thing about her. Nosiree bob, you won’t be reading about her later.

  • 22. Brandy Clark — 12 Stories (158)
  • 23. Frightened Rabbit — Pedestrian Verse (153)
  • 24. Drake — Nothing Was The Same (147)
  • 25. Beyoncé — Beyoncé (134)
  • 26. Kurt Vile — Wakin On A Pretty Daze (133)
  • 27. Earl Sweatshirt — Doris (129)
  • 28. Disclosure — Settle (114)
  • 29. The Wonder Years — The Greatest Generation (112)
  • 29. Bill Callahan — Dream River (112)

Question for the floor: what the hell happened with Drake this year? Nothing Was The Same was hyped, it was reviewed well, he worked so hard on the album he missed the whole summer, he can’t even drive with the top off, and now this. You didn’t vote for him in positive categories. You didn’t vote for him in negative categories, either. You just ignored your poor cousin Drake who came all the way down from Toronto for your bar mitzvah. I don’t get it. The deejay at the Jay Z concert at Prudential Center last week dropped “Worst Behavior” and the whole floor went berzerk. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” came on and every high school dance in America became that much more intriguing. He started from the bottom, now his whole team’s here. Why don’t you people care?

  • 31. Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels (109)
  • 32. Ashley Monroe — Like A Rose (106)
  • 33. Foxygen — We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic (105)
  • 34. Pusha T — My Name Is My Name (103)
  • 35. Jason Isbell — Southeastern (95)
  • 36. Yo La Tengo — Fade (94)
  • 36. Arcade Fire — Reflektor (94)
  • 37. Cut Copy — Free Your Mind (83)
  • 38. Iceage — You’re Nothing (81)
  • 39. Empire Of The Sun — Ice On The Dune (80)
  • 39. Black Sabbath — 13 (80)
  • 39. My Bloody Valentine — m b v (80)

Robyn Hitchcock (#42) and Richard Thompson (#46) both narrowly missed the Top 40. Bubbling under: guitar mastery.

Since winning in 2004, Arcade Fire has never done terribly well on this poll. Still, a #36 finish is going to raise some eyebrows, I am aware. What can I say?, I just count the numbers. Also, I don’t vote for Arcade Fire, so I’ll concede that I’ve contributed to the condemnation with faint praise. We can read that as a slight repudiation for Poll 21 winner James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, who was to Reflektor as Rick Rubin was to Yeezus.   Poll 19 winner Frightened Rabbit nearly crashed off the list in 2010, but rebounded to #23 this year; Phoenix drew only two votes for Bankrupt, the follow-up to Poll 20 winner Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

Before you ask: M.I.A. is at #44 with 71 points. Other interesting near-misses: British new wave revivalist Charli XCX, brutal-voiced King Krule, Australian art-pop act Alpine. We’ll be seeing some of those names again over the next few days. Tomorrow: singles.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

  • Amos Lee — Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song
  • Azar Swan — Dance Before The War
  • Benga — Chapter Two
  • Big K.R.I.T. — King Remembered In Time
  • Bilal — A Love Surreal
  • Buke & Gase — General Dome
  • Camera Obscura — Desire Lines
  • Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
  • Childish Gambino — Because The Internet
  • Giorgio Moroder — Schlagermoroder Vol. 1
  • Jenny Hval — Innocence Is Kinky
  • Jimi Hendrix — Miami Pop 1969
  • Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City
  • Magnolia Electric Co. — Songs: Ohia
  • Marnie Stern — The Chronicles Of Marnia
  • Monster Magnet — Last Patrol
  • Moon Motel — The Lonely Romantic
  • Nathan Moore — Hippy Fiasco Rides Again
  • Paul McCartney — New
  • Paul Messis — Case Closed
  • Phosphorescent — Muchacho
  • Sara Bareilles — The Blessed Unrest
  • Shinyribs — Gulf Coast Museum
  • Sing Me The Songs: Celebrating The Work Of Kate McGarrigle
  • Steven Wilson — The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
  • Streetlight Manifesto — The Hands That Thieve
  • The Close Readers — New Spirit
  • The 1975 — The 1975
  • The Orange Peels — Sun Moon
  • Touche Amore — Is Survived By
  • Uncluded — Hokey Fright
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs — Mosquito

Here’s the singles results.

Here’s the miscellaneous categories section.

Here’s the first part of my ballot.

Since I am a long-winded fellow, there is a second part of my ballot, too.
















January 1, 2014

Critics Poll XXIV

This is the form for Critics Poll XXIV. The deadline for voting is Jan. 25, 2014. I’ll begin to publish the results on Jan. 27, and continue until the first of February.

February 10, 2013

Critics Poll XXIII — My Ballot

If you’re butter, then I’m a hot knife. Or a hot swizzle stick. My little sister took this photo.

so i will tell you why

  • because of the beats
  • because of the rhymes
  • because melody is radical
  • because auto-tune is tasty
  • because of sun high against the skyscrapers of miami in april and it’s forty two degrees back in newark and the world knows the single but i am hearing the album for the first time, just shaking hands with the year, the marlins have a new ballpark and traffic on the causeway is moving like we’re in one of those japanese future cities where the cars are all automated and the breeze smells like citrus and everything is swell
  • because of may in the pine barrens, speeding through the pine barrens from jackson cage to atlantic city and we already know all the words, and the windows are down and we’re behind a peach truck and there is summer in front of us, green and lazy
  • because of june in maplewood and the jersey suburbs have that sequestered feeling like no stone from the outside could penetrate, and i am singing the extra track to the railroad bridges and the brook and nothing is between me and the trees
  • because the tower lights making laser lines in the july haze, and it is night and we have fifteen minutes to get to the concert, and the south philly streets are black and wet and there are pretzels in a bag and the songs too loud on the car stereo
  • because i am writing at home in august and hilary puts the record on and then i am not writing
  • because of the life
  • because of the beats
  • no, seriously, because of those jeff bhasker beats
  • because in the dream i asked jeff bhasker how he got that sound and he said look pal it’s just e.q., and he turned a few knobs on the board and voila suddenly where there was nothing there here was a jeff bhasker beat
  • because i saw the format in a small club in new jersey and i saw steel train in a small club in new jersey and i said hey there is something going on in these small clubs in new jersey that is beautiful and valid to quote my man max bemis
  • because there is something that happens at the bamboozle that is beautiful and valid
  • because the bamboozle won’t be back this year and maybe ever
  • because it’s not just e.q.
  • because you didn’t believe me
  • because maplewood is sequestered in the summertime and the barricades are up in newark and sound it bounces
  • because i sang choir
  • because it goes like this:
  1. bite from in the flesh which is fine because if the bite was comfortably numb it would portend shoegaze or “drug” music and if the bite was another brick in the wall it would portend dance rock and if the bite was from mother it would portend problems with the mother which are definitely not here and we’ll get to that but in the flesh means that where we’re going is the t h e a t r e
  2. and now it is cecilia and a question that is worth asking and maybe worth answering, and i do have an answer because i was born to the answer
  3. funny how after the thousands of plays and commercials this is still the least exciting song on the album
  4. who hasn’t had that conversation on “the edge of the night” at a bar off 75 or wherever after something unspeakable has happened, we had it after kurt cobain for chrisssake, because there remains an unbreachable divide between those of us who live with anxiety of impending nonbeing and those who have turned themselves inside out — pretzelized their beings so to speak — so that nonbeing is preferable to being, which should be impossible according to the great theologian p. tillich, who suggested that anxiety of nonbeing was part of the human condition and therefore irreducible, inescapable. and yet it is possible. it happens every day.
  5. first sex is the greatest thing until the next sex and starlight crashing through the room is louder than cymbals
  7. singing choir meant you’d be called queer, as if that wasn’t preferable to the alternative, as if foreclosing alternatives was better than opening them up, but you didn’t care because you were raising your voice with your friends and in that moment you knew
  8. in my current capacity as ace reporter i have tried many times to describe the jeff bhasker signature sound and i do not think i am within miles of it — for instance i called it chilly and that’s not right, drake’s 40 is chilly, but bhasker’s drums are somewhere on the other side of absolute zero and i have described the reverb trails as comets yet they are not astral they are more like pink streaks in the rock
  9. songs kicking at parents are better but songs that hug the parents despite their frailties (e.g. walk like a man) are best
  10. because the starlight is crashing and the auto-tune is like the spirit slipping and then like the screech of rubber trapped in the corner in a bumper car
  11. extra track. the world will make you shake
  • because in the context of human history the replay button is a recent invention
  • because air becomes agitated when exposed to electricity
  • because of agitated air outside the austin convention center at sxsw and they are playing at the stadium across the street, and you are text messaging me and the chime of my phone is in time with the traffic signal
  • because of the sound crew at terminal 5 bopping along to every song and when they nail the light cue and the sound cue they hi-five, and of course nobody on stage can see but we are behind the soundboard and we see
  • because of the puddles on seventh avenue before jingle ball and the kids with balloons and the 1d insignia painted on their cheeks
  • because melody is radical
  • because of driving fast and walking fast, and writing out loud
  • because of journey. and night ranger. and supertramp. and styx. especially styx. and saga singing tonight we’re on the loose. and you are 12 years old on the bobsled ride at seaside and it goes around and around, and the songs keep playing
  • because the music we hate is no worse than the music we like
  • because the music that matters is the music that matters to those to whom music matters
  • because the bobsled ride was lost in the storm
  • because we are young until the day we are not
  • because 2012

Album Of The Year

  1. fun. — Some Nights
  2. Taylor Swift — Red
  3. David Byrne & St. Vincent — Love This Giant
  4. El-P — Cancer 4 Cure
  5. Future Of The Left — The Plot Against Common Sense
  6. Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
  7. Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  8. Hospitality — Hospitality
  9. Nas — Life Is Good
  10. Passion Pit — Gossamer
  11. Spiritualized — Sweet Heart Sweet Light
  12. Killer Mike — R.A.P. Music
  13. Of Montreal — Paralytic Stalks
  14. Frank Ocean — Channel ORANGE
  15. Vacationer — Gone
  16. Kate Miller-Heidke — Nightflight
  17. Tame Impala — Lonerism
  18. Now, Now — Threads
  19. Say Anything — Anarchy, My Dear
  20. Metric — Synthetica

Nicest Try

A Fine Frenzy — Pines. Alison Sudol could have re-made either of her last two records. Instead she did a concept set narrated by a tree with volition. (She’s the tree.) Some of the songs are long and boring; others are just long. At times Sudol really makes you fight to stay awake and pay attention. But she sustains her peculiar vision over the course of the record, which is not an easy thing to do. She proved she was much more than another jazz-pop songwriter with a good ear for a melody, a taste all things twee, and a great voice. I don’t know what she does next; chances are, it won’t be out on a major label. She stood up and showed she had courage, and demonstrated that, for her, making music is not about satisfying consumer demand. There used to be a lot of those characters around, and not just on Fiona Apple’s periphery. These days, I fear the pre-screening is much more efficient, and possibly automated and algorithm-driven.

Shrewdest Capitulation By An Artist Who Is Supposed To Be Incapable Of Such Calculus

Many of us heathen still think “Christian” equals “naive and unaware.” The Midsummer Station is not a great album, and I, too, liked Adam Young’s breakbeats better than his exercises in disco thump. You might say that by dumbing down the drums, he’s suppressing half of his talent. But he wanted to prove that he could do the Eurodisco at least as well as the greasy likes of David Guetta. And call it luck, if you want to, that he had Carly Rae Jepsen in his back pocket before the world knew who she was. I call it smarts, when I’m not calling it divine providence. So Young got another song on the charts, and that was a big Up Yours to the many who labeled Owl City a one-hit wonder or a flash in the pan. Young is a swell fellow and the moral tone of the Top 10 is definitely  improved by his participation in mainstream pop. I appreciate his willingness to pour out a milkshake in the same club where everybody else is getting hammered. Adam Young : still on a mission from God, now more than ever.

Single Of The Year

  1. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Call Me Maybe”
  2. Kanye West, Pusha T & Ghostface Killah — “New God Flow”
  3. Taylor Swift — “I Knew You Were Trouble”
  4. Kenny Chesney — “El Cerrito Place”
  5. Kanye West & DJ Khaled — “Cold”
  6. Frank Ocean — “Thinkin Bout You”
  7. Japandroids — “The House That Heaven Built”
  8. A$AP Rocky — “Goldie”
  9. Kendrick Lamar — “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
  10. Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen — “Good Time”
  11. Ke$ha — “Die Young”
  12. Taylor Swift — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
  13. Missy Higgins — “Everyone’s Waiting”
  14. Little Big Town — “Pontoon”
  15. Kanye West, Pusha T, Big Sean & 2 Chains — “Mercy”
  16. Brandi Carlile — “That Wasn’t Me”
  17. Miranda Lambert — “Over You”
  18. Julia Nunes — “Stay Awake”
  19. Jack White — “I’m Shakin'”
  20. fun. — “Some Nights”

Song That Should Have Been A Single

Kellie Pickler — “Little House On The Highway.” I am told she was on American Idol, and I guess she cut a pretty foolish figure on that program, because people look at me funny when I praise her. 100 Proof isn’t straight fire — some of the songs are traditionalism pro forma. But “Little House” has everything you could possibly want in a roots-rock single. The vocal is loaded with personality, the lyrics are as good as anything on the Pistol Annies album (which is to say very very good),  the drummer and slide guitarist are kicking, and the storytelling is the believable expression of female wanderlust that the more collegiate singer-songwriters can’t manage. Trucker’s tan and dirty Ray-Bans and looking for a place to top off the propane: It’s not that a city slicker like me can identify. But Pickler sure makes me see the fine white lines on the free, free-way.

Best Album Title

Beth Orton — Sugaring Season, a set of peak-foliage folk-pop if I’ve ever heard one.

Best Album Cover

Vacationer — Gone. Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. You feel it in the air — the summer’s out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone. Driving by your house, though I know you’re not home.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Rush and Ian Anderson. I put these characters together because they’re fellow travelers on a long and hard path: with each passing year, they get closer to the prog-rock verities they abandoned in the ’80s. That they’re telling stories again is sweet; that those stories are spilling out over the tracks is testament to their irrepressibility, and a good sign that they’ve got the mojo back. The lyrics on Thick As A Brick 2, for instance, are tremendous. You don’t believe me, and Anderson  himself is partially to blame — he continues to call the original Brick a parody, and returning to it, I think I see what he means. He didn’t bother to cross his Ts and dot his Is there. Anyway, the sequel is no parody. It follows five possible futures for Gerald Bostock, the ten year old narrator of the original; they’re all sad stories, and they all converge, mournfully, at the conclusion of the set. It’s moving, and in its way, it’s a cogent a critique of contemporary Britain as the one on the new Future Of The Left album. The music isn’t quite there, and it’s valid to ask why the rest of Tull wasn’t involved in the project. The guys in Rush, on the other hand, have been rolling thick for 35 years. Anderson accompanied his CD with a mock website; Neil Peart earned a novelization. No, I haven’t read it. I find it necessary to point out that A Fine Frenzy’s Pines, the album I discussed above, was accompanied by a children’s book. If you’re a writer, you’re a writer — where you put your pen point is immaterial. You could be writing on rocks across the U.S.A, like Terry Allen on Juarez. Your cup is going to run over, and the world is going to be your notebook.

Most Welcome Surprise

Chairlift. I am really impressed by these two. I didn’t think they had something like Something in them: I thought this was a second-string chillwave outfit with guarded but heartfelt commercial aspirations. Throw a stone at a laptop and you’ll hit plenty of those. They lost a founding member and hit the woodshed, and whatever they did in the practice space was transformative.  New wave revival is a style that allows for weak chopsmanship. They didn’t have to become monsters on their instruments for Something to work — they were driven toward quality control and scrupulousness by their own inner taskmasters. Exhibit A: here’s a video of Chairlift doing “I Belong In Your Arms” in Japanese. I’ve been studying Japanese on my own for the past two years, and I can’t get my pronunciation a fraction as good as Caroline Polachek does here. Nobody would have noticed, or cared, if she was less than perfect. Then there’s her synthesizer playing, and holy cow, when did she become some crazed, pitch-bending, mod-wheel-diddling fusion of Eleanor Friedberger and Nick Rhodes? As for her partner, I don’t even want to talk about that guy. Patrick Wimberly has become such a killer musician that he makes me cuss and spit. Who was the other guy again? Who cares?

Biggest Disappointment

Maroon 5. Maybe they deserve credit for holding out against the inevitable as long as they did. Considering that all they ever wanted to do was top the charts, they were always destined to degenerate into Adam Levine’s backing band. It just galls me that it was the success of a stupid television program that administered the coup de grace to what used to be a really good group. Not that they’re doing anything but laughing and counting the money. Well, Jesse Carmichael had other ideas — he jumped ship to become a phrenologist.  I’ll give them this — “Payphone” will make a nice addition to the greatest-hits package, especially if they can somehow excise Wiz Khalifa from the remastered version.

Album That Opens The Strongest

Kate Miller-Heidke — Nightflight. The hardest rhymer Down Under opens with a statement of artistic intent, and then follows it with a story about an abduction at a Ben Folds Five concert, a description of a long plane ride from Australia to points unknown, and a weird Buddhist prayer involving a tiger eating a child. The last one is a bit of a cheat: it was originally done on the Fatty Gets A Stylist project. Yet that version was so different that it feels like a completely new song. In the Nightflight rendition, she feels slightly bad for the child. In the Fatty version it sounds like she’s rooting for the tiger.

Album That Closes The Strongest

Jason Pierce of Spiritualized enters orbit with “So Long You Pretty Thing.” Almost everybody who voted in this category had the same answer.

Song Of The Year

Audrey Assad — “O My Soul.” Audrey Assad is the sort of painfully sincere true believer whose piety is all too easy to mock, so allow me to crawl into the confessional and concede that I’ve made up some awfully foul lyrics to her songs.  One of my more innocuous conceits was triggered by a slurred line — Assad doesn’t always enunciate — that made it sound like she was dedicating herself to Godna. That became a riff. I imagined Godna as a primitive bat deity: sort of a well-meaning guy with cute little fangs and not too many divine powers. Then I imagined Godna trolling Twitter and other social-media sites for worshippers, and moving his office hours from Sunday to Monday to get out of the shadow of the Big Guy.  All of this to avoid a head-on confrontation with the overwhelming forces that Audrey Assad grapples with during “O My Soul.” It’s easier to kid around and duck behind obstacles. Look at it directly and you’ll burn out both of your retinas.

Best Singing

Taylor Swift. There are people who insist that J.K. Rowling can’t write, too.

Best Singing Voice

Missy Higgins. Those Aussie vowels get me every time. They make me wish I was a kangaroo.

Best Rapping

Killer Mike is such a forceful emcee and so much fun to ride beside that he gets away with lyrics that aren’t always as ironclad as his delivery makes them sound. I don’t mean “bullet hit his partner/ hit him in the arter/-y;” I’m a Tom Lehrer fan, too. I mean the political stuff that’s supposed to be his strength. For instance, was Ronald Reagan an actor, not at all a factor, just an employee of the country’s real masters, or was he the antichrist? Because he can’t be both. This isn’t just nitpicking: it’s the exact contradiction that plagues so many antiestablishment and conspiratorial arguments, and it undercuts Mike’s reasonable conjecture about the prison-industrial complex replacing slavery. And speaking of that prison-industrial complex, why am I supposed to be happy that Jojo gets away while the stewardess is carted off to jail? Are we all in this penitential dimension together, Mr. Michael Render, or are we not?

Best Vocal Harmonies

Little Big Town, especially on “Sober.”

Best Bass Playing

This was a terrific year for bassists. I already mentioned Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift; he kills it all over that album. Kevin Barnes is always awe-inspiring, and he somehow managed to raise his game on Paralytic Stalks. The addition of Julia Ruzicka tightened up Future Of The Left even further, and I can’t forget Nathan Chapman’s understated but essential contributions to Taylor Swift’s recordings. Very often, a great record is often a duet between a singer and a bassist, and Chapman’s personality matches Taylor Swift’s like they grew up together, which in a way they did. But my answer in this category is Brian Betancourt of Hospitality, which could also have been my Biggest Surprise, since the first time I heard him play, I didn’t think he had any idea what to do with the instrument. I figured he was just passing through. It’s not like he even does anything flashy; he is, as Elvis Costello once said about Nick Lowe, a virtuoso of feel.

Best Live Drumming

Much as I love Kevin Parker’s looseness, especially on “Mind Mischief,” I’ve got to give it to Chris Zane of Passion Pit. Some of his parts are pop songs in themselves. It was nice to hear Jeff Kummer driving Ace Enders’ songs again, but Ace always employs good drummers, so the upgrade wasn’t quite as dramatic as it could have been.

Best Beat Programming

Jaime “El-P” Meline. It’s not particularly funky, and it doesn’t groove, but he can make a machine sound paranoid, and that’s an achievement.

Best Synth Playing

Caroline Polachek.

Best Piano or Organ Playing

Brooke Waggoner on Jack White’s Blunderbuss.  She’s only on half the tracks; White himself plays piano on the rest, and he’s no slouch, either. His St. Vitas Dance on the high keys on “Trash Tongue Talker” always gets me out of my chair. But when Waggoner is on the 88, the album comes together. It’s wrong to say that Jack has never been in a band with a musician whose vision equals his own, because in her way Meg White’s signature was as indelible as his. But she wasn’t the showoff that he was. Waggoner is as big a grandstander as Jack White is — see “Weep Themselves To Sleep” —  and when they’re both in action, it makes Blunderbuss seem almost proggy. Almost.

Best Rhythm Guitar Playing

Brian King of the Japandroids. I realize they’re peddling nostalgia. They’re not the only ones.

Best Lead Guitar Playing

Annie Clark. Unless that’s David Byrne. Just kidding, I know it isn’t.

Best Instrumental Solo

Max Bemis on “Night’s Song.” That kid can’t keep his foot off of the whammy pedal. He plugs in and the circus comes to town. This’ll be one of the few times I mention Say Anything today, so let me get this off my chest: Anarchy, My Dear wasn’t quite the album that its predecessors were, and some of my friends who I’d tentatively converted to Bemisism expressed some buyer’s remorse. Anarchy did not leap straight out of the stereo and into my bloodstream the way the rest of the Say Anything albums did. I was worried he was repeating himself. “Admit It Again” seemed like a seriously dodgy idea. But then I listened a few times, and Max’s outrage became my own, and now I’m comfortable with as many Admit Its as he wants to throw at us. I’d like to be the first subscriber to Admit It magazine.  It could be an annual report on the state of youth-culture conformity with Bemis reporting from the front. Lord knows there’s more than enough material. If he’s not going to do it, who will?

Best Instrumentalist

Kevin Parker, the Fool on the Hill circa MMXII.

Best Songwriting

Nate Ruess. Actually, the credits on Some Nights are divided in quarters, like a sloppy pizza pie, and our next guy gets a healthy slice, too. Jack Antonoff’s writing for Steel Train was intermittently excellent. There’s no reason to give all of the credit to Ruess, even if he is the walking definition of a look-at-me loudmouth.

Best Production

Jeff Bhasker, the man of the year. I’ve been laying on this horn hard in the newspaper, but if you can stomach it, it’s worth repeating one more time. In 2012, Bhasker got fun.’s show tunes to bounce like chart-toppers, and then they actually did become chart-toppers. He helped Taylor Swift realize her U2 ambitions on “Holy Ground.” He played OKCupid and paired Pink and Nate Ruess on a song that will almost certainly make my 2013 singles list. He remixed the Stones, enlivened Lana Del Rey, locked Bruno Mars out of heaven, and did his thing again for Alicia Keys, although by that point, the engine was knocking and pinging. Bhasker was one of the architects of the sound on 808s And Heartbreak, which I believe was inspired by old Pink Floyd, Crimson, and (especially) Phil Collins solo records, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t say. I think Kanye’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” sample gave the game away, but I’ve been known to connect dots that aren’t meant to be connected. The point is that nobody knew what the hell Kanye, Bhasker, and No I.D. were doing out there in Hawaii, and when the album came out, it confused people. I continue to find 808s the best album released in the last decade, so it is with immense pleasure that I have watched Bhasker take over pop radio. I also couldn’t help but notice that the new Nas set — his best-produced album in forever — was mostly done by No I.D. (Kanye West has been known to produce tracks, too.) Seen properly, 2012 was one big commercial validation for 808s And Heartbreak, played out in heavy rotation a dozen different ways. The artistic validation is still coming. As for Bhasker, he’s done all he can do, and it’s time for him to get some rest and relaxation, come back strong, and flip the script.

Best Arrangements

Love This Giant. I suppose if you didn’t like Elvis Costello’s Spike, you might have thought they were cluttered. Me, I loved Spike. I want a horn on every corner and a tuba in the subway, and Annie Clark squonking over the top.

Best Lyrics

As much as I admired the album-long accusation Andy Falkous hurled in the teeth of contemporary Britain, my answer here is Frank Ocean, and that’s not just because I favor a global scope over a local one. Honestly, it’s usually just the opposite around here. I’d rather listen to Darren Hayman’s thoughts on urban planning in Dagenham than Joni Mitchell’s reflections on climate change, although both are edifying. Yet Ocean reminds me more of Hayman than Joni Mitchell, even though Joni Mitchell is an obvious influence on his music and he probably doesn’t know Darren Hayman from a tin can. Pram Town was structured like a novel, and so is Channel ORANGE. That doesn’t make it good by itself; Lord knows there are more bad novels than there are bad pop records. But if you know what you’re doing — and Frank Ocean definitely knows what he’s doing — the novelistic approach to storytelling can be a rewarding one. Ocean has an argument to make, but he doesn’t come out and make it on any one particular song. Even “Pyramids,” the ten minute epic, is hard to fully grasp out of the context of the album. Details are carefully woven into these songs, motifs reoccur, and none of the globetrotting is unmotivated. The running subplot about unrequited gay love, too, could be (and sometimes was) mistaken for a press grab by those who weren’t listening closely. The confessional moments on the album — especially “Bad Religion” — beg for extraction and examination. So while it’s best to approach Channel ORANGE as if you’re reading a book, I understand if that’s tough to do. Concentrate on the images that Ocean is showing you, and the places he’s taking you, and allow “Pyramids” to act as the spindle around which the rest of the record winds. There are mangos, peaches, and limes. There’s an American and an African dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. There are wealthy blacks in Southern California who consume the fruits of the tropics, but who are severed from the world outside their immediate community. There are crackheads and love addicts; there’s a fantasy story — probably a dream — about lovers on the run in the jungle. There’s an abortive conversation with a guru, and a man who sweet-talks his girlfriend into smuggling drugs; she’s a globetrotter, but only because she’s become a mule.  There’s a concluding scene in the Caribbean, where Ocean, who slyly criticized the materialism and narrow-mindedness of the sunbathers is Ladera Heights, prepares to renounce America for life on the beach. All of these characters are drifting around the world for different reasons — Cleopatra has been taken, the pyramids have eroded, and in the New World, even the upwardly mobile have renounced any claim to integrity. The African woman has been reduced to the status of an American whore, and her pimp, who thinks he’s gotten power over her, waits it out in a seedy motel room with a VCR for an entertainment system. He’s so determined to flash gold that his car doesn’t go; he’s as stuck as the prostitute. Frank Ocean wants to show you a diaspora. That’s not the easiest thing to see: it requires a widening of your field of vision beyond the normal parameters set by everyday Western life. It requires some easing and a gentle touch, perspective, subtlety, cleverness. It requires a strong novelist’s virtues. He’s got ‘em; God bless him.

Band Of The Year

Future Of The Left. Took them awhile to get there, too. They had to avoid being McLusky II or ostentatiously not-McLusky, which could not have been easy. The first FOTL was greeted enthusiastically because we were happy to have Andy Falkous back: he seemed like a candidate to drop off the earth, or to retreat to a Welsh pub and never leave. But in retrospect, it was unfocused. Then there was the period where Falco played a ton of synthesizer, which made the band sound not unlike very early ELP — not something they were looking for, but I sure thought it was great. Swapping bass players and adding another guitarist thickened the sound, and Andy Falkous got angrier than he’d been since the heyday of McLusky, and all the parts snapped together like a Mecha Creation. Falco is rightfully proud of this record. I was one of those annoying Americans who had a tough time with it at first because the British place names and proper nouns threw me. As he pointed out to me, U.K. pop listeners are constantly working with American musicians who don’t bother to explain themselves when they’re talking about their blocks, Nor should they, and nor should Future Of The Left. Use a search engine, people.

Best Show I Saw in 2012

Beyonce at Revel, Memorial Day. I have spent a distressing amount of time over the last two weeks fighting with readers who want Beyonce’s head. Some of them actually work for the website that is affiliated with the newspaper I write for, which is extremely disturbing to me. To the detractors, Beyonce Knowles is a star-spangled scam artist who should be clapped in irons for defrauding the American public. I point out that I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band thirteen times in 2012 and the ridiculously generous Beyonce concert at Revel was better than any of those shows, but they are not trying to hear this. I point out that Beyonce blew through the modulations in “Love On Top” like Usain Bolt and danced and sang for two hours straight, and this was all a few months after she gave birth. They are not trying to hear this. And as I have come to realize, they aren’t trying to hear that not merely because they’ve never seen Beyonce in concert and they have no idea what a “Love On Top” is, but also because on some level — probably a level pretty damn close to the surface — they’re conflating the pop star with the President she was singing for. It has not escaped my attention that the folks who spend all day directing opprobrium at the President on message boards like to knock him for using a teleprompter, and their implication is always that the use of the teleprompter renders his speeches inauthetic. Basically, they’re accusing him of lip-synching. To them, he’s the Milli Vanilli in Chief. I point this out as a person with no strong feelings one way or another about the President; it’s just something I’vlie pnoticed. I *do* have strong feelings about Beyonce, and it pains me to see her getting mixed up in the morass of modern politics. I understand why she did it: she’s supposed to be friends with the President, or the President’s family, and the First Lady and the First Daughters were right there in Atlantic City for the Revel concert, dancing along. I’m sure she couldn’t resist. But when you do that, you put yourself squarely in the crosshairs of people who could give a damn about pop stars, but who badly want to bag their ideological opponents. That’s why you never catch Taylor Swift showing up at these coronations. So far, she’s been too canny to step into that trap.

Ten Other Great Concerts, In Order Of Greatness

  1. Nas @ iHeartRadio Studios, NYC
  2. fun. @ Terminal 5, NYC
  3. Fiona Apple @ the Wellmont Theatre, Montclair
  4. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band @ Moody Theater, Austin
  5. Drake @ Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden
  6. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band @ Izod Center, East Rutherford
  7. Miranda Lambert @ Izod Center, East Rutherford
  8. Iron Maiden @ Prudential Center, Newark
  9. Kanye West @ Revel, Atlantic City
  10. Kelly Clarkson @ Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden

Band I Never Need To See Again

The Rolling Stones. It was historic, and fun, and I get it, I really do. And I admire Mick Jagger’s stamina and Charlie Watts’s Charlie Watts-itude. But I have no desire to see Keith Richards drop dead on stage, and I guarantee you I wasn’t the only person in the house worried about that possibility.

Band I Now Understand After Seeing A Live Show

Radiohead. I had the wrong idea about these guys. For years I wondered how this outfit was able to maintain its arena status despite their inability to write a memorable chorus. After choking my way through a show at the Prudential Center, I have come to realize that they are a hippie jam band — albeit one where nobody is allowed to solo or upstage the goofy singer. (Drum circles are okay.) The place was an absolute bong for that concert. There was a guy next to me writing free-form poetry on another human being during the concert, as if it was 1969 in Marin County and we’d all been scraping the pipe for resin. It should have dawned on me years ago that Radiohead makes music for potheads, and that’s what all those claims on behalf of the band’s “textures” were code for. And then Thom Yorke sings something like “yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon,” and all the stoners are like wooooooooooooooh heavy. Having now seen Radiohead, Rusted Root, and Coldplay live, I suggest to you that Radiohead is a heck of a lot closer to Rusted Root than they are to Coldplay. Thom Yorke is even rocking that scrawny Rusted Root beard these days. No disrespect meant to the other guys in the band; they’re all terrific musicians. If there’s ever another opening in the Allmans, I’m sure one of them could step right in.

Best Music Video

“Gangnam Style.” Instant classic. Every shot in that clip is delicious, and I’d break it down frame by frame if I wasn’t certain that you’ve got it all memorized. Honorable mention goes to “Mercy,” because I didn’t realize that Hell had a car park. Dante left that out. By the way, where did that Lamborghini go?

Most Romantic Song

Taylor Swift — “Starlight.” There’s that moment in the outro where she asks “don’t you dream impossible things?,” and it sounds like she’s coming apart with desire — like she’d stuff the entire world in her pocket if she could. I am moved by this. And Taylor, I know you weren’t asking me, but yes I do.

Funniest Song

Fiona Apple — “Periphery.” The prevailing tone on Idler Wheel is anguish, but that doesn’t mean Fiona Apple isn’t a funny fellow. People didn’t always get Joni Mitchell’s humor, either.

Most Frightening Song

Of Montreal — “Wintered Debts.” El-Producto tries to spook you on Cancer 4 Cure and often he succeeds, but it’s hard to compete with Kevin Barnes in the midst of a total psychic breakdown. There’s an interlude in “Wintered Debts” — one that comes after a rubber-bounce ball of a middle section — in which Barnes strips away everything but a synthesizer and a mumbled voice asking “father, will we die today?” Father answers back in the negative, but you’re still not going to like what he says.

Most Moving Song

Brandi Carlile — “That Wasn’t Me,” because drug addiction is no fiction. There’s nothing but the Devil at the bottom of that glass.

Sexiest Song

Taylor Swift — “Holy Ground.” This was my runner-up for Song of the Year. As Seymour Glass said to Buddy Glass, all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next.

Meanest Song

Of Montreal — “Spiteful Intervention.” Kevin Barnes got Jack White off the hook this year. He should drop him a Christmas card.

Rookie Of The Year

I’d give it to Hospitality, but they’ve been around for too long. Technically, this is their first album, but “Betty Wang” has been stuck in my head since 2008. But this wasn’t a year for freshmen anyway. If you believe that a second-album leap is the key to artistic longevity, we’re going to be hearing from the sophomore class of ’12 for a  long time. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean both improved on excellent mixtapes. Celebration Rock was cleaner and catchier than the Japandroids debut. Some Nights was album number two. Now, Now’s Threads knocked the stuffing out of the band’s first effort. Chillwave-ish groups got in on the action, too: Twin Shadow took a big step forward, and if you’ve read this far, you already know how I feel about the second Chairlift album. Tame Impala’s second set might have disappointed those who wanted Kevin Parker to set the controls to the heart of the sun, but if you like psychedelic pop songs, or the Beatles, Lonerism represented a substantial improvement. And some of you may fight me on this, but I think Gossamer is miles better than the first Passion Pit album. The lyrics are much more interesting, the drumming and the synthesizers are more exciting, and the melodies are catchier, too. Even the album cover is more appealing.

2012 Album You Listened To The Most

Love This Giant. I kept waiting for it to be bad, or even less than great. It never did.

2012 Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Motion City Soundtrack — Go. As it turns out, a melancholy mood doesn’t quite suit Justin Pierre. He’s a restless sort, and he’s got to try everything.

Most Notable Cover Version

Did you know that fun. does “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? Can’t you hear it?

Best Guest Appearance

Tyler, the Creator on “Golden Girl.” I dig it when he says he wants to toast and listen to Michael Bolton. People, this guy is a total nerd. I can’t believe he had anybody fooled, even for a second. Make a few dumb rape jokes and suddenly you’re Public Enemy number one and the subject of a thousand earnest think pieces. School shootings have everybody on edge, but it’s gotten way too easy to rile the grownups these days.

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

Azealia Banks — “1991.” She even gave us the year. La da dee, la da da.

Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

(I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson. I am a sucker for anything related to Belle & Sebastian, and I will play the year’s poor excuse for Belle & Sebastian product into the earth, trying to squeeze a little B&S sunshine out of it. I will listen to Bell X-1. I will listen to Olga Bell. I will listen to Sebastian Bach. I will go to the Sebastian restaurant on the Lower East Side and ring bells. Stuart Murdoch, I am a desperate person.

Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should

Perfume Genius.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy

In Currents. It’s very good, and it’s nice to hear the band back together, but Ace lost me with “Digital Age.” If he’s going to turn into Old Man Grumpus, we’re breaking up. I don’t have anyplace else to put this, so I’ll put it here: the most disappointing concert I attended in 2012 was the Early November at Maxwells, and that had nothing to do with the group. The yobbos in the crowd released years of pent-up energy with some of the most vicious slam dancing I’ve seen at a non-Fishbone concert. That might be okay in a pit at the Bamboozle, but in a room the size of Maxwell’s, there was no escape. There were women in that crowd, initially at least; three songs in and they were running for the hills. Even the risers weren’t safe. People were limping out of the door. I’m not sure what Ace could have done about it, but I know I’ll think twice before attending another Early November concert.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

De La Soul’s Plug One And Plug Two Present First Serve. It’s easy to knock the French disco dudes who put the music together, because there wasn’t a Mase, a Dilla, or a Prince Paul in the bunch. But Pos and Dave laughed straight through the set, and that’s enough of a rationale for the album’s existence for me. I also loved the bit where they traded verses dissing each other, or just each other’s alter-egos. De La Soul was never the sort of group to play the beef game, but there’s your proof that they could have if they’d wanted to, or if any target was worthy of their time.

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Handwritten. No comment.

Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song, Or Album, Was About

I probably would have liked some of those Bat For Lashes songs better if I could have made heads or tails of them. Not “Laura,” that one I got. Natasha Khan was doing her strident French Revolutionary thing about Laura you’re more than a superstar, and Hilary, who is no fan of Natasha Khan, says “you’re a super superstar!” The whole thing went down like a house of cards.

Most Consistent Album

Red. It’s long, but I don’t know which song I could bear to part with.

Most Inconsistent Album

Brandi Carlile — Bear Creek. Terrific songwriting (“A Promise To Keep,” “Long Way Home,” and especially “That Wasn’t Me”) juxtaposed with rave-ups meant to establish that Carlile’s act is a band (“Raise Hell,” “Rise Again”), a molasses drip of a closing number that never justifies its length (“Just Kids”), and a few tracks that I never need to hear again (“100,” “In The Morrow,” and “Keep Your Heart Young,” a song I hate with some energy.) Also, the sequencing is perverse: every song seems to arrive at the most inopportune time. The singing is never less than fantastic, though.

Thing That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Initially Thought It Was

The War Against Common Sense. Like everybody else who follows Falco, I secretly wanted another McLusky album, and I was petulant, because the new one makes the divorce final.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Little Big Town — Tornado.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

I was going to answer Train to be provocative and get you to make I-just-ate-a-bug faces, but I don’t feel cheap about that at all. They’re just a cheesy pop-rock band, and I’ve been defending those for years, so nothing new to see there. My answer in this category is Kendrick Lamar, who, upon reflection, I would like to dislike. I am unable to do that because his album is so good, and because storytellers of his caliber are not free giveaways at McDonalds. The stories themselves are bothersome. I reject his basic premise: nobody who caves to peer pressure as much as his narrators do is a “good kid,” and that’s as true in Compton, CA as it is in Short Hills. Even the Christian conversion is represented as a gang activity. I also realize that the overuse of a particular misogynist epithet is Southern California tradition, but Lamar leans on it harder than anybody I’ve ever heard, coming up with new and provocative ways to pronounce the word, and relishing every delivery. Also, the fade-out and drive-by shootings in ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” are cheap and corny cinematic devices. It is a five-star album, though. Did you hear me say it wasn’t a five-star album?

Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album

Bruno Mars. Speaking of misogynist scenarios, I hope Unorthodox Jukebox settles the dispute over whether “Fuck You,” which Mars co-wrote, is a mean-spirited gold-digging ho song. Because mean-spirited gold-digging ho songs are what Mars lives to write, apparently. It’s a shame, because some of the tracks on that set are undeniably exciting. As a copyist-artist with no ideas of his own, it is possible that he’s just writing gold-digging ho songs because that’s what you do when you’re a man in Hollywood. His heart might not even be in the abuse, which is depressing. At least a guy like 50 gives you some genuine passion and contempt when he’s running you down.

Song You Identified With The Most

Metric’s “Dreams So Real.” I’m probably overrating Synthetica, which isn’t anywhere near as good as Fantasies, and probably isn’t as good as the Rah Rah that just missed the list. But like Emily Haines, my anxiety of condemnation is acute.

Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like

Michael Gira.

Album You Learned The Words/Music To Quickest

Weirdly, Idler Wheel. Three plays in, you realize it’s just a very good mid-’70s piano singer-songwriter album with a theatrical lead vocalist and an imaginative drummer backing her up.

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Tilly And The Wall — Heavy Mood. There’s a band that tucked and dive-bombed straight down the slope of quality. The first album was a Top 10 contender, the second was good, the third was a mess, and the new one is completely worthless. The band’s original twee schtick was that the percussion was provided by a tap dancer, which was never completely true — at least on record, Jamie Pressnall was always supplemented by drum machines. But the illusion that they were just a bunch of theater kids singing their hears out in the green room was a powerful one. These days, if Pressnall is still tap dancing at all, she’d have to do it with nuclear warheads strapped to her feet. Otherwise there’d be no way to hear her over the distorted guitar and synthesizer, most of which sounds like crummy MP3 files emailed to central Tilly and the Wall command. If the members of the group were never in the room together during the making of Heavy Mood, I wouldn’t be surprised at all, and given the suffocating vibe of the album, I’m kind of hoping they weren’t.  Bands don’t usually degenerate at this pace: despite what they tell you on Behind The Music, it’s rare that it’s straight downhill from the debut. But there’s always an exception, and here it is.

Worst Song Of The Year

Rihanna and Chris Brown — “Nobody’s Business.” Unapologetic is not a great album, but it has some great moments, and Rihanna takes more risks than she ever has before. One of the risks she did not have to take was a love song with her abuser and, I guess, present boyfriend, which is “edgy and provocative” in the same way that it’s edgy and provocative to spend the day on jury duty in family court.

Worst Video

I feel like I pick on Becky Stark every year, which is weird, because nobody knows who she is. But the main reason that she remains more or less anonymous is because she insists on wasting her world-class talent on irritating adventures in whimsy. For instance, why is she dancing in front of a power plant in the Lavender Diamond clip for “Light My Way”? Is it a (very bad) joke reference to the song title that somebody on her road crew came up with while high on Mary Jane? Because eventually you have to come down, and when you come down, you either cover up the evidence of your misdeeds or do the walk of shame. Also, producers in the ’90s used those limiting vocal effects because the artists they were recording couldn’t sing, and they were trying to sneak around that. Becky Stark can sing. Let’s cut the crap and give her a setting commensurate with her abilities. Also, why is it that there are people beating the stuffing out of each other in every Pink video? The only thing worse to watch than Pink intact is Pink roughed up. I’m just saying.

Worst Singing

Kid Cudi. Cudi has now been named by me in the Worst Singing and Worst Rapping category, which is an impressive combination. I still kind of like him, or at least I value his contributions to the Kanye empire, and if “Creepers” is the price we pay for that, so be it.

Worst Rapping

I saw LMFAO in concert, guys.

Worst Instrumentalist

Any arena folk-rock doofus who insists on slamming a kick drum straight through their songs. You know the clowns I mean. If you want to be in a dance band, grow a pair and start a dance band.

Worst Lyrics

The Zac Brown Band has a lot going for it: They’re all wizards on their instruments, and Brown himself has an uncanny vocal resemblance to James Taylor. One of the things Brown hasn’t figured out yet is lyrics. Maybe he doesn’t think he has to, and he can just hoe himself down to all eternity and his fans aren’t going to pay attention to what he’s saying. But when he makes it as obvious and grotesque as he does on “Overnight,” they’re hard to dodge. Brown attempts to pick up a girl by imagining himself as the personification of the criminal justice system: “I’m the judge and jury so you gotta do the time/ overnight/ you’re getting locked up/ like it or not/ First I’ve got to search your body over, etc.” Alluring, huh?  Somebody needs to stop watching Special Victims Unit.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should’ve Known Better

Every time Bruce Springsteen sings about shooting the bastards, I cringe.

Most Overrated

Leonard Cohen. That’s a lifetime achievement award, by the way.

Worst Song On A Good Album

Besides “Nobody’s Business,” you mean? And “Keep Your Heart Young’? “See Through Blue” stops Sugaring Season cold.

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

Ron Aniello does not equal the E Street Band. Mistakes were made.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO).” There are more words in the title then there are in the song. Patrick Stickles sings “I’m going insane! I’m going insane!,” over and over. That might sound a bit specific to the question, but I’m pretty sure it would do the trick. It seems odd to write this about the authors of The Monitor, not to mention an eight minute song about Stickles’ eating disorder, but Local Business probably should have been longer. Three of the tracks on the album were absolute throwaways: “Food Fight,” “Absurd Universe,” and “I Am The Electric Man.” As for the album that should have been shorter, it almost seems too easy to say, but Cruel Summer would have made a killer EP.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

fun.’s “It Gets Better.” Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” a close contender, was also co-written by Nate Ruess. Captain Hook, that guy is.

Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning

Chief Keef. A one-idea rapper, that’s the shit I don’t like. A humorless rapper, that’s the shit I don’t like. Real-life violence, that’s the shit I don’t like. Back to AA until you get your mind right.

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Billie Joe Armstrong.

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

Bryce Avary of the Rocket Summer. Bryce has no co-pilot but God, which is an admirable way to live. In practice, that means that he writes all the songs and plays every instrument on his albums. God, in His wisdom, minted Avary as an irreducible soul, as He did for all of us. That’s why, for better or worse, we don’t change much. Avary gave us everything he had on his first record, and then again on his second, third, and fourth. By the fifth, his hermetic approach is reaching diminishing returns. It’s not that the songwriting is dimming, or that his fervor is fading. It’s just that we’ve been here before, and now he needs to let somebody else into the room. Trusting God is easier than trusting Man, but if God didn’t want us to trust Man from time to time, he would have given the world to the dolphins.

Album Or Artist You Re-Evaluated In 2012

Seeing Radiohead and Coldplay back-to-back was a double revelation. Chris Martin is a pain in the butt, but he really means it, and unlike his alleged role model Thom Yorke, he desperately wants to connect. That counts for something. Also, I did not realize what a good drummer Will Champion in. I blame the band, because that isn’t emphasized on their albums, but when you see them live, it’s apparent. Martin, too, is a pretty good piano player. I can’t say they rock, because there’s no rocking possible without an element of danger, and like a singing butler, Coldplay rushes to make sure the listener is comfortable. As Andy Partridge pointed out, it’s tempting to wipe your feet on anything with welcome written on it. But I’m not going to do it anymore. Coldplay > Radiohead, it’s not particularly close, and that’s all there is to it.

Album That’s Suffering Because You Got It Too Late In ’12

Mumps, Etc. by Why?

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2022

Nasir Jones.

Will Be A One-Hit Wonder (Trinidad James doesn’t count)

The Lumineers

Biggest Musical Trend Of 2013

Prompted by the success of Frank Ocean, artists are going to start foregrounding sexual ambiguity again. We’re not headed back to the ’80s, but the Great Man Winter will continue to thaw.

Best Album Of 2013

Joanna Newsom’s fourth? Here’s hoping.




























































































































































































































































































































February 4, 2013

Critics Poll XXIII — Miscellaneous Categories


He looks like that because he was your pick for Biggest Disappointment. Et tu, Jersey. Just kidding, I know you still love him. I think.

Before we dive into this annual madness, a few general observations. While there were no shortage of long comments and smart-aleck questions this year, the essay-length kvetching in the negative categories has dried up like the Aral Sea. A few of you even scolded me for keeping them on the Poll. Thing You Felt Cheapest About Liking drew the most blank stares. You are all shameless and regret nothing. I admire this.

Not everybody votes in every category, which is probably for the best. That would guarantee that I wouldn’t have this up on the site until April. The popularity of the categories has shifted over time, and it’s gravitated away from the nasty stuff. For instance, Worst Song of the Year used to be a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, but this year, only about 15% of voters bothered to list one. Even Young Upstart and Hoary Old Bastard — two-decade cornerstones of this Poll — drew tepid responses. Either you are all Mormons now or the Spotify revolution has kept displeasing stuff out of your ears. Or maybe you’re all just swell individuals. That’s probably it.

To test my hypothesis, I added to the online form a constructive-critical category that’s a favorite of Hilary Jane’s — I think it was her suggestion in the first place. Artist You Respect But Don’t Like gives voters an opportunity to throw a bone to a bothersome musician whose worth is still visible. Sure enough, more than twice as many Poll respondents voted in the category than in Worst Song of the Year or Biggest Disappointment. Leonard Cohen took the first online version of this category with five votes, but Fiona Apple and Grizzly Bear (more on those guys soon) drew grudging respect, too. Even the Animal Collective — never a favorite around these parts — earned a couple of nods here. Incidentally, this was the first year that the Animal Collective had an opportunity to take Most Overrated, and did not do so. Centipede Hz did get beat up a bit in the alternative press, and we don’t have much taste for piling it on.

One last thing. I don’t usually report the results of Will Still Be Putting Out Good Music Ten Years From Now, because so many musician-respondents vote for themselves that there’s usually no consensus. But this year there was: Frank Ocean drew twelve votes in this category. What’s funny about this is that he’s already made noise about hanging it up and devoting himself to literature. I don’t believe him either, but I’ll tell you this: if he ever does put out a book, I’m copping it. As postcolonial literature goes, Channel Orange beats the heck out of Wide Sargasso Sea. It’s more hummable, too.


After years of browsing at the comic book store or poking through the kids’ book section, Poll voters took to the gallery for this year’s choices. Brian Block mentioned Wassily Kandinsky in his praise for the cover of the Debo Band set; Darcy Milner called the big maraschino cherry on the front of A Thing Called Divine Fits a Warholian touch. Other picks were straight out of the Whitney, too, including Battles’ paint-drip sculpture on Dross Glop, which looked like a bowl of psychedelic breakfast cereal, the stark and rhythmic minimalism of Beach House, and the perfect Egglestonian composition of the diver photograph on the front of Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems. Centipede Hz was garish and overwhelming like the video stuff that gets relegated to the basement of the Hirshhorn, but that’s why you liked it. Here’s Jeff Norman on it, in language that Warhol would have appreciated: “It looks like 15 covers happening at once, all glowing a silver unobtainable by non-chemical means.” Many others like to hang at the museum to see the naked genitals that are always on display — or you could save an annual membership by picking up the  Death Grips album, which got six votes in this category from assorted pervs. Dan Purcell wasn’t having it. “They put a dick on the cover of one of their records, as if that was transgressive, as if there weren’t dicks around us all the time, as if one could ever escape from dicks.”


“Anyone who has the Fiona Apple title gets 10 demerits,” wrote brevity enforcer and prefect Anna Howe. Three appreciators of long phrases in iambic pentameter did, but I’m not handing over their names. Gryffindor wins too damned much, if you ask me. Jim Testa tapped Octopus Wall Street by the Harmonica Lewinskies. I think I like the band name better than the album title. Better yet: Ben Krieger, tireless champion of the underdog, voted for a band called Cheating Spouses Caught On Tape. “Since there isn’t anything else about the record I’m particularly impressed by, This Is What It Feels Like When No One Gives A Shit About Your Music, which also has some pretty funny song titles.” Don’t hunt them down unless you like pictures of muscular bald men doing anal; that’s what on their bandcamp page. God, so much of this is NSFW already. It was only two years ago that I posted the Poll to NJ dot com and scrubbed so much of your filthy commentary. I promise I’ll never again be such a puritan. Anyway, our winner by plurality is (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, another ban pun, albeit one with firm historical grounding, from Belle & Sebastian’s infinite joke book.


Photo finish, four-way tie for first. Five votes apiece for Fiona Apple, Miguel, Frank Ocean, and Father John Misty, who I don’t know anything about. The constitution mandates that the sitting vice president of the Critics Poll breaks the tie. That may well be Dick Cheney, who got into the Miguel album. He and George Tenet were bumping it in that rented Maybach that Kanye told us about. Me, I liked Bradley Skaught’s answer. He voted for Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile, whose solo set didn’t get any love on the Poll. “One of the great modern singers finally makes an after-hours, piano/voice record!,” writes Bradley. Buchanan never gets the appreciation he deserves. During the synthpop revolution, he was way out in front, exhibiting more machine soul than anybody but (maybe) Alison Moyet. Hats, the second Blue Nile album, is the record that Peter Gabriel spent decades, and probably millions of dollars, trying to make. Buchanan might be the most effective singer of depressing booze-bar songs since Sinatra, and everybody from Frightened Rabbit to Win Butler has bitten some of his style. The time is right for a big Blue Nile retrospective. Lemme see what I can do.


There’ve been some convincing victories in this category over the years, but we’ve never had a landslide until 2012. Kendrick Lamar was named on an astonishing 23 ballots — by far the highest total in Poll history, and almost six times more than his nearest competitor. Nas was that nearest competitor; I’ll let Ben, who was reasonably squeamish about exposing his daughter to the Kendrick disc, break it down. “I feel like I always cheat here and am unfair to up-and-comers, because regardless of whether I got a chance to actually soak in their latest projects, Richard Thompson and Nas always get my vote in their respective categories.” They’re absolute masters of technique; back them and they’ll never embarrass you. I was also pleased to see Yoni Wolf getting a few more votes here than he has in the past, which is to say none at all, even if he probably deserved them less for this year’s album than he did for Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia.


Stephen Mejias usually has a baseball pick, and he didn’t disappoint: he was pleasantly shocked that the Mets were able to unload Jason Bay. One year at one million doesn’t strike me as a huge risk for the Mariners, but I don’t think they ought to expect too much. Music!, right, that’s what we’re here for. Not just the organist at CitiField, but other pop sensations that have nothing to do with roundball. For instance, there’s Red Kross, the winner in this category, and a band that came roaring back after 15 years AWOL with Researching The Blues. You didn’t see that coming, unless you did. Jack White also drew some votes for Blunderbuss, his solo debut. Jim Testa, scourer of the underground, answered the question more broadly: “talented young non-hipster bands in Brooklyn.” I’ll take your word for it, Jim. I haven’t been to a Bushwick warehouse party in years, and boy do I miss it. I spend my time engaging with people who believe Beyonce Knowles should be tried for war crimes. I’m going to have to remedy this, and in a hurry.


Maybe I don’t. “Writing positively about NYC punx and getting death threats… via Facebook,” answers Zachary Lipez. Now there’s the underground scene I remember. Grizzly Bear, the most polarizing group in the Poll this year, were named on many ballots; people either dug Shields or they found it a huge letdown. But the title goes to the Gaslight Anthem, who enjoy Bruce Springsteen, by a vote over Bruce Springsteen, who is Bruce Springsteen. You were disappointed in New Jersey, I guess.


“‘Call Me Maybe’,” writes Steve Carlson. “Any other answer and that person’s lyin’.” I know where you’re coming from, Steve, but for the first time I can remember, this category was not dominated by commercial radio hits. “Hot Cheetos & Takis,” which was briefly all the rage this summer and prompted a number of strong term papers, drove many of you to the convenience store, and later, to indigestion. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” the lead single from our poll winner, came in second. But the plurality winner was Passion Pit, a group that didn’t do all that well in the Poll, but which lodged several tunes in your craniums: “Take A Walk,” a singalong number about multigenerational financial disaster, “Constant Conversations,” a singalong number about an evil drunk, “Cry Like A Ghost,” a singalong number about an evil drunk, and “Love Is Greed,” a singalong number about how love is just greed. I dig all of these tuneful slices of nihilism, but I’m sticking with “Call Me Maybe.” Or maybe I should just do as Dan does. “It was almost certainly ‘Tony Montana.’ I sort of have it going all the time as a running commentary on my day. Check up on my ends Tony Montana Tony Montana Tony Montana. Cook myself some eggs Tony Montana Tony Montana Tony Montana.”


Landslide! Those who didn’t list Channel ORANGE were strongly inclined to vote for Frank Ocean in this category. “For a guy who is supposed to be a pop star,” says Vrinda Patel, “I never hear his songs. Or maybe I hear them and I don’t know they’re him?” You’d know. And you’re all right: You should know Frank Ocean. He’s probably the most interesting pop star to emerge in the past five years, and I’m saying that even though I didn’t put his album in my Top 10.


Taylor Swift. We covered this in the singles essay. Just say you got it for your niece.


Marisol Fuentes, who speaks only in koans, answered that silence would drive her craziest on infinite repeat. I can’t tell if that’s deep or if it makes no sense at all. It might have been her way of suggesting that such questions do not presently apply to her. If so, she wasn’t alone. Zach wrote that he enjoys repetition, Dillon DiCrescenzo said he couldn’t be any crazier than he is right now. Tom Snow, too, seems to have reached a higher plane of consciousness where earworms can’t go Wrath Of Khan on him. “Maybe it’s because I’ve entered a middle-aged non-self-conscious state in my life — a state that enables behavior that makes may children cringe and flail in embarrassment. But whatever the reason, I am not ashamed to confess my love of disposable, gimmicky, redeeming-feature-less pop music. I could really listen to ‘Sexy and I Know It’ or ‘Gangnam Style’ over and over again, admiring the clever production and cool sounds. Sorry, kids.” PSY did take the category among those of you still capable of being pushed over the edge of madness, but I think I have the right answer for this one. You’ll see shortly.


Upstart tallies among those getting multiple votes: fun. (2), Skrillex (2), Ed Sheeran (2), Justin Bieber, (4), Nicki Minaj (5), Grimes (10). Those who voted for Nicki tended to praise her and say that she just needed some time to get it straightened out. Those voting for Grimes did not. Anyway, that’s a  wide and representative cross-section of artists: a pop band with classic rock aspirations, a former punk caught up in the dubstep whirlpool, an acoustic balladeer with a taste for breakbeats, a teen pinup with huge tracts of land in the Uncanny Valley, an emcee who broke in with a big year and who has since slumped, and a Grimes. You describe her; I’m not going to. I did get an opportunity to see her at South By Southwest. She was playing on top of a parking garage, and her machines were so loud that they were shaking the dust off the ceilings of the levels below. Everybody in the crowd was a writer or a publicist or an Internet-posting-things person, which is not so unusual at SXSW. But I remember thinking: here is a woman who is going to clean up in the negative categories in Critics Poll 23. For once I was prescient. I know, I should have saved it for something a little more consequential. Or a little more rocking.


Everybody I covered in 2012. Seriously. Dinosaurs walked the land, and that land was New Jersey. Efforts made to convince readers (and myself) of the continuing relevance of these hoary old artists fell flat. That goes for the Stones and the Who, and double for Bruce Springsteen, who ran away with the segment. The Boss also took Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job, even though he switched producers. As Liz Phair once said, if you do it and you’re still unhappy, then you know that the problem is you. “We Take Care Of Our Own,” Springsteen’s sword-and-sorcery epic, drew some fat, juicy tomatoes in the Worst Song Of The Year category.  “‘We Take Care of Our Own,'” wrote Brian Block, apology attached, “is the most tuneless, listlessly repetitive song I’ve heard since…. oh dear. I can’t find a good analogy. And if I could, my sinking feeling is that the analogy would be something else by Springsteen.” More than a few voters objected to the Boss’ appropriation of Occupy Wall Street, calling it clumsy, or insincere, or opportunistic. Also, David Nagler voted for Bob Lefsetz in this category. Bless you, David.


Elvis Costello admits that he’s often tried to write an entire song without changing chords. This exercise has yielded some very good music — “Uncomplicated,” the leadoff track on Blood & Chocolate, was a product of this exercise. Of course, “Uncomplicated” does change chords: the chorus is built around some very necessary changes, changes that have become necessary because the tension created by not changing chords in the verses needs somewhere to go. Once Elvis Costello got to the chorus to “Uncomplicated,” he found the temptation to provide resolution irresistible, or anyway more irresistible than the desire to sustain his experiment. The part of him that is a great songwriter is always going to win out over the part of him that wants to disappear into the groove. In hip-hop or funk, it’s possible to stretch out all day and let the rhythm tracks carry the song; if you’re doing pop, it’s hard to get away from the need to write changes. This puts pop musicians whose primary instrument is some sort of looping device at a disadvantage. An MPC, say, is a wonderful instrument for hip-hop, but if you’re going to use it in a pop band, you’d better do your homework and have some fast fingers. What bothers people about Grimes is that it doesn’t seem like she’s got either part covered: her music is neither dextrous nor constructed to code. Many of her songs get over on insouciance and atmosphere alone. Eventually, listeners are going to demand more. Visions sounds like what would happen if Lykke Li tried Elvis Costello’s experiment, got bored halfway through, and released the results anyway. It is possible, and maybe even easy, to build something haunting and ethereal out of layers of synthesizer and drum loops. To turn that into an album that’s worth all the fuss requires attention to pop song architecture. Nobody wants to see Grimes shredding like Orianthi; she doesn’t have to be that artist, and we don’t have to be old grouches. But before we shower her with accolades, I don’t think it’s unreasonable of us to ask that, she step up the craft a little.


No consensus here. A couple of votes for Some Nights, a couple of votes for that new Cat Power record you weren’t feeling, three votes for mass murderer Lana Del Rey. Bradley Skaught picked Port Of Morrow, writing that he missed James Mercer playing with a band. I know  what you’re saying, Bradley, but “40 Mark Strasse” sure is tasty.


“That thing McCartney, Grohl, Novoselic, and Smear busted out at the 12-12-12 benefit,” answered Jonathan Andrew.  By that point, it was all a six-string hash, an FM radio slurry, and I wanted to go home. The subject was engorged on classic rock and could no longer fit through the door of the press room at Madison Square Garden. Ed Sheeran’s earnest “The A Team,” “We Are Young,” and “Gangnam Style” took some knocks in this category, but the choice by plurality is a song that I haven’t even heard, and I guess I’m glad about that. I’ll let Dan Purcell handle this one, since Dan in high dudgeon is always a delight: “Ahahahahahahah Jesus no, the Offspring are back and they are even more pitiful and pandering than before. Fifteen years back they scored big with ‘Pretty Fly For A White Guy,’ shitting on hip-hop from a position of unapologetic ignorance, while positing the sort of artificial musicoracial divide that thinking people can only view as pernicious. But since 1998 hip-hop has basically decimated rock and roll and is firmly established as mainstream American music, including for white people, even racist ones. So now the Offspring are back, hat in hand. Cruising California (Bumping In My Trunk’ had the balls to suckle at the teat the band once casually spurned, sampling ‘California Love’ of all things in a naked bid to rise from obloquy to irrelevance. The public, to its great credit, paid no attention at all.”


Unlike the other negative slots, enthusiasm for this category proceeds undimmed. Everybody wants to dock the folks who are messing up the sexiness of contemporary music. Usually these are pop stars (Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber), but hardened criminals (Chris Brown) also make the list. I know, he doesn’t care what we think. It ain’t nobody bi-niss. But gosh is he gross. Steve Carlson always has a capital answer to this question, and he does not let me down: “In the song ‘Dirty Love,’ Ke$ha hollers ‘Champagne tastes like jizz to me.’ Therefore I would like to nominate Everyone Who Isn’t Ke$ha for this category.’ We are straight-up Romeos, and Romies and Michelles, I tell you.

I have one last motion to table tonight, and then I’m going to turn the Senate floor over to the voters. Last year, many of you chose Poll winner Annie Clark as the Sexiest Person in Pop Music, and considering that I was too much of a negative vibe merchant to put that category on the online form, that meant you had to type the whole thing in and send it to me. That’s sexy. Anyway, this year, Annie Clark barely got any votes. Not just in the Sexiest Person in Pop Music category, but on the Poll, period. Now that she has a pointy thing coming out of her cheek, you charmers dropped her like a hot potato. Also there was the small matter of that avuncular white-haired dude she started hanging around with. You filled out 21 categories of compatibility on Match dot com, and David Byrne wasn’t your answer to any of them. This makes me sad. If you love somebody, you’ve got to accept their David Byrne, too. That’s just common courtesy.

Okay, onward.


Ben Krieger: Songs about extreme weather.

Hilary Jane Englert: Shit I do like?

Jeffrey Norman. Singers being allowed to be naturally out of tune. We can only hope.

Steven Matrick: Laptop girl bands.

Jim Testa: Return of prog-rock.

Andrea Weiss: Indie rock.

Kiko Velez: Still more hipsters pretending they have soul.

Jer Fairall: PBR&B.

Bradley Skaught: New Jack Swing revival.

Rich Tisdale: Horns in rock?

Jen Grover: Trumpet is the new banjo.

Rob Watford: Mumford and Sons banjo acoustic-style music.

Brad Krumholz: Bangra-influenced pop.

Stephen Mejias: Fusion.

Sam C. Mac: The Dougie.

Alan Young: Gypsy music. It’s always been out there but this for some reason seemed to be the year that it all coalesced. Sure, Gogol Bordello was touring, but there was also Mucca Pazza, and Fishtank Ensemble, and a Hawk and a Hacksaw, Japonize Elephants, Vagabond Opera, Choban Elektrik, Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, Inspektor Gadje, Stumblebum Brass Band, Eva Salina, just to name a few. Not to mention all the Hungarians and Romanians and real gypsies who made it stateside this year. To the Pitchfork/Brooklynvegan crowd, this stuff doesn’t exist, but the kids are eating it up. Prediction: these are the jambands of the future.

Zachary Lipez: Spurred on by the success of DIIV and Grimes, labels are going to skip the middle man and just start releasing mid ’80s Mute Records b-sides. Beach House and their ilk will continue; the low hum of purgatory, reminding us to baptise our babies.

David Singer: Comeback king of 2013 — Mystikal.

Tom Snow: I don’t see this becoming a “trend” anytime soon, but I thought Beck’s “Song Reader” was a pretty great concept, and an effective reminder that, contrary to what certain parties in Cupertino, CA would like you to believe, it’s one thing to consume, organize, rate, and share music, and it’s another thing to actually play it.

Zee Whitesides: Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen.


Zachary Lipez: Sheer Terror at Highline Ballroom advocating gay rights to a room full of skinheads.

Jim Testa: Concert for 12-12-12 – MSG.

Tom Snow: Of Montreal, Paradise Rock Club, Boston, 12/12/12.  Huh, I just realized this was the same date as that big Sandy megaconcert.  I think I got the better end of the deal than everyone at MSG.

David Nagler: Swans, Pulp, Frank Ocean.

Steven Matrick: Paul Simon/Stevie Wonder/James Taylor/Sting/Tom Hanks @ Radio City.

Bradley Skaught: Chuck Prophet, The Mynabirds, The Nerves reunion, Kurt Headsley, Allen Clapp & His Orchestra

Rich Tisdale: Yo la Tengo–one of the Hannukah shows.

Peter Hyman: Yo La Tengo for Hannukah.

Mark Maurer: Pulp (Radio City Music Hall), Tallest Man on Earth (Town Hall), JEFF the Brotherhood (Maxwell’s), Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah shows feat. El-P and Barbara Manning, et al. (Maxwell’s)

Ben Krieger: The Afghan Whigs don’t do reunions. At Terminal 5 they came out swinging like a well-oiled machine. Some bands get soft and pudgy when they get older. These guys look harder, healthier, and more invigorated than ever. Everyone’s clean, everyone’s fit. John Curley, who used to look like a young Santa, now looks lean and gentle, while somehow still suggesting that if you stepped on his toe he could end you with his thumb. This concert was pure muscle, with Dulli in great form and picking (but of course) Frank Ocean for his obligatory Black Lover Man cover song.

Jens Carstensen: Having shepherded the Giraffes answer to “Cut the Crap” / “Squeeze” / Your Favorite Obscure Last Record Here to completion, I decided I’d said my piece, and opted to slowly phase myself out of the operation.  This was late-summer, early-fall.  I took the Grabber home to have something to plunk on and stay somewhat sharp just in case a Big Final Show materialized.  As it turned out, any opportunity I had to potentially regret the decision pretty much came and went with Sandy, which filled our Gowanus-area practice space with five feet of Go-water, destroying everything in a toxic muck I’m pretty convinced took about five years off my life.  Meanwhile, I haven’t even picked up my bass at home in about two months.  So, yeah, it’s been fun, but it’s TV from now on for this guy.

Jens Carstensen: I did get to see David Byrne with St. Vincent though.  That was fun, especially when I avoided listening to her lyrics.  Also, I’m pretty sure that was the last time I heard a guitar solo.

Tom Snow: Number 2 — David Byrne and St. Vincent, Orpheum Theater, Boston, 9/16/12.  The thing you can’t appreciate about Annie Clark until you see her live is the way she does these little spinning tiptoed rapid-fire-feet dance whenever she takes a solo.  Extra credit for David Byrne suggesting over the PA before the show that the audience might want to consider what it might be like not to watch the concert through the screen of their smartphones.

Stephen Mejias: Sharon Van Etten @ the Bowery Ballroom.

Brad Krumholz: Sharon Van Etten.

Zee Whitesides: Fucked Up / Lemuria / Night Birds. Toys That Kill / Night Birds / Nude Beach.

Lazlo: Skinny Lister.

Matt Houser: Pretty & Nice @ Motorco in Durham NC. Moonmen on the Moon, Man @ Cakeshop

George Pasles: Moonmen on the Moon, Man.

Jen Grover: R. Ring.

Andrea Weiss: R. Ring, Black Sheep Huntington, WV. Dar Williams, McCarter Theater Princeton, NJ. A.C. Newman, First Unitarian Church Philadelphia, PA.

Andrea Weiss: R. Ring — Mike Montgomery from Thistle and Ampline, and Kelley Deal of the Breeders. Best concert I saw last year, guitar jam of the year, and very cool people as well.

Jonathan Andrew: 1. Lucero, Brooklyn Bowl, 12/29/12. 2. Delta Spirit, Union Transfer, 3/30/12. 3. Deer Tick, Maxwell’s, 12/28/12. 4. David Bazan Band, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 11/15/12. 5. Lucero, Webster Hall, 4/20/12

Jonah Wolf: Merchandise at Home Sweet Home, Metz at Mercury Lounge, Cloud Nothings at Brandeis, The Hives at Terminal 5, Tonstartssbandht in Olneyville, Yung Wu at the Elks Lodge.

Rob Watford: Metronomy- Reading. Passion Pit- Reading. Two Door Cinema Club- London.

Jason Paul: M83.

Hilary Jane Englert: fun. and Now, Now.

Brian Block: Best Live Show I Saw in 2012 — Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra, at the Cat’s Cradle. Partly because she’s a goddam rock star. Partly because I’ve never seen a rock star work so hard to make sure that by show’s end, you knew all her bandmates and roadie and photographer by name and thought *they* were rock stars. Partly because she had a couple of excellent audience participation gimmicks. Partly because she and her band’s 3-hour set included fourteen songs from a record they’d released three days prior, and never came close to losing the audience. And sure, it would’ve been nice if her town-by-town rented clarinetist and flautist (I think?) were paid in money along with drinks and company; I’m a unionist, I get it. But those two guest musicians never looked anything other than thrilled to be there; and I, in their place, would have felt the same.

Brook Pridemore: Imaginary Friends , in a basement across the street from my house.


Sam C. Mac: Best “synth player,” really? (Sam, you wound me.)

Tom Snow: I’m not sure why, but I have a feeling that you’re going to get a lot of homogenous ballots this year – Frank Orange, Fiona Apple, Kendrick Lamar.  My theory is that people don’t have the time, or don’t think they have the time, to listen to too many records, so just go with the flow.  I guess certain people have been saying that for many years now.

Brian Block: You find it part of your (pleasurable) duty, as a citizen and journalist and fan, to engage with popular music. My pleasurable duty in these roles is more about engaging with unpopular music. Far more people listen to popular music; but far more people *make* unpopular music. So I think my approach ought to be, in its own way, just as representative.

Dan Purcell: One thing I don’t get about “Gangnam Style” is that the hook is really pretty average. It’s really the video and choreography that made the song. I mean, Psy is not Tay Zonday or anything, but I’m pretty sure this would not have hit big in USA if it didn’t have that dance you could do during the seventh-inning stretch. Lord knows it wasn’t a hit because people dug its leftist politics.

Zachary Lipez: I was lucky to have a pretty radio free year and what popular stuff I did listen too (Barndy, Future, Kelly Rowland) I liked just fine. I didn’t even mind Call Me Maybe. I heard it almost a year after all the jokes. Sounds like Katrina and the Waves. Which is, you know, fine.

Andrea Weiss: So finally indie rock, or something like it, took over the singles charts. But if .Fun is indie so is Lady Gaga. At least the Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Alabama Shakes, and Mumford and Sons came from real indie scenes, and have a new direction for indie rock. With albums coming from people like Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, and so on, maybe these bands, along with Mumford, Alabama Shakes, Of Monsters, and the Lumineers will get rid of people like .Fun and their ilk.

Alan Young: I feel further and further estranged from this poll and pretty much everybody else who asks for my two cents worth because either the mainstream is moving further and further away from me, or vice versa. Moreover, I’m skeptical that there is even such a thing as a mainstream these days that would recognize as many as half of the albums you’ve been chronicling, two at a time. I certainly don’t. I also wonder if there’s anybody over age eight, outside of Taylor Swift’s entourage of lawyers and publicists, who could name one of Swift’s songs. I can’t. The only children I know who listen to the radio are being raised as nerds. It’s not just the cool kids who are on the internet – it’s pretty much all the kids. Limiting the scope of coverage on a best-of list to acts who still play by the old showbiz paradigm, with labels, and official release dates, and publicity via old-line media like tv and newspapers, runs the risk of limiting the audience for that list to people who still pay attention to that stuff, i.e. children and old folks. That’s why newspapers are dying, because they can’t compete with the web.

Ben Krieger: One of the most repulsive criticisms lobbed at Taylor Swift and other pop stars by people like Jim DeRogatis (who should know better) is that her music is for teenage girls. They’re being force fed what Disney tells them is good? Fucking really? Think of what comments like that say about teenagers. Think about what they say about girls. Comments like that are ageist, sexist, condescending, and further proof that adults, all of us, are to some degree assholes. C.S. Lewis had it right: it’s still up to adults to create art for children because, ultimately, we’re better at it. It takes a special kind of adult, one who hasn’t lost his or her childish spirit, to write for children. Pete Seeger has it. Shel Silverstein had it. Virginia Lee Burton. Dr. Seuss. Fred Rogers. Mel Blanc. Taylor Swift. Nothing, I mean nothing, pisses me off more than people who try to bring rock and roll up to an adult level and keep it there. It’s a serious misinterpretation of what the Beatles were about. Sure, they, along with Bob Dylan, transformed music into an art form that the Leonard Bernsteins of the world could respect, but make no mistake: they got their start listening to mindless, childish songs like “Tutti Frutti” (and never stopped loving them). Critic’s darlings as contemporary as Paul Westerberg have gotten into arguments with writers like David Fricke, who can’t understand the appeal of “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” Well, after 9/11, even David Fricke found himself weeping over the healing power of Journey. One night at SideWalk, after a Harry Potter band convention, I threw on “Don’t Stop Believing” and watched a room full of kids who weren’t even alive when that song was released sing along to every word at the top of their lungs. In 1981, Fricke might have walked out of the room. Not anymore. When pop music is great (as Taylor Swift’s is) and has its heart in the right place (ditto), it has the power to melt the most jaded, rock snob heart and bring people together in song to persevere through anything. Regardless of race, political persuasion, state of residence, age. Pop music matters. It matters more than Fugazi, it matters more than Will Sheff, it matters more than the Clash, or any other artist that’s “allowed” to grace the pages of Trouser Press. So let’s cut all the crap out. Right now. Enjoy Taylor Swift. And let’s start talking about what’s important.

Tom Snow: Best Production — Red. The production equivalent of a perfect game, or at least facing the minimum.

Hilary Jane Englert: Prevailing theme of 2012 — Taking advantage of or pretending to be young.

George Pasles: Every song on my list reminds me of something specific. According to google this has already been mentioned repeatedly. I thought my #1 pick for single was Peter Gabriel, Locked Out of Heaven was the reunited Police, and Neon Trees was the Julian C. w/ Echo and the Bunnymen.

Jim Testa: Why Does He Have To Dress That Way? Award — Jack Antonoff

Jeff Norman: Weirdest visual trend of 2012 — physical deformity. Between the freaky thumb on the cover of Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe, and the fake facial deformities sported by Annie Clark and David Byrne on the cover of their record…WTF?

Bradley Skaught: Best songwriter — Dwight Yoakam. It’s easy to take a guy like this for granted. But this is Brill Building pop via Bakersfield and he’s as good at crafting a perfect gem now as he was 30 years ago. Plus, he’s a little weirder than folks think.

Dan Purcell: Best Lyrics — Fiona Apple. “Periphery” makes me laugh out loud still and I’ve heard it a thousand times. Andy Falkous is the bridesmaid again for Future of the Left. He is highly excitable and sure has a way with a phrase. Not sure any rock couplet could offer a better summary statement of intergenerational political conflict than “Sorry, Dad, I know your father/Disapproved of Che Guevara.”

Brook Pridemore: [Note. The Seer is his #1 album.] You know, I saw M. Gira, once, in 2002. About a month after I moved to New York, during the CMJ Fest. The showcase was at CB’s Lounge, horribly inappropriate for a folk show, because there was a foundation-shaking punk show going on next door. We were so terrified of Gira, solo, that I swore out loud I’d never listen to any music he made, ever again [it should be mentioned here that my favorite record of the day was Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker]. A decade goes by, and I accidentally hear the middle passage on “The Seer,” this album’s 30 plus minute title track. Imagining the fun the band must have been having, hitting that same power chord over and again, had me in stitches. I picked up the triple vinyl [I’m lamenting, now, not getting the CD, for parts of this album are stretched across multiple sides], and am surprised how well it still holds up. Gira considers The Seer to be the culmination of 30 years of Swans music. If that’s the case, I’m not sure I can bring myself to delve into their earlier material. This album is fucking perfect: raw, skull-crushing rock music with moments of razor-sharp beauty.

Ben Krieger: Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should — Regina Spektor. Hear me out on this. If you manage the SideWalk’s stage, you’re eventually going to meet Regina, who is incredibly sweet, incredibly talented, very down-to-Earth.  But if you manage the SideWalk’s stage you also hear at least 200 female songwriters a year who not only try to sound like Regina Spektor but also often cover one of her songs. So while I have yet to hear a song or see a performance that isn’t fantastic, I also just can’t bear to sit down and concentrate on a record. Maybe once I leave this job things will be different. As it stands, I head home every Monday night trying to scrape my brain with the loudest, most chaotic Japanese noise album I have handy.

Dan Purcell: 2012 record I will probably reevaluate a year from now — Besides Pines by A Fine Frenzy, which I guess is the real answer, probably the Sinead O’Connor record. I really love Sinead; she feels like a sister to me. For years I have wanted her to truly come back and shove a profoundly great and timeless work of art up the asses of her tormentors. How About I Be Me isn’t that, but it’s very good and very lively. “Queen of Denmark” alone is worth the price of the ticket.

Jens Carstensen: This year’s Snake on a Plane goes to Amanda Palmer.  Mind you, I reallllllly wanted to give it to Lana Del Rey, who seemed like a Texas Rangers-sized shoo in for this honor for months.  But, eventually, I realized a lot of the early negativity she received after her bringing her Stepford Elementary Talent Show skills to SNL seemed to coming from people who didn’t realize that pure artifice is pretty much what she was striving for all along.  Why else would somebody date Axl Rose in this day and age?  What “indie” diva would pose nude in GQ, right?  So, if people felt trolled, it’s their own damn faults. Besides, Del Rey provided a tidy object lesson on the power that one poorly-received public appearance can have on one’s professional ambitions…one that you wished Barack Obama had watched on Air Force One en route to Denver (and really, was either really all that bad?).  As for Palmer, she pulled off something even more impressive: she managed to stir up controversy in the music-blogging universe – and ultimately, define herself – in such a way that didn’t even involve needing to know what her MUSIC EVEN FUCKING SOUNDS LIKE.  That’s just about as “entertainment industry c. 2012″ as it gets.  Congratulations, Amanda Palmer! [Note: Jens awards the Snake on a Plane to the artist who goes from obscurity to overexposure and back to obscurity in a calendar year.]

Brian Block: Most inconsistent album: Amanda Palmer – Theatre is Evil. Hard album to rank. It’s more than CD length: ten fast songs, ten slow songs. Personally, I burned from that a 56-minute CD of ten fast/ two slow songs (and those two, “the Bed Song” and “Grown Man Cry”, are brilliant, heartbreaking songs). That 12-song CD would be #1 for the year. Whether that’s a fair rank after I deduct the time I spent attempting to like the other eight wandering, underwritten, lugubrious (in my opinion) tracks is another question.

Dennis Hu: Amanda Palmer scares the fuck out of me. Unfollow.

Ben Krieger: Talented Artist Whose Latest Record, Despite Being Good, Was Most Significantly Trumped By The Depth Of Emotion, Love, and Principles Expressed In A Letter About Her Dying Dog — Fiona Apple. What can I say? The record sounded great, but the letter actually moved me. Isn’t that what the record was supposed to do? On a similar note, this next comment is directed less at Apple than some of my peers: quit shooting your wad on Facebook to the point where your actual artistic output is the dregs of your timeline, which is way more interesting than it deserves to be.

Tom Snow: Most unwelcome pop phenomenon of 2012 People (Olympic athletes and others) posting videos of themselves dancing around to “Call Me Maybe.”  Nobody wants to see that shit, man.

Dan Purcell: I did not buy a single genuinely lousy record this year. I guess that’s a victory for our overarching capitalist marketing philosophy. Sure, predator drones, but also fewer unsatisfying entertainment experiences.

Efrain Calderon: It’s been years since I’ve worked at a record shop and my best of list illustrates this.

James Jajac: I’m out of touch but I found some great stuff in these Thomas Patrick Maguire albums. Definitely deserves some more notice, really cool stuff.

Anonymous awesome NYC drummer: One Direction can suck it. I am sick of teaching that crap to kids. There’s some pretty sophisticated drums in the song “What Makes You Beautiful” though. Don’t tell anyone I said that.

David Singer: Best Guitar Solo – Andre 3000’s Eddie-Hazel-with-a-traumatic-brain-injury turn on Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter”

Matt Houser: I was gonna fill out a ballot as Charlotte Grace Houser. [This is the name of Matt’s small child.] The Top Albums would’ve been Herman’s Hermit’s Greatest Hits, Jan & Dean’s Greatest Hits, Gershon Kingsley’s First Moog Quartet, Weird Al Yankovic’s debut. But then I thought nah, Tris takes this shit seriously. Instead, all of these picks (either work-related or band-related…is that lame?) are sincere. They made me happy when they came up on digital shuffle.

Brian Block: Worst Song of the Year — My 4-year-old wrote it; hang on, I wrote it down somewhere. “Cats in the creeper universe/ Cats in the creeper universe/ There’s 20 cats in the creeper universe/ That’s 109 cats./ On the bottom of the creeper universe, there’s 10 more cats/ There’s 10 more cats hanging on the sides/ And that is the end of the song”. I like it quite a bit anyway, but it’s a tuneless mess.

Alan Young: Worst Song of the Year — For the first time I can’t think of one. Been awhile since I spent any significant amount of time shopping at a place that plays anything other than salsa or bachata over the PA. And I like salsa and bachata.

Zachary Lipez: Hoary Old Bastard — Grizzly Bear. Time has run its course. Go get jobs, young men of influence.

Jens Carstensen: Not sure if this counts as a “new” record, but I just happened across the Buzzcocks’ “A Different Compilation,” wherein they re-recorded about 25 of their older songs with the current version of the band.  I was surprised at the degree to which I actually enjoy it; Shelly’s voice still sounds great (Diggle’s, on the other hand…).  And the updating of the tracks took nothing away from the material that really needed to be there; it makes for a pretty neat point-of-entry for potential fans who haven’t discovered the band yet (if that market exists).  Thus, I’m even more surprised that more bands don’t do this.  A similar Husker Du album released ten years ago would’ve made them multi-millionaires.  You know at least two dudes in Genesis are dying to do this with all their Peter Gabriel-era records.   Just an observation.

Bradley Skaught: Ken Stringfellow is the most underappreciated artist working right now. No one follows their muse with such abandon and dedication. His new record sounds like nothing else, but is still an accessible pop album. In a way, he’s our new Todd Rundgren — well known for a certain thing, capable of so much more, fearless in his pursuit of whatever strikes his fancy and worthy of a fanatical audience to follow him on his adventures. Start paying attention if you’re not already.

Brian Block: Berklee College of Music in Boston had a great year for me. The Debo Band, 11 Berklee students, made my favorite album of African-styled pop music ever, and I discovered Paranoise and Mawwal, two outstanding World Music (centered in Pakistan-style) bands led by long-ago Berklee grad Jim Matus. Some people might suggest my favorite world music albums should be made by people elsewhere in, like, the world. These people are terrorists.

Stephen Mejias: For keeping me satisfied, I’d like to say thanks to three online music retailers/distributors: Forced Exposure, Boomkat, and Bleep; and two bricks-and-mortar record shops: Other Music and Iris Records. I’d also like to thank my friends for putting up with my LP-buying habit. And I’d like to add that the Mets trading R.A. Dickey was the best move the team has made in at least 20-something years. (I hope.)

George Pasles: The McCartney/ Nirvana thing. That happened.

Matt Houser: Best Videos — Rune RK: Boulderdash, John Coffey: Romans, John Coffey: Featherless Redheads, Psy: Gangnam Style.

Dan Purcell: Song of the Year — “So Long You Pretty Thing” by Spiritualized. I’m sorry, of course it has the advantage of starting with the influential two-part ballad-to-rocker blueprint of “Hey Jude,” plus 45 years of refinement of that blueprint by every songwriter and her brother. But still, this is a better song than “Hey Jude.”

Zachary Lipez: I usually use this space to say mean things about critics and the music press in general. Now that I write for Noisey/VICE, despite generally writing about music, I have even deeper hatred, fear, and contempt for the entire terrible shirted weenie shebang. But now, more than that, I hate writing about writing. So, I got nothing. Keep being the singular and hatefully improbable combination of pedantic and entirely ahistorical, you pandering, payola addled fuckheads. And thanks for being too busy tweeting the etymology of “YOLO” to ever give my band an ounce of due. You win, College, ‘cuz we finally broke up.

Jay Braun: I recorded a lot this year and also I read a book.


* 2011 St. Vincent — Strange Mercy, Adele, “Rolling In The Deep”
* 2010 LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening, Janelle Monae — “Tightrope”
* 2009 Phoenix — Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix — “1901″
* 2008 Frightened Rabbit — The Midnight Organ Fight, MGMT — “Time To Pretend”
* 2007 Of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Rihanna — “Umbrella”
* 2006 Belle & Sebastian — The Life Pursuit, Camera Obscura — “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”
* 2005 The New Pornographers — Twin Cinema, Kelly Clarkson — “Since U Been Gone”
* 2004 The Arcade Fire — Funeral, Kanye West & Twista — “Slow Jamz”
* 2003 The Wrens — Meadowlands, Outkast — “Hey Ya!”
* 2002 Spoon — Kill The Moonlight, Missy Elliott — “Work It”
* 2001 Spiritualized — Let It Come Down, Jay-Z — “Izzo”
* 2000 Outkast — Stankonia, Outkast — “Mrs. Jackson”
* 1999 The Magnetic Fields — 69 Love Songs, Len — “Steal My Sunshine”
* 1998 The Loud Family — Days For Days, Public Enemy — “He Got Game”
* 1997 Belle & Sebastian — If You’re Feeling Sinister, The Verve — “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
* 1996 Sammy — Tales Of Great Neck Glory, Smashing Pumpkins — “1979″
* 1995 Oasis — What’s The Story (Morning Glory), Oasis — “Wonderwall”
* 1994 Pavement — Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Blur — “Girls & Boys”
* 1993 Liz Phair — Exile In Guyville, Dr. Dre — “Nothing But A ‘G’ Thing”
* 1992 Lyle Lovett — Joshua Judges Ruth, Pete Rock & CL Smooth — “They Reminisce Over You”
* 1991 A Tribe Called Quest — The Low-End Theory, Geto Boys — “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”
* 1990 Boogie Down Productions — Edutainment, Public Enemy — “911 Is A Joke”
* 1989 De La Soul — Three Feet High And Rising, Elvis Costello — “Veronica”
* 1988 The Pixies – Surfer Rosa, Public Enemy — “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”

























































January 31, 2013

Critics Poll XXIII — The Singles

Not mine to die for anymore, so I must live.

A man woke up one dismal day and the All-Music Guide had doubled its stars. Once there was a single column of red stars. Now, there’s a parallel column of stars in a puke terra-cotta. I am the man, by the way, and the dismal day wasn’t so long ago. Or maybe it was; I could be confusing it with other interchangeably dismal days on a dismal Internet where the sun never comes out anymore. I will take the gross booger color of the new stars as a tacit indication that All Music  knows that it has made a dreadful mistake and undermined its own authority. I will take it as a silent indication that the editors know they were doing wrong, but, like brainwashed zombie slaves of Attila the Hitler, they were powerless to stop themselves.

The new column of stars represents reader solicitation. These days it is not enough that Stephen Thomas Erlewine has taken the time to review an album and assign it a rating. All Music wants to place the assessment of You the Reader on equal footing with that of its critics. Only there is no such man or woman as You the Reader: You the Reader is an aggregate score of all those who bother to sign up and click on the field of stars next to an album title. This is a crime against criticism, which only looks dead. Criticism will rise again and have its revenge. Trust me. Stop poking it with a stick.

So, yes, I would have liked to have been in on the editorial meeting where the All-Music Guide decided to post crowdsourced assessments of albums right alongside the ratings of its writers. Were other options considered? Why not line up your critics and run down the row slapping them in the face, Three Stooges-style? Writers tend to be pathetic individuals who are willing to put up with ill treatment in exchange for publication, so there probably wasn’t much protest. As my man Max Bemis once forcefully put it, I don’t suck much less. But I know this: If I was working for All Music, I would have walked out of the room right then and never looked back. All Music is already a repository of conventional wisdom: there are very few idiosyncratic picks in the database. You go there to find that “Born To Run” gets five stars and “Human Touch” gets considerably fewer, and everything else in the discography fills in predictably enough. Someone decided that conventional wisdom wasn’t sufficiently conventional, and that ratings that were already flimsy covers for aggregations needed to be further neutralized.

But of course that’s not what happened. What happened doesn’t even have the dignity of democracy as its motivation. Somebody with dollar signs for pupils decided that the site needed to be more interactive. Never mind that Amazon already encourages its users to do the same thing. Monetization on the Internet means making your website operate as much like all the other big websites as possible, even if nobody has any idea how to turn conformity into a moneymaker.

The whole ‘net is sick with solicitation. Share this, contribute to this, leave a comment here and there. Participate in this thriving community. Click this button and that button, be like a child with a toy in a crib, pressing anything shiny and attractive and expecting a reward. If we can make the random reader feel like his opinion is equivalent to that of our actual writers, perhaps he’ll stick around and click on one of our awful banner ads. The critic is dragged by the hair down from the mountain and made, at best, first among equals. She’s no longer an authority, she’s a facilitator of discussion, like a camp counselor, or the leader of a focus group.

I don’t write to start conversation. I don’t write to end conversation, either. If I wanted to have a conversation, I’d call a friend. It is my fervent wish that nothing I ever do in life “goes viral”; I’m not Typhoid Mary. Nothing I say or do is meant to be a meme. When I write, it’s something that I’m compelled to express at a given time, and once I’ve expressed it, that’s it. We’re done, and I’m all set. When I go to a website and I see something interesting, I feel no compulsion to share it with everybody I know. I’m not inclined to rate things that I don’t really care about. I’d much prefer to leave the reflections of other writers unmolested by my commentary. Once a year we do this Poll and I have some fun counting; beyond that, it doesn’t matter to me where anything is ranked.

Belligerent that paragraph might read to you, techno-utopian. We’re all supposed to be participants in a great global network that keeps track of our preferences and gives recommendations and knows what you’ve got hidden in your sock drawer. And I’d keep these complaints to myself, but I suspect you’re beginning to feel the same way I do. As far as I can tell, people go to the Internet to do a limited number of things, none of which have much to do with sociability or sharing. People access the Internet to kill time, buy stuff, flirt, kill time, get directions, look at porno pictures, kill time, steal stuff, answer factual questions, complain about the President or the President’s opponents, play World of Warcraft, kill time, upload the products of a restless, fevered mind, and kill time. All of that stuff was possible before Web 2.0 latched on to the ‘net and sucked it dry like a giant leech. The nonstop prodding and pushing and cajoling to rate this and tweet that and respond to the next thing has made the Internet an intrinsically annoying and inhospitable place. The Internet has become a sloppy drunk at a party, poking and prodding you, showing you pictures you don’t want to see, forcing you to participate in conversations you don’t want to have, and shaking you down for your friends’ numbers.

The other thing that nobody wants to admit is that the critical infrastructure of the Internet is crumbling. I don’t even mean idiosyncratic voices; those were buried under a landslide of redundant content years ago. I mean faceless, formerly dependable news organizations that attenuate and cheapen stories to optimize them for sharing. I mean anodyne web-based organizations like All Music that used to be as filling as a bowl of beans, but which now seem determined to throw it all away in the name of interactivity. Criticism was never the heart of the AMG — that was always the database — but the site did hire critics, and it did purport to take their writing seriously. Now it wants to slap those critics in the face. Now we see how important the individual critical voice was to the company: about as important as a bunch of random dudes stuffing ballot boxes on behalf of the same favorite acts and favorite albums we’ve been hearing about for centuries.

The Internet is not going to stop deteriorating because we want it to. Once the Internet could have been anything we want it to be; now too many people have money invested for an act of mass imaginative exertion to affect a positive change. There’s only one thing that can save the web now, and that’s if writers wise up and start demanding to be treated with respect. I realize the economy for creative professionals is lousy and not getting better, and beggars can’t be choosers — but if we fail to be choosers, we’re guaranteed to be beggars. That means we start insisting that websites frame our stories the way we want them to be framed, rather than the way the weathervane is indicating that the Google algorithm would like them to be framed. That means no squeezing our text into little boxes on sites crammed with ugly advertising banners and distracting solicitations to push and click and share. That means no comments at the ends of our stories, I mean, really!, when you’re at the MOMA, do they allow you to scribble your reflections on the bottoms of the paintings? Well, then, why do we allow ourselves to be treated like lesser artists? Because we’ve been told we’re interchangeable? Because painters are romantic geniuses and writers are miserable hacks?  We need to insist that we’re not providing discussion prompts for others; this is not Freshman Composition class. We need to insist that we’re critics, not content providers. We need to start treating ourselves with the same dignity that other artists do.

Despite how it may look to readers who don’t know me personally, I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover. I’m under no illusions that this battle is going to be won by me; I don’t even know whether I can begin to stick to my own prescriptions. Like every other writer on the planet, I’m painfully introverted — I know what lonerism is all about. Promise to publish me and I will act like you’re a marvelous angel doing me a favor, even though I sure know better. All I can tell myself when I wake up in the morning is that I’m going to try to respect my own talent, whatever it may be. All I can ask of you is that you attempt to do the same. And if they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell.

  • 1. Japandroids — “The House That Heaven Built” (236)
  • 2. Gotye & Kimbra — “Somebody That I Used To Know (235)
  • 3. fun. — “Some Nights” (223)
  • 4. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Call Me Maybe” (219)
  • 5. Frank Ocean — “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” (166)

Mmmm… close finishes are tasty. So many might-have-beens. Actually, Gotye picked up 36 points in last year’s poll. I had “Somebody” in my top 10. If you’re a Gotye fan, you can go ahead and give him the top prize as a parting gift, because you won’t see him here again. fun. did not do terribly well on the albums list, finishing in 39th place, but voters did enjoy the singles. How many voters, I wonder, did the high school musical? I was Benny Southstreet in “Guys And Dolls,” which was a blast: I got to dance around with my friends, act like a wise-ass gambler, and sing bloody murder on the title track. I would have preferred the lead, but you can’t have everything. Anyway, Nate Ruess? He got the lead.

  • 6. Rihanna — “Diamonds” (148)
  • 7. Kendrick Lamar — “Swimming Pools (Drank)” (144)
  • 8. Usher — “Climax” (136)
  • 8. Taylor Swift — “I Knew You Were Trouble” (136)
  • 10. PSY — “Gangnam Style” (131)

Fightin’ Frank Ocean landed three singles in the Top 30, and drew some support from the gallery for “Sweet Life,” too. That’s impressive, but it isn’t even close to the eight different Taylor Swift songs named on ballots — not just the three Max Martin productions, but also a vote for the title tune, a vote for “Everything Has Changed,” two votes for the U2-like opener “State Of Grace,” two for the U2-like centerpiece “Holy Ground,” and three for the U2-like epic “All Too Well.” I could not help but notice that these were often paired with votes for Swift in the Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking category. Taylor Swift is not really an album artist the way Rihanna is; “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was her first Number One single. So you weren’t tapping your foot idly as you heard “All Too Well” on the radio. If you know that song well enough to vote for it, it means you listened to the track on “Red.” You heard the whole page-turning shebang about the scarf and the refrigerator light and the crumpled-up piece of paper, and ever since, you’ve been unable to expunge it from your sophisticated grown-up’s memory. I’m giving you permission: go with it. You’re on the right side of history. Taylor Swift is not somebody you need to wait for. She isn’t an artist who shows promise; she’s all the way there. She’s never going to be any better than she is right now. This is the golden age of something good and right and real. And don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m quoting, you bad people.

  • 11. Tame Impala — “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (117)
  • 12. fun. — “We Are Young” (116)
  • 13. Passion Pit — “Take A Walk” (113)
  • 14. Cloud Nothings — “Stay Useless” (111)
  • 15. Fiona Apple — “Every Single Night” (107)

After we spend the day filling out our long-form Critics Polls, we read them out, category by category, around the dining room table. Since the exercise virtually guarantees that arguments will break out, this takes hours. Midway through the odyssey, Steven Matrick went to the laptop to settle a dispute about Best Cover Version. Steven called up this YouTube clip of the P.S. 22 Chorus doing “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” and, well, that was that. The little girl in the glasses absolutely kills it; I’m looking forward to picking up her dance-rock album in a few years. Tame Impala’s music fits the gentle contours of a childrens’ choir — many of the lyrics feel like they could have been written by a precocious twelve-year-old. Isn’t that always the way when you’re twelve, too?, you feel like you only go backward, when every part of you says go ahead. There’s the philosophical dilemma that confronts every pre-teen indulging in a bout of lonerism. Aw, hell, grownups, too. Kevin Parker, we feel you.

  • 16. Frank Ocean — “Pyramids” (107)
  • 17. Miguel — “Adorn” (106)
  • 18. The Shins — “Simple Song” (102)
  • 19. Bob Dylan — “Duquesne Whistle” (101)
  • 20. Father John Misty — “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” (99)

It seems like eons ago, but we’re only four years removed from the strange day when Phoenix took this Poll with a song about deep-fried nuthin’. Now we’re back to Bob Dylan getting grouchy on a train in a steel town, dropping place-names like he’s Eleanor Friedberger on a bender. Dylan isn’t the only guy chewing up miles — many all of our favorite 2012 singles make temporal shifts and cover geographic territory. Once again, we’re all over the map. “Take A Walk” tackles three generations of struggle, like a Michener novel or a few chapters from the Book of Judges. “Pyramids” begins in ancient Egypt and ends up in a gross motel off of the Las Vegas strip. “Under The Westway,” Blur’s triumphant return to the high street of love, is Damon Albarn’s latest of State of the City of London address. Kendrick Lamar rapped about a dangerous fascination with alcohol; the Y.N. Rich Kids rapped about a dangerous fascination with hot cheetos. And even if you couldn’t decode anything else about “Gangnam Style,” it was crystal clear that Korean Taliban member PSY was describing a place on earth. A cool place; a place worth a visit in rhyme.

  • 21. Blur — “Under The Westway” (97)
  • 22. Magnetic Fields — “Andrew In Drag” (93)
  • 23. Frank Ocean — “Super Rich Kids” (88)
  • 23. Y.N. Rich Kids — “Hot Cheetos And Takis” (88)
  • 25. Taylor Swift — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (82)
  • 26. El-P — “The Full Retard” (80)
  • 27. Chairlift — “I Belong In Your Arms” (74)
  • 28. Jack White — “Sixteen Saltines” (72)
  • 28. Icona Pop — “I Love It” (72)
  • 30. GOOD Music — “Mercy” (67)

Kanye West usually dominates this category. Were I to add up all the points ever distributed to singles on the Critics Poll, Kanye would be way ahead of the second-place vote-getter. Over the years, they’ve added up: “Slow Jamz,” which won the singles poll in 2004, “Golddigger,” “Stronger,” the many MBDTF singles in 2010. But despite a strong year for hip-hop on the Poll, Kanye’s GOOD Music singles did not excite. To refresh your memory, West and his GOOD Music crew put out three singles before “Cruel Summer” dropped: “Mercy,” “New God Flow,” and “Cold,” which was originally called “Theraflu.” There were other rap singles in heavy circulation this year — the not-very-nice “Bandz a Make Her Dance” was one of them — but I don’t think any captured the summer like those three did. Then Kanye followed up with “Clique,” and it really did look like “Cruel Summer” was going to be a winner. Then we got it, and it was immediately apparent that Mr. West had made a mistake, and not a minor one either. He’d made the kind of mistake that kid bands do: he’d released all the great material in advance of the album. We’ve come to think of Kanye as an impeccable manager of expectations and a scrupulous framer of his own work, so the duff half of “Cruel Summer” came as a shock, and it was reasonable to ask whether his eagle eye had dulled. Every time somebody predicts that Kanye is about to enter his Jay-Z-style senescence, he comes roaring back with something undeniable, so let us not say that it’s all downhill from here. But this is a big, flashing warning sign. I’m just saying.

We used to have a field on the poll for Song Most Likely To Be Used In A Commercial. That was before every song was used in a commercial, see. These days, it wouldn’t make much sense. But not since Santigold’s “Lights Out” has there been a single better tailored to the demands of Madison Avenue than “I Love It.” Whenever these two lovable hucksters hit the chorus, you can almost hear the wheels of the shopping trolley squeaking. I don’t care! I love it! I will purchase it! It doesn’t matter that my Visa is maxed and my children have been repossessed — I don’t care! I love it!

Okay, frenz, I will get to the miscellany as fast as I can. I’ve got to make a trip to Atlantic City on newspaper business, but I’m taking your ballots with me. I can circle quotes on the car ride; Hilary’s driving. She’s a peach.















January 29, 2013

Critics Poll XXIII — The Albums

Strange dreams from the bottom of the world.

The ’90s were an innocent time. So innocent were they that we used paper. It was a fibrous product made from smooshing trees together, heating up the pulp, and sluicing the resulting vegetable matter through rollers. This was a barbaric practice, and I believe witches were involved. The advantage of paper was that you could write on it in nice pretty colored ink. The disadvantage was that it was difficult to reproduce. A paper Critics Poll was tough to share, but easy to tabulate, since people who fill out long paper forms have few friends, thus limiting the number of voters. Until we put this enterprise on the Internet, we never had more than 25 respondents. Those few who did participate rarely recovered from the hand cramp in time to play our game the following year. It was like having Tommy John surgery. Recidivism rates were low.

Since we went all electro in ’99, most of you have hung with me. I appreciate this. Year-end lists are fun to do under any circumstances, but I love to hear interesting people sound off about what moves them. The voters in this Poll are, with very few exceptions, interesting people. Some are true independent musicians with unusual projects that require no small amount of courage to sustain. Some are cranky writers, and the thing we know about cranky writers is that they leave all the crankiness on the page; when you meet them, they’re peaches. Some are ace reporters, or activists, or reporctivists. A few are even gainfully employed. I salute you all. You help my January sing; I hope I can sing it right back.

What this means: Much like the NSA, or your internet service provider, I’ve got a big fat file on you. A record 85% of the participants in Poll 23 have been here before. Half of those returning voters submitted ballots ten years ago or more. If you’ve ever voted, I’ve got your ballot stuffed in a filing cabinet in my living room; I haven’t misplaced one yet. Something I’d like to do, if I can set aside some time for it, is go back through the responses of Critics Poll regulars and see if I can trace any patterns. How has Jonathan Andrew’s taste changed over the years? What about Paula Carino? Have any of Tom Snow’s predictions come true? Have all of them?

As for what the marketing folks call “growing the pie,” there hasn’t been too much of that. Two decades in, I’ve come to understand that this Poll reflects my life, and my life is growing old with me. When we started doing this on the placemats at Syd’s Diner in Millburn in the very late ’80s, the average age of a Critics Poll voter was 18. These days, the average age is… well, that’s one number I don’t have much of an appetite to calculate. It’s older than I ever imagined I’d be; I always figured I’d be shot, or buried alive, or driven into the Atlantic Ocean by hounds. Quite a few regulars wrote in about the effect their kids are having on their listening habits; I think Kendrick Lamar would have done better if the purported “good kid” hadn’t tripped off so many parental controls. Should we keep this game up — and as long as we’re having fun, I see no reason why we shouldn’t — we’re facing the terrifying prospect in the not-so-distant future of a second-generation Critics Poll voter.

Happily, we senior citizens have resisted the temptation to let Grandpa run away with the Poll. We liked older musicians when we were younger (Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, etc.), and now that we’re older, we’re tacking younger. The winner of Critics Poll XXIII is a 26 year old who was virtually unknown in this country two years ago. He presses many of the buttons that make the cheese drop into the dinner bowls of our regulars: he’s handy with pop melody, he’s got mildly proggy ambitions, his lyrics are subtly smart, and he’s psychedelic, but not quite so tripped out that the tune ever gets run over by a bus. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is the one that got the most attention on the Poll, but my pick for the most representative song — and the one that nails the concept of lonerism best — is “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” Kevin Parker, confessed weirdo, has disdain for his self-absorbed peers, but he’s craving social interaction anyway. I’ll bet it’s a feeling people get regularly in a place as remote as Perth. I’ll bet it’s also a feeling that Poll voters, well-meaning freaks that we are, are familiar with too.

1988 was a long time ago. Back then, the only Poll anybody followed was Pazz & Jop, which you could only get your hands on if you were privy to the Village Voice. For me, that meant riding my bicycle to the only 7-11 in town that stocked a few copies and hoping that the other three Voice readers in the area hadn’t beaten me to it. A quarter-century later, throw a stone at the Internet and you’ll kill fifteen pollsters. Most of these polls are conducted and published well before Santa has squeezed himself into his red trousers; by the end of January, we’re all suffering from list fatigue. We’ve seen this list and that list, and they all start looking the same after awhile. A few voters questioned the ethics of the enterprise, asking whether all this consensus-gathering inevitably rewards big-name acts at the expense of Obscure and Brilliant Joe puttering away in his tiny studio under the bathroom sink.

Joe is a friend of mine and I hate to make his life any more miserable than it is. Moreover, it’s kind of nice to hear this critique getting made. I didn’t think anybody cared anymore. I thought the searchlights of the Internet had burned the underground as dry as a creek bed in July. I thought that everybody is now too busy watching YouTube sensations to worry about the haves and the have-nots. In our defense, Tame Impala is not getting an invite to the Z100 Jingle Ball anytime soon. But I take the point. In the coming days, we’ll look at the consequences of all this list-making, ranking, and adjudicating. We’ll talk about ramifications, and discuss who put the RAM in the ramalamadingdong. But for the moment, let’s put aside the theories and tuck into America’s current favorite comfort food: a nice buttered bowl of mashed numbers.

This year, we had 116 voters in the Critics Poll, down a tick from the 121 who participated in Poll XXII. 44 of those ballots came from New Jersey, which is about where we’ve been since the turn of the decade. Many of our other voters are Jersey expats wandering lost in the desolate, godforsaken Valley of Not New Jersey, and then there are the guys and girls who, given their adolescent up-yours attitudes, are honorary Jersey. Let’s call a spade a spade: This is a Jersey poll. Maybe that’s why Bruce Springsteen did so well. Only he didn’t; boy howdy he didn’t. More on this when we get to the miscellaneous categories. The results:

  • 1. Tame Impala — Lonerism (340)
  • 2. Frank Ocean -- Channel ORANGE (318)
  • 3. Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw… (278)
  • 4. Sharon Van Etten — Tramp (242)
  • 5. Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (232)

Van Etten is from Jersey, did you know that? Bet you didn’t, unless you were ever unfortunate enough to have heard me whine about it in person. She grew up in Nutley and went to high school in Clinton. It’s not something she publicizes very much; she doesn’t call herself Jer-Z Van Etten. Like a few of our recent homegrown heroes, she only became popular when she skipped town and found herself embraced by far right roots-rock militiamen on the far right side of the river. Patrick Stickles expresses guilt about his defection. Jer-Z Van Etten does not. Nevertheless, her support, which has been growing annually and which exploded this year, came disproportionately from our contingent of Jersey respondents. Speaking of other gangs of predisposed voters, Poll 23 came within a whisker of giving the top prize to the same guy who is certain to clean up at the Grammys next week — presuming Chris Brown, the poster boy for Chaotic Evil, doesn’t kill him over a parking spot first. We’ve never agreed with NARAS before. I think it’s an anomaly, and next year, the Estab. will be back to dishing all the gramophones to some limburger cheesy Eric Clapton tribute disc.

  • 6. Jack White — Blunderbuss (199)
  • 7. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music (192)
  • 8. Grizzly Bear — Shields (184)
  • 9. Nas — Life Is Good (180)
  • 10. Cloud Nothings — Attack On Memory (178)

Our winner notwithstanding, this was not a big year for guitar-rock warriors. We’ve had Polls that are dominated by strummers; on our 23rd trip around the sun, many prior winners dropped to the 15-25 range. Still flying the banner for the distorted six-string and the mean old white male voice: Jack White, who changed his color scheme to blue to match the color of his, um, orchid. I’m not complaining; that’s exactly why I love that guy. Before he starts hollering at you, he makes sure he’s got his iconography straight. Cars and sexual frustration — these are the basic building blocks of great pop music. Grizzly Bear got tougher for Shields and woke some voters up, although I notice that the people who listed Veckatimest and Yellow House didn’t seem to rate this one highly, and vice versa. Ed Droste, causer of confusion.

  • 11. Swans — The Seer (177)
  • 12. Miguel — Kaleidoscope Dream (173)
  • 13. Taylor Swift — Red (165)
  • 14. Redd Kross — Researching The Blues (162)
  • 15. Hospitality — Hospitality (160)

As guitar-rock continues its long, tired slink away from the throne, pop, hip-hop, and R&B creep out of the shadows to compete for the vacant chair. I don’t think we’ve ever had two male soul singers do as well as Frank Ocean and Miguel did this year. Hip-hop also did exceptionally well by our own standard, but it didn’t go too deep — we tapped the same handful of albums that most of the other Polls did. When we’re evaluating rock, we’ve got the capacity to surprise, as we did a few years ago when we bravely put Frightened Rabbit at the top of the list (or when we found room for Redd Kross in the top 15.) Our rap choices are more predictable: many votes for the anointed Kendrick Lamar, relatively few for his talented mates Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q. I’m not pointing fingers; I did the same thi… er, we’ll get to that in a few days. You do adore the rap records you adore, though. Killer Mike’s set, which placed seventh, topped as many ballots (8) as Lonerism did. Guess you guys don’t miss Ronald Reagan too much. Aesop Rock was the recipient of similar enthusiasm — almost everybody who voted for Skelethon placed it first or second. As for hard rhymer and Hipster Runoff favorite Taylor Swift, I’m thrilled as any other teen girl decoding the “secret messages” in her liner notes to see Red at 13. 13, fellow fanatics, get it? If you don’t, well, there’s always room in the cabal for new initiates. Keeping Taylor Swift happy is a full-time job around these parts, but I was thrilled to see so many votes for Hospitality. Above all, this Poll admires tight songwriting. Amber Papini is a great songwriter. With no Belle & Sebastian project up for assessment this year — that not-so-hot Stevie Jackson album doesn’t count — I’m pleased to see that we recognized the next best thing.

  • 16. A.C. Newman — Shut Down The Streets (159)
  • 17. The Shins — Port Of Morrow (159)
  • 18. Chromatics — Kill For Love (155)
  • 19. Craig Finn — Clear Heart Full Eyes (152)
  • 19. Spiritualized — Sweet Heart Sweet Light (152)

All our old friends, hanging out together at Club 16-20 — there where the PBR costs two bucks a bottle, beards are in style, and we’re still in shock from 9/11. Spiritualized won this poll in 2001 and lost to heavyweight champions B&S in 1997 by a few points. The last few albums haven’t been loved, but Jason Pierce came racing back to tie an album with a title confusingly similar to his. Craig Finn’s Poll story is similar. The first three Hold Steady sets were high finishers, but by Heaven Is Whenever, voters were tiring of his act a little. Clear Heart Full Eyes isn’t a reboot, but it’s the most Catholic set he’s made in awhile, and the roadhouse backing band matches the tone of his recent storytelling better than Tad Kubler’s anthemic crunch. He’s gotten sadder as he’s aged. He benefits from a slide guitar. James Mercer was a titan at the turn of the millenium; he’s lost his band and much of his momentum, but he’s still got that knack for melody. Then there’s Carl Newman, number two on the all-time Critics Poll list, still picking up points a decade after Mass Romantic. Twin Cinema took this poll by force in 2006, becoming our highest point-getter ever (The Life Pursuit shattered that record two years later, re-establishing the order of things.) All but two of the voters who listed Shut Down The Streets had voted for a Pornographers project in the past. Our brand loyalty puts NASCAR to shame.

  • 21. El-P — Cancer4Cure (147)
  • 22. Father John Misty — Fear Fun (145)
  • 23. Screaming Females — Ugly (141)
  • 24. Of Montreal — Paralytic Stalks (133)
  • 25. Japandroids — Celebration Rock (130)
  • 26. Nada Surf — The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (126)
  • 27. Dan Deacon — America (124)
  • 27. Aesop Rock — Skelethon (124)
  • 29. The Evens — The Odds (122)
  • 29. The Mountain Goats — Transcendental Youth (122)

As you probably know, Jaime “El-P” Meline produced both his own album and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. While Cancer4Cure is paranoid and belligerent, and redolent of sci-fi, Mike’s album is belligerent and paranoid, and redolent of a punch in the face. Those who listed both tended to rate El-P higher, but six out of the eight voters who put Killer Mike tops left Cancer4Cure off of their ballots altogether. This alone accounts for the points discrepancy between the two sets. More numbers quirks for soda jerks: support for Lonerism was split evenly between Jersey voters and non-Jersey voters, but twice as many out-of-staters backed Fiona Apple. Idler Wheel was listed on all five ballots I received from Californians. Incidentally, much has been made of the fact that the three most acclaimed albums of the year came from Los Angelenos. I think this is misleading. Whatever her current street address might be, Fiona Apple is forever Broadway. Frank Ocean found his voice in New Orleans and now resides in a city they call Long Beach. Kendrick Lamar has made it very clear that he’s from Compton, Compton, ain’t no city quite like his. It’s all Southern California to be sure, but those municipal borders aren’t just chalk lines on a planner’s blackboard. If Jer-Z Joe Budden sweeps the 2013 polls, which he certainly won’t, I wouldn’t like people to say that New York had a big year. Joe wouldn’t either. Speaking of patriots, it’s always nice to see support for Jer-Z Marisa Paternoster, although I’m not sure she’s growing the pie much, either. And I don’t just mean with our voters.

  • 31. Future Of The Left — The Plot Against Common Sense (113)
  • 31. Sinead O’ Connor — How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? (113)
  • 31. Rush — Clockwork Angels (113)
  • 34. Bob Mould — The Silver Age (111)
  • 35. Bob Dylan — Tempest (108)
  • 36. The dBs — Falling Off The Sky (105)
  • 36. Mark Eitzel — Don’t Be A Stranger (105)
  • 38. GOOD Music — Cruel Summer (103)
  • 39. fun. — Some Nights (99)
  • 40. Why? — Mumps, Etc. (97)

Two Bobs back to back. The two biggest Bobs going, too; now that Bob Dole is no longer a celebrity pitchman, I can’t think of any bigger, more influential Bobs. I’m not sure I can tell them apart anymore — which is the one with the fourteen minute song about the Titanic and which one sings the Mary Tyler Moore theme? They’re both from Minnesota, right? They grow Bobs up there; big, hearty, frost-resistant Bobs.

In two decades of Polling, Rush had never finished in the Top 40. That’s kind of hard to believe, considering that this Poll was started by a bunch of prog-heads. Must have been the novelization that did the trick.

Some other notables bubblin’ under, or not bubblin’ much at all: there was scant support this year for Beach House, a band that did very well last time around but sunk like a rock in ’12, Passion Pit, another strong finisher two years ago, or Grimes, who was keelhauled and then thrown into the negative-category dungeon by our voters. Carnegie Hall all-stars The Dirty Projectors picked up 63 points, which isn’t bad, but is way off the high water mark the group set with Bitte Orca. The Walkmen always nearly miss the list — those guys finished with 90 points and two second-place votes. My old favorites Say Anything and the Early November drew only a trickle of enthusiasm this year; both acts declined from their last showings. But Titus Andronicus, who were nearly and inexplicably shut out after releasing The Monitor bounced back: Local Business picked up 77 points. Oh, and the Gaslight Anthem only got one vote.

There was another New Jersey native with a record out this year. For the second straight album cycle, it was a bad thing to be Bruce. The Boss finished with 48 points and a sound drubbing in the comments section. If you hate Springsteen — and I guess many of you ingrates now do — that’s something for you to look forward to.

Okay, I’m headed to Englewood to see Heart in concert. No, really. Stop looking at me that way. Singles as soon as I can get to them, everybody.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

  • Action Bronson & Party Supplies — Blue Chips
  • Andy Stott — Luxury Problems
  • Beth Orton — Sugaring Season
  • Bonnie Raitt — Slipstream
  • Bryan Scary — Daffy’s Elixir
  • Dots Will Echo — Drunk Is The New Sober/Stupid Is The New Dumb
  • Downhill Strugglers — Home Recordings
  • Earlimart — System Preferences
  • Esperanza Spalding — Radio Music Society
  • Heartless Bastards — Arrow
  • Here We Go Magic — A Different Ship
  • Hot Chip — In Our Heads
  • I Am The Avalanche — Avalanche United
  • Iris DeMent — Sing The Delta
  • Jimmy Cliff — Rebirth
  • John K. Sampson — Provincial
  • Lana Del Rey — Born To Die
  • Lee Brice — Hard 2 Love
  • Lucero — Women & Work
  • Mac DeMarco — 2
  • Moonmen On The Moon, Man — Maan
  • Norah Jones — Little Broken Hearts
  • Regina Spektor — What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  • Rosenkopf — Rosenkopf
  • School Of Seven Bells — Ghostory
  • The Lumineers — The Lumineers
  • The Menzingers — On The Impossible Past
  • Thomas Patrick Maguire — The Future’s Coming So Fast
  • Toys That Kill — Fambly 42
  • Ulrich Ziegler — Ulrich Ziegler
  • Violent Bullshit — Adult Problems