Hey, rocker, remember the Summer of Love? Well, this sure ain’t it. That Age of Aquarius that was supposed to be coming?, that needs a jump-start. Today you may feel more like Neil Tennant in “Dreaming Of The Queen” — no lovers left alive, and no one with any humanity in a position of ultimate political power.
Fascists are on the march all over the globe. They’re poised to elect collaborationist governments in places (like America) where people are supposed to be too smart and too cultured to let that happen. The National Front stands a very good chance of winning the next election in France. The Philippines are now run by the sort of guy who’d trip you in an alley for no reason and laugh. The prime minister of Hungary wants to stuff refugees into shipping containers, and it looks like this charmer is going to get his sadistic wish. Russia really did just decriminalize domestic abuse; that’s not a joke or even hyperbole. I’m sure you’re painfully familiar with ISIS, a fascist-bro purification movement of the most overt, blow-your-deviant-face-off kind. All over the world, it is springtime for jerks and thugs. This, I am afraid, is what democracy looks like — maybe not every time an electorate speaks, but increasingly often, often enough to elect and empower cruel regimes that do awful things to the weakest among us. Call it temporary if it makes you feel better and keep your faith in populism if it’ll help you sleep, but do not deny that something terrible has happened to the people.
Or maybe we were always this way. Maybe it’s just easier now to take the measurement of our deepest desires and cater to our darkest demands. I always feared that this is where direct democracy would take us: mob rule driven by sectarian hatred and ancient grievances, ugly people doing ugly things to teachers and scientists and religious folks whose faiths were outvoted. The Cultural Revolution, basically, or Animal Farm once Napoleon became entrenched. I’m always taken aback when someone talks glowingly about people power because… well, I’ve met people. I myself am one of them. I know rather intimately what people are like, and I assure you they’ve got quite enough power already, thank you.
As it turns out, there is a large institution that has always been consistent and forthright about its belief in human depravity. That institution is the Church, and I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that its head is the one remaining world leader who agrees with you. The Pope agrees with you about your civic requirement to treat refugees and immigrants with compassion. He agrees with you that the world’s wealth ought never to be concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of people. He agrees with you that we need to be better stewards of the planet and that we have a serious responsibility to care for the Earth before we turn it over to the next bunch of occupants. He agrees that ethnic and religious prejudice — which I guess is back in vogue now — is both idiotic and unethical. About social issues I don’t guess he agrees with you much, at least not publicly. But since he’s taken over the Vatican, he’s tried to do what he can to reorient the Church’s attention away from your pants and back on to Matthew 25:35-40 where it belongs.
You are leery about the Church and you have reason to be. The child sex-abuse scandal discredited clergy worldwide; straight-up obliterated their status as moral referees. This was a far bigger factor in the elections than people realize. Catholics did not follow the guidance of their priests or their Pope, and that’s at least in part because they don’t see paragons in the pulpit. They see pederasts. Beyond that, the office of the Pope has not always been, to put it mildly, a force for good. The Vatican is chock full of old guys who are fixated on the preservation of the nastiest elements of Christianity as it is practiced by imperfect humans. The New York Times recently reported that Steve Bannon has been in close touch with the reactionary Cardinals who’d like to undermine Pope Francis’s liberalization effort. He’d like to help them along. That he recognizes the Pontiff as a powerful foe ought to tell you what you need to know: you and the Church are presently in the same corner. Welcome home, heathen.
This could all change overnight. The same cruel tide that has inundated governments worldwide could swamp the Vatican, too. Pope Francis is 80 years old, and physics suggests that his successor will ride the pendulum back in the other direction. But right now he’s hale and reasonably jolly and unafraid to speak out, and he’s been generous enough to take many giant steps in your direction. Yes, you. He’s been dragging the Church toward you. There he is, right on the corner, with his arms open and his cross out, representing every single thing that the current vile regime in Washington isn’t. Don’t be shy; he’s already done most of the hard work. All you’ve got to do is open your window and say hello.
You don’t want to do this. When you were growing up, the Church made you feel lousy about yourself. Me too, buddy. Me too. Our local churches did not treat young me fairly. But Pope Francis is attempting to push open some heavy temple doors for us — doors many of us believed had rusted shut. We can’t afford to sneer at the olive branch he’s shaking in our direction. As Animal Mother memorably said to Jokerman in Full Metal Jacket, we’re fresh out of friends.
Because what better options for leadership do we have? The Democratic Party? Please. We’ve seen where that gets us. The comedians? Laugh the blues away if you can, but do recognize that pithy one-liners and 140 character witticisms are not going to get us out of this one. The social scientists? Bless them all; they’re working hard to demonstrate exactly how and why that we’ve gone off the rails. You and I believe them. Sometimes we even love them. But because they tend to be indirect, and because they present their evidence without the force of moral authority, they’re all too easy to dismiss. The Church, at its best, relies on two thousandyears of ethical precedent and hard-won wisdom, and its most effective operatives don’t tend to mince words. Your neighbor came to you in need and you spurned him? He was hungry and you didn’t feed him? That’s a sin. You’re a wealthy person who won’t share with those less fortunate? That’s a sin. Envy has hold of your heart; you’re treating God’s earth like your personal trash disposal unit; when you should have opened your heart, you built a wall instead. Those are sins — some of them mortal sins.
Do you see how elegant that is? How delightfully direct and economical, how powerful, how balls-out unequivocal in its condemnation of bad actors, whether peasants or kings? Calling out evil is what the Church does best, and when it speaks, it does so with all the cathedral bells ringing in the cloister. Talk from the Church floor and you’ve got centuries of history — not to mention volumes of scripture — backing you up. Yes, churches of all denominations are now larded down with bad readers who want to use the Word to punish their enemies, but that’s only been allowed to happen because we’ve abandoned our pews and ceded the floor to jerks. They’ve been so loud and so offensive in the name of God that they’ve convinced us that the Church is lost to us forever.
I have come to believe, strongly, that this is wrong. We could take the Church back if we put our minds to it. I think it would be quite a bit easier than reclaiming the legislatures, which have been gerrymandered to the point of illegibility and permanent disfunction, or the mass media, which currently has eyes only for clown shows and celebrity trainwreck stories. The Church is our natural ally because the monotheistic religions, when practiced the right way, are absolutely 100% anti-fascist. Real Judaism, Islam, Christianity?, the real articleis as anti-fascist as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, or Mr. Michael Render, or kissing your girlfriend. That’s what those religions are there for. They’re designed, on part, to knock a little humility into recalcitrant humanity, and to check our tendency toward selfish, beastly behavior.
I suppose it is arguable that there’s so much toxic waste in the pool that the unsearchable riches of the monotheistic religions are now irretrievable. Maybe so. Should we take on this clean-up job, we’re going to have a lot of work to do. But if we don’t do that work, we’re giving the power of the Church — the bells of the cathedral and the scriptures and all the authority that goes along with them — to a bunch of angry dopes who don’t know the first thing about religion. And they don’t deserve it. There are pundits who have never read a word of the Koran or the Muslim philosophers who’ll get on TV and make sweeping statements about Islam anyway. The Devil couldn’t ask for better helpers.
But you can be different. Here’s what I ask you to do in 2017: set your preconceptions aside, pick up the Holy Bible, start at Page 1 of Genesis, and keep going until you get to the end of the Book of Revelations. I promise you it will be the greatest ride you’ll ever take. I’d wager that you will be surprised by what you find there: not a conduct manual, or a self-help book, or a how-to, but a tale of mankind’s encounter with and brutal struggle against God, or ultimate reality, personified in these pages as Yahweh and Jesus Christ. It is the bedrock of Western literature, the skeleton key to history and culture, and a set of profound statements on the nature of existence. Right now, this towering literary artifact is in the hands of fundamentalists who don’t understand how reading and representation works. We’re all suffering from that. Pry the Bible away from these people. You wouldn’t let them ruin Herman Melville, would you?
I was 21 years old when I first read the Bible. I did it for a selfish, superstitious, and fundamentally irreligious reason: I was about to get on a plane to Washington State, and if we plowed into a mountain like I expected us to, I didn’t want to go to my grave without learning what the Bible said about the other side. I figured I’d get something like a Westernized version of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which I also hadn’t read, but which had been badly summarized to me by a hippie in Northampton. What I got was nothing at all like what I was told to expect; instead, I found a much deeper and more vivid engagement with the same philosophical questions my political science professors were asking me to entertain. Who governs?, the Bible asks, over and over, and by what authority? What gives a man, or even a God, the right to tell another man what to do? Is it just pure, earth-shaking, locust-swarming power? If so, how can morality ever develop? Who has the prerogative to create, or destroy?
The Bible was composed over many centuries by many authors with different agendas and worldviews, and it contains many wild guesses and outright contradictions. But from time to time, the smoke from the burning bush clears, it comes to an enduring punchline that reverberates through the centuries. King David, one of the Bible’s great characters, after years of triumphs and horrifying screw-ups delivers his weary farewell in the Second Book of Samuel. And wouldn’t you know it?, he says the same damn thing Pope Francis has been trying to say for the past few years. He that ruleth over men must be just; ruling in the fear of God. On justice and humility all governing authority rests; anything else is just a bully move. More than that: it’s sinful. Let’s never be afraid to say so. We’ve got the big guy behind us.
The news has been so awful lately, and the task of reporting it so joyless (not to mention thankless), that I have hesitated to add my voice to the chorus that has been singing such a sad song. Surely even in a time of crisis there are more rewarding things to discuss. But there is a difference between writing about politics, which you’re no doubt sick of hearing about, and writing about American popular culture and society, which will be around as long as America persists.
Four months ago I was assuming, much as the rest of the country was, that we were going to avert the worst and merely be saddled with the very bad. It was then I decided that I’d take the time to do the Poll again — not really to twist anyone’s arm, but just to get my preferences down, and park them here on a personal page that I’ve tried not to connect to any of the big networks. I understand why you might have cultivated a principled aversion to ranking artifacts, which, fun as it is, does feel like an exercise in self-absorption, and about electoral democracy in general, which always promises more than it delivers. If you didn’t feel like voting in the Poll this year, I can’t blame you: it’s been awhile since voting has been a rewarding thing to do.
Now that we know that our very modest wishes for the immediate political future won’t be coming true — and that the reins of power have been turned over to a gang of ghouls — the sanest course for critics might be to hold our breaths until the winds change.Not the most responsible, mind you, or the most courageous, but the one best designed to avoid reinforcing a regime that feeds on obsessive discussion and controversy. It seemed inevitable that any essay I’d write about music would drift into political territory, and soon enough I’d be rehashing all of the leftish talking points that did nothing to stave off disaster. I considered canceling the Poll, or doing it in private and not calling any attention to it.
Yet in a society as wobbly as this one currently is, I know politics will, sooner or later, come knocking on my door. It might be the tax collector, or the border-control agent, or the swastika spray-painter, or the public official here to tell us that the river has risen to a threatening level, or something even scarier. The things I’d like may be the same things you would: I’d like to see our criminal justice and penal systems reformed, and greater local autonomy, and an investment made in parks and mass transit, and a serious commitment made to preventing ecological catastrophe, real engagement with the heavy residue of centuries of racial inequality, and many other things that fall under the broad umbrella of egalitarian republicanism as I understand it. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that I want all of that pretty desperately– and that everything I’ve written, even the goofy stuff, contains within it an attempt to address the problems we’ve identified. If I’m attempting to raise consciousness through my purple prose, I’m not doing it very well. But I suppose I’m never going to stop trying.
So in the spirit of optimism and puerile divertisement, and in a limited sort of faith that sunny days will return to these shores, I offer you my list for 2016 and the usual rude capsule essays that accompany my picks. I’ve come to see comedy as a destructive cul-de-sac, but I find I lack the wisdom to stop cracking wise. It’s the writer’s disease — the conviction that the right 140 characters delivered to the right audience will make the world spin backward through the sheer force of cleverness. Gallows humor is a pretty cheap commodity these days, and pithy remarks are mainly good for tombstones. No SNL joke is going to bring the administration down, and no Beyonce video proclamation will prompt a new Enlightenment. Never once in my life has the pen proved more powerful than the sword. I’m not much of a fencer. The pen is what I’ve got, so I might as well swing it around and look as formidable as I can manage.
You’ll notice that many of the artists I loved in 2016 felt the same way. Albums number three and nine contain legit, uncut protest music; most of the rest of this stuff points in that direction. Yet my album of the year is nothing but a landslide of first-rate musical craftsmanship. I have no idea who its principal voted for, although I certainly have my suspicions. She’s shrewdly mum about that kind of thing, which proves there are still a few artists out there who haven’t been drawn into the cold civil war we’re currently waging. I can’t walk a tightrope like that. My terrible disappointment with the results of the election and what it reveals about the disposition of the country is bound to creep into the words — and assessments — that follow. Amidst the usual rude remarks and poop jokes, there’ll be observations about the emergency state, gerontocracy, and the cratering of American moral authority. I know: you wish it was just the poop jokes. Me too, pal. Me, too.
Album Of The Year
1. Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
2. Beyonce — Lemonade
3. Jamila Woods — HEAVN
4. Francis AndThe Lights — Farewell, Starlite!
5. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
6. Drake — Views
7. Noname — Telefone
8. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
9. YG — Still Brazy
10. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
11. Look Park — Look Park
12. J. Cole — 4 Your Eyez Only
13. Say Anything — I Don’t Think It Is
14. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial
15. Vanishing Twin — Choose Your Own Adventure
16. Jimmy Eat World — Integrity Blues
17. Saba — Bucket List Project
18. De La Soul — And The Anonymous Nobody…
19. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
20. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger
Best Album Title
Coloring Book. At this rate he’s going to close the churches right the hell down. Because who needs to sit in a pew and listen to a homily when you can catch the same spirit from a rap record? And this is a rap record, even if Chance makes you sit through the choir sections, and Francis Farewell Starlight’s vocal-diffusing dial-twisting thingamabob, and the Biebs, too. It’s just one with its drum and instrument sounds lifted from gospel, and messages inspired by the gospels. Poor Hezekiah Walker never stood a chance.
Best Album Cover
Freetown Sound. Devonte Hynes’ music continues to sound like it’s 1985, and you’re listening to it through a transistor radio somewhere down the hall, or through a partially closed door to an older sibling’s room. Maybe she’s crying in there. Maybe she’s under the covers with a porno. Hynes still cannot sing worth shit but as he grows in juice and cash flow, he can afford to maintain some expensive contacts among the theatre people, including Nelly Furtado, who appearson a song that is named after the Hadron Collider for no discernible reason. (I am sure there’s a connection, and no, I don’t want to hear the tortured explanation.) 90% chance of scoring some off-Broadway semi-ballet nonsense. But that’s no reason to hate on it. It’s a free country, sort of. Nobody is making you go to that ballet.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
Lemonade, including the videos.Part III of a remarkable trilogy of albums concerning, respectively, 1.) the thrills of monogamous dedication in a world that insists on impermanence, 2.) the dangers of monogamous dedication in a world that values entropy, and now 3.) what to do when the partner with whom you are sharing monogamous dedication turns out to be something of a slutdog. Unless it’s the third leg of a four-sided table, in which case 4.) might be about shopping for a split-level in Morristown. (Leave Sasha Fierce out of this.) The frontwoman is one Beyonce Knowles, an artist of some repute. In her playing prime she has become a specialist in realist pop — her songs are not about teenage fornication or the lack thereof, but about grown-ass lovers trying to keep the flame burning through the windstorm of adulthood. An old journalist I, I am pleased to report that the star remains as careful to ground her storytelling in sociohistory as any other op-ed writer. Her Texas address means she has as much right to sing a country shoot-em-up as any of the hacks in Nashville — or the North Carolinian Tori Amos, whose own righteous album-length tirades Lemonade reminds me of. I can understand if a skeptic finds Beyonce’s need to meticulously cover each style of Southern American music tedious, or overdetermined, especially on an album that is supposed to conjure and communicate bizzerk rage and jealousy. But when the Spodeeodeedopalicious horns come in on “All Night”, I dare you to call it anything less than a fucking triumph. Because it is. And on those moments of bizzerk rage and jealousy?, I’d say she acquits herself rather well.
Most Welcome Surprise
New albums from De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Also, Anderson.Paak’s very good Malibu. I’ve seen him likened him to Frank Ocean. But the breakout star of Dr. Dre’s last album is not really an auteur — he’s more of a post-Kendrick version of Maxwell, complete with social consciousness and a big boner (there’s a track here subtitled “Interluuube”, which is, like a lot of his pillow talk, more clumsy than effective.) Though Malibu is overlong and chock full o nuts, Paak does not prefer to poke along the meandering back roads that Frank likes; “I never wanna waste your time”, no matter how deep into the music store he goes, that’s his mission statement. He loves his fam (naturally), communicates poorly with women, raps iffily, and skirts Cee-Lo territory with soul throwback “Celebrate”. And he sure has some talented friends: Pino Palladino, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Talib Kweli, etc. Someone spent a lot of money to make this sprawling, polyglot music sound like the hit it certainly won’t be. I hope nobody threatens to cut off his funding, because that’ll force him to “focus”, and that will be the end of that.
Metronomy’s surprisingly easygoing Summer 08. That album didn’t annoy me at all, and thatwas the problem. Summer makes me think of Tina Weymouth a bunch; not just Tina Weymouth but also the myth of Tina Weymouth, because a myth I think it is. Out of necessity, Chris Frantz hands his girlfriend a bass guitar and puts her in the band before she knows what she is doing; she learns to play on the job and the rest is history. So what if her boyfriend had been a sculptor? Would one of the greatest instrumentalists in the history of rock music have gone to her grave unaware of her talents? What if Frantz already had a bass player? Are we to believe she would have tagged along and sold merch or something? I recognize that people sometimes have latent abilities that only emerge because the stars align, and I also know that women in this nasty man’s world often need a push. But I refuse to believe that Weymouth didn’t have an inkling that she could kick ass, or that, prompted by ambition, she didn’t angle like fuck to get in the game. Because the alternative gives all the agency to the boys around her, when anybody who has ever heard Talking Heads knows that without its bass player that band would have had no agency at all. Without Weymouth, Talking Heads would have just been David Byrne and his whimsical and counterintuitive reflections. This also is why Talking Heads is deceptively difficult to imitate, and why bands who try to mimic Remain In Light or Speaking In Tongues always sound like they’re engaged in some airless, C-plus art project. To electrofunk out, it is important to have a monster on the bottom, and to have that beast’s power feel like an inevitability. A Tina Weymouth bass part is a rude fact, like the number of electrons in a hydrogen atom, or the sewer system that keeps the city livable, or your momma. Oh, right, the Metronomy album. Joe Mount loves Talking Heads. He handles the bass himself. Maybe he doesn’t love them enough.
Album That Opens Most Strongly
No Burden. The first three songs are just soooo good that you may think you’re listening to a stone classic. After that, Lucy Dacus spends the rest of the set repeating herself, recycling jokes, and dithering on the cusp of rock without actually rocking. She never stops being witty though, she knows how to tell a story, and the aching wanderlust she sings about on “Map On The Wall” animates all of her songs. The last young artist who showed up so complete and ready to roll was Laura Marling, and you know I don’t bandy that comparison around.
Album That Closes Most Strongly
Still Brazy.I’m going to try to discipline myself here, but I have a lot to say about this state-of-the-art West Coast g-rap album. I will always be grateful to YG for “FDT”, which is, as far as I am concerned, the only thing that ever needed to be said about this alleged election. Not a well argued thinkpiece that treats Donald Trump’s “ideas” as worthy of careful, point-by-point engagement and rebuttal, and, in the process, dignifies him as something other than a subhuman scumbag, but fuck Donald Trump/fuck Donald Trump, over and over, just in case you missed the main thread. Which you didn’t. Because if you really need an detailed explanation for why Donald Trump can fuck off, well, I don’t know about you, buddy. We’re not going to be friends. I also think it’s telling that it was this album, and not the superartistic and supertheorized struggle-musik by Kendrick and Lupe and Jamila Woods, that caught the earsofthe censors. See, intellectuals like us don’t scare the establishment, sad to say. But gangsters, as Ice Cube understood, sure do — especially when YG and Sad Boy Loko suggest a team-up between Black and Mexican sets. What makes the criticism sting is that YG is naturally conservative — not just in the musical choices he makes, all of which were given the Southern Cali seal of approval in 1993, but in his core ideology, too. “Gimmie Got Shot”, for instance, is practically Reaganite in its disdain for handouts, and “She Wish She Was” is a Phyllis Schafly speech reverse-translated via RapGenius. The storytelling climaxes when YG attempts to convince awhite judge that he, too, has a fundamental and overriding obligation to protect his family. He’s not tripped up by questions of positionality: he believes that they’re united by their masculine prerogatives, that it’s only the judge’s prejudice that gets in the way of his sympathy for his compadre in manly, by-all-means-necessary action. Still Brazy opens with a question — who shot me? — and closes with YG hollering through a filter about real-life black men, killed by the police, who share his name and his burf day. We never get an answer: just thickening paranoia as the circumstantial details pile up. Should I ever take a bullet in my daily travels, I hope my revenge on a society that had no use for me is as wickedly sweet as this.
Crummy Album I Listened To A Lot Anyway
untitled unmastered. Don’t let the plain dark green cover fool you. This is no austerity effort. It is corny Kendrick in full effect, including a widescreen rendering of his interpretation of Revelations, the Bible’s cheesiest book. Also, the one where the Asian man wants peace and balance and the white man wants $$$$ and the black man wants a piece of poosay is the most racist thing I heard all year, and I paid attention to the presidential campaign. The rapping is aces, of course, and it’s always great to hear Thundercat.
Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy
Goodness, which felt like a tiptoe back from the brink. In emo music this is not generally a good thing. Case in point: in 2014, there were long stretches when I thought of nothing but Home, Like Noplace Is There. Who are these characters, what are these scenarios, what can I, a humble tunesmith, do to ease their pain? But this year’s Hotelier album?, for some reason I keep having to remind myself it exists. I think there’s a part of me that wants to deny the existence of Goodness— as if I believe the band that made Home ought to have burned itself out like a charred filament from its own intensity, and anything else dishonors its fatalism. This is crazy unfair of me, especially since I suspect Goodness is a pretty worthy sequel, albeit one with music that’s emo pro forma.
Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To
Hero. Craig Manning, a rock critic I always enjoy reading, called this one of the year’s best pop albums, and he wasn’t alone. Funny, coz this pile of would-be platinum hooks is at least nominally country. That’s about where we are in this big ol rootsy nation, though it remains to be seen whether Morrisconnects with alienated Northerners who may just have lost their appetites for Dixie cooking for the next 8 years. Whether this damn Yankee agrees with Craig remains to be determined, as I am still ruminating on my cud over here in the critical cowshed. But I do think this is probably the year’s purest pop-rock set: 1-4-5 progressions leading, with ruthless economy to shoutalong choruses, millenial whoahs and wordless uh huh and la la refrains, lyrics about cars and sexual frustration, cheap thrills in the midrange, drums and vox way on top. No trace of generic-girl-voice here — just taste notes of Rihanna and Tracy Bonham alongside the expected Hillary Scott/Carrie Underwood references. It’s a big voice and she can whip up a storm with it. I do get the strong sense she’s the type who’d blow out that flame her friend and supporter M. Lambert has been keeping and not even apologize about it.
Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make
Rehab Reunion. Even Justin Vernon sounds like he’s having a good time. More new music from Bruce Hornsby; exactly what you didn’t ask for. But scout’s honor, this is a good, zany, well-appointed project, right down to the Hornsby-specific crossword puzzle he’s included in the liner notes andthe unauthorized Franz Kafka lit-bio. (“In the day he worked for an insurance firm/by night his prose made his audience squirrrrm!”) This year’s look-ma-no-hands trick: Hornsby limits himself to the dulcimer, which feels a little like those authors who try to write entire novels without using the letter e. The restriction forces him to bluegrass it up, and a bluegrassy Bruce is a happy Bruce. My favorite song is the one where he admits he’s a skinflint who stiffs waiters. As if we didn’t know.
Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make
Farro. Ancient grain; similar to bulgur wheat and an excellent source of magnesium and iron. J/k, it’s the former guitar player from Paramore, out of the witness protection program at last. As the co-author of some seriously enduring spazz-out pop-rock, Josh Farro absolutely deserves your attention. Alas, he is not quite the hellion that he was when he was ascribing to the Christian God powersthat would have been more properly attributedto his frontwoman. Without Hayley Williams’s performances, even his best Paramore songs would have sounded like… Thrice, I guess? Anyway, this is no way to run the numbers that hypothetical, because Farro has aged, and Walkways, his solo album sounds like a bunch of rejected Adam Young demos — stuff Young wouldn’t bother to pitch to Nabisco for Oreo commercials, let alone use for Owl City or Sky Sailing. I wanted to believe that Josh’s brother Zac, bringer of thunder and breaker of a trillion snare heads, could have had nothing to do with a project this tepid. But there he is, right in the liner notes. The Uday and Qusay of mallpunk, back together, but no longer storming around the desert.
Most Consistent Album
Views. Awful line immortal: “Got so many chains/they call me Chaining Tatum.” To me, this is Jewish humor straight up. It’s a kind of misdirection that goes over the heads, or through the legs, of more goyische critics — like when Max Bemis sings “Did it hurt when you feel from heaven babe?” on “Crush’d.” It’s a little piece of knowing dumbness meant to offset the well-wrought wiseassery –a poop brown streak in the tapestries red. Bob Dylan used to get away with it all the time. And on an album that extends its somber tone over twenty not-short tracks, Drake and his kemosabe Noah Shebib do need to pull out all the stops to avoid monotony. But inasmuch as a consensus has developed thatViewsis a slog, I must say that I cannot remember a twenty song album that feels quite as effortless an experience as this one. True, a ten song album would have been more effortless. But what’s wrong with a little effort?
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Okay, that’s enough for today — individual awards and singles and the rest tomorrow. Those intro paragraphs got me down. I actually have another political essay for you, but I’m saving it for the very end. Just one more, I swear; after that I’ll quit!, he said, hands shaking and pupils dilated. I’m in control of my commentary — I can stop whenever I want to. At least I’m not as bad as that Wolf Blitzer character. Now there’s a junkie if I’ve ever seen one.
Since William Godwin, the social-problem novel has had several periods of vogue: the early Industrial Revolution, World War I and its aftermath, the White Shadow 1970s, etc. Its central premise — that a reader can emerge from her encounter with a work of art with her compassion for the downtrodden enhanced — has always been a dodgy one, but I do give points for trying. Gotta do something, right?, and pie in the sky tastes so sweet. Lately, hip-hop has taken up the social-problem torch and carried it with gusto. Kendrick may be the man with the Dickensian narrative strategies in his back pocket, but nobody is quite as sincere as J. Cole — and as a storyteller, Cole is no slouch. A cynic might call 4 Your Eyes Only pure socially-conscious schtick: the tale of two similar young men whose paths diverge in the back alleys of Fayetteville, North Carolina. One, “James”, much like Maggie: A Girl Of The Streets, falls prey to the dark forces of his environment and is killed by his drug-dealing compadres at 22. The other, the rapper “J. Cole”, becomes an upstanding family man and wholesome almond-milk drinker who finds fulfillment as he helps his wife fold laundry. This is corny as hell, of course, as is everything else Cole does. But by now he’s got the technique down pat, and on the title track, his timeworn there-but-for-fortune story hits intellectual and emotional paydirt. Over nine unbroken minutes of top-flight lyricism, Cole draws the parallels between the characters, shifts moods and jumps deftly between characters, and lays the plot mechanics of the album bare. He also makes manifest a motivation that would have coaxed a tear from any sentimental novelist — Cole, the scarred survivor who has risen above, is delivering James’s life story to his uncomprehending daughter. He’s the bottle; this is the message. “This perspective is a real one, another lost ‘Ville son”, he raps, “I dedicate these words to you and all the other children/Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation/That sent your pops to prison when he needed education.” Emphasis on the second to last word, voice heavy with desperation, pleading to the child to forgive her pops just as he asks the world to cultivate some concern for those left behind. Does he succeed? Well, Oliver Twist didn’t stop Robert Peel from becoming Prime Minister of England, and hey!, look who the Senate just confirmed yesterday. We’ve got miles to go. The struggle never ends. Give Cole this, you tough guys and nonbelievers — this time, he sure as hell didn’t let Nas down.
Single Of The Year
1. Lucy Dacus — “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”
2. Basia Bulat — “Infamous”
3. Xenia Rubinos — “Mexican Chef”
4. Jamila Woods — “Blk Girl Soldier”
5. Mitski — “Your Best American Girl”
6. Kamaiyah — “How Does It Feel”
7. Joey Purp — “Photobooth”
8. Metronomy — “Night Owl”
9. Beyonce — “All Night”
10. Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
11. Haley Bonar — “Kismet Kill”
12. Maren Morris — “80’s Mercedes”
13. Kanye West — “Famous”
14. Quilt — “Roller”
15. Drake & Rihanna — “Too Good”
16. Tegan And Sara — “Stop Desire”
17. Calvin Harris & Rihanna (with an assist from “Nils Sjoberg”) — “This Is What You Came For”
18. Martha — “Precarious (Supermarket Song)”
19. How To Dress Well — “Lost Youth/Lost You”
20. Cousin Stizz — “Gain Green”
Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings. Your favorite cowgirl unloads the whole flatbed truck. Handle with care: there’s songwritin’ in them crates. Some of comes courtesy of the star herself with her peculiar melodic signature, some provided by her besties Natalie Hemby and Monroe Suede, and some straight from the big money Tennessee grist mill. Funnily enough, they all go out of their way to make sure this sounds nothing like a Music City release, perhaps figuring that they covered that ground well enough on Platinum and it was safe to try something a little less pants-afire immediate. It doesn’t sound like alt-country, either, thank goodness; the closest she came to that tar pit was Four The Record, and she’s got no interest in sinking there and emerging, fossilized, at City Winery perhaps. Most of the time ace performers shoot their wads on double albums — think of All Things Must Pass, or Songs In The Key Of Life, or Physical Graffiti, or, heck I’ll say it, Blonde On Blonde— and that concludes the fertile period of their public ministries. Something tells me that’s not the case here, and we’ve still got some twists and turns through the sagebrush to navigate with Nashville’s best. And there’s nobody remotely close.
Best Singing Voice
So Stina Marie Claire Tweeddale can’t be a real handle, can it? That’s got to have come from an online Scottish band name generator. “Tweeddale”, if that is indeed her name, is now the only original member left in Honeyblood, a Glaswegian outfit that had previously released a set of sub-Donnette Thayer guitar pop. I enjoyed it for a couple of weeks and then sold it back to Tunes. Tweeddale continues to be a crafty if shallow songwriter with a terrific, gutsy rock singing voice and a fetching accent, and Babes Never Die feels like a real improvement over the debut. Which might mean maybe that I hold this for a month and a half before selling it. Or maybe it keeps growing on me. I do appreciate the extensive borrowings from Elastica and Charlotte Hatherley. Like Lauren “Mayberry”, “Tweeddale” does not consider the Cheviot Hills any obstacle for highway robbery. Long Scottish tradition of that, right?
Kanye West on “No More Parties In L.A.” That may be the best I’ve ever heard him rap; it’s certainly one of his most sustained performances. I’m not 100% sure why I expected Don Juan’s Reckless Kanye. Turns out The Life OfPablo isn’t unfocused at all, even if Mr. West’s reluctance to rap about anything other than himself and the perils of his stupid celebrity lifestyle makes him an outlier in a Black Lives Matter year. I shouldn’t be surprised: he always puts in the work.
Best Vocal Harmonies
Beyonce on “Sandcastles”, especially that last groop swoop in the final verse. Jamila Woods on “LSD”.
Best Bass Playing
Keven Lareau of Boston’s undersung Quilt. Your new Essex Green, bolder, brighter, and even better at their instruments. I dunno about sexier, though; it’s hard to beat Sasha Bell in that department.
Best Live Drumming
Valentina Magaletti of Vanishing Twin by a nose over Xenia Rubinos’s man Marco Buccelli. Almost all of the music marketed as psychedelic doesn’t deserve the name. There’s nothing mind-expanding about overdriven guitar solos, or feedback, or loose arrangements; that shit is just lazy and unimaginative. These bands invite you to do the work, which is to say that they want you zonked out of your mind on some substance or another so that their meandering will sound purposed. Agenuine psychedelic band — a group that warps the perception of the stone cold sober with sound alone — is a rare commodity. Vanishing Twin is one of them. The elevator pitch is Stereolab minus the French people and the vaguely leftish goofball lyrics, but that shortsells their adept handling of weird noises, the raw, wet-socket quality of their analog synthesizer, and singer Cathy Lucas’s hypnotist deadpan. It is recommended to submit, if you don’t mind getting hyp-mo-tized. You are getting seeeeeeepy.
Best Drum Programming
The great Noah “40” Shebib, all over Views.
Best Synthesizer Playing
Francis And The Lights. Farewell, Starlite is actually a very similar album to 22, A Million (the new James Vincent McMorrow, too): brief experience, ten songs apiece, loads of post-808s vocal effects, analog modeling synthesizer, Tom Krell-style pop-n-soul, sleek Audi commercial beats, au courant music made by guys who began by pushing timelessness. Or at least the early-to-mid ’70s version of it. Naturally, I prefer the one I understand to the one I can’t make heads or tails of, but that’s me, and I can’t imagine that the world is going to pick right now to start ratifying my judgments. Justin Vernon is way more famous than Francis is, so my fear is that Farewell, Starlite! is going to be received, if it’s received at all, as a ride on the Bon Iver coattails. I know, you can’t protect these guys from themselves, let alone the monster of public reception. Or even my own monstrous reception; I mean, some nights I believe Farewell, Starlite! is another masterstroke, and on others, I fear it’s all been downhill for this particular sophisti-style since Baby Dayliner.
Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing
Cam O’Bi and/or Peter Cottontale on the Noname and Jamila Woods albums. I don’t know who that is on “Emerald Street”, but it’s dazzling. I’ve also got to give it up to Brian Hamilton of Cymbals Eat Guitars, who gives a master class in the successful integration of synths in a rock band context on Pretty Years. I’m enrolling next semester. CEG didn’t make my Top 20, but they probably should have. No matter what they do or how loud Joe D’Agostino shouts, they seem to cruise under the radar. I imagine they’ll get their due eventually. They’re too good not to.
Best Guitar Playing
I’m not sure Ilike Margaret Glaspy’s singing at all: at times she’s a vocal dead ringer for Missy Higgins, who had her Australian heritage to excuse her bizarre vowels. But Glaspy’ssongwriting on the usual lovelorn topics is A-OK, and the Stratocaster on Emotions And Math knocks me out. In fact Ia m ready to call glaspy the best new guitarist I’ve heard since… well, since Laura Marling. Who has become my benchmark for quality in all things, I now realize. Like: how good is that piece of grouper you are eating with such gusto?, damn bro, it’s Laura Marling good. My contractor came and cut these I-beams with Laura Marling-like precision. I award him two and a half Marlings.
Best Instrumental Solo
The synth ride on Vanishing Twin’s “Telescope”.
Best Instrumentalists, Honest Injun Division
Mind you people, I could have tapped the members of Miranda Lambert’s combo in all these categories. I just don’t want this exercise to be as monotonous as it was two years ago.
The Weight Of These Wings
Chris Collingwood of Look Park. This album ought to be of interest to you, even if you refuse to entertain the altogether reasonable proposition that Stacy’s mom has got it going on. Chris C. promised that Look Park wouldn’t sound like Fountains Of Wayne, which is true to a point: the song architecture is more or less indistinguishable from the moodier stuff on Sky Full Of Holes, but Mitchell Froom’sproduction seems to have been imported directly from Woodface and/or Nine Objects Of Desire,right down to the synth sounds and the vocal reverb. Either the old trashcan-banger hasn’t come up with any new tricks in twenty years, or Collingwood paid out for some of that old Mitchell Froom. Either way, it’s a joy to hear, especially on the last two songs and “You Can Come Round If You Want To”.
Best Lyrics On An Individual Song
“The Dictator Decides” by Pet Shop Boys. Who do you suppose it’s about? could be Bashar Assad, but I’m inclined to think it’s a humanized Kim Jong Un. Kind of Neil Tennant to gift these two-bit thugs with self-awareness they probably didn’t have on their best day. But then his overwhelming generosity has always been his cross to bear.
P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of An Album
Jamila Woods. HEAVN often sounds and feels like Carole King’s Fantasy, right down to the vaguely theatrical interludes, the sociopolitics, the major seventh chords, the music that’s either headline-invigorated and thus inspired or limp enough to induce a grimace, and the creeping feeling that the album could double for an elementary school social studies primer. Rosa was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight indeed: sit at the frontof the bus and refuse to budge with Jamila-like or Carole-like dignity. Introverted, smart black/Jewish girl in a bubble/up on the roof, surrounded by various social injustices, autodidacting her way toward compassionate citizenship and maybe some fist-in-the-air action (but gently!). Learns to love herself! I cried, I really did. A tree still grows in Brooklyn, or Chicago, or Brown University, which is where Jamila Woods attended African Studies classes before bringing her degree, and her moral authority, back to the South Side. And there is something to be said for the Ivy-educated (or plain old educated) popular artist; the average Jane pop star, incisive as she can be, would not have been able to bring the weight of history’s outrages to a dead-grandfather couplet like “you are the library burned/but they can’t take the lessons I’ve learned.” Pardon me, I just got a chill. Steven points out that some of the melodies on HEAVN are awfully slack, and he’s not wrong. But Woodsmakes up for it by jampacking HEAVN with hip-hop quotables, not to mention nineties-kid points of reference such as clapping games, Dawson’s Creek, and leaving your horny little friend on the Huffy with blue balls. My favorite is the one where she tells a suitor that if he wants her, he’d better be ready to embrace Chicago — and then invites Chance by to take some shots at the whole stupid Chi-raq thing.
On Telefone, Cam O’bi has gifted Noname with fey, warbly-ass backdrops — music that sounds like nothing else — to match her delicate probing index finger of a voice. The rapperhits upon every sensitive bildungsroman subject she can find, and never awkwardly; same thing goes for Saba on Bucket List Project, and again it’s O’bi with the assist. The dividends from Chicago’s after-school arts programs just keep raining down on the rest of an unworthy nation.
Band Of The Year
Jimmy Eat World are purveyors of wheat gluten. But like all good vegan chefs they remember to switch up the presentation each time they slop another slab onto your plate. Each album has its distinctive flavor profile, and that includes the recent ones that nobody outside of Tempe would call landmarks. Jim Adkins says that Invented was based on Cindy Sherman photographs, and with a haircut as sincere as his is, who are we to doubt his words? Damage, which came out in 2013, gave you the wheat gluten indigestibly dense and perhapsraw in the middle. For Integrity Blues, they’ve hired Justin Meldal-Johnsen, the cheeseball who oversaw Paramore’s power-pop move and a musician with no apparent reverence for the emo canon. He has, I am glad to say, produced this whole thing to fuck and back, and allowed Adkins and friends to indulge all of their crowd-pleasing fantasies. That means tinkly synthesizers and Oasis mellotrons all over the place, echoes of Yes (absolutely intentional) in the bass and backing vocals, and Trembling Blue Stars (probably unintentional, but who knows?) in the guitorchestral arrangements. The first side of Integrity contains the alleged radio singles, and it’s fairly fun in an are-we-too-old-for-this? kind of way, but the back half, on which the bandmembers and their producer run wild, is a total joy. If you don’t like “Through”, and you call yourself a rock fan, you’d better have a signed permission slip, pal. Also, I’ve got to say it: “Pol Roger” really does sound like Asia. So do what you want, but little darlin please don’t cry.
Best Show I Saw In 2016
The Moles at Pianos. No, I don’t care at all that Richard Davies forgot the words.
Live Show I’m Kicking Myself For Missing
Jamila Woods was at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark this year. I don’t know if she read or sang or both; in any case, I really should have been there. Honestly, I should have covered it — that way I could have asked her what I really want to know, which is: how do you play Popsicle?
Best Music Video
“Formation”, of course. As a big fan of Knowles family entertainment, I hasten to add that the “Cranes In The Sky” video is mandatory viewing for the sets alone. But you already knew that; in fact I notice some of you are seriously arguing that A Seat At The Table is as good as or better than Lemonade.I think y’all are nuts, but that’s what makes the world go round. Nuts, I mean. I hoped that if I put the time in, I would cease to find A Seat At The Table to be Jamila-lite, and Idid put the time in, and Iwas rewarded. For one thing, Solange can sing circles around Jamila Woods, and for another, her broad range of instrumental collaborators (and a big ass bankroll) gives her version of alt-r&b/ecriture feminine/black girl magic a glistening mahogany sheen that the cash-strapped Chicago public school crowd cannot pretend to. Budget cuts and all; see Jonathan Kozol for details. Still, I wish this mistress of the oblique could, every now and then, come as hard and direct as Woods does on every fucking line. I realize it’s got to be tricky to maintain the brand as the “arty” Knowles sister, given that big sis is no slouch in that department. Right, like millions aren’t going to hang on Solange’s every note, no matter how outre she gets and how many choruses she wants to chuck in the bucket. Royalty has its privileges, and those perks will always make certain commoners want to barf. But there were a thousand ways that Solange could have cashed in on her famous name if she’d wanted to be lazy. I am pleased she chose the one way that proves she’s anything but.
Best Choreography In A Video
Tinashe’s “Company”. Some Ciara-style Gumby dancing, some co-co-cold-hearted snake action, some giddy masturbation for the camera; nothing not to love here if you love pop video. Yes indeed we needed another blurry r&b smoke-music album like we needed a hole in the head — a process known as “trepanation”, i.e., actual drilling into the skull, done to open up the subject to the influence of cosmic rays. Most Americans get on fine without trepanning their brains, and you could certainly wrap up your year without engaging too closely with the Nightride mixtape. But that’d be a minor mistake. Contrary to what you’d have forecasted, Tinashe did not get washed away by the dam-break of similar albums and into the Jhene Aiko zone — her gamine personality pokes through the haze more often than it doesn’t. Most of this fog rolls thick straight out of the humidifier, but she does occasionally serve herself up with some straight up tasty soda pop (“Ride Of Your Life”, “Ghetto Boy”, “Soul Glitch”) which, while not entirely effervescent, reminds me that Tinashe has everything it takes to be a major star if she cared to be one. Maybe in 2017 if she ever puts the Playstation controller down.
Most Romantic Song
Francis And The Lights — “May I Have This Dance”.
“Talkin’ Bleep”. Here we have the cantankerous version of Homeboy Sandman. Yes he exists. Sand is in a bad mood throughout Kindness For Weakness and has decided he will not suffer fools. Gone are the friendly humblebrags of “Not Really”, the fingers-on-the-chin reflections of Hallways and the relaxed descriptive generosity of “Big Fat Belly.” Instead he rails against presumptuous fans who make suggestions, people who assume authority for no reason, those afraid of hard troof-telling, and Huffington Post to boot. He remains the wittiest guy around, and indeed you don’t wanna battle with a cat of his catalog, digital or analog, cannonball or cattle prod. But up until KindnessFor Weakness, I always felt that he’d managed to dodge the high intelligence/low wisdom problem that has wrecked so many alt-rap projects. He always seemed to have things in perspective and a ruminative, temperate tone he shared with no other rapper. He remains inimitable, but this year, he’s just another clever cuss off the rails. Still a regular cut-up, though.
Most Frightening Song
Paul Simon’s Stranger To Stranger. The whole thing. I tried to listen to it shortly before the election, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t like what he was telling me, even though I knew from long experience to take my Paulie medicine. The more nonchalant he seems, the harder I need to listen. He never set himself up as a sage: he just is one.”It’s not my job to worry or to think”, or so he sings, and I guess in a sense it’s true. A half century ago he was thrust into the role of the sensitive intellectual entertainer — mostly because of his height, and his breadth of allusion, and his Jewishness — but it is unclear that he ever sought that for himself. Tom and Jerry wanted to be the Everly Brothers, right?; Simon wanted to write dream dream dream and croon it to Kathy like an earth angel. His last three albums, which for my money have got to be the weirdest and sharpest ever released by an artist in his or her late sixties/early seventies, Dylan be damned, do have the character of dream-work. If Simon’s latest writing happens to coincide with national neuroses, that’s just because the trouble one sees on the news, or on the street, does have a way of trickling into the unconscious. These latest eyelid movies are about sublimated violence and social division, like in “Wristband”, a story that starts out with a musician locked out of his own club and soon becomes a confrontation with a bouncer as autocrat, and then takes on the apocalyptic whiff of violence in the hinterland. There’s the street angel: a schizophrenic writer who rides an ambulance through two different songs, and who mistakes the clatter of the emergency room for a parade. Speaketh the poet: “They say all roads lead to a river/then one day the river comes up to your door/how will the builder of bridges deliver/us all to that faraway shore”? This asked one track after a narrator — that same one who doesn’t want to worry or think — reports the discovery of heaven six million light years away, and makes it clear you’ll only get there if you’re among the beautiful. The rest of us are condemned to hover here and forever confront our misdeeds. Life is a lottery a lotta people lose, Simon tells us on the very first number. So my question for you is: now that the greatest living boy in New Yorkis getting set to check out of the grand hotel, do you think he thinks he’s a winner or a loser? Paul Simon, I had to ask.
Most Moving Song
Jamila Woods, “Holy”. A self-affirmation chorusfor introverted African American girls built on a Civil Rights anthem built on a gospel tune. Everything on HEAVN is like that; it’s all deep soil.
Eleanor Friedberger’s “Because I Asked You”. New View, by the way, is an outstanding album that would have easily made the Top 20 in a weaker year.
Most Inspiring Song
Chance The Rapper, “Finish Line”.
“Def Pacts” by Of Montreal. The Barnes Collection continues to tack on new wings. This one, like many of the other recent additions, mostly contains glowering portraits of his exes. After eleventy albums of unrequited castigation, no judge on the planet would deny them a restraining order. The twist on Innocence Reachesis the electronic textures, but he covered some of this ground better on Aureate Gloom. The old gremlin may have finally juiced all of the blood out of the stone.
J. Cole’s “Neighbors”. A good-hearted guy gives up on the promise of integration. Crushing, painful, all too believable, happens every day right here in JC.
Rookie Of The Year
Kamaiyah. Initially I was going to be the male asshole rock critic and say that the party hearty adventures of a young female emcee aren’t any more illuminating than those of the boys. And I would’ve been dead wrong. Kamaiyah reserves the right to sleep around in the exact way that YG says a young lady shouldn’t, and furthermore she likes to joyride around the East Bay and drink champagne straight out the bottle until she blacks out. But she also wants a boyfriend she can count on, and by the end of the album she acknowledges that the drunken nights have cost her more than brain cells. The flossing on this album is strictly conventional and intentionally low key: the thing Kamaiyah brags most about is her throwback telephone. “I was born in the slums/wasn’t raised up in a mansion”; that’s how she introduces herself, and given that the storytelling never goes beyond the Oakland city limits, it’s assumed that she hasn’t gotten far from her origins. (If you couldn’t already tell from the aspirational internet-hit single, which is as hopeless at its bottom as Tracy Chapman was on “Mountains O’ Things”). I like how Kamaiyah plays den mother for pals confronting male bad behavior, and how endearingly she navigates the usual street perils. Honestly, she’s a distaff version of Danny Brown on XXX— a likeable poor kid who understands that overindulgence is at best a partial escape from unpleasant realities. And who’s going to do it anyway, and who is generous enough to allow us to watch her become the object lesson of her own stories. Don’t let the chintzy late-’80s throwback production or your own hip-hop sexism fool you: Good Night is a surprisingly deep album.
Best Guest Appearance Or Feature
Chance The Rapper on “Girls@”, the second song from Joey Purp’s iiiDrops. One of the standout emcees from Surf (check his great verse on “Go”) Joey is just not as unusual as his formidable mic skills make me wish he was. When he’s not bragging in a manner you’ve heard many times before, or using familiar metaphors to tell street stories you’ve heard many times before, or running down girls for no particular reason, he’s getting upstaged by his guests: Chance, whose playfulness and flexibility throws his straight shooting in relief, and Saba, whose compassion makes Joey seem emotionally ironclad by comparison. But damn skippy does he have some jams. Especially “Photobooth,” in which he tries to fuck everybody everywhere, and “Say You Do”, in which he realizes that even if he does, the girlies still aren’t going to like him all that much.
2016 Album You Listened To The Most
2016 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly
Zoetic by The Rocket Summer. Nice try, Bryce. I’d say close but no cigar, but it wasn’t too close, and I doubt Bryce smokes. To his credit, he recognized that the hermetic quality he’d achieved on the last few Rocket Summer releases wasn’t serving his songwriting. But instead of the obvious solution — actually inviting other human beings to participate into the process — he’s retreated all the way into the computer. Zoeticis The Rocket Summer chopped up and restacked and machine processed, with every signal pushed into the red and Bryce screaming his buns off. It’s a departure; I’ll give him that. It doesn’t sound like anything else; I’ll give him that, too. But it’s some of the most exhausting music I’ve ever heard in my life. This pop enterprise doesn’t go anywhere without strong authorial voices, and Bryce Avary has that part covered. But there’s a reason why there are 900 people credited on The Life Of Pablo. Making records: it’s a team sport. Artists, do not get lost in the dark cul-de-sac of your own bellybutton, or the electronic bellybutton that computers have become.
Most Convincing Historical Re-creation
Up To Anything by the Goon Sax. Australian indiepop outfit, fronted by a son of one of the Go-Betweens. Boy has he ever inherited the family business. He hasn’t even changed the fucking drapes.
Best Sequenced Album
Telefone. Noname kicks her usual tightly circumscribed amount of buttand then clears out, as she seems to do on every Chicago release. You might fearthat her open-mic poetry jam flow would get mighty tiresome over a full album; shrewdly, Telefone is only thirty-three minutes. And it’s impeccably paced — so much so that nobody seems to realize that with “Bye Bye Baby”, she’s given hip-hop its very own “You Can’t Be Too Strong”. Hey, some armchair moralist was going to do it eventually, and better Noname than an earnest rappin’ gentleman like Common.
Thing You Don’t Know But You Know You Should
I missed this year’s High Llamas album somehow. Unaccountable.I was listening to Snowbug a bunch in March.
Most Inconsistent Album
Anti. She makes claims. Sex with her, she tells us, is amazing. You know what? I’ve listened to her whole new album — exhibit A, so to speak — and I don’t believe her. It’s not the grody tattoos, although those don’t help her case. It isn’t even that she continues to confuse sexual desire with violence and coercion, and therefore her eros is redolent of the same capitalist power dynamics that make modern romances so boring. (Let me know when you’re ready to bleed, indeed.) It’s that the beats on this, her personal-statement album, are stiffer than a surfbort. Anti has its many thrilling moments, including a late-set dip into adult soul that allows her to showcase her not-inconsiderable vocal chops. But even there, allure is never a given: for instance, I find her impersonation of a sloppy drunk on higher to be pretty damn authentic and therefore pretty damn disgusting. A mid-album slog hits a trench on “Woo”, which is the sort of near-atonal art-rock that made Lydia Lunch anathema north of Fourteenth Street during the no-wave era. Worse still is Rihanna’s attempt to burnish some psych-rock cred through a karaoke run through Tame Impala’s “Same Old Mistakes”, which is exactly the embarrassment you’d think it would be. Like KRS-ONE, I am ordering her to put back on her drawers.
Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was
Say Anything — IDon’t Think It Is First thing to know: Max is a rapper now. Not a slick flow-first emcee like Lupe, mind you; more like Yoni Wolf if he jammed his nuts into a pasta roller and cranked. I tend to prefer the poppier Max (s/tis still my fave) and so do Joe and Jane Say Anything Fan, who are treating the new one like it has zika virus on it. Why, then, do I find myself enjoying IDon’t Think It Is as much as I do? I suppose it’s for the same reason that I like rap records when I like them: Bemis has created the ideal sonic habitat for his own peculiar narrators. Since those narrators tend to be disgusted, self-loathing poopchuckers, it actually helps the cause that IDon’t Think It Is sounds as if it was recorded in somebody’s armpit. Getting the sound to match the sentiment; that’s half the battle. When he’s not spanking himself for his hubris, Max aims his invective at various phonies, the gov’t, and the “virus that made him a showman.” Right, like he was ever going to do anything else. Most artists stand for nothing and still get rejected anyway; Bemis is taking his rejection howling, and with his integrity intact. Good for him. I’ll keep listening.
Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song, Or Album, Was About
A lot of Blonde, actually.
Least Believable Perspective Over An Album
Chairlift’s Moth.I am aware of the problems, as they have all been heavily foregrounded, and I have to respect a record that wears its flaws so boldly. And hey, what wouldyoudo if you sold a song to Beyonce? You’d try as hard as you could to pitch her some more, right? And you’d swag out a little, even if your identity as a wealthy white woman makes that ch-ching move preposterous and maybe borderline racist. Cut her some slack, people; she’s human. Here she swags, she can do no other.
Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album
Schoolboy Q and Kevin Gates. What a grim pair. Islah‘s platinum certification proves there is still a large market for New Orleans bust you in the face music. That I get. Some of the critical acclaim mystifies me, though; what is he saying that a thousand other crack-slinging rappers haven’t? He drops the usual brand names, threatens the usual punks, sells the usual coke, and disrespects the usual hos, and in a year as unusual as 2016, that’s not gonna cut it. I do feel him when he says he loves making love to the pussy. Though that doesn’t distinguish him either. Schoolboy Q is a tougher case: he’s gotten super serious in his old age, and he’s brought in some ace producers to toss a little spice in the sauce. He’s a bruiser on the mic when he gets going, and his bleak vision pays off on “The John Muir” and “THaT Part.” You might drop the needle and be impressed. But at 72 joyless minutes, Blank Face is a chore. When I’ve sat through it from front to back, I’ve ended up feeling like I’ve been in a street fight with a nut punching asshole. Mercy.
Also As Grueling As Everybody Says It Is
The Hope Six Demolition Project. Honestly, I’m just bummed that she had a bad time on her trip to D.C. She should have hit me up. I’d have told her where she could get a really good pizza.
Most Sympathetic Of Likeable Perspective Over An Album
Weezer.The biggest resurrection story since Lazarus continues. Consider: at the time of the publication of the worthless Raditude,Rivers Cuomo was 40 years old and, seemingly, at the tail end of a wholly predictable decline phase. Moreover he was writing stuff like “Pork And Beans”, which, in addition to not being a very good song, wore its disgust with showbiz like a sweaty headband. Here we had a pitcher signaling to the bench that he was done and needed to be lifted from the game. There was no older dude in America who seemed less likely, or even less inclined, to return to making quality pop music. Surely he was going to set up a lawn chair and get grumpier and wait to die. But even at his most infuriating — and he was down there for a long time — he always understood the mechanics of songwriting, and you can never count those guys out. Oh what am I saying?, I totally counted him out. I voted for him for hoary old bastard at least once and considered him for the honor at least two other times. Anyway, as good as Everything Will Be Alright In The End was, it’s really Weezer White that cements the comeback and makes it virtually certain that we’ll be dealing with Rivers Cuomo, warts ‘n’ all, for the next ten years at least. All of these new songs are set in California, a place he’s always been very amusing about, which in practice means that there’s a bunch of Beach Boys and Bacharach (who is namechecked) added to the Costello-KISS hybrid. Consequently you can expect some of the most sensational bridges since the heyday of Liz Phair. Also the enthusiastic/insecure nerd narrator is back, which beats the hell out of the petulant/borderline Kaczynski nerd he’s been playing (I hope) for awhile. The general subject is the extraordinary pathos of the male human when confronted by girls he’d desperately like to screw but cannot identify a point of entry. Rock and roll, in other words. Confessional verse: “I’m like an Indian fakir trying to meditate on a bed of nails with my pants pulled down”. Two songs later there is a graphic depiction of constipation. So welcome back. Welcome all the way back. You fucking clown.
Artist I Root For No Matter What
I am told that Alicia Keys shares a practice space with Beyonce. Maybe not the best decision by an artist who has always been dangerously prone to me-tooism. Indisputably she wants her own glass of lemonade, even as her unfamiliarity with red state psychodrama makes her an inferior carrier of the message of the moment. (Compare and contrast “Daddy Lessons”, which outgunned the country singers, with the social-problem broadway schick of “The Gospel”.) Keys is a big believer in the political efficacy of compassion’n’tolerance, and cross-cultural understanding, and a bunch of other stuff that plays great on the island and dies on the vine when transplanted to continental soil. But she does have her many talents to bring to the table, including a voice undiminished by the ravages of network TV, and her trusty piano, which, I am pleased to say, is mixed pretty damn loud on Here. She’s welcome to her ride on the black girl magic bandwagon. They were probably keeping a seat warm for her.
Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like
Artist With The Most Legitimate Grievance
How To Dress Well. This poor schmuck has had his style bitten twelve ways from Thursday. Out for frustration or whatever, Tom Krell has responded to this by taking a few tentative steps in the direction of Ed Sheeran pop-funk. Seems more than justifiable to this fruitcake over here, but Iguess the PBR&B gatekeepers think otherwise. Now he gets called a sellout by the same people who consider the new Bon Iver a postmodern masterpiece. No justice in showbiz, chapter 4080.
ThingYou Feel Cheapest About Liking
Jeffery. Not all that much has changed here, either: “Lil mama she ready for war/she ready for dick in her ass and her throat” is still about the size of it. Young Thug will either shoot you or do some drugs in front of you or demand anal sex; those are the three settings on the Jeffery Williams machine. Toggle between them if you like, but that’s all you’re getting. He remains pure id — so howlingly horny that words fall away and he is left barking like a seal. Like er er er er er er er (that’s a hook). The music on Jeffery, however, is amazing, and I mean that literally: like I can sit here amazed by the texture of a particular backing vocal part, or how the drums smack in like a breaker on the “Harambe” chorus, or the interplay between the synthesizers and the vocals on “Pick Up The Phone.” Young Thug, who has a knack for catchy melody and dirty southern blooze, is very much a part of that music. When he sounds this sensational, it is (almost) immaterial that he is singing “get behind her/put it in her butt.” I don’t really have a problem with the crassness, since drive fast/live hard/get laid is the depraved heart of rock and roll. But I do think he needs to broaden his subject matter. Unless he really does want to be counted among the idiot savants.
Album You Learned The Words/Music To Most Quickly
Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To
NXWorries —Yes Lawd Here’s a rarity (thank goodness): an album that actually wrecks the experience of another album released earlier in the same year. Straight up demolishes it. On Malibu, Anderson.Paak was an ambivalent family man of not-inconsiderable intelligence whose chase after girls, fame, and Hollywood glitz was conducted with identifiable leeriness. with NXWorries, he’s just a dumb asshole — a boringly swaggering sexist asshole to boot. For sure there is no shortage of those in hip-hop, and I guess Paak thinks that since he raps more and sings less on this project he’s got to get with the program, which makes me think that he’s more of a tofu cube than he initially seemed to be. My appreciation of Paak never had much to do with his nonconformity. But for Malibu’s sake, I’m still going to have to press play and record at the same time and wipe this dreadful album from my memory.
Best Sounding Album Of 2016
Saba’s Bucket List Project. Since it cameon the heels of the trillion other free releases from Chicago rappers this year, this feelsa little like a victory lap for the entire citywide enterprise. Sucks for Saba, who has his very own distinctive voice/sound/axe to grind. His position in the uprising, so to speak, is nothing we haven’t encountered before: he’s the tweener pulled out of the hood by his scholastic achievement and now feels at home neither in the projects nor the academy. In fact he told this story so well on his Joey Purp guest spot that parts of the Bucket List Project do feel a wee bit redundant. But this is a quirk of the calendar, and not the fault of poor Sabahimself, and I feel the need to say that I, for one, have *not* had enough of Chicago youngster-rap. Not even close. And inasmuch as I have come to know and dig these characters, it is impossible for me to resist a set on which they all swing by to tell you what’s on their bucket lists. So we get cheerful Chance, glib as ever, angling to learn the drums because drummers get the girls, scene elder Lupe announcing his intention to win a Nobel Prize, and a more equivocal Jean Deaux who wants world peace and de-gentrification and the opportunity to smoke a blunt with Beyonce. Then there are the familiar Chi collaborators who don’t state their goals but let their fingers on the faders do the talking, like Cam O’Bi, who imports some of that warbly magic from his productions on Telefone. My favorite contributor has got to be a guy we’ve never heard before and may never hear again — a friend of the rapper who aspires to drop a project, and who doesn’t care if nobody listens to it. He just wants to be able to say he did it. He could be speaking for all of the new voices in Chicago. In fact, while there weremore accomplished albums made in the Second City in 2016, none captured the aesthetic of the movement better than this very beautiful, very moving set does. Gotta love it like you love the lake.
Sturgill Simpson.The most painful four minutes of the year might be Sturgill’s version of “In Bloom,” which gets not only the sentiment but the world-famous words wrong. It extends his habit of sticking a turgid cover in the middle of his albums, which purist critics of Nashville country are determined to overvalue as if his name was Kacey Musgraves. Elsewhere on the set, the music has apparently been provided by the Blues Brothers. Simpson has a convincing backwoods growl, his arrangements are punchy, and I do admire the conceptual unity of A Sailor’s Guide To Earth — even if it uses the epistolary conceit of letters to the singer’s infant son as a pretext to drop a bunch of platitudes and overwrought sea metaphors on the listener. I am not taking life advice from a man whose only reflections about fifteen different Asian cities is that they’ve got similar bars–or one who thinks “don’t sweat the small stuff” is an acceptable chorus.
Worst Song Of The Year
Was “Cake By The Ocean” a 2015 single? It sure left a slime trail across the summer of 2016.
Song That’s Technically Not Terrible, But Which Pissed Me Off Every Time I Heard It
“Can’t Stop The Feeling”. “‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ was a Number One jam/Damn if I say it you can slap me right here.”
Panic! At The Disco. Great.Nowthis fucking harlequin thinks he’s Frank Sinatra. His imitations are absolutely gruesome, of course, but so is everything else he’s ever done. His whole life has been a metaphorical slasher film, right down to all the former bandmates he’s knifed out of the group. Your latest version of Panic! is down to Brendan Urie, who seems hell bent on fashioning a Frankenstinian fusion of glam-metal and lounge jazz. Who else would even try? In 2016, there’s actually a musician on a major label making recordings that sound like Sparks fronted by Harry Connick Jr., or, to be cruelly accurate, the Cherry Popping Daddies. If you can’t applaud his chutzpah, maybe you deserve that sleepy-ass Whitney album.
Desiigner. Also, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I kind of hated all of of Andre Benjamin’s guest spots this year. Hence…
Rapping That Wasn’t Exactly Terrible, But Can’t Be Entirely Pardoned, Either, No Matter How Much I Want To
Everybody on the ATCQ album who is not actually part of the ATCQ lineup I remember from my misspent youth. I am not here to throw cold water on anybody’s happy reunion story, or farewell story, depending on how you spin it. I am just going to point out a few things I noticed while listening to this new set by Kanye West’s favorite rap act. For starters, this was by no means “produced and arranged by the four man crew”, to quote a dearly departed emcee: Q-Tip appears to have overseen the recording, played most of the live instruments and programmed the drums, and called the shots. This was, if you remember from the Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary, the crux of the conflict in the group — Q-Tip’s maddening control-freakdom, hilariously illustrated by the late Chris Lighty in an anecdote about his unwillingness to hand over the Midnight Marauders masters. Now, some control freaks make perfectionist jazz-rap, and others end up spending the holidays at the UCLA psych ward. But I feel for all of them, because without them, more than half of the albums on my year-end list wouldn’t have gotten finished. What I can’t handle, though, is the control-freak’s tendency to rewire history on the fly, like the present conceit that Jarobi, who is neither a good rapper nor a good lyricist (“into new ass we tear”?) nor the genial presence he thinks he is, was ever an integral part of the band. Because he wasn’t; not even on People’s Instinctive Travels. Also, correct me if i’m wrong here, but Busta Rhymes was never actually in the Tribe, was he? His role was to raow raow like a dungeon dragon, get the hell out, and leave the real stuff to the professionals. Here’s the most grievous continuity error of all: the strange case of Ali Shaheed Mohammed, who appears to have been non-personed as thoroughly as that third balaclava chick who was sent to Siberia by the rest of Pussy Riot. This might have been Ali’s own decision: maybe he had hot dinner dates. He’s missed. his contribution to the crew was always his preternatural grace. Q-Tip, multi-talented as he is, is only graceful on the mic.
Martha, an oddly named spazz-pop guitar band from North England, has a lot going for it. The singers hit the tape with great energy, their songs are funny and sharp and loaded with singalong tags, and they’re fans of the Replacements, so they’re shooting in the right direction. Unfortunately, they’re let down by their drummer, who is neither imaginative nor particularly proficient. He drops stitches, he fails to hold tempo, he gets timid when he needs to take charge; and more than once on Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart, it sounds like he falls down face first on the kit. Bands like this improve all the time; I imagine they’re on tour right now, playing in somebody’s cupboard and getting better and tighter. Hope so — music like this requires a confident rhythm section. Without one, they’ll never be more than a UK version of the Candy Hearts.
The results are in and Ahnoni is *against* the destruction of the environment. Holy shit bold stand there pal. Ahnoni also dislikes poverty, drone warfare, and the surveillance state, unlike the rest of us squares. I would have thought that such a fragile character would be more into tank battles and malfeasance, but that just goes to show what I know. Funny that this hipster saint resorts to the exact same quasi-ironic joke that the allegedly uncool Bruce Hornsby does on “TSA Man”: he pretends to derive sexual excitement from blatant authoritarian overreach. Only Hornsby is actually funny, and too crass to torture his audience with dirges. Ahnoni’s dreary “Obama” would be a contender for the year’s worst song even without the fourth grade politics. I, too, wish that the President had been an eighteenth level wizard with hypnotic powers rather than a cautious Chicago machine politician. Now that he’s out the door, Hegarty, how do you like the alternative?
Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better
“If Whiskey Were A Woman” by Lori McKenna. But all of her other stuff is good!, for real. Just stop before you hit the last song.
Most Unsexy People In Pop
Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job
Little Big Town’s Wanderlust. The abomination crawls forth. Little Big Town with cartoon dollar signs popping out of their irises plus Pharrell Williams, who continues to flail around in all genres in a desperate attempt to reconnect with his muse. She’s a-not coming back, Pharrell, at least not right away. She’s still pissed about that groper anthem you did with Robin Thicke. This is the rare case where the producer manages to amplify everything annoying about his client — their blithe, too-pristine harmonies, their automaton-like delivery of theoretically emotional lyrics — and the client convinces the producer to indulge his most craven, crowd-pleasing tendencies. This was essentially disowned upon release: both sides took a listen to the masters and effectively abandoned them. They were right to.
Also Might Consider A Different Approach Next Time
Pup’s “breakthrough” album kicks off with a song called “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” (“Everything you do makes me wanna vomit/and if this tour doesn’t kill you, buddy, I’m on it”). This number is such a convincing portrayal of the specific brand of log cabin fever that develops in a band vanthat if you’ve ever been in a band van yourself, listening to this will definitely trigger PTSD. The album only gets more aggressive from there, which is sort of a shame, even if the subject matter calls for it. There’s one about accidentally murdering a pet via neglect and/or incompetence, and another about a girl who falls through the cracks in the ice on a frozen lake, and another about accidentally jerking off in front of a friend. So they’ve got the topics. They just need to cool it with the distortion.
Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas
Abel Tesfaye. Remember when he was scary? Neither do I.
Decent Artist Losing Altitude
Bruno Mars —24k Magic Bruno is too good a student of pop history not to realize that this is where it gets dicey for mimics and pure craftspeople: the “difficult third album” on which fans, and maybe bandmates, demand artistic progression. In the past, he’s coped with his interiority deficiency by importing some from classic soul artists; now, perhaps realizing this wouldn’t fly a third time, he’s decided to cannibalize early-nineties pop-funk instead. As 24k Magic is a Bruno Mars album, the imitations are all letter-perfect. But weirdly, it turns out that Bruno is better at faking Sam Cooke than Ralph Tresvant. Go figure. Or maybe, obscenely wealthy and comfy and fattened up with pork from the luau, he’s just not singing as well as he used to, period. Regardless, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this endeth the winning streak.
Supposed Former Pop Master Running On Fumes
Lady Gaga. Oh, dear. To call Joanne an improvement on Artpop tells you nothing, as that was a flailing, sub-replacement-level effort from a popular artist in mid-meltdown over the loss of her relevance. Since Iam not a rubbernecker, I hope I never have to hear that album again. It will remain a data point in the Gaga trajectory, though, even if it’s one that falls off the graph of acceptability. By that extremely limited standard, Joanne is a rebound. but the problem this time out — one that was telegraphed on Born This Way — is that she’s completely forgotten how to sing pop. She bellows into the microphone like she’s trying to shatter the filament. The result is way too abrasive (she probably calls it “brassy”, bless her drag-club heart) for mainstream consumption, and the gruesome singles herein are stiffing despite the multimillon dollar push. Did she learn nothing from her time with Tony Bennett, or was she just there for the butt pinchings?
Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning
Roosevelt. Or what Passion Pit might sound like if Michael Angelikos couldn’t write. Stylish nonsense and suffocating gloss. An empty disco in an unfashionable suburb.
Top Prospect Number One
Pinegrove.As an Essex County loyalist I am obligated to spread the world about this young Montclair emo(-ish) band. I don’t really expect you sophisticates to grok, necessarily, but if you do take the time to listen, I think you’ll agree that there’s some real promise here. Evan Hall, the main main, has the heartrending Mangum-y delivery down pat, and even when he gets lost in the guitar thicket, his winsome little folk melodies poke their faces out like so many weasels in the underbrush (note: weasels are really cute.) “Aphasia” is the choice cut, the whole thing is pretty enjoyable. If you understood the Roadside Graves, this will make perfect sense to you. And damn right I pump my fist when he sings “Montclair and elsewhere”. I have my brand to protect.
Top Prospect Number Two
CupcakKe.Absolutely, positively, disgustingly obscene hip-hop from — where else — Chicago. Strictly speaking we didn’t need a girl version of Akinyele, but I for one welcome her blowjob braggadocio with open… er… okay, legs, I guess? Truth is that CupcakKe is a fine writer, quick with a novel cock metaphor, clever and wordy-playful as, say, Colin Meloy. So tell the censorious that there are a few cuts on Cum Cakethat don’t address sex very much, or just use sex as a springboard for a different topic. Like “Pedophile”, for instance, a convincing description of a pedophile; okay, scratch that, bad example. They’re there somewhere. I know it. My mind just got wiped by the really filthy ones, which, if you’re skipping around, are “Vagina”, “Deepthroat”, and the wonderfully vile “Juicy Coochie”, which comes complete with orgasm noises and slurping sounds. Important, possibly racist instructions for fucking her: “To make my thighs shake like Jello/I need a dick longer than an egg roll.” This isn’t going to be anybody’s top 1 or anything. But I don’t consider your year complete until you’ve had the experience.
Hoary Old Bastards Who Should Spare Us All And Retire
Also Probably Ready For That Time Share In Boca Raton
ABC.The only thing worse than a sequel is a sequel that comes thirty years after the original at a moment when the artist is clean out of ideas and looking to generate interest in a new project that just ain’t that interesting and does not deserve to be associated with one of the best new wave albums ever made. Martin Fry, I love you, but you’re pissing me off.
Probably Too Far Gone To Retire At This Point, But It Can’t Hurt To Ask If It Wouldn’t Be A Good Idea For Everybody
David Crosby. Look, Croz only worked because caregivers bathed the old coot in warm jazz-pop arrangements. Which was nice of them, because he sure as hell needed the bath. Lighthouse is nothing but Crosby and his acoustic guitar, and if you listen closely, you can hear the crust falling off of him and tinkling on the studio floor. No thanks.
Prog-Rock Heroes Deep Into Diminishing Returns
Marillion and Anderson/Stolt. The letters of F.E.A.R., the new Marillion set,stand for fuck everything and run, which sounds unmarilliony until you realize that Steve Hogarth is talking about the surveillance state (he’s against it) and not the band’s nonexistent groupies. Jon Anderson’s new album is about… heck, your guess is as good as mine. I imagine there’s a convergence out there harmonizing away, somewhere in the universe. For awhile it didn’t look like he was going to outlive his frenemy Chris Squire; now that he has, I’m just happy he’s hanging in there. Both of these albums have their moments, although they’re mostly long rearview-mirror reflections of better times. Steve Rothery gets off some tasty guitar solos. It’s like having an old friend over to the house. One who kicks off his shoes, plops down on the sofa, and acts content. Maybe smells a little funny.
Young Artists Who Are, For Some Inexplicable Reason, Making The Kind Of Passive Music I Associate With Hoary Old Bastards
Shura, Katy B, and Lapsley. I suspect that these three have interesting musical ideas. Unfortunately, the sonic processing, thick as it is with turtle wax and varnish and additives and preservatives, prohibits me from finding out. This is particularly galling in the sad case of Katy B, who demonstrated on her debut that she was the only singer around who could stand up to the jacktastic dubstep beats. Those jacktastic beats are mostly gone now, butthe same can be said about Katy B. Girls — do not become background noise on your own tracks! Your producer is not that great. Moreover, he is your cot damn employee. Look in the mirror every morning and say it:Iam the talent.
Hoary Old Bastard Who Cagily Enlisted A Couple Of Vaguely Younger Artists To Camouflage Her Overwhelming Hoary Old Bastardness
k.d. lang. case/lang/veirs is another data point in my argument that Neko Case is at her best when she’s in rotation with other singers. Case spins out her usual not-too-mysterious riddles, k.d. lang’s countrypolitan numbers are tired like a mareready for the glue factory, and Tucker Martine’s delicate production feather-dusts the whole shebang with grandma’s Gold Bond foot powder. The MVP and savior is Laura Veirs, who, despite her guileless lyrics and unathletic voice, gets off some keepers: “Song For Judee”, a folk-rock hagiography, “Greens Of June”, about the redemptive hippie powers of nature, and “The Best Kept Secret In Silverlake”, which sucks up fetchingly to the outfit’s guitar player. These three codgers harmonize like a dream — not a sex dream, necessarily, but one where you find some long lost socks.
Not Dull, But Not Too Fascinating, Either
Z-Ro —Drinkin’ & Drivin’/Future —EVOL/Cousin Stizz —Monda/Lil Yachty —Lil Boat. Not for me is the argument that the ascendancy of Lil Yachty represents the fall of Western civ. or even Western hip-hop. Remember they said the same about Young Thug, and Tyler, and Soulja Boy, and N.W.A., and, um, hip-hop itself.It is proof, though, that sooner rather than later, rap will be elevator music. Not that any of these are empty, meaningless albums — on the contrary, they’re all pretty memorable. It’s that they all prioritize their smooooothed out, sing-song summertime vibe to the exclusion of all else. The sun is setting in the park and the ice cream truck is here, and here come various molesters and drug peddlers to getcha. Dorchester’s Cousin Stizz is the August streetcorner master — the whole Monda LP bops by slowly and relentlessly; there’s nothing arresting about it, it just insinuates itself into your consciousness. Same goes for Future, who has settled into autopilot and has no real incentive to take back manual control. Choice cuts for the snippers and splicers: Z-Ro’s rapey “Hostage”, Stizz’s super-hi “Gang Green”, and Yachty’s irresistible, utterly weetodded “Broccoli”, which makes Thugger’s lyrics look like Edna St. Vincent Millay by comparison.
Worst Song On A Good Album
Rihanna’s “Woo”. I think we covered this already. It’s late and I’m punchy.
Song That Would Drive Me Craziest On Infinite Repeat
Jeff Rosenstock’s “Hell Hole”
Song That Got Stuck In My Head The Most This Year
Probably Xenia Rubinos’s “Mexican Chef”, but “80s Mercedes” sure did make a late move.
If I Could Join Any Band Or Musical Project, I’d Pick This One
You think Noname or Jamila could use a tambourine shaker who can’t really shake a tambourine in time? No?
Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From
We’re sticking with Chicago for another year at least.
Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2026
Will Be A 1-Hit Wonder
Will Be A 1-Hyped Album Wonder (I Hope)
Whitney. 2016 wasthe year of hard lessons, and here’s a big one that I hope we’ve all internalized: stay the hell away from the woods. It’s pretty and the otters are cute, but the people there don’t like you. Oh, they might pretend to for a time, for strategic reasons, but the weight of their resentment is crushing whatever identification they ever had with city slickers like us. That light upon the lake might be the moon’s reflection, but it’s probably the torches at the Make America Great Again rally. These people believe they’ve been given a raw deal, and they’re not wrong. Ican identify, sort of, as long as I am at a great distance. But what I can no longer handle is hicksters who frame rural america as some kind of idyllic retreat. Any white singer pining for “Golden Days” — in a year when we learned, conclusively, that “conservative” is just another identity category — is speaking language with which we’ve all become dead familiar. This elitist scumbag says: no more.
Biggest Musical Trends Of 2017
Hyper-articulateness. Unconvincing patriotism.
Best Album Of 2017
Semper Femina. I expect it to be Laura Marling good.
Ben Krieger asked some questions that I felt I should stop and think about. This is my attempt to answer him.
Why do family and friends always instinctively frame our talents potential within the confines of a capitalist model?
I know what you’re getting at, and I sympathize — the arts aren’t a business enterprise, and artists shouldn’t be evaluated reflexively on the basis of a bottom line or a place on a corporate ladder. But I often wish that those family and friends would come to a clearer understanding of capitalism and what it asks of its subjects. Because if they did, I expect they’d realize that people in the arts, and specifically people in bands bands are actually way better at entrepreneurial action than people who just went straight to business school and did what they were told. I’m not talking about me, of course — I’ve got no business sense at all, and that’s not something I’m proud of. I mean somebody like Oliver from A Place To Bury Strangers. Not only has he held together a noise-rock band for many years, made the kind of music he wants to make without compromise and toured all over the world, he’s also run a homemade guitar-effects company. That’s impressive, and it was all done through his own initiative. Capitalism, at its Adam Smith-y best, is supposed to make that kind of thing possible: it’s supposed to be designed to reward risk-takers who are willing to go play in Lithuania (which A Place To Bury Strangers actually went and did this year, God bless them) to spread their ideas.
Do I believe in this notion of capitalism? Well, no; I have major theoretical problems with it. I’m one of those hippies who believe that there are deep contradictions within capitalism that create economic and psychological difficulties for everybody saddled with this mode of production. I think we can do better. I don’t expect others to agree, but I do insist that they be consistent. You want a system dependent on individual actors who take chances and don’t ask to have their hands held? That’s what artists do, and that is why real capitalists have always sought them out.
The problem is that those friends and family members aren’t being honest. They’re not fans of capitalism — or at least, they’re not bringing that fandom to those conversations in which they knock Guitar Joe for his decision not to helm Johnson and Johnson. What I’ve come to realize is that they’re just mad at him for exercising his freedom to do what he wants — freedom that, for whatever reason, they don’t feel they have. So they hit him over the head with the expectations stick: you’re not supposed to be painting squiggles, you’re supposed to be working toward your MBA! That’s what responsible people do! Whenever I hear such nonsense, I am always reminded of something that a talented experimental photographer once told me. We were driving through Jersey City and he asked me to look around. Everything you see, he told me, was designed by an artist. People don’t realize that, he said, but it’s true. Unless you’re in the wilderness, the appearance and function of everything in your environment was developed in a studio by an aesthetician who had to figure out how it fit into your life. For the arts to work, there needs to be a constant supply of crazy visionaries who are willing to live in a garret and try out bizarre things all day. Again, this is something real capitalists know, and why you’ll never see one of those guys knocking artists — no matter how difficult or temperamental they are. It is only the people who feel trapped and used who run artists down and attempt to make them feel terrible for doing, if you’ll pardon my poetic language, what God has asked them to do.
Has the allure of success and exposure that a capitalist hub like New York City promises pulled artists away from vital local scenes?
New York City, as you’ve probably noticed, is the land of hierarchy. Everything is measured, life is a constant performance review, and people have a tendency to treat strangers according to their level of professional achievement. It’s all a game, but it’s one that’s taken very seriously by its players, because if it were ever to be destroyed by hippie powers, nobody on the island(s) trusts what would come next. I think we’ve recently seen that they have good reason to be protective, and suspicious of the outsiders who are ever-so-suspicious of them. In my opinion, people who survive and thrive in New York City deserve respect: if you can be the rare lumberjack who stays on the log as it spins faster and faster, go on and pat yourself on the back for your persistence and agility. The trouble is that it’s possible to spin on the log so long that you get disoriented and assume that that’s the way that the earth moves. Some New Yorkers find the motivations of non-New York artists inscrutable: what, you don’t want to be on MTV? You’re not on social media? You have qualms about selling your writing to a reality TV show? Huh. You must be a rare bird indeed.
But in fact the nonprofessionalizing non-NYC artist is not a rare bird at all. She does not necessarily want to spend her time making career moves. Maybe she wants wider exposure for her work; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she just wants to play in the mud. If she’s the sort of artist who digs the hierarchy game — the kind who frets about how many Instagram followers she has, or whether her name is in bigger type on the bill than her rival’s is — she’s going to gravitate toward New York City. We’ve seen a lot of that, and I’m of the opinion that it’s had a dulling effect on Big Apple art. (You may think I’m just being a Jersey chauvinist, and maybe you’re right.) As for the scenes they’ve left behind, well, the engine goes on, albeit at a somewhat lower RPM. The locals who don’t share her sense of enterprise might feel like it’s good riddance: she was a sellout anyway, she was a name-dropper and social climber first and an artist only after that. They may feel so much better off without her that they might not notice the distinct attenuation of energy during the next local arts festival. As I see it, it would be healthier for everybody if she stayed in rural Rockville and used her drive to turn it into a regional hub with its own distinct artistic personality. But she’s not going to do that, and her decision is part of a much wider trend of the provinces emptying out as socially alienated young people try their luck in the showbiz centers. Which is making for a monochromatic countryside.
What role has journalism played in the reinforcing certain models of artistic success over others?
Journalists have been sucked into the whirlpool by those same centralizing forces, and as a consequence they tend to reward the artists who are immersed in the big city game and treat those who aren’t as quaint curios from the fifteenth century. I’ll give you an example from my own experience: when I first started playing music, there were many, many newspapers and zines in New Jersey. Some of them were statewide, but most had a regional focus: the Bloom Beacon might not have had distribution far beyond the Meadow, but Milo and Opus and Editor Overbeek, or their Jersey counterparts, did attempt to cover its territory comprehensively. Since the Internet has accommodated the launch of a thousand personal pages, we’re told not to mourn the loss of the Bloom Beacon too much — surely there are many more outlets for publicity than there were before? The truth is more complicated: yes, Bob’s Kickin Rock Blog does exist, sort of, but to get the publicity benefits sort of attention that local journalism used to provide, you’ve got to play ball with the big operations, most of which are located in those showbiz centers. That probably means being on the scene in New York, especially since media consolidation and shrinkage in New Jersey has effectively left us without a voice.
At the same time that’s all happening, we’ve been handcuffed by the rise of click-driven journalism. It used to be difficult to convince skeptical editors that Vanishing Twin merits coverage when Bon Jovi is in town, but it wasn’t impossible. The writer could make a passionate (albeit largely bullshit) case that the artistic significance of the former was something that the readers needed to learn about, and everybody was sick of the latter anyway, and c’mon, are we men or mice here; let’s throw the dice already. We can’t do that anymore. The proof is in the count, now visible for all to see, and those numbers will always be less interesting than our fantasies. Local coverage has always depended on those fantasies and the willingness of editors to take an occasional ratings hit. Everybody’s belts have tightened. Let’s get some celebrity stories up, right this minute!; those quotas ain’t going to make themselves. Like Editor Overbeek used to say: run that baby.
Why haven’t scenes like the one Michael Azerrad documented sprung up again? Or have they? Whats going on outside of New York, anyway?
The old college-rock circuit was a beautiful thing: it sustained clubs and zones and record shops and independent bookstores, regional radio stations, cheap restaurants, copy-shop poster duplicators, and so on. But I don’t want to get too nostalgic for it. For one thing, at least in the Northeast, it was a white man’s underworld. It was not a place for hip-hop, and hip-hop has been the tailwind of culture for at least a quarter-century. And even if the college rock scene ain’t what it used to be, it’s worth noting that something not dissimilar to it has been happening in urban areas — spoken-word events and open mics for poets and locally-focused websites meant to support budding rappers and producers. Much of the best music released in 2016 came from a group of Chicago artists who’d connected through after-school programs and the library and promoted by Fake Shore Drive. I don’t know what kind of book Michael Azerrad would write about contemporary hip-hop, but I’ll bet he’d hear echoes of SST in outfits like Royal Rap and Wondering Sounds, and see Chance and Jamila and Fatimah Warner as good scene citizens.
The difference is that this is a city phenomenon. So far at least; there are probably hip-hop scenes in small towns, too, but we haven’t heard much about them yet. And this exposes the common thread shared by all of these questions — are country mice and city mice going to find some common ground or are we destined to be at each others’ throats? Can artists do something about the cold civil war we’re presently engaged in? Can artists stand aside and be observers, or are they destined to be partisans arguing (or even fighting) on behalf of urban values? I like to reserve for the arts a rolenobler than political commentary, and I’m corny enough to think that during good times, every guitar strum is balm for our national wounds. But these sure aren’t good times. If artists want to get the hell out of the sticks, I can’t say that I blame them. Most of the nuance of modern politics has fallen away, and we’ve been left with a ferocious elemental struggle between people who want to open things up and people who want to close things down. Artists tend to be open by disposition. They’re not going to want to be where the wall-builders and border shutters are, and they’re under no obligation to sacrifice time or sanity by singing to those who won’t listen. Until we get a little glasnost around here, that’s the way it has to stay.
What’s going on *inside* New York, for that matter?
The irony is that while New York symbolizes openness and does so for very good reasons, the actual experience of living in New York is often anything but. Manhattan, in particular, feels like it’s on 24-7 lockdown: black helicopters in the sky and heavily armed police in the train stations and at major intersections. A staggering amount of wealth has been concentrated in New York City, and the town is preoccupied with guarding the safe. It has surely not escaped your notice that many of the city’s most visible artists and arts institutions either 1.) celebrate big money, 2.) sheepishly apologize for big money, or 3.) gingerly poke fun at big money in a manner that suggests no real harm is meant. Like I said above, if you’re the kind of artist who digs hierarchy and loves keeping score — and there are great ones who do — New York might be the place for you. Otherwise, I’d advise you to head for smaller cities: places like Baltimore, Detroit, Richmond, Providence, etc. Rents are cheaper, studio space is easier to come by, and there’s more room to build something of your own that won’t immediately be sucked into the orbit of global commerce.
What exactly are the criteria that Pitchfork uses when rating those records and can we discuss them?
Probably not. I don’t know exactly how Pitchfork assigns its ratings, but I have to imagine that they’re developed in committee, and that plenty of extramusical factors go into that number grade. There’s nothing new about that, though — it’s just basic showbiz. Artists with good connections and good backstories are going to get prioritized. Fairness is for soccer matches, right? That said, I think it’s been a long time since Pitchfork was a leading indicator: the records that they tend to like are the same ones that everybody else does. Their Top 10 of 2016 is loaded with celebrities and major-label moneymakers. Like many other middle aged Internet music sites, it gives the visitor the sense that it’s struggling to catch up with current trends. I felt like I was being hyperbolic when I called it PeopleMagazine plus bad cultural studies jargon last year, but I look at Pitchfork now and see Beyonce Releases More Amazing Pregnancy Photos and Frank Ocean Sued By His Father and other such monkey business and wonder if I went far enough. Most brand-name Internet websites have been pulled toward the gossip column over the past five years; Pitchfork has made its transition with more enthusiasm than most. Whether this trend will ultimately discredit the ratings number remains to be seen — I think it’s already happened somewhat. But we’re in an intermediary period where the Pitchfork assessment is still consequential to musicians while it probably isn’t that consequential to Pitchfork itself.
There’s a damned good case to be made that I shouldn’t be doing this at all. In a time of national crisis, squawking about the wonders of the Knowles sisters and various college rock bands is at best uncouth and at worst a conciliatory distraction. I ought to be devoting my attention and my talents, such as they are, to the emerging resistance movement. I’m not being sarcastic here — I get it. This isn’t a drill: things really are as bad as your paranoid uncle always feared they’d get. (I’m your paranoid uncle.) But I also felt that to *not* do the Poll and write it up as I have for the past 26 years, well, that’d be letting the terrorists win. Moreover, to quote my hero Rodney in Back To School — just imagine me now with the same look of dawning horror on my face as he had in the Sam Kinison scene — I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.
So I figured the Poll and its writeup could be a much-needed break in the parade of bad news that has likely been your life for the past few months at least. Then I read your responses. Turns out you had a few things to say. And since you couldn’t help but write about politics, and I am a graduate of a bossy political science program, allow me to join the party here. I’ve got a longer essay that I’ll post sometime after the Poll is over; for today, I’ll limit myself to a few reflections and then turn the floor over to you. I doubt you’re going to agree, but what the heck; it’s my website, and I’m free to express myself however I’d like. For now.
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This spring, I read something serious in an otherwise blithe book about Amsterdam — something that stayed with me. The author made a claim about the Holocaust that I’d never encountered before. He reported that the death rate among Jews living in metropolitan Holland was higher than anywhere else in Western Europe — higher, even, than in Germany. The reason for this was not that the Dutch were particularly cruel, or even particularly fascist. On the contrary — they’d long maintained one of the most open societies on the globe. One of the characteristic byproducts of this open society, however, was a meticulous system of records on the country’s residents. These were kept to help the government better understand the people living under their authority, and the Dutch, being scrupulous chroniclers and attempt-to-understanders, put this paper database together for many reasons, some of which were undoubtably virtuous. They meant well. Yet when the Nazis took over the country, all of that information fell into their hands. They knew exactly where all the Jews were. They had an authoritarian’s most valuable tool — one more valuable even than a gun. They had a map.
In 2017, the entire social world is mapped. Chances are, you participated in the mapping. You’ve turned over lists of your friends and associates, your employment history, your political views, your health status and sexual preferences and, sometimes, your exact position on the globe to corporate social-networking sites. You may have done that for good reasons: you might have wanted to reconnect with old buddies, or share pictures of your newborn baby with your family, or spread the word about your band. We now know for certain that those services are all too ready to hand over their databases to the intelligence services and the police. Domestic surveillance has accelerated under every administration since World War II, including the one that just left office. Federal officers now have unprecedented powers to prosecute people who are deemed enemies of the state. We don’t know quite yet exactly what sort of Justice Department the new administration is going to put together under Jeff Sessions, but c’mon, the last few days ought to have given you a pretty good indication of their aims, and their scruples. They’re not going to hesitate to use the map they’ve inherited.
In an environment like the one we’re entering, it becomes incumbent upon all of us to attempt to scramble the lines on that map a little and make it harder for authoritarians to pin us down. Employ phony names, lie on surveys, refuse to sign things and hesitate before giving personal information to companies, confound the algorithm and make stuff up; do what you have to do to confuse the compiler of the dossier. Mostly, if you haven’t already, I urge you to severely curtail or discontinue your use of those corporate social-media sites. For most of us, the damage is already done — we’ve already created an easily-searchable online double of ourselves and the lives we lead, and we’re now completely open to inspection and exploitation, and, possibly, repression and punishment for who we are and what we believe. But there are millions of younger Americans who haven’t been absorbed into the system, and we need to stop tagging them, and classifying them, and entangling them in a network of associations that could, in some perhaps-not-so-distant fascist future, get them chucked in jail or worse.
You’re looking for something to do; you want to kick back against a government that’s repulsive to you? One that’s already shown pronounced sadistic tendencies? By all means, march, and shout, and organize, and above all, stick together. But the most powerful thing you can do right now to resist the drift toward authoritarianism is: leave Facebook and never come back. Get lost. Remember always that this regime wouldn’t be in place were it not for the specific targeting and voter modeling that could only have been accomplished through use of the personal data we’ve made available on the corporate social networks. The Trump campaign flooded Facebook users in the Midwest with Pizzagate horror stories and the like; you probably laugh when you hear this stuff, but campaign managers were able to take the measure of the susceptibility of voters and tailor their propaganda to suit what they’d discovered. A network designed to facilitate the frenzied sharing of incendiary clickbait headlines led, inevitably, to the triumph of a human piece of clickbait.
There are many among you who felt, strongly, that all the Democrats would have had to have done to beat Trump was nominate Bernie Sanders. I was a Sanders voter, too — I wrote the pieces and played the benefits and spread the good news (I didn’t wear the hat, though; I left that to Brad.) But if you think for a moment that Bernie wouldn’t have been vulnerable to the same sort of devastating social-network-driven assault that convinced thousands of Republicans that Hillary Clinton was sacrificing Haitian babies to Moloch in the basement of Roberta’s or wherever, you don’t understand how precisely we’ve all been psychographically pigeonholed and how thoroughly complicit we’ve been in weaving our own puppet-strings.
Nas wasn’t the first to say it, but say it he did, from a small stage at the iHeartRadio studio right after the release of “Life Is Good”. Social media, he told us, over and over, is the Devil. Not a plaything of the Devil meant for idle hans, or a tool of the Devil, or a means by which the Devil can drag you under by the sharp lapels of your checkered coat; no, the Devil himself. I didn’t really get it that night, although I should have, because it at base was similar to an argument made by my other favorite writer. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warns us that the Devil will convince us to do neither what we want nor what we ought — that his aim for human beings is to drive us into the trough of dullness where we repeat, with mounting joylessness, the same dreary, self-destructive activities every day. How many people do you know who were first enticed on to the corporate social-networks by the low-wattage ego strokes that they provide, and now must check in regularly, all day, and with increasing desperation, to learn if they’re still liked? How many hours have we thrown down that computer-blue sinkhole? How have you been compensated for your long labor on the map we’ve made? How do you suppose that map is going to be used?
Life is too precious to be spent in a spiderweb. As a cold February begins, I ask you again to turn your backs on these evil services. Discredit them by walking away. Admit to yourself what I know you already know: President Donald Trump could never have happened without them. That ought to be all the motivation you’d ever need to say goodbye.
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Okay, all you Tommy Shaws and Dennis DeYoungs out there: it’s music time.
Best singing: Big win for Frank Ocean this year. Even some folks who didn’t like Blonde very much voted for him in this category.
Best rapping: Chancellor Bennett takes this by a small plurality over Kanye. I was happy to see a few votes for Noname.
Best lyrics: Paul Simon. He sure did see things — and say things — that others were unwilling to say they saw. Forget Nate Silver; this year Rhymin’ Simon was the man with the long view.
Best album cover: Lots of votes for Lemonade. I get it: you people like it when Beyonce hides in her coat.
Best album title: Nothing close to a majority, but scattered votes for A Seat At The Table.
Biggest disappointment: This was one of the many negative categories won, or lost, by Kanye West. I’m pretty sure you weren’t talking about The Life Of Pablo, which, as far as I can tell, you all liked — even the passionate Taylor Swift fans among you. Sometimes I wonder how Kanye feels now in the wake of the recent executive orders and reports of Iranian babies who can’t get to the United States for surgery. Mostly I’ve just stopped wondering.
Best production: See, Kanye took this, too. It’s not The Life Of Pablo that’s bugging you.
2016 album that wore out most quickly: Some of you felt that Tegan and Sara’s latest was pretty thin. This wasn’t my vote — I like it, even as I admit it’s… well, it’s pretty thin. Steven thought I was dissing the Quins when I told him they’d made their Big Generator. I had to remind him that Big Generator is pretty darn good. “Love Will Find A Way” = mmmmm. But Big Generator marked the moment when the retooled, chart-friendly version of Yes went from “we will use the rudiments of modern production to fashion a subversive and incisive commentary on contemporary culture cleverly disguised as synthpop” to “hits hits hits yum we need more hits in our mouf.” To be fair, Sara, if not Tegan, would probably say that she’s getting some seriously homofriendly content into heavy rotation, which would be politically justifiable if she really was in heavy rotation, which she most certainly is not. She can commiserate with Carly Rae Jepsen, who continues to adhere to formula on behalf of, who?, male rock critics in their late twenties? As tasty as these confections are, the kids aren’t gobbling them up. Shoot high, aim low, people.
Most overrated: Three-way tie between Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, and Blackstar. Mind you, nobody said David Bowie was himself overrated. They picked on the album, not the legend.
Album that felt most like an obligation to get through and enjoy: Some longtime Okkervil River fans confessed that they found Away a chore. I don’t agree in the slightest, but I do understand if “Call Yourself Renee” stopped you cold. Van Morrison he ain’t. Nobody is.
Thing you feel cheapest about liking: A few parting votes for Barack Obama here. He gets some every year. Oh!, music, right. Young Thug took this one, which surprised me. Given all the critical fawning, I thought he’d made it safely beyond reproach. Was it “get behind her/put it in her butt”? Because that seems altogether consistent with pop as we’ve come to know and love it.
Most alienating perspective: Kanye West in a landslide. Again, you weren’t talking about “Famous”. Not to defend the indefensible — although I do always seem to be doing that on his behalf, don’t I? — but it does seem in retrospect that the stupid Trump stuff had more to do with his rivalry with Jay-Z, who was a vocal Clinton supporter, than it did with anything political. Also I am sure the misogyny really appealed to him.
Worst song of the year: Any of the three hit Chainsmokers tracks. They really did make themselves supervillains in record time. Normally I’d admire that, but we’re facing no shortage of supervillains at the moment.
Young upstart who should be sent down to the minors for more seasoning:Car Seat Headrest. Teens Of Denial and Blonde were the year’s two most polarizing albums.
Hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire: It pains me to report that Paul Simon got a few votes here, although not anywhere near as many as Neil Young. Or PJ Harvey, for that matter; guess you didn’t find her DC travelogue worthy of TripAdvisor. Incredibly, people still choose not to vote for me. I just think you’re being polite. You don’t have to be. I’m from Jersey and I write for newspapers and such; I can’t be insulted.
Good artist most in need of fresh ideas: Frightened Rabbit. Ten years ago, they won this poll. Painting Of A Panic Attack barely scraped together 20 points.
Will still be making good records in 2016: You’re betting on Chance The Rapper. I feel like I have to play the Bob Gibson role here. In 1985, Gibson watched Dwight Gooden and said “he will never again be as good as he is right now.” That Chicago crew was the brightest spot of a dark year, and they’ve absolutely positively got it going on. It feels like there’s nothing they can’t do. Enjoy it, because it’s not going to last forever.
Floor’s yours now. It ain’t pretty. Friends, I feel your pain.
Coming trend for 2017:
Shairi Turner: The muthafuckin’ struggle.
George Pasles: It’s going to be hard to pay attention to music in 2017.
Zachary Lipez: Biggest trend of 2016 — Using “these dark times” to push your music. Super great. Biggest trend of 2017 — The actual dark times.
Marisol Fuentes: Difficulty sleeping.
Stephen Mejias:Doom pop? Can that exist? Is that what the Weeknd is?
Brad Krumholz: Online album development, a la The Life Of Pablo.
Brian Block:Facebook directly taking over our computers and playing the songs it has calculated we want to hear at all times.
Steven Matrick: Political screeds (lord help us.)
Andrea Weiss: Everyone continues to get political and write lots of protest songs, most of them wonderful.
Hilary Jane Englert: Protest music.
Jim Testa: Protest songs will make a big comeback.
Jer Fairall: Protest and pants-shitting.
Adam Copeland: Braindead people still saying that Trump as president is good for art. A lot of misguided white people suddenly trying to make ineffective protest music, even though people of color have been doing it constantly since, well, since they’ve been in this country.
Steve Carlson: Endless paranoia – music about how we’re all trying not to die at any moment.
Oliver Lyons: Trap music. And by that I mean, “we are trapped in this government camp”, music.
Tom Snow: Global thermonuclear war.
Steve Carlson: Prevailing theme or trend of 2016 –Death. Just, death. Everywhere. And who knew the worst was yet to come.
Jer Fairall: The best art of 2016 was the video for Shura’s “What’s It Gonna Be?” An uplifting mix of pop-culture reverence, high school comedy and winsome queer romance, my endless refreshings of it on YouTube were the only thing that made me feel consistently good about popular culture in this most miserable of years.
Adam Copeland: Most alienating perspective –Kanye West thinking he should run for president.
Oliver Lyons: Most alienating perspective –At this point, Kanye. I know we shouldn’t expect musicians to be role models since 99% of them are grade school dropouts with crippling drug dependencies, but to keep praising every action this clownshoes does as an act of genius has become tiresome and just wrong. He’s a doofus who makes great music. I can live with that.
Brian Block: Best live show I saw this year —I’m tempted to say Le Vent du Nord at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro in October. Sociopolitical Quebecois folk songs, in French, are not an easy thing to make a North Carolinian general audience enjoy, understand, and sing along (in a foreign tongue) with, and Le Vent have some seriously impressive tricks to make it happen.But I’m gonna pick Shearwater, the Cat’s Cradle, December 14. Their singer’s public presentation is like mine — a somewhat sheepish but agreeable storytelling voice, explaining cryptic lyrics, telling little jokes that sometimes go somewhere, and willing to make carefully-worded exploratory leaps. For example, I didn’t know “Backchannels” was about “This little voice I sometimes get in the back of my head — hopefully it’s just me — that says ‘Hey, Jonathan, you’ve had a really nice run, and maybe now you should kill yourself”. But it takes a lot of grace to tell that in a friendly, non-worrisome way and make it about “the last taboo, something we’re not allowed to talk about in polite society, and maybe we should be. I suspect it’s gotten pretty common since November, like I could bring it up and strangers would say ‘Yeah! Me too!’. Like we should bring it into the open and reveal for the tiny, impotent thing it really is”.
No, I never feel that way. But what a useful speech, and what a tremendously fond, chatty concert it all was. The covers of David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ era — and of “the national anthem”, by which Meiburg mean “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” — were odd and utterly inspired as well.
Jonathan Andrew: 2016 was the year I finally got into Warren Zevon. Those first two albums are phenomenal. I continue to listen to more catalog releases than new works. Increasingly, music is used to soothe and to activate the pure pleasure centers of my brain/soul. Am I disappointed that I am no longer actively seeking out challenging contemporary sounds as much as I once did? Yes. Do the Prine, Petty, and Floyd back catalogs and myriad Grateful Dead live recordings bring me much needed joy? Absolutely. Also, seeing music live be it at larger concert venues or the local bar where my friends are jamming has become even more of an essential way of life. Stand in a room and listen to people create. Not sure how else I’m going to get through the next year, never mind the subsequent three. Never mind next week. Music is what we have.
Oliver Lyons: Best live show — My wife dancing to “Return of the Mack” at our wedding despite having torn her ACL earlier. “Dancing” involved being spun around in an office chair. She’s a trooper.
Tom Snow — Many winning guest appearances this year, notably Busta on the Tribe album, and 2 Chainz on the De La album. For some reason, I like Chance as a guest rapper better than on his own album. He may be following the Ludacris career trajectory for me. Ah, wait, there he is on television, hawking Kit Kats and proving my point.
Bradley Skaught: I can’t believe that anyone truly thought the Tribe Called Quest comeback would be as brilliant as it is. Even the most die hard fan.
Brian Block: A Tribe Called Quest were a surprise for me, as I don’t recall liking their original albums (granting I only a college kid back then), and unlike a lot of my favorite hip-hop, they cant in any sensible way be re-interpreted as an offshoot of rock. The bit where they’re an offshoot of Gene Wilder’s turn as Willy Wonka is damn hard to resist, though. Aesop Rock’s excellence is the opposite of a surprise, except that it’s nice to learn he doesn’t lose any of his poetic power by scaling back the density of his references.I have no idea why Saul Williams keeps getting overlooked in critic polls, though: powerful deep voice, inventively urgent rhythms, cogent political lyrics that leave room for him to emerge as a character (I love his own casual drag-wear in the lyrics of the pro-transgender anthem Think Like They Book Say). Is it a problem that he’s worked so much with Nine Inch Nails? Aesop and Kanye haven’t been hurt by sampling Emerson-Lake-Palmer or King Crimson. I don’t get it.
Oliver Lyons: Best song of the year — It’s obviously Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots.” But in a better world, one where we didn’t elect a bright orange fascist who values money over people’s lives, song of the year is Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles.” The best thing to ever have “Beatles” attached to it.
Anna Howe: Least believable perspective over an album — Young Thug, because nobody could be that retarded. Also, there’s something suspiciously insincere about Maren Morris.
Bobby Olivier: Prevailing trend of 2016 — The return of the choker necklace! And the pop-drop. Damn Chainsmokers…
Adam Copeland: Biggest disappointment — Bruno Mars miscalculating that New Jack Swing would be back in style.
Shairi Turner: Nicki and Kim get their shit together and drop a secret album produced by Missy featuring Foxy, Salt and Pepa, Monica, Brandy, and the original Destiny’s Child some fresh bars Tupac made from his private island.
Brian Block:As for David Bowie, well, in 2014, my mom died of cancer. She’d moved into a grandmother apartment attached to our house, and it devastated me watching her decline: first losing the ability to garden, then to take her several-mile walks in the morning, then to concentrate on any book that wasn’t a light romance novel, finally to even utter sentences related to reality instead of hallucination. My mom was one of the smartest, funniest, kindest people I ever knew: I trust the nurses when they tell me she handled her decline with unusual grace and panache. David Bowie handled his by releasing the most daring, inventive, sui-generis, BEST album of his career. I do not understand, and I’m sad he died, but holy crap what a way to go.
George Pasles: I was listening to WMFU late last January when they announced Bowie’s death. I was never really a big fan – Sure, I admired the guy, but who didn’t? – though when I’d watched the video for Lazarus a week or two before, I thought: Geez, this guy is still operating at the highest level. I listened to WFMU’s all night on-the-fly retrospective, and was amazed. Maybe it takes someone’s career being over for me to really assess it. Whatever it is that so many of us are trying to do for even one moment, he did it for almost fifty years, and far, far better than we can comprehend.
We construct narratives to frame events, so we can say now that his death was some kind of sign, however you define it, about the year ahead. I mean, Prince? There were losses beyond comprehension. Losses of all kinds. I was wondering in the fall: even when Hillary wins, many of the delusions that we share about this country are irrevocably compromised. I was not optimistic about President Clinton’s ability to get anything done.
But you’re asking about music. To find what I listened to last year, I looked through the youtube links in my browser history. It was mostly movie clips after celebrities died over the year, though a detective would note that there was a series of self-defense videos I watched on Nov 10th. As usual, I almost exclusively listened to old stuff. Mostly, it was the baroque pop and blue eyed soul of the early Bee Gees. I’m completely burned out on the brothers Gibb now. Those songs are depressing as hell, and I’m very suggestible. Other old stuff revisited or discovered in 2016: Monkees, Black Sabbath, T Rex, B-52s, REM’s Green, Hidden Cameras, Wings, Led Zeppelin, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2 (really), The Equals “Police On My Back, Forever by Pete Drake, Her Mothers Daughter by Dory Previn, and most recently The Go-Betweens’ Tallulah. Beautiful stuff. I was sad to find that my old stand-bys New Pornographers, early Giorgio Moroder, and TMF didn’t work for me anymore. It was disappointing, as they’d brought me such reassurance in the past. About what, I’m not sure. Maybe they will work again sometime. I hope.
I remember protesting W’s inauguration in DC in January 2001 shouting about what a disaster his presidency was going to be. Oh, we had no idea. Comparing then to now, I’m re-shadowed by an apocalyptic dread from my childhood that had vanished with the Cold War. I’d made and accepted certain conclusions about my own life over the last few decades, but I expected humanity at large and America in particular to continue with at least a barely net positive first derivative after I left the scene. Now, I’m reminded of an afternoon two and half years ago, watching coverage of post-Ferguson protests along with commentators’ despicable reactions. I thought for the first time what many others concluded long before: maybe this country just can’t go on. Maybe it cannot overcome its history. It needs a real reset, a civil war level reset, to survive, if it was to survive at all. But the thought passed. Surely, the economic and power structures were too firmly entrenched for such change to ever be possible or even desirable for enough people. Now it seems not only possible and desirable, but probable. Terrifyingly, I cannot see a way for the side I’d prefer to emerge victorious to do so. And the bloodshed. And what comes after. The wheels have come off. We (that is, you and I and likely anyone who will ever read this) have lived in a time of almost unequalled prosperity and safety in the long history of the planet. Our time has been the aberration.
A madman is in power and that power is near absolute. I am concerned for the future of the world.
Zachary Lipez: As with last year, since I’ve become entirely sucked into the music industry my EOY poll has suffered. I am both so angry and entirely compromised. I just want to say something positive and with total certainty… Bargou 08, from Tunisia, are putting out the best heavy album of 2017. Get into them early. Also, the 2017 Uniform album. See? I like music. Just not Porches and Frankie Cosmos and whatever. Jeez.
Tom Snow: MBA Corner: the freemium go-to-market strategy seems to have worked out quite nicely for Abel Tesfaye.
Tom Snow:Speaking of go-to-market strategies, I started subscribing to Apple Music this year, which gave me the opportunity to listen to a lot more new music that I had in years past, and to see how I felt about unfamiliar acts before plunking down $9.99-$12.99 for their album based only on faith or a suspiciously high Metacritic score. I did end up actually buying a few of my favorite albums of the year, mainly because I spend a lot of time on airplanes and I wanted to be able to listen to them while offline. But for most of the music I listened to this year (old and new), I used the service as it was designed, streaming the songs via an Internet connection. While like I said I got exposed to more new acts that I typically would have, I’m not sure how comfortable I feel about this whole thing. Does renting rather than owning music change my relationship to it? Don’t get me wrong: I’m a proud holder of the Biblioteque Municipale de Genve library card, for instance, but there’s still something significant about the books that you buy and put on your bookshelf, no? To what extent do I want to define myself by my record collection? And what happens when my record collection begins to dissolve into various server farms in God-knows-where, only accessible to me for as long as I keep sending money every month to Cupertino, CA? To what extent does a third-party mediator influence my relationship with music, and the artist responsible for it? Maybe I’m making something out of nothing here: after all, all the recorded music I’ve listened to my entire life has been delivered via some kind of mediator, whether its a record label or a radio station or Jack’s Music Shop in Red Bank. Still, when the artist/listener relationship starts to drift towards the transient / transactional / conditional, I’m not sure that takes us in a good direction. But I suppose at this moment we all have bigger fish to fry, don’t we?
Brad Krumholz: Biggest disappointment — Kanye’s alignment with evil politics.
Zachary Lipez: Biggest disappointment — That young men still confuse being Angel Olsen fans for depth.
Brad Krumholz: Worst lyrics by a good lyricist who should have known better –“Muslims and gays/boy we hate your ways” is simultaneously great and really bad.
Brian Block:Regina Spektor emerged this year as one of our great protest songwriters. The protest is surprising. Great shouldn’t be, yet I think she gets overlooked, because her whimsy and quirkiness are an easy excuse to dismiss her as childish, as Tori Amos likely would be if she hadn’t gotten “You can make me cum, that don’t make you Jesus” on record first.
Spektor’s Trapper and the Furrier, Small Bills, and Sellers of Flowers, each with varying doses of playfulness or myth, correctly diagnose our country as under internal attack from the forces of wealth addiction. Unlike how we regard too much cocaine or too much alcohol, or even too much sex (whatever that might mean), we shower those with a bottomless craving for personal wealth with respect, power, and the keys to our electoral system.
For thousands and thousands of years, we’ve treated animals as pinatas that we whack and food/ fur/ blubber comes out; trees as something we demolish so that houses and heat leap out for us; the earth as something we slice into and coal or diamonds emerge. Our overlords, sharing the same convenience-loving DNA we have but with an extra heaping of power, instinctively treat the rest of us humans the same way. Democracy was an experiment in collective resistance, in saying No, thats not acceptable; the 1980s and beyond have been an experiment in Never mind, we are in fact Human Resources, and gosh we are kind of expensive and whiny compared to those other kinds.
The Republican elite opposes spending on the hoi polloi’s health care, education, and food because its spending: it costs them money, it reduces their score in the game, and there’s nothing more important than the next score. Their voting public opposes it, as best I can tell, from the wounded pride of no longer being treated as the *best* exploitable resources, and from the eagerness to grasp promises that soon, the foreign barbarians will be sent away, and they can resume their pride-of-utility again. All the while, those who got, get given more, more, more, more.
Jens Carstensen: Looking back on it, the Democrats flopped for the same reason the new Ghostbusters movie did: not because of females in starring roles, but because of terrible scripts.
2016 proved the power of a clear, concise message. The message doesn’t even have to be, you know, true. Among many other things, Election 2016 was a referendum on corporate-speak/political-speak (same thing). The candidate with the clear, concise message got elected. The one without one didn’t. Now, let’s drill down a little bit. 2016 proved the power of clear, impactful word choices, largely by counterexample. My takeaway: instead of allowing ourselves to be constantly handcuffed by insisting on watered-down, anodyne terminology for the sake of 100% accuracy and inclusiveness, let’s start regaining respect by daring to speak directly. Tell it like it is. Some examples.
“Rhetoric.” What the fuck is rhetoric? Every time I heard some ostensible “guy/gal on the street” in an NPR interview referring to Trump’s “rhetoric,” it sounded like they were reading a script. Have you ever used the word “rhetoric” in conversation? No? That’s because it’s a weak, vague word, never used outside of the context of trying to politely (for some reason) describe why you don’t like a racist. So, let’s use the term “beliefs.” Instead of saying “I don’t like Trump’s racist rhetoric” say “I don’t like Trump’s racist beliefs.” Because that’s what they are… and if they’re not, let Trump prove otherwise.
Here’s another: “demagogue.” Not to be a snot, but you’ve lost a lot of people once you reach that third syllable. (See also: “rhetoric.”) Besides, the media and Trump detractors took a lot of pains to tie him to historical precedent. Mussolini, Hitler, et al. But no one ever called those cats “demagogues.” “Hitler: history’s most notorious demagogue”… you’re laughing right now, right? That’s because “demagogue” a weak, vague word. It also sounds like something you’d encounter in a cave during a Advanced D&D campaign. Like, “oh shit, a level 12 demagogue! With armor class 2!” Instead, tell it like it is: Trump is a “tyrant.” I like this one because it sounds like “tirade.” It’s evocative and get-able, immediately conjuring the pounding of fists and the reddening of face, while avoiding the overuse and perception of hyperbole that comes with terms like “fascist” or “Nazi.” Tyrant it is. And if that’s not what Trump is, let him prove otherwise.
Speaking of which, “racist.” (Or all of the well-known parallel terms to describe looking down on people unlike yourself.) You know those guys that say, “I’m an asshole, but at least I know I’m an asshole.” I hate those people. But it’s an important distinction. Because, you know when you have a friend who is *being* an asshole? You don’t have to be an actual asshole to act like one from time to time. In its temporary form, it is a condition than can be reversed, because most people, deep down, don’t want to be assholes. They just don’t always realize when they’re coming across like one. Now, replace all the “assholes” above with the term “racist.” So, when it’s time for a little tough love, tell it like it is. That dude that’s proud to call himself a “white nationalist?” He’s a racist. The guy that occasionally shares some uninformed beliefs about the black community, or the transgender community, or any community that ain’t themselves, give them a chance to reverse course. Call them “misguided.” You know which word you’d rather say to your uncle to his face.
Last and least, “alt-right.” Hey, here’s a terrific idea: legitimize a bunch of (actual) racist assholes, by labeling them… with their own preferred terminology. Especially something as weak-sounding as “alt-right.” The clanging sound you may have heard whenClinton dropped “alt-right” was me hitting myself in the head with a frying pan. That’s seriously one of the least threatening terms I’ve ever heard, like something we accidentally would’ve used to describe Archers of Loaf 20 years ago. “Alt-right,” come on, people. Let’s tell it like it is: call them “neo-Nazis.” This is not hyperbole, because that’s exactly what they are… and if they’re not, let them prove otherwise. They sure haven’t so far.
It’s also worth nothing that the two most memorable things Hillary Clinton offered during her campaign were the terms “alt-right” and “deplorables.” Thanks to Election 2016, the term “unforced errors” has become synonymous with Democratic politics, rather than tennis, where it belongs.
This is an aside, but with pot legalization gaining traction, it’s worth mentioning that progress will continue to be slow as long as people / the media refer to it as a “drug.” It’s not. Once those two terms are disassociated, we’ll finally have some sanity on that topic. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even smoke the stuff.
Steve Carlson: (voting The Impossible Kid #1) I didn’t want to do this, honest. I know my history with Aesop Rock. I know my putting an album of his up top my ballot is about as surprising as the sun rising and setting. And I didn’t think I was going to do this after the first couple listens. It seemed rambling, unfocused, with production that was fine but uninspired. But somewhere along the way, the album got its hooks into me and I really heard what was going on here. It’s the logical continuation of “Skelethon” — where there he admits he has a problem, here he starts working on that problem. It’s the sound of an artist trying not just to play the hand he’s dealt but finally, after years and years of rage and spit and self-harm, try to understand why his hand looks as it does, why he’s bluffing an inside straight while everyone else looks to be holding full houses. There were probably better albums this year, and if that’s what you’re interested in, more power to you. But I realized recently, after having immersed myself in the bottom end of cinema for longer than is healthy, that I no longer care about such niceties as “better” — I’m looking for whatever makes the most emotional sense to me. “Atrocity Exhibition” is weirder and more fascinating; “Gore” is louder and prettier; “Skeleton Tree” and “Blackstar” and “You Want It Darker” are more heartbreaking. But no album better captured my mood through the year, in all its pain and dashed hope and despair and defiance, than “The Impossible Kid.” We can only be honest.
Jay Braun: Biggest disappointment –Democratic National Committee and their primary contest.
Jens Carstensen: Okay, fine, music. I vote for Blackstar.
Zachary Lipez: Good artist most in need of some fresh ideas — I wouldn’t presume to tell a good artist shit.
Jim Testa: I am used to inanity masquerading as pop music, but every time I see DNCE, I feel like my intelligence is being personally insulted.
Tatiana Reyes: Bring trip-hop back!
Tom Snow: Theme of 2016 — Creative renaissances through crowdfunding (see De La, Future of the Left)
Andrea Weiss: (listing Lolita Nation and Big Shot Chronicles reissues in her Top 10) — The Game Theory songs and albums are in the main lists as they stack up favorably now, just they did when they were originally out in the 80s.
Paula Marie Carino: Theme of 2016 –I think I said this last year, too: old people rocking out credibly and unembarrassingly.
Jonathan Andrew: Best lyrics –Paul Simon does what only about 5 people on earth are capable of. Still.
Stephen Mejias: More times this year than in any other I can recall, new music completely startled and confounded me. I love that and I’m looking forward to more strange, powerful, inspiring music in 2017.
Jason Paul: Just as Alt-media is eating the lunch of the corporate media, so it will be for music. Real Alt-Music is coming… if the fans wake up.
Sarah Andrew: I’m plumb out of wiseguy questions these days, but thank you for keeping the Critics Poll going.
* * * * * *
You’re welcome. My ballot’ll be up soon.
Finally, Poll cornerstone Ben Krieger has a message for everybody reading; honestly, it’s more of a challenge. I’m going to try to answer him as best as I can, but I need a day to meditate upon it. Take it away, Ben:
Somewhere out there on the internet is a video of Prince talking to Arsenio Hall about how, as a teenager, he went through the classifieds looking for work, realized that there was no job out there that he loved as much as music, and so that is what he decided to do. For someone with his mind-boggling talent and focus, that decision was a no-brainer. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have more artists like Prince in our lives, or that people should stop aiming their careers at Madison Square Garden, but…for many of us artists who reside in a thicker section of the talent bell curve, whose talent is spread across several areas, or who *haven’t* always felt that art was the *only* thing we could do, there have always been questions, big and small that, seem even more relevant now in the wake of the 2016 election:
Why do family and friends always instinctively frame our talent’s potential within the confines of a capitalist model?
Has the allure of success and exposure that a capitalist hub like New York City promises pulled artists away from vital local scenes?
What role has journalism played in the reinforcing certain models of artistic success over others?
Why haven’t scenes like the one Michael Azerrad documented sprung up again?
Or have they? What’s going on outside of New York, anyway?
What’s going on *inside* New York, for that matter?
What exactly are the criteria that Pitchfork uses when rating those records and can we discuss them?
There are a million different questions along this line that have been asked and answered. Prince actually possessed a lot of anti-establishment qualities that star artists can emulate. He as always fought against dignity-robbing aspects of the music industry; he remained in and championed his hometown scene; he aggressively employed a wide variety of talented artists regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation.
But Prince was a star. He belonged in the stars. And for those of us who can’t or simply don’t want to be stars, and/or who want to give ourselves more completely to an organized, underground political movement, the worn-out conversations, revenue streams, concert models, touring networks, business plans and journalism formats that neoliberal capitalism champions have strangled out viable, counterculture alternatives that allow us to successfully create art *and* do meaningful work as citizens. I don’t have the answers, but by this time in 2018, I’d really like to have some, because we need a genuine underground political movement where arts and social justice effectively complement and propel each other. We need to develop and rekindle the conversations and institutions to support this. WHO’S WITH ME?
That’s not the present consensus. Nostalgic music fans often treat rock as if it’s on the ropes, or imperiled by inattention in the age of 140 characters, or the exclusive possession of an older generation that won’t share it with newer ones that wouldn’t understand its glories anyway. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, that self-appointed bunch of prison guards, behaves like rock is a museum artifact, a relic of the Seventies, and little that happened after the C-86 is worth considering. Each December, articles get written in newspapers and major industry magazines about rock’s tumble from the pinnacle — this year, among other pieces, we had Billboard asking whether rock was still relevant (conclusion: not really.) Bill Flanagan, a critic and interviewer I’ve always respected, asked in the pages of the New York Times if rock was dead. He concluded that it was just geriatric; maybe a little addled, too.
This handwringing has been happening forat least as long ago as the “Heart Of Rock And Roll”, which was a hit in, what, 1984? Don’t make me check. Huey, if you recall, reported that the old boy was barely breathing. All of this concern is testament to rock’s enduring value: if we didn’t like it so much, we wouldn’t be worried that it’s going away.
Luckily, it isn’t; not even a little. The present fears about rock imperiled are largely caused by cultural fissures and nomenclature problems. Some personal prejudices, too, and maybe a collective failure of imagination. But all of that can be corrected, quickly, if we dispense with the arbitrary categories presented to us by industry marketing people, and take a look at music as it actually is.
For instance, the best-selling musician on the planet is a pop-rock artist. Taylor Swift, as anybody who has ever seen her strike a pose and swing her red guitar around in concert can tell you, is 100% rock star. She may not play the sort of rock that Bill Flanagan, or David Fricke, or you, like best, but her connections to the classic writing traditions of the Seventies and early Eighties are impossible to miss. Her first four albums featured four-square pop-rock with folk flourishes; her fifth album was throwback new wave and dances with the white winged dove. In order to argue that Taylor Swift doesn’t rock, you’d also have to say that Fleetwood Mac and Carole King don’t rock, either. And of course they do.
Why don’t we recognize this? Well, Taylor Swift was initially marketed as a country artist. Never mind that some purists in Nashville saw her as a wealthy Pennsylvania carpetbagger — she rose to massive fame on the country circuit first, and then ate the rest of the world for dessert. Rather than an industry classification for salespeople, country is usually discussed as if it’s a distinct musical style. But almost all of the music presently sold by Nashville is rock, plain and simple, and it’s borderline insulting to its antecedents that we ever pretend that it’s anything else. In 2016, the “country” designation has more to do with the American political divide than it does with anything the musicians are doing; a mainstream country show is just a rock concert where you’re liable to see somebody with a Confederate battle flag. Its purported opposite (although they’re actually two sides of the same U.S. mint, but that’s another essay) is not rock but hip-hop — the music of the cities, ethnic and racial minorities, and their sympathizers. The occasional pedal steel and banjo heard on Nashville albums are sonic signifiers meant to align the record with a certain folk tradition rooted in American soil. That drummer, though? — chances are, he’s playing a rock beat.
Lately, artists marketed to the country audience aren’t even bothering to uphold the masquerade. Consider Maren Morris: Texan, alleged country singer, Best New Artist Grammy nominee, and 100% rock star. Hero, her album, consists of cheap-thrills arena rock (and I mean that as a compliment) sung in a bombastic style that sails far closer to Rihanna than Loretta Lynn. Gone are the folk instruments and any pretense to rustic authenticity; instead, the music is burnished to the same reflective, skyscraper-window sheen that coats all the other contemporary chart-busters. Again, this might not be the kind of rock you like. But in order to argue that Maren Morris doesn’t rock, you’d also have to say that Heart and Pat Benatar don’t rock, either. And of course they do.
That rock resonates better in the countryside than it does in the city is something that a student of the style ought to expect. Members of the country audience drive more motor vehicles. Rock was born alongside the mass-marketed automobile and the Eisenhower Interstate system, and it’s still mixed and arranged for the highway. Some hip-hop is made for automobiles — especially the syrupy Southern stuff — but lots of rap records are designed to be heard on headphones and marketed to pedestrians and subway riders. Our feelings about the car have shifted around since 1955, but it remains central to American culture and the American ideal, and rock songwriters have, from the beginning, treated the vehicle and the road as both subject and metaphor. The theoretical building blocks for rock music have always been cars and sexual frustration, with one often substituting for the other — and as ambitious as rock lyricists have gotten, none of the greats have ever forgotten the basics. We’ve seen Chuck Berry fiddling, irate and inflamed, with the seatbelt in “No Particular Place To Go”, “Fire” Springsteen driving in his car with the girl who says no, Joe Strummer groveling before the womanin the brand new Cadillac, repressed Gary Numan and Lennon with the starlet and Prince and a pocket full of used condoms in the little red corvette and etcetera, all rolled up by the dashboard light into a big horny, greasy, automotive mess, and ain’t that America.
Swift and Morris pick right up where their forerunners left off. The key songs on Hero are all about her ride and the men who can’t satisfy her. The central metaphor on 1989 was the car wreck (“hit the breaks too soon/twenty stitches in the hospital room”): the crash as a symbol of desire out of the control of its possessor. Nearly everybody in a Nashville song seems to be on a dirt road in a pick-up truck with a girl or boy who will or won’t; knock the operators of the music machine for predictability if you must be ungrateful, but never claim that they don’t grasp the rudiments.
This extends to the few mainstream country artists who do occasionally generate the kind of honky tonk music that Hank Williams might have found familiar. Foremost among them is Miranda Lambert, who, not unjustifiably, calls herself the Keeper of the Flame. But despite such throwbacks as “To Learn Her”, Miranda Lambert is 100% rock star, an old-fashioned traveling bandleader who opens and closes her highway-crazed double album in her car, and who writes nail-chomping stories of desires unfulfilled. Women in rock express sexual frustration differently from the way the boys do; it’s more “dreaming of the day that you wake up and find/what you’re looking for has been here the whole time” than”get your rocks off get your rocks off”. But the urge is exactly the same, and in order to argue that Miranda Lambert doesn’t rock, you’d also have to say that Creedence and Bonnie Raitt don’t rock, either. And of course they do.
Rock persists because it works: it expresses basic desires for release and personal expression in the urgent, loud sound and direct language that is specific to the American experience. Many other styles have been tried out by pop musicians, but they fall short. The only major form of popular music that is both distinct from rock and aesthetically satisfying is hip-hop — and hip-hop borrows plenty from rock. Hip-hop succeeds on its own merits not merely because it has developed its own sound and its own history. It also has its own symbology, and its own ideological inspirations: telecommunications, connectivity, and social mobility. That said, the hip-hop enterprise has modeled itself on the rock biz, right down to the emphasis on the frontman and his loyal beatmaker, the single as handshake-hello and the classic album as the unit of enduring value, the spectacle concert as the main public interface, and the star’s assumption of godlike powers. Many pop bestsellers draw equally from rock and hip-hop: Lemonade, for instance, is split right down the middle between guitar-n-drums numbers and others that rely on synths and digital beats. That doesn’t make Beyonce one hundred per cent rock star. But in order to argue that she never rocks, you’d also have to say that Tina Turner and Donnie Hathaway (and Tori Amos) never rocked, either. And of course they did.
Billboard’s piece quotes Steven Hyden — another critic I like. He suggests that most people possess an image in their heads of what a rock band is: a bunch of tattooed, bad-attitude dudes in leather jackets who team up and take over the planet. I think he’s right about that, and I do think that we, citizens of a visual culture, tend to concentrate more on what musicians look like than what they actually do. (There are, undoubtedly, others who refuse to grant women the right to sexual frustration, or the steering wheel, but they’re best left to their own private Talibans.)
Here’s what strikes me funny about that stereotype, though: in the long history of rock music, there haven’t been many times when the style was dominated by ruffian white-boy groups. More often, rockers were shooting-star solo artists like Elvis or Little Richard, or large ensemble funkmasters like Prince and Sly Stone, or blatant art school kids on a spree like Talking Heads or Genesis, or machine-tinkerers like Eno or New Order. There will always be a vocal segment among fans of popular music who will not accept that an artist is a rocker unless he — and it is always a he — sounds and behaves like G.G. Allin. But even in the Eighties, G.G. Allin was never much of an attraction beyond his niche. An oppressive world like ours allows for a million and one ways to rebel, and rockers haven’t begun to exhaust the possibilities. This story has many chapters to go, and it’s on us to make sure we’re telling it right — and never to deny club membership to the many who are, plain as day!, carrying on tradition.
Even if they don’t look, or act, like Keith Richards. C’mon, rock writers, admit the club is much bigger than you say it is. You’ll feel better with the gates open. There’s nothing wrong here that a little ventilation can’t fix.
Single tracks, and points:
1. Mitski — “Your Best American Girl” (165)
2. Solange — “Cranes In The Sky” (146)
3. David Bowie — “Lazarus” (145)
4. A Tribe Called Quest — “We The People” (142)
4. Kanye West — “Ultralight Beam” (142)
6. Adele — “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” (122)
7. Beyonce — “Formation” (117)
8. Xenia Rubinos — “Mexican Chef” (111)
9. Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” (100)
10. David Bowie — “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (98)
Dateline 1991. Playing in the background: “Can I Kick It?”, the first Tribe song I ever heard. So polite, so laid-back and crowd-participatory, so jazzy and skilled, so confident, so redolent of the new New York we were trying to create. Here was my first encounter with a friendly character we’d all come to know very well over the next few years–Q-Tip, who was, even then, cool and composed, intellectually nimble and completely in charge of the operation. Phife was the junior partner, the little brother, and hadn’t found his feet yet; nevertheless, he came up with one of the song’s most memorable lines. Midway through the second verse, he directs a plaintive request toward a guy who probably wasn’t listening to very much rap music:
Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?
Phife, then just barely free of his teen years, gave voice to a feeling that many New Yorkers of all ages had. We hoped that many of the troubles afflicting the city — racial dissension, economic inequality, gentrification, incivility, disappearing greenspace — might be eased if an African-American were to helm the municipal government. Police might tread lighter; neighbors might be more cooperative; a black face in a position of civic prominence might undercut some of the cruel assumptions about nonwhite leadership that were then (and still) ambient. All of that was present in Phife’s delivery. He had none of the strategic reserve and artful detachment that was already his partner’s hallmark. Phife sounded guileless — so straightforward and wide open to the possibilities of the future that it was hard not to be a little scared for him. What would happen when this wishful kid encountered reality? Would he still think that bureaucratic functionaries would be doing us all a really big favor by assuming authority?
Ten years and hundreds of hip-hop quotables later, A Tribe Called Quest took the stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom for a farewell concert. Q-Tip hadn’t changed very much, but Phife was a different character altogether. He’d become a battle rapper; a lyrical samurai with a bottomless grab bag of clever rhymes and pop-culture references at his disposal. His voice, too, had set and hardened like old wood. He’d grown into the role of the Five Foot Assassin: the Tribe’s lethal counterpuncher and no-nonsense connection to street wisdom. The four-man crew — for Jarobi had come along to be part of the big goodbye– was still promoting The Love Movement, but they did some of the old favorites too. And when Phife came to that second verse of “Can I Kick It?:, I recall he did an edit on the fly:
Mr. Dinkins was a fucked-up mayor.
No further elaboration, nothing specific about what made him change his outlook, no implication that he had a partisan agenda or ax to grind; nothing but cold-eyed disillusionment. Just like Phife, we’d all lived through the Dinkins years, and we’d learned that if it was as easy as electing a black man to an administrative position and waiting while he worked his magic, our problems would have been over long ago. But they weren’t, and Phife, who’d long since lost his patience with bullshit and smoke-blowing, had become constitutionally incapable of rapping to mislead or obscure. If he’d come to the conclusion that David Dinkins was a fucked up mayor, well, that’s what he was going to say, no more and no less.
The Tribe split up. Q-Tip did solo sets, starred in Poetic Justice, produced and arranged and networked, and assumed the role of Secretary of Something-or-Other in Kanye West’s cabinet. Phife got sick. The man who called himself “the funky diabetic” — and famously boasted that he drank so much soda that they called him Dr. Pepper — exacerbated his disease. He did manage to get out one album of his own–its lead single, “Flawless”, attacked Q-Tip’s blatant showbiz moves. The tension between the precise, ambitious, stylish Tip and the earthy, combative, unglamorous Phife made the sporadic Tribe reunions fascinating to watch. It also seemed to guarantee that they’d never be able to hang together in the studio long enough to make another album.
Malik “Phife” Taylor, as you know good and damn well, is no longer with us. 2016 was loaded with music-star death; Phife’s might have been the saddest of all because it felt so avoidable. Hip-hop loved him, his friends loved him, Jarobi loved him enough to move to Atlanta to cook for him, his wife loved him enough to give him one of her kidneys. All of that affection and respect couldn’t save him, and he went to his grave at 45 — even for a reluctant celebrity carrying the heavy mantle of Queens hip-hop and burdened with the expectations that always accompany early success, that’s way too young.
The death of Phife is one of the two major topics on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, the group’s surprise-released sixth full-length and a handy winner of our 27th annual Poll. The other is the pitiful state of American civil society and the not-unrelated question of generational transition in hip-hop: how do elder statesmen get the new kids to carry on their values without appearing schoolmarmish? Q-Tip sprinkles sugar and praises star pupils (Kendrick and J. Cole, natch); he cultivates a performance of understanding and wags an olive branch. Unwilling to get with the program and eager to fall back on his core competency, Phife just wants to battle. These mumble-rap kids are easy pickings; should they show up to the fight, which is unlikely given their assumed cowardice, the Madman Malik stands ready to administer a lyrical beatdown. Diplomacy was never his thing.
Neither was mysticism. On the album’s tear-jerking second half, Tip and his associates reanimate their dead friend through rhyme: sometimes they deliver encomiums and testimonials, sometimes they imagine him at peace with “no more worries”, and sometimes they adopt his character and use his leftover verses and catchphrases and bow bow woof woofs. Realist and materialist that he was, it is hard to imagine Phife having time for any of this. His experience, as he makes manifest in his own rhymes, was one of pain. Show business, for him, was a thin veneer and one liable to rip at the slightest pressure. Behind it was the poet, operating cushion-free, confronting a big world and his own problems with his fists balled up.
As for the deft-as-ever Q-Tip, he fights the suspicion that the slow-motion destruction of his partner is an analog for the slow-motion destruction of the country. On the political songs that start the album, he sounds braced for the worst, frayed, neurotic, occasionally shattered, unwilling to summon the breezy confidence that characterized his delivery in the early 1990s. Most of We Got It was written and recorded in the wake of the Paris attacks, and Tip, who pointedly rhymes about the “woman with the wisdom who is leading the way”, expected Americans to regain their senses. We were dancing close to the brink, yes, but we’d be spared the full cataclysm.
Phife wasn’t so hopeful. He had harder words for those who thought we could joke or entertain our way out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. His snarling verse on “Conrad, Tokyo”:
Trump and the SNL Hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no time for comedy/Blood clot you doing, bullshit you spewing/As if this country ain’t already ruined.
As innocently and optimistically as he delivered the Dinkins line?, that’s how angry and defeated he sounds on “Conrad”. This is how Phife Dawg went out — with no illusions about the mess we’ve made or our capacity to clean it up, convinced of our collective complicity, and realistic about his own self-destructive behavior. Heroes or saviors weren’t coming; if there were any consequential decisions left to be made, we were surely going to choose the wrong option. Because he took the world on its own ugly terms, and because he kept his defenses down, courageously and heroically and in the name of good, concise writing, he was able to get straight to the point with no filigree and no excuses. His story ended in tragedy. Ours hasn’t just yet, but we’re sure as heck heading that way — and if it does and he was around for it, he’d have said so. He’d have rhymed about the rope on the way to the gallows. It’s the only way he knew how to play the game.
Q-Tip is one of the great musicians in hip-hop history. Phife, for all his talents, was no such thing. But the prospect of A Tribe Called Quest without Phife’s participation is absurd — his distinctive sensibility and perspective was always essential to the project. Q-Tip was the leavening, Phife was the astringent; they went together and reinforced each other, and now that the Madman Malik is lost to him, his former partner will never find another collaborator who complements him anywhere near as well. They grew up together and developed interlocking skills; now Tip is a free radical, but he’ll never truly be home again. Word has it he’s got a solo album coming this year. It’ll be good, I’m sure, but it won’t win this Poll or any other. By the timeWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service came out, Phife was already long gone, which made it an elegy, a glance in the rear view mirror in a year of loss where everything worthy seemed to turn to sand in our hands. From the moment of its release, it was a reminder of something, and somebody, gone forever — and a memento of a brutal fight that the good guys lost.
Your albums of 2016, plus points:
1. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (381)
2. David Bowie — Blackstar (304)
3. Mitski — Puberty 2 (252)
4. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial (238)
5. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker (235)
Gosh, that’s a grim Top 5. Guess it suits these sad times. Also, our regular voters are far older now than they were when we started this exercise, and our results reflect this. Since 2016 forced everybody to confront mortality, the high body count is not that much of a surprise. That said, the other two albums here are all about the late-teenage predicament, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten where we came from. I’ve noticed that aging individuals often accompany their principled disengagement from new music with a complementary detachment from the concerns of young people. Even though we’re no longer young people ourselves, that hasn’t happened to us yet. I hope it never will.
6. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo (232)
7. Solange — A Seat At The Table (230)
8. Frank Ocean — Blonde (188)
8. Anderson.Paak — Malibu (188)
8. Drake — Views (188)
There are more black faces on this list than there often are. Not just ours; almost all of the mainstream end-of-year lists are similarly skewed toward megastatement records made by people of color. The average African-American pop star has become an unabashed critical favorite and cultural luminary, and how different this feels from the years of my youth when MTV was Michael Jackson and the seven thousand dwarves. Part of this is due to the stars themselves: the Knowles sisters, meticulous footnoters and chroniclers and students of history that they are, do make sure to engage in contemporary societal debate in a way that Whitney Houston didn’t, or couldn’t. No knock on Whitney; you know I love her. Even if she’d wanted to, the music industry would never have allowed her to make an album like Lemonade or A Seat At The Table. The major-statement records that critics then loved were exercises in cultural mediation, if not outright appropriation: Peter Gabriel’s stuff, and Paul Simon, and Sting. Hip-hop changed all of that. Now when old rock stars like U2, Coldplay or Green Day attempt to protest, or engage with current affairs, or ride the zeitgeist, there’s always a whiff of Broadway schtick about it. We don’t trust it. We don’t feel like they’re entitled to their critique in the same way that Kendrick is.
But before we all pat ourselves on the back for our broad-mindedness, I’d like to point something out that wasn’t always true. After David Bowie — who had been living on Lafayette Street in Soho for years –you’ve got to go all the way down to #23 to find the next non-North American artist on this list. Again, that’s not just us: pop artists from the upper part of the Western Hemisphere are monopolizing critical attention. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to the upheaval that’s currently happening in America. It is now our civic responsibility to concentrate on homegrown debates, and the parlous condition of our inner cities, and babies are dying in Detroit and hey, those European rappers aren’t any good anyway, right? Wait, there are musicians in Mexico?
I, too, love American pop stars best. Of course I do: I’m as ugly an American as you’ll ever see. But I also recall that in the heyday of Blur I used to write a column called British Inversion, and that I once followed musical developments on the Continent. I don’t anymore, not really, and I’m not alone. Consider it another manifestation of the sharp inward turn that we’ve taken together. I fear we’ve exchanged one big blind spot for another.
That said, the major developments in 2016 pop were welcome ones. With varying degrees of success — but an extremely high level of commitment and enthusiasm right across the board –nonwhite female artists attempted to seize the means of aesthetic production and tell their personal stories without the usual mediation from the boys. This happened in the industry’s most celebrated quarters, as Beyonce, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys all helmed personal-statement records that, at the very least, attempted to create the illusion of artistic autonomy. It happened in the great American mid-level, where college rock acts (Mitski), upper-middlebrow jazzbo entertainers (Esperanza Spalding), and Downtown rock-chuckers (Xenia Rubinos) sang feminist fightin’ words and made their identity politics explicit. Most importantly, it happened in the trenches. Independent artists like Noname and Jamila Woods (#44 on this Poll; ought to be muuuuuuch higher) dispensed with the intermediaries and uploaded their music straight to Soundcloud. This allowed them to be as gently incendiary as they wanted to be; Woods’s HEAVN was, in its quiet way, the year’s most militant album and its most concentrated application of black girl magic; Telefone is a more personal set but one absolutely grounded in her experiences on the South Side of Chicago.
Of course there were many men, some of whom are melanin-deficient, involved in the making of all of this music; Solange’s for-us-by-us anthem credits Dave Longstreth, for Pete’s sake. That doesn’t invalidate any of the critiques advanced by these projects or make me any less certain that we’ve got something cooking here. Not all of these albums are hip-hop per se, but they use its accumulative logic and confrontational methods to make art that totally rejects the sort of grotesque objecthood that is usually a girl’s lot in show business. Hip-hop has often refused to accommodate female perspectives, but this year, I watched some of that long-frozen resistance begin to thaw — I mean, if you, rap fan, couldn’t respect Lemonade (or HEAVN, or “Diddy Bop”) for what it was, there’s a pretty decent chance you weren’t just sexist but also a little dense. There are no coincidences in American culture — it’s far too garish for that — and in 2016 we all had to watch a woman with a long resume get humiliated by a guy who probably hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Alas it remains a man’s man’s man’s world, and the music industry is very much part of that world. The women with the wisdom rarely get to lead the way: they’ve always had to scramble and compromise and cut corners to find their places in it. So while you’re mourning the disfigurement of your country and plotting your resistance, save a prayer for Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae, and Maplewood’s own Ms. Hill, who died, over and over, in public, for our sins.
16. Shearwater — Jet Plane And Oxbow (149)
17. Pinegrove — Cardinal (141)
18. Nada Surf — You Know Who You Are (140)
19. Okkervil River — Away (137)
20. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat (135)
It’s also encouraging to me that many of these artists — Jamila Woods and Noname and the rest of your World Champion Chicago SoX — released their music for free via streaming services. Local heroes Pinegrove had theCardinaltracks up for grabs on Bandcamp for awhile; I believe they’re asking for seven bucks now, but if you’re a cheapskate, you can always direct your browser to YouTube. Barring some kind of corporate conglomeration disaster that, given the mutability and slipperiness of digital files, probably wouldn’t affect pop music very much anyway, this right here is the wave of the future and the death knell for Apple’s dominance. Because when you can distribute files straight from a streaming site, why bother with iTunes? Rather than muck around with a library/database that has always felt to me like a grey administrative chore, I’ve taken to going to Soundcloud and streaming albums directly. If I’m on my bicycle or walking around town and I want music, there’s really no need to make a playlist: Saba’s album is right there for me, and all I’ve got to do is press start. This would have developed even if Chance the Rapper hadn’t made giving music away seem cool, but Chance’s selfless example has accelerated the process — and also demonstrated that it’d never stop anybody from becoming a mainstream star; I mean, turn on your TV, he’s doing Kit-Kat commercials now. His momma was dead on when she called him culture.
21. Tegan And Sara — Love You To Death (134)
22. Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition (132)
23. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (130)
24. Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost (125)
25. Weezer — White Album (117)
26. Bob Mould — Patch The Sky (114)
26. Drive-By Truckers — American Band (114)
28. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound (111)
28. Moor Mother — Fetish Bones (111)
30. Aesop Rock — The Impossible Kid (109)
You may recall that Okkervil River nosed outYeezus to take the 2013 Poll. Three years later, Will Sheff’s outfit didn’t do as well; in fact, this was the first time Okkervil polled lower than their friends in Shearwater. Kanye West lost some ground, too — after nearly winning in 2013 and finishing second in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he slides a bit to sixth place. As we’ll see in a few days, this was the year that Kanye’s antics (if you even want to call them that) went over the line and began to affect your assessment of his music. Frank Ocean, author of the year’s most polarizing album, slid a little too. Tegan And Sara gave back some of the ground they gained withHeartthrob; Danny Brown continued his incremental descent down Poll mountain; despite my many attempts to stamp out the menace, Radiohead still persists, down a bit but squarely in the Top 30. Damn weed-b-gone never works.
So who, then, is on the way up? Many older artists, strange to say. A Tribe Called Quest did win this poll before, but it was 1991 and we were still doing it on the placemats at Syd’s diner in Millburn. Even people I think of as long-time regulars hadn’t had an opportunity to vote for the Tribe before. You did like Bowie’s Next Day enough to put it in the Top 5, but Blackstar drew an even more enthusiastic response. Interestingly, Stranger To Strangeris Paul Simon’s best finish on a Critics Poll — had we been doing this in ’86, he might very well have won, but none of his post-Graceland releases have come close. Weezer, Bob Mould, and Aesop Rock continued their steady ascents in the league tables; by the time they’re 90, they’ll probably win one of these things each. Don’t laugh: Chuck Berry has a new album coming out soon. Won’t be surprising at all if I vote for it.
31. Lucy Dacus — No Burden (108)
32. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years (106)
33. Angel Olsen — My Woman (103)
34. Shirley Collins — Lodestar (94)
35. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered (93)
36. Kevin Devine — Instigator (91)
37. Saul Williams — MartyrLoserKing (88)
38. Britta Phillips — Luck Or Magic (87)
39. Rihanna — Anti (86)
40. Trash Can Sinatras — Wild Pendulum (82)
Okay, that’s a wrap for today! Back tomorrow with the singles list, and an essay about a misapprehension that’s screwing with our understanding of contemporary pop. Thanks again for reading and playing, and please stay safe out there.
Other albums getting #1 votes
Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die
Haley Bonar — Impossible Dream
Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.
Jeremy Bible — Music For Black Holes
Mikey Erg — Boys And Girls And Tentative Decisions
This was originally written on November 16, 2015. I’m re-posting it here today because… well, you know why. Travel safe, everybody.
Grief, as C.S Lewis explained, can prompt a rational man to do foolish things. For instance, just last night, I read the comments. Not just the comments — I read several articles in famous publications that may as well have been comments, and I listened to the words of politicians who seem determined to be YouTube comments made flesh. When you’re attacked, it’s logical and healthy to want to kick back as hard as you can. I get that. But everybody with access to a working modem (or a working political party) needs to take a moment and get serious. Because when we act like ISIS is, in any way, representative of Islam, we’re doing exactly what these jerks want us to do. We’re stepping directly into their trap.
The entire business model for groups like ISIS depends on widespread Western failure to appreciate the distinction between devout Muslims and crazed nightclub shooters. ISIS wants you to treat the Muslim on your block as if he’s packing heat in the name of Allah. That way, you will support nativist politicians who aim to make life uncomfortable for outsiders, and those who practice Islam will become angry and (they hope) susceptible to their hate propaganda. Life in the West gets harder for Muslims, suspicion builds, politically convenient battle lines develop, and ISIS’s grotesque parody of a caliphate begins, in theory, to look like a valid alternative to Western inhospitality. They’re begging for us to seal the borders and treat Muslims like prospective criminals. That’s their aim. Let’s not take the bait.
Islam is a religion about submission to God’s will. A real believer walks a path of humility and nonviolence and spends his life in the pursuit of holiness. The moment he considers blowing up a theater or a cafe, he’s no longer a Muslim — he’s a murderer. There is no resemblance between true Islam and the idiotic beliefs of ISIS, and anybody who tries to tell you otherwise needs to go read the Koran. Miley Cyrus occasionally raps; you don’t mistake her for a genuine emcee, right? Just because this al-Qaeda spinoff operation calls themselves Islamic State doesn’t mean they know thing #1 about the religion they purport to represent.
Luckily, there is a word for what the members of ISIS are, and it’s a word we don’t use nearly enough. These people are fascists. Their movement conforms to everything we’ve learned — mostly the hard way — about international fascism: their thirst for purity, their fear of human sexuality, their faith in strength through violence, their intolerance and illiberalism, and their antisemitism, too; all of that stuff is straight from the fascist playbook. Their appeal to disaffected young people with a belligerent streak and a desire to lash out against modernity is the same one used by the Brownshirts — with remarkably little altered in translation.
Fascism needs to be opposed, hard, at all times and in all places. Sometimes that means physical fighting. More often, it needs to be dismantled ideologically. We have to make it clear, and convincing, that a culture of Yes is always preferable to a culture of No, and we have to stay true to that idea. We can’t be hypocritical; we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged toward the fascist murk by people who’d like nothing better than to see an authoritarian clampdown across the Western world. The Syrian refugee crisis was a source of immense embarrassment for ISIS — not because they give a damn about the fate of the people displaced by sectarian violence, but because the millions seeking asylum made it clear, with their own two feet, that they’d sooner wander around Europe than support the imaginary caliphate. ISIS had to watch while the leaders of the Western world — the world they need to demonize in order to keep their campaign going — opened their doors to Muslims in need, and made them welcome.
Sometimes we call ISIS “radical”, or “radicalized;” this, too, is totally unearned. There’s nothing radical about shooting the poor merch guy at a rock concert; that kind of brutality and mindlessness has, sadly, accompanied the human race for centuries. What Angela Merkel did was radical in its courage. Openness is radical precisely because people who can’t manage it can never imagine that other people are capable of it; thus, it stands as a challenge to jerks everywhere. Radical compassion jeopardizes their mission, their narrow worldview, their entire reason to be.
I read today that France wants to suspend the Schengen agreement that has, for decades now, insured that national borders within the EU remain open. Several U.S. states have decided to refuse Syrian refugees. Mr. Trump is angling for surveillance of mosques. ISIS could not have scripted this any tighter. Don’t take my word for it; take theirs. Since their emergence as a blot on the world map, they’ve made it theiraim to drive wedges between Western governments and ordinary Muslims. Our prejudice is their best propaganda. When we act like the actions of ISIS somehow follow from the precepts and tenets of Islam, it is a monumental insult to centuries of Islamic scholars, statesmen, scientists, artists, craftspeople, and everyday believers.
Don’t mistake this for a pacifist appeal, or an understatement of a genuine threat. There are indeed people out there who want to blow you up, not all of whom live in the Middle East. The success of the anti-fascist movement — and if you are a rocker, or a writer, a lover, a real Christian or a real Muslim, you’re part of it — depends on you keeping your head. Violent provocation can’t go unanswered. This is, however, not a predicament we can bomb our way out of. If it was as easy as leveling Raqqa, the battle would have been over long ago.
Many factual questions remain unanswered: for instance, Mr. Hollande needs to explain to people how it was that eight maniacs on the loose in Paris had access to giant arsenal. Before any sweeping geopolitical conclusions are reached, the exact link between the shooters and the landlocked gunmen in Syria who call themselves the Islamic State has got to be established, and firmly. But all of that is the easy part (or it ought to be if our governments are honest.) The hard part: convincing bewildered and frightened Westerners that Islam isn’t the enemy. No civilizations need to clash. Allow me to lend my hand, small as it is: I, an American Bible-thumper, stand today with millions of my Muslim brothers and sisters in abhorrence of the violence in France and elsewhere. Better than the secular can, we recognize that these were not the acts of God-fearing people. God-fearing people know that judgment will come, in ways sublime and profound — and that that judgment does not begin on some mystic day of reckoning. It begins right now.
Croquet is satisfying, and video games are addictive, and political scheming has its time and place. But the older I get, the more fun I require, and the more fiercely I cling to my first love: boardgames. Not just any board games, either, but meticulously designed and beautifully illustrated ones that have been coming at us in waves from across the North Atlantic for the past two decades or so. This has been a golden age for boardgaming fans, and those of us who like to play them have had an embarrassment of options. For instance, a cousin of mine recently told me he has 500 boardgames of recent vintage in his basement. He lives in semi-rural Mercer County, so he’s got the room to indulge his fixation. Our narrow little place in Downtown Jersey City can’t accommodate any more than the 30 or so games we have, but all 30 hit the table pretty regularly, and I’m always angling to appropriate another closet and expand our collection. Who needs shoes anyway?
The games we like over here are called Euros to differentiate them from the faster-paced, more aggressive American style of design. There are hundreds of Euros of various length and complexity representing different themes and tailored to gratify different playing styles, but these games have a few elements in common. Where American-style boardgames are generally representational — they’ll often let you play with tiny replicas of boats and spaceships and army men or whatever the game’s base commodity happens to be — Euros are a little more abstract. They emphasize balanced game mechanics that are so fine-tuned and mathematically precise that it’s tough for experienced players to fall too far behind the leader. Nobody gets knocked out early and relegated to the sofa. Also, the design of Eurostyle games tends to discourage direct conflict: you and your playmate will often be competing for resources in an economy of scarcity, but the game usually won’t give you tools to demolish what she’s already built. You might be tempted to outpace her by taking the stuff she wants or by blocking her moves, but most of the time, you’ll be so absorbed in plotting your own meticulous strategy that you won’t even bother.
Because of this, fans of the American style boardgames accuse the Euro designers of encouraging multiplayer solitaire. They prefer the clash of armies and big battles to farming or castle construction or village building. Me, I’m not a competitive person, so the peaceable vibe of the Euros suits me just fine. Since I really don’t like beating other players into oblivion, wargaming has never exactly been my thing. I play to win because it’s more dramatic that way, but I never mind losing, especially if I’ve managed to overcome obstacles, slip into the designer’s logic, and make something gratifying happen. When I’m in the middle of a great Euro like Terra Mystica, I’m barely even keeping track of the score: each turn is a puzzle with a set of challenges, imposed by the game, to overcome through clever placement. By the end of the game, I expect to have built a city on the board that’s pretty enough to photograph, and I’m more than hoping that my opponents have done the same.
Because I like to keep track of things, I counted every boardgame we played in 2016.Here’s the Top Ten list, in ascending order.
#10 Tzolk’in.This is a Mayan-themed civilization-building game, the currency is represented by tiny disks with illustrations of corn on them, and the play area is decorated with pictures of ancient temples.All of that looks sharp. But the first thing you’ll notice about Tzolk’in is the large interlocking plastic gears on the gameboard. Each turn, the players load the wheels with cylindrical pawns (there are circular grooves on the wheels that allow your little guys to ride around) and twist the whole apparatus to the right. The longer you’re able to keep your pawns on the gears, the bigger the payoff when you remove them. Like many Euros, Tzolk’in is a “worker placement” game; i.e., there are spaces on the board that are activated when you put a pawn on them. The presence of the gears in Tzolk’in means that the value and significance of those placements keeps changing. That probably sounds confusing, and it *can* be: this isn’t a light game, and it can sometimes feel like you’re riding the cogs to nowhere. But it’s not quite as long or as complex as it seems like it’s going to be, and the tactile pleasure of fitting the wooden pegs into the slots and turning the gears is hard for me to resist.
#9 Castles Of Burgundy.Hilary’s favorite game. Stefan Feld, its designer, frustrates some purist fans of Eurogames because of his love of dice. Many of the best-known Euros — Puerto Rico, Caylus, Power Grid — barely have any random elements at all, which is supposed to make a game a true contest of skill and inventiveness rather than a chance-fest. But eliminate all the luck from a game and you’re left with something like chess, or Hive, or an idealized Eurosocialist state. I don’t like the feeling that there’s a right answer: I want to hold out the possibility that a newcomer, or just a bad player, or an American, could blunder into a win. Anyway, Castles Of Burgundy isn’t like that at all; dice there are, but they’re mostly there to limit the player’s options and force her to improvise. Each round, tiles are laid out in a common area, and the numbers thrown determine which tiles can be taken by the player and added to her little principality. Some tiles allow her to take other tiles, or place down other tiles next to them, and once you get going, those placements often prompt clever chain reactions that are incredibly satisfying to trigger. This game draws some flak because of the flimsiness of its components and the dull-brownness of its art, and I kind of understand where the criticism comes from. But it doesn’t stop us from playing it all the time.
#8 Ora Et Labora.Though we didn’t play it very much in 2016, one of my absolute favorite games is a medieval farming simulation called Agricola. I use “simulation” loosely; I don’t think anything about Agricola is historically or botanically accurate. But it *does* force the player to feel some of the crazed desperation of the pre-industrial farmer on the heath: is there any time to build improvements to my meager, drafty house? Are my neighbors going to take all of the goods? Do I own enough land to do any of the things I want to do? If I have a baby, will we all starve? How the hell am I supposed to feed my family, anyway? Even by the notoriously tense standard of Eurogames, Agricola is a stressful experience, which is why we frazzled characters over here love it so much. Last Christmas, Hilary went and bought a bunch of other games by Uwe Rosenberg, the designer of Agricola. Ora Et Labora is one of them. Superficially, it’s a lot like Agricola (it’s even more like Le Havre, another Rosenberg game), but the economy is totally different: instead of having very few good paths and many ways to go wrong, the player is presented with a multiplicity of useful options. It’s still medieval-themed, but instead of running a farm, you’re in charge of a monastery. On your turn, you’ll usually be confronted by a choice between adding a building to your diocese or enjoying the benefits of a building you’ve already built. Those buildings produce a wide variety of different goods, and since almost everything you do generates points, the little world you’re creating feels beautifully open-ended and maybe even relaxing. As in just about every other Rosenberg games, you *will* end up feeling that you wanted another few turns to bringyour plan to fruition, but there are so many turns in Ora Et Labora that it’s downright greedy to ask for any more. This is a loooong game; a rainy day game; longer than anything else on this list. Uwe Rosenberg believes you’ve got nothing better to do than to play his games. Maybe he’s right.
#7 Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island.This one is a co-op, which means that all the players take on different roles and team up to defeat a threat established by the designer. Everybody wins or everybody loses; there’s no in-between. We don’t have any other co-ops — I think Hilary was only compelled to get this one because of the 18c literary theme. That’s her biz. I’m glad she did: even though this isn’t really my style, it’s a heck of a lot of fun in a Kobayashi-Maru no-win scenario kind of way. If I remember my Defoe correctly, though, Crusoe was on the island by himself — in this game, you and your friends are a team of Crusoes, racing against time and fighting the elements to get rescued or save a damsel or achieve the victory conditions of some other shipwreck scenario. Only you won’t, because this game is hell-bent on humiliating you. Thanks to a truly evil deck of event cards and dice that are effectively loaded against the shooter, any step you take on the island is liable to get you injured or killed outright or invite killer bees into your camp or otherwise destroy your survivalist ambitions. Even if you’re inches from your goal, one bad break (and it’ll come) will wash away everything you’ve built on the island. There’s a sick, masochistic sort of satisfaction I take in watching the master plan undermined by cruel fate: the oncoming storm that’ll surely wreck the flimsy shelter, the food resources drying up, the wild animal that comes and eats all your reserves, you name it. We played Robinson Crusoe more than a few times, and I still don’t think I’ve begun to exhaust the many techniques this game uses to screw you utterly. I’m not sure we’ll return to it too often in the future, but it’s a nicely wicked addition to a games collection, especially if you’re a fan of TV Survivor or hard-luck stories.
#6 Settlers Of Catan.Of all the games on this list, Settlers Of Catan is the one that you’ve probably heard of and perhaps even tried. It’ll be there at any mall board game kiosk during the holidays, right next to Pictionary and Monopoly. Dedicated fans of Euros consider Settlers a gateway game — something designed to introduce newcomers to the style — and tend to talk down on it. It was our first Eurogame, too, but we’ve never outgrown it; on the contrary, we continue to consider it one of the best games on our shelf. Settlers Of Catan gets knocked because the basic mechanic isn’t too sophisticated and the outcome is influenced highly by the constant dice-throws. Here’s another game that is almost entirely dice-dependent: craps. Now, before I had a board game collection, I was a crapshooter, and I recognize the logic of craps beneath the vague theme of colonization. During a game of Settlers, there’ll be lots of talk of laying roads and gathering resources to build cities, but what you’ll really be doing won’t be all that different from what you do at a craps table: you’ll be placing numbers on a board and hoping they hit before the seven comes up. Because all players are in on every roll and trading happens after every turn, there’s not a lot of downtime, and the action is often very tense and exciting, and the game often comes down to a final climactic roll. That’s unusual in Eurogames, many of which end, like a soccer match, with the players standing around and wondering if time’s up. Inevitably the outcome is affected by the fabled perversity of dice. But who among you is above a little perversion?
#5 Caverna.This is Uwe Rosenberg’s ruby-mining remix of Agricola: similar mechanics and rules, but with expanded capabilities for the player and a very different theme. No more are you a medieval farmer; now you’re a Tolkeinesque dwarf living in a cave. You can still develop a plot of land, but you can also tunnel into the mountain for ore and gems. And that’s the best way to sum up the difference between Caverna and its older sibling — here, you’re awash in precious stones with amazing game-altering abilities; there, you’re lucky if you’ve got a stick to dig potatoes with. Caverna is different enough (particularly in feel) that it does seem like a separate experience, but I admit I miss the precariousness and sheer high anxiety of Agricola.Also, I was never drawn to dwarves in Dungeons & Dragons — the elves didn’t really get on with them, and I am always eager to ratify elven choices.
#4 Keyflower.My favorite game, at least for now. Keyflower contains modified versions of many of the elements that are standard across different Eurogames: there’s an auction phase in which players bid on buildings to add to their New World colony, a worker-placement phase for gathering resources, a tile-laying segment that doubles as an exercise in town construction, and one (or more) hidden objectives revealed only during the home stretch. Any one of these could be — and in many cases, has been — the core of a really good Eurogame. Keyflower manages to stitch it all together seamlessly, which is an impressive feat. Never will you fail to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, or why the designers chose the metaphors they did. But what I really dig about Keyflower is the same thing I love about many of my favorite restaurants: seasonality. The action happens over a single year, and options constrict, quite realistically, I think, as the calendar pages turn. In spring, you haven’t got much but hope and a bunch of enthusiastic colonists, but the field is wide open and it seems like things are ready to grow; in summer, there’s a bounty of options, boats sail in to the harbor, and it’s easy to get lulled into the misapprehension that everything about your little town is ideal. Then the chill wind starts to blow in autumn, and players are forced to make preparation for winter, a time of scarcity when everything can fall apart on you fast if you haven’t planned properly. There’s some pretty pastel art — cartoon style, but not too whimsical — that reinforces the theme, and a vague, thrilling sense of impending doom that undergirds the whole experience. It can be chew-your-hand-off tense. But it’s never less than amazing.
#3 Concordia.It’s very difficult to explain the appeal of this game. Everything about it seems old hat; dull and Euro-pro-forma: house-shaped tokens go down on a map/board representing the various regions of the Roman Empire and entitle the player to resources which are then used to facilitate the placement of more house-shaped tokens. If a Euro-hater wanted to create a parody of dry Euro conventions, I’ll bet it would look a lot like Concordia. That the map/board is beautiful in a staid, social studies-y kind of way only reinforces the problem. Yet in action, Concordia is fantastic fun; in fact, it might offer the most enjoyable playing experience of any boardgame, in any style, that I’ve ever played.Not at all is this a history teacher’s classroom aid: anything you might happen to pick up about the Rome during a run-through of Concordia will be purely accidental. That’s because the real action doesn’t take place on the board — it’s driven by a small deck of cards that you’re given at the beginning of the game and which you’ll add to as you go. The cards both affect and exploit the layout of the board, and the sequence in which you play them will determine how well you do. The game requires you to collect sets of cards in various suits (there’s a conceit that each color is dedicated to a different Roman god or goddess, but trust me, in practice, it’s an abstract element of an abstract game) and because play goes so quickly and the cards need to be used fast it can be tough to tell how you’re doing. And that’s part of the beautiful bewilderment of Concordia — nobody has any idea who is winning until the very end.The final scoring feels like a revelation, and players will be on edge as the points are tallied up. This addresses my own biggest gripe with Euros, and one I alluded to in the Settlers comment: too many of these games end on a flat note. Often there’ll be a final round that’s insufficiently distinguished from prior rounds, and/or one token will be so far ahead on a victory point track that the tally barely seems necessary. I’m math-minded enough to respond well to the accountability and measurability of Eurogaming, but I do require some drama, randomness and surprise, too. That’s the ugly American in me, and it’s not budging.
#2 Bora Bora.Games about settlement and colonization — or, for that matter, city-building — do not tend to lead with cultural sensitivity. If my old anthropology professors ever caught me playing Bora Bora, I think they’d probably rescind my degree. Half-naked primitives recruit men and women to their tribes, get ritual tattoos for status, collect shells for currency, dedicate fire ceremonies to mysterious totem-gods who intervene in the game restrictions, and… yeah, I can feel that retrospective F coming. I’d repudiate Bora Bora, and Stefan Feld too, if this wasn’t such a hoot. Ironically, the theme of this game is actually stronger than that of many of the more anodyne concepts above: Feld really seems to have gotten into South Pacific life, or his weird conception of it, anyway. Any game that allows me to work my way up a temple hierarchy (Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica have this element, too) will always draw interest from this wannabe vicar over here.
#1 Jaipur.This straightforward, Indian-themed cards ‘n’ chips game was highly recommended in a column by the baseball writer Keith Law. Like many baseball obsessors, Law also likes boardgames a lot — I think his favorite is Carcassonne, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he described Jaipur as a fast, portable, and extremely enjoyable two-player experience, and he was absolutely correct about all of that. Once we got our copy, we took it on trips with us; we even played it in light turbulence on an airplane and managed to prevent most of the chips from becoming lethal projectiles. It’s easy to keep Jaipur compact because all you’re ever doing is swapping goods, represented by cards in several suits, from a souk of five face-up n the middle of the table. Once you’ve got a set, you trade it in for points in chips — usually the bigger the set, the higher the score, but the player who strikes first can often outscore an opponent who waits. If we’re quick about it, we can usually complete a game in twenty minutes. Setup, too, is a total breeze. So: not the best game of all, but the easiest to make happen, and perfect for short stretches of time that demand to be filled with something engaging, and would otherwise just sit there forlorn, begging to be played with. I can’t handle that — I get too guilty. Come on over here, time. We’ll do something fun.
I’ve always been a little suspicious of record reviewers who don’t play in bands.How can they properly evaluate an album if they’re unfamiliar with the delicate art of sticking quarter-inch cables in holes and/or screen freezes and “ProTools has unexpectedly quit” errors? Consequently, as I appear to be incapable of making toast without burning my face, I am doubly suspicious of me when I take to the computer to review a restaurant. I don’t want the same things out of a restaurant experience as the average man: I don’t drink, I eat meat once in a blue moon, and I much prefer bumbling, endearing, drop-the-fork waitresses to smooth-ass pro service. I’m also pretty sure I don’t want the same things from a restaurant as a sophisticate diner does, either: for instance, I have tried to do the multi-course omakase tasting thing, and… no thanks. Dinner should never last as long as a Springsteen show. Give me some bread, a light appetizer, a main course (usually pasta), and maybe a scoop of ice cream and send me home grinning.
There’s one other thing that might make me a suspect dining critic, but this one I’ll stand by: unlike Joe Yelp, I don’t care at all if the plate I’m given is small. A tiny bit of something good is always preferable to a whole lot of mediocrity — and that is true at any price. I never need to be inundated with food: if I just wanted to fill my belly, I could stay home with a paw in a box of Cap’n Crunch. The relationship between value and volume is a funny one to pin down. After 40 years of eating out in restaurants, I’ve come to understand that it’s the cheap joints and barangrills that rip you off, not the fancy establishments with pretentions. A plate of pasta cooked at a Michael White restaurant in New York City could cost you twenty-five bucks, and it might not overflow the bowl the way a fifteen-dollar macaroni grill option at a strip highway restaurant does. But the difference in quality between the two dishes is not ten dollars. It isn’t even ten hundred dollars. It actually approaches infinity. One dining experience was conceived and executed by artists, and the other one is just bulk provided to sop up the beer.
If you order like I do, it’s possible to eat at Michelin-starred places without breaking the bank. Of course, if everybody ate like I did — pasta, a little side dish, nothing to drink, sil vous plait — there wouldn’t *be* any Michelin-starred restaurants. They’d never turn a profit. No restaurant likes to deal with a bunch of lushes, but that bar tab does pay for a hell of a lot of good ingredients for the chef to work with. But I don’t feel too guilty about it. Even in the past five years or so, I’ve noticed a big change: the modern-day chef-auteur prefers it if you’re on your toes. He does not care for a customer who is too blotto to appreciate his taste notes of cardamom, hibiscus, and mahogany wood chips or whatever. Just as Joanna Newsom cares that you notice the subtle vibrations of the rebec and the tarhu in her mixes, a really good chef wants you to apprehend the full depth of her craft and culinary erudition. I do. Or at least I try. Let that be her consolation as I send her off to the poorhouse.
My ten favorite restaurants of 2016, in reverse order, starting with:
#10. The Dabney (Washington, DC) We threw the dice on this relatively new restaurant for three reasons. 1.) the name reminded me of Dabney Coleman, whose work alongside Geena Davis in the Buffalo Bill Show I appreciated.2.) It’s located in Blagden Alley, a post-industrial, historically preserved area of DC that I’d never visited, and 3.) the chef had cooked at McCrady’s in Charleston. Southern-style restaurants in Washington are always a dodgy proposition, since no matter what the locals try to tell you, DC is effectively extra-regional. The Dabney didn’t remind me much of the Low Country. But what we had was mostly delicious and commensurate with the Dixie farmhouse theme, including ricotta and sunflower sprouts on a pumpernickel toast, smoke-saturated vegetables charred in a big wood-burning hearth and served over whey, a skillet of corn bread and sorghum butter, and some sort of farro thing with sweet potatoes that I still think about. Plus they make reezy peezy, which is tough to find north of Cape Fear. We’ll be back.
#9. The Grocery (Charleston, SC) See, a real Charlestonian restaurant is guaranteed to have seafood on the menu that us Yanks have never heard of: triggerfish, barrelfish, wreckfish, zipperfish, etc. I think I made the last one up. But the other three are real and caught somewhere beyond the point where the Ashley meets the Cooper, and then they’re brought directly to the table, or at least it tastes that way. Carolina seafood ruins me for fish caught and cooked elsewhere, and as far as I can tell, the best place to have a seafood dinner — even better than FIG — is The Grocery. I got a triggerfish, or maybe it was a barrelfish (pretty sure it wasn’t a wreckfish, because I would have made ceaseless, unfunny “getting wrecked” jokes, and I would now not have a girlfriend) and it blew away all the other seafood I’d had in ’16, including the outrageously delicious grilled hamachi collar coated in fish sauce I ordered twice at Uncle Boons. My worry is that the Grocery was almost entirely empty when we went. It’s not a small operation. Hope it’s still around when we visit Charleston next.
#8. Staplehouse (Atlanta, GA) I read a bedazzled review in Atlanta Magazine that suggested that Staplehouse was a restaurant worth flying in for. Atlantans are always trying to get you to visit and wagging bait in your face; guess I’m a sucker because I made us a reservation when we were in Georgia, and lucky us, although we had no idea what we were in for. I figured Staplehouse for a comfortable Southern dining plus daring experience akin to the one I’m accustomed to having at Miller Union. Instead I got some of the weirdest and most compelling food I’ve ever put into my mouth. Many of the dishes were as difficult to describe as an acid trip, but I distinctly recall a carrot and edible flower arrangement that looked like a big orange crown, and a great swirl of green farro and peanuts over some kind of transmogrified mushroom that may have been sentient. Honestly, I’m just guessing. Staplehouse is the kind of place that serves you a gigantic plate of scorched alliums, and you’ll be thinking “how am I going to eat an entire plate of onions?”, and then you take a nibble and oh my god that’s amazing. Next thing you know, the ole platter has been wiped clean. A few months after we visited, Bon Appetit named Staplehouse the best new restaurant in the country. Word’s out. Flying in for a reservation isn’t going to be as easy as it was.
#7 Sarma (Somerville, MA) If you, like me, prefer vegetables and grains to meat and fish, Middle Eastern restaurants are always a decent option.Over the past few years I’ve become aware of some outstanding ones, including the absurdly cheap-n-good Taim falafel shops in New York City, Zaytinya in Washington, the Dizengoff hummus empire that now extends from Philly to the Chelsea Market, and Zahav, a knock-you-dead Israeli place on a hill in the middle of Philly Center City. Sarma, however, beats them all. Since it’s in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville, a Boston tourist may have to take a long trip on the T to get there. Once you’re in, it’s just one fantastic, creatively conceived dish after another, including (when we went) brussels sprouts bravas, red lentil kibbeh made with crab, a stinging-nettle spanikopita, and a ridiculous “seven layer” hummus platter with every grain in the Levant assembled around it. Part of the fun, too, is that the waitstaff bring around dim-sum style plates that aren’t on the menu, and dangle them in front of you like a kitty treat. This kitty finds it difficult to resist, and that sure does run up the bill.
#6. Little Park (Chambers Street, Manhattan) This place is part of a very well known New York City restaurant group, but it doesn’t seem to get the landslide of love that the other NoHo Hospitality establishments do. It’s possible they hired the wrong publicist, or maybe the place’s well-foregrounded resemblance to J-G Vongerichten’s ABC restaurants has damaged its rep. Little Park is no mere knockoff, though, so I’ve got to wonder what gives. Ordinarily, to make it in New York, the city of FOMO, where it’s more important that food look good on Instagram than that it’s edible, a restaurant needs to come up with a signature, photo-friendly dish: the veal chop upside down, or the aluminum siding remoulade or whatever. Little Park’s food is pretty, but I don’t think they’ve got one of those. What they do have is pasta, cooked at an extremely high level, by a chef who understands simplicity and what elements to emphasize. I didn’t think she could top the green spaghetti with walnuts and ricotta until I tasted her girandole and minced mushrooms. (She calls it a “mushroom bolognese”; she’s a card.) Also, good as Sarma was, none of their vegetable dishes were better than the roast carrots with dukkah I had at Little Park. Again this felt like it was kindasorta borrowed from the carrot salad at ABC Kitchen, but I didn’t mind: a visit to ABC means a good twenty minutes spent on the PATH plus a walk over to Broadway from Sixth Avenue. Close enough, but an odyssey compared to the trip to Little Park, which is five blocks north of the World Trade Center. Depending on tunnel traffic, it might take me longer to get into Hoboken. Also, ABC Kitchen is always booked up. Little Park tends to be wide open.
#5. Vedge (Philadelphia, PA) Food at vegan places used to taste like sawdust, tennis racket strings and moral superiority, but that’s changing, I’m glad to say. The restaurant we went to the most in 2016 was a new vegan place in the East Village that could easily have made this list. What I like best about Avant Garden is that the chefs let the ingredients speak for themselves and don’t attempt to disguise them or apologize for building their dishes around them. You’re there because you like to stick plants in your face, and for no other reason. It annoys me a little that the couple that runs Vedge always casts vegetables and grains in the role of meat — it seems unnecessarily envious. Is meat really that great? I sure don’t think so. But if I was ever craving a big juicy slice of skirt steak, I think I’d be more satisfied with a slice of Vedge’s seitan, which will make you forget all the lousy wheat gluten you’ve ever had to eat. Likewise, Vedge’s grilled rectangle of tofu, glazed with ssamjang and served with mushed-up edamame, knocks the stuffing out of most of the fish dishes you’d get at good Japanese restaurants. You don’t believe me, and that’s exactly why Vedge is so amazing — everybody leaves the house converted, even if it’s just to an understanding that vegetables and grains have expressive powers we never thought they possessed. The carrot with sauerkraut, for instance, doesn’t exactly replace a Hatfield hot dog at Citizens Bank Park, but it may make you look at one differently. (Or it may just remind you of the broccoli dog at Dirt Candy.) The composed desserts, on the other hand, are works of a total culinary visionary; I mean, who would have thought that there was room in the stomach of Philadelphians for a zucchini blondie plus rosemary ice cream and a squash blossom gazpacho? I’m glad she had faith in us. I probably would have chickened out and served a pretzel or something.
#4. Frances (San Francisco, CA) This has become one of my favorite spots on the planet, and if it wasn’t on the far side of the continent, I think I’d probably set up a bed somewhere in the dining room. I’m not sure what it’s local rep is, since it’s small and somewhat cramped, it sure ain’t cheap, and it’s buried pretty deep in the Castro. Nothing about it feels particularly fashionable. But as I have come to realize, my preferred style of cooking is Northern Californian, and dinner at Frances feels to me like tipping the entire state of California into my mouth as if it was a giant golden lavash. We have an unfortunate tendency to order the entire menu here, since everything looks so good and then ends up tasting even better than it looks. At the conclusion of the evening I am like a cartoon character too fat to fit in the cable car. San Francisco: where I behave shamefully. Especially when the Giants win.
#3. L’Artusi (West Tenth St., Manhattan) New York City, bless its soul and its bleached Italian roots, is loaded with pasta palaces. Over the past two years of dedicated testing, I have come to the conclusion that the very best of them — better than my beloved Osteria Morini, better than Locanda Verde and Via Carota, better even than the justifiably heralded Batali-Bastianich places — is this understated, long-running Greenwich Village restaurant. Pasta perfection is difficult to attain anywhere; even the macaroni kings miss most of the time. L’Artusi is the swinger with the highest batting average — we’ve been there enough to recognize patterns, and we have experienced pasta perfection at more than half of our visits. Which is unheard of, and might defy some lesser-known law of physics. It’s almost impossible to go wrong here: the vegetarian classic is the preposterously good garganelli with mushroom ragu, but their jaw-dropping spaghetti aglio e olio with breadcrumbs, simple and straightforward as it is, is pasta in its Platonic form. Seriously, if you ordered a dish of pasta in the realm of ideas, this is what you’d get. Meanwhile, Hilary always chooses the tagliatelle bolognese. Her educated position as a dedicated tagliatelle fan and notable pastasmith: nobody does it better.
#2. Piora (Hudson St., Manhattan) Even if some of its dishes are unusual, a place like L’Artusi is easy to explain. It’s an Italian restaurant, it serves pasta, crudo, bottles of wine, and some main courses that, delicious as they look, nobody in their right mind would ever order. If you’ve been to Manhattan, you know exactly the type of place it is. L’Artusi just happens to be the best one of its kind. (mind you, we haven’t been able to land a table at Lilia yet. We’re working on it.) Piora is a different story. I have never been able to describe this place to anyone in a manner that makes it seem interesting or even palatable. I’m going to try again, and I’m sure I’ll fail. What you’ll get here is American cuisine, whatever the heck that is, cooked by a chef who knows his way around the Italian kitchen and adds Korean accents to what he does. The owner of the restaurant is a Korean-American, and he’s frequently out and around the dining room, leading a team of absurdly friendly waiters and waitresses; nearly every time we go, which, given the steep price tag, is maybe once or twice a year, we’re recognized and assured that our presence in the dining room is a total delight. To a Jersey guy accustomed to rude treatment at pizza places down the shore, this kind of courtesy can be downright disorienting. Piora ran a prix fixe until they switched over to the dreaded tasting menu, and then one day they brought back the a la carte option while preserving some version of the omakase experience for high rollers. It’s all a little confusing and maybe even challenging, and if I’ve accidentally made it sound like a fusion restaurant, allow me to bite my tongue. Because it’s not that; not at all. The chef is scrupulous about the food he cooks — nothing here is a slapdash juxtaposition or cultural experiment or even a playful inside joke. He’s got a peculiar and fascinating aesthetic, and everything he does is a perfect expression of his authorship in the kitchen. Imagine a musician with a sound that he can realize effortlessly; drop the needle and within seconds, you know it’s him. That’s what Piora is like. Nothing in this room could be cooked anywhere else, or by anywhere else, and it’s almost incidental that the style is Italian with Korean influences, or American with Italian underpinnings and Asian highlights. Because anything a marketer might call it is inaccurate — what it really is is Chris Cippolone’s personal cuisine, derived from his own experience and imagination and served in Simon Kim’s beautiful dateworthy dining room. (Even the bathrooms are gorgeous.) Portions can be dauntingly small and fussily tweezed — I’ve never left Piora hungry, but then I’m a small feller who would not be able to handle a healthy Middle American portion anyway. You might find the price unjustifiable for what you get. I’m of the opinion that Cippolone is a pasta wizard, and wizardry is something that can’t be priced. The best you ever can do is guess. I concede they’ve guessed pretty high.
# 1. Cotogna (San Francisco, CA) I ask myself to picture my ideal restaurant — a place that I’d invent if I was in the midst of a SimCity-type game and designing a fantasy habitat-neighborhood that catered directly to my tastes. It would have a healthy selection of pastas in high-profile positions on the menu, but not so many that I felt like there was any chance that the kitchen played favorites. There’d be a pizza possibility that I probably wouldn’t avail myself of, although I might be tempted, and the pies and a whole lot of other stuff — mainly vegetables — would come out of a centrally-located wood burning oven. Even though the flames would be visible from the restaurant’s main area, it wouldn’t feel like a farmhouse; instead, the place would be designed to look a little like the front room of an architecture firm but a little more like somebody’s stylish apartment if the local zoning laws were changed to allow big wood-burning ovens in residential developments. Everything from the art on the art on the walls to the utensils would be chosen to reflect the aesthetic of the neighborhood the restaurant is in, thus allowing me to indulge my Godzilla-like fantasy of actually devouring the city itself. (Daintily, mind you.) The service would be friendly but not slick, and nobody would push alcohol or the seventy-five dollar Porterhouse for fifty and then act hurt/disappointed when I didn’t want it. They’d all understand that I was there for a plate of pasta and a scoop of gelato, and maybe some ricotta, and beans, or ricotta with beans, all piled on a grilled piece of bread straight out of the oven. Well, such a place actually exists, and naturally, it’s in the Bay Area. Cotogna is in the Jackson Square area of San Francisco, which is right in the shadow of the Transamerica tower and a not-long walk from the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. Downtown, in other words; right on the edge of the financial district. It’s the little sister of another place called Quince that’s supposed to be even better, and no, I don’t believe that for a second, because how could it be? Granted, I’ve only ever been to Cotogna during the summer, when there’s a corn pasta on the menu — a triangular ravioli — that is such a perfect expression of summer corn flavor that it’s actually painful to finish. That last bite feels like August turning into September and the ring of the bell and back-to-school supplies at the corner drugstore. Alas there is no more; parting is such sweet sorrow. The only bad thing about Cotogna is that eventually you do have to leave. Come to think of it, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe they can just turn out the lights and stash us in the corner.
Honorable mentions (that haven’t already been mentioned): Houseman (Greenwich St., Manhattan), the retooled Hearth (East 12th Street, Manhattan), Faro (Bushwick), Primo (Rockland, ME), Garrison (Washington, DC), Cakes & Ale (Decatur, GA)
Best Ice Cream: Humphrey Slocombe, San Francisco. I know many bay Area locals swear by Bi-Rite. I don’t want to fight, people — I just want to finish my cone. Last summer they served me a scoop with salt and McEvoy Olive Oil drizzled on top, and holy cow. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you get it, and then it’s all you want for the remainder of forever.
Best bakery: Tartine, San Francisco. By now you sense a theme. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d weigh ten thousand pounds. Tartine is the gold standard and I won’t hear your counterarguments. That said, we’ve grown a pretty great one over here: the eight or so breads on sale at High Street On Hudson are amazing, eat-the-whole-loaf in a half-hour type experiences, so, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be going there as often as I do. The rest of their menu struck me as strange, but we’re lucky to have the bakery. Thanks, Philadelphia, for this and Dizengoff; we owe you a restaurant to be named later.
Best pizza: Arturo’s in Maplewood?, you’ll always be tops in my heart, but the 2016 title goes to your little cousin. This summer, Razza was selling a pie covered in honey, ricotta and a variety of hazelnut developed by the agriculture department at Rutgers. Everything tastes better to me when it’s framed as a science experiment. Anyway, this was like no pizza I’d ever had, and I demand another one next summer. Don’t make me raid the laboratories in New Brunswick, Razza. In general, Jersey is woefully underrepresented on this list, which wounds my pride. What can I say?; we traveled a bunch. We’ll be looking to remedy this in 2017 — stay closer to home, eat more fried dough and Italian bakery cookies, etc.
Best restaurant decor: Probably ABC Kitchen, since I’m twee like that. Make my restaurant look like fairyland, Vongerichten.
Best meat dish I ate: After going to see the Fischli & Weiss exhibition at the Guggenheim with George The Monkey, we stopped at the Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. We were tired and wet (it was snowing), and I ordered a culatello panini with artichoke cream, thinking it was some kind of cardoon. Seriously, I didn’t know what it was. Well, I found out what it was: totally delicious. I always feel bad about eating a mammal that I could have been friends with, but trust me, that pig died a hero.
Best sandwich, period: The Noble Eatery in Phoenix sold me eggplant-leek puree plus Anaheim peppers stuffed into a hollowed-out bread that played like an Italian reinterpretation of a pita. This came with a salad of so many various grains I blacked out momentarily from herbivoric joy. Instead of going out for dinner, I ought to just roll around in a vegetable patch. It would probably have the same effect, and I’d get more exercise.
Best beverage: We’ve taken to ordering mocktails at fancy restaurants, which helps undercut some of the guilt I feel about not blowing a hundred stacks on bottle service. I think of it as a challenge to the bartender to come up with something good, and usually she’s game. But my very favorite places have nonalcoholic concoctions at the ready: Avant Garden used to serve hibiscus juice that I would happily swim in. My favorite, though, was a glass of strawberry lemonade I got at Frances. I don’t even think it was carbonated. But it was an expression of California love if I’ve ever tasted one.
Best salad: Frances almost took this one too. They graced us with a panzanella with croutons the size of golf balls. That might not sound like a selling point, but listen, pal, you didn’t taste those croutons. But the winner was a pomegranate, radicchio, and blood orange salad we got at Maialino, which was a total Christmas-season delight. Hilary attempted to replicate it for her own Christmas dinners. I think she did, but she’s critical of herself and might say otherwise; you’ll have to ask her yourself.
and finally, just for the hell of it,
The worst thing I ate all year: It wasn’t the strange, oddly pebbly filling I received in the vegetable tacos at a place called the Mission in Scottsdale, Arizona, although that was probably my most disappointing meal out. It wasn’t the onion tater tots — pungent, festering greaseballs — I ate at a Dunkin’ Donuts en route to Great Adventure, although that was definitely my grossest meal out. No, it was an alleged chocolate ice cream cone we attempted and failed to eat at an innocuous shop on the main street in Providenciales. The ice cream, which may have accidentally fermented?, tasted of greywater and floor cleanser and had the consistency of a wet cotton ball. It’s our own fault: Providenciales is basically a desert climate. We shouldn’t have expected to get good ice cream there anyway.
Okay, if you enjoyed this examination of me in listicle form, tune in tomorrow, and we’ll talk about boardgames. Can’t eat those, but they sure are fun.