Wolves and rabbits

Simply unacceptable.

Hello, my name is Tris, and I do not drive.  I have a license, but I don’t have a car.  I can operate one if I need to, but as a dweller in a pedestrian-intense area of an East Coast city, I’ve never deemed it wise to have four wheels.

Two wheels, on the other hand, are mandatory.  I take my bicycles everywhere.  I’ve got a nice copper-colored Trek that’s a good option if I’m going to leave town and contend with gravel roads. But if I’m sticking to local routes, I will always choose to ride my Brompton folding bike — a wiry little hop on/hop off guy not that much bigger than a scooter.  To the endless dismay of those foolish enough to care for me, I do not wear a helmet.  When implored to do so, I politely demur.  I don’t want any impediment standing between me and my ride; I want the act of getting on and off the bicycle to feel as natural as it would be if I’d decided to walk down the street.  A helmet, I’ve often reasoned, isn’t going to save me from the worst dangers of the road.  Should I be struck by a speeding SUV, I expect to die.

But maybe I wouldn’t. Andy Black didn’t die.  On July 19, 2022, he was broadsided by a black Nissan Rogue at the intersection of Forrest Street and MLK Drive; a few days later, he was giving interviews.  It was no glancing blow he took.  His trajectory was intercepted by a front grill that came on like an All-Pro linebacker. Initially, Black told the press that he had the right of way.  Footage posted on New Jersey Globe (don’t watch if you’re squeamish) demonstrates that he went through a red light.  

Incidents like this happen in the city all the time.  Those painted-white ghost bicycles chained to fences and signposts testify to the risks we run every time we take to the streets, and they remind us of the terrible anonymity of tragedy.  The world isn’t going to stop if we get run over.  They’ll come out with the sweepers if there’s anything obstructing traffic; forty-five minutes later, it’ll be like nothing ever happened.  The only reason that Andy Black’s accident drew attention was because of the identity of the driver: city councilperson Amy DeGise, daughter of County Executive Tom DeGise.  The Councilwoman did not brake to investigate what she’d done.  She left a man down on the pavement and kept on driving. 

This has become a metaphor for the relationship between City Hall and the citizenry.  More specifically, it feels like commentary on the disposition of Grove Street toward the part of the city where the accident happened: Bergen-Lafayette, a poorer neighborhood that has often been neglected by the authorities.  Here is a working stiff, on his way to take an Uber Eats delivery order; there is a gas guzzler with tinted windows blowing down the block as if it was the Autobahn.  A man lies bleeding on Ward F pavement.  The city official who put him there won’t even stop.  Does she not care about his pain?  Or, shielded by steel, speed, and the arrogance of those on official business, did she somehow fail to even notice?

I can’t speak to the legality of what she did. She left the scene of an accident, which seems like a pretty big deal to me, but I’m no attorney. That Black ran a red light is salient to the legal case, but exactly how meaningful it is, I’ll leave to the traffic cops to decide.  It doesn’t particularly surprise me that many locals on social media have refused to express any sympathy for Black: he wasn’t following the rules of the road, and he found out the hard way that disobedience has consequences. Fair enough, I suppose. If you want to be a stickler for the specifics of the code as it’s written and enforced, I’m sure you might even find yourself with the tacit blessings of a local hanging judge or two.

But I don’t think you’ve got to be a Green Party voter to believe that it’s absurd to apply the same rules to a bicyclist that you’d apply to a motorist.  An SUV is a five-thousand-pound assembly of steel with an internal combustion engine that can achieve speeds unimaginable for most of human history, and can reach those speeds as easily as you can depress your foot.  A bicycle goes no faster than ordinary leg power and sweat can take it.  Any encounter between a machine like that and a human being, is, quite literally, weighted massively in favor of the machine.  In most of Jersey City, the cyclist must share the street with motor vehicles moving at terrifying velocity.  Navigating that street is an act of faith: we have to believe that the people behind the steering wheels are rational actors in full possession of their faculties.  To make matters worse, those streets where we must practice that faith are designed to accommodate the driver, not the cyclist.  The system of signals and procedures that govern conduct assume that road-users are in cars, and are therefore protected from the elements and the vagaries of their neighbors.  The cyclist must accommodate that system, and work with it, even as he knows that any departure from that system by a driver might be the end of him.

What this means — and every city cyclist knows this — is that there will be times when, in order to survive, the person on the bicycle simply must bend the rules.  If he’s chugging along on a busy street with no bike lane, and with cars speeding by, it might not be the wisest thing for anybody to wait at a light as if he’s sitting in a monster truck.  If he tries to get ahead of the cars, he’s not doing this because he’s stunting, or flaunting the law, or engaging in an act of petty civil disobedience.  He’s trying to find a safe place for himself in the rhythms of traffic — rhythms that are established by the motor vehicles around him, and which he can do very little to influence.  

Andy Black had a tough task.  Circumstances put him on MLK Drive at 8 in the morning.  There’s not much space to ride on that street when the road is deserted; during rush hour, it’s an obstacle course. Ride too close to the curb and you’re liable to be doored. Go too close to the central dividing line, and you’re going to bother every driver you pass. Black had cars in front of him obstructing his vision, another car pressing him from behind, and many other cars parked on the side of the street, making it impossible for him to let any cars pass.  Pedestrians are in the crosswalk. Everybody is hurrying. He is acutely aware that he’s not going fast enough for the liking of the drivers around him, and they’re viewing him as an obstruction to their designs. To make things easier for everybody, he tacks toward the center of the road. He does this to improve his own recognition of the streetscape, and as an acknowledgment that his presence is an annoyance to the motorists.

Black slows at the light.  Then he accelerates into the intersection.  He sees daylight and a car-free stretch of pavement, and he takes advantage of that.  He receives the red light as a blessing for everybody: he can have a few seconds of relative calm, and the cars behind him can be free from his presence. What he did not anticipate was a City Councilwoman racing down a residental street at speeds best left for the highway.  Struck full on, he spins in space, tumbles over, lands right on his side in the middle of the road.  Then, even before the bent bicycle stops bouncing, he retrieves a sandal, picks himself up, and limps to the sidewalk.

As for Amy DeGise, she’s already long gone.  The consequences of her actions — or her inaction — will catch up to her later, but for now, she’s speeding to her destination. Yet, to me, a cyclist there but for fortune on the MLK tarmac, the inaction of the rest of the motorists is just as meaningful, and just as telling.  Yes, DeGise doesn’t stop.  The other cars don’t, either. The moment the light turns green, they roll through the intersection without hesitation.  Some of the pedestrians on MLK Drive try to assist.  One makes him comfortable on a cooler, while another (the rascal) defies the light to bring him his other sandal. 

But the drivers remain indifferent.  Right before their eyes, a man is nearly killed — a man with whom they’d just been interacting in an attempt to navigate a crowded street.  Yet that man is not a fellow driver, which means he is to be treated as an enemy: an interloper in a zone that belongs to them and them only.  He was using a modality of transportation imported from communist Czechloslovakia or somewhere like it, and who was likely supportive of new rules meant to protect his fellow two-wheeled commies.  He got the beating that was coming to him, and that that beating came from another motorist simply absolved them from any legal responsibility for their unarticulated feelings.  He could have a concussion, he could have broken bones, he could have damaged pride, whatever; that was his problem, not theirs.  They’re home free.

This, to me, is an extension of the hit and run.  Not quite as dramatic or irresponsible as what the Councilwoman did, but a completion of her nearly-lethal gesture of contempt for cyclists.  The message board and social media posts dismissing Andy Black are the final flourishes of that same gesture.  It’s a wave of dismissal that those of us who ride bicycles are all too familiar with.  And on behalf of all of us two-wheeled characters — those struck physically by city officials, and those who’ve merely been slighted by them — I’d like to remind non-cyclists that our manner of getting around is not merely legally valid and therefore entitled to protection and special accommodation.  It’s the logical way to negotiate distance in a city like ours.  Moreover, pedestrian-friendly cities like this one were not meant to accommodate fleets of sport-utility vehicles.  SUVs are loud, they’re noisy, they’re right in your face, they’re spacehogs, they’re ugly, they extract a social and environmental cost.  They desensitize drivers to the vulnerabilities of other citizens who are not so protected.   And sometimes, as Andy Black learned, they run you right down. So if you must drive in Jersey City, please find a nice garage in Somerset County to stash your unstoppable death machine, and ride something more sane. And if you are elected to public office in Jersey City, boy oh boy should you know better.

Long overdue: A tribute (and individual achievements)

I’ve been waiting to write this essay all my life. Hold on.

I’m a simple person with simple peeves. Nothing makes me angrier than those lists of the greatest drummers in the history of rock. Oh, I have no issue with the consensus favorites: I love John Bonham, too, and Keith Moon, and Charlie Watts, and Mitch Mitchell, and I’d love it if Ringo would get listed, but he never does, and that’s a whole ‘nother article right there. (See, I’m getting heated up already.)

But when my index finger slides down the list, there’s only one name I’m looking for. That’s Phil, the incisive, impeccable Phil Collins, who is usually tucked away around #50, maybe next to the guy from Journey, and some master of arcane Swiss percussion who we’ve never heard of.  That’s when he’s on there at all. When Phil is dissed like this, enough steam comes out of my ears to power an Industrial Revolution. And if you’ve got a moment for me, I’d like to explain exactly why.

A musician could not be in a progressive rock band unless he had chops: those Huts of Baba Yaga didn’t move without a complicated and well calibrated motor. But of all the prog-rock drummers, Phil Collins had the hardest job. The great Nick Mason had to exercise plenty of tricky bits without losing the R&B feel, but in Pink Floyd songs, there were always long stretches where he could set the controls for the heart of the sun, and slip into a groove while Gilmour handled liftoff and ignition. Phil never had that luxury.  He had to fuse together Tony Banks’s multi-part storytelling epics while keeping the tale comprehensible, and he had to navigate through an Epping Forest crammed to the treetops with Peter Gabriel’s thick verbiage. 

Other progressive rock bands indulged in stretches of pure sound. Genesis was always shoehorning in extra ideas and extra phrases, keeping it theatrical and West End-dramatic, skipping around from section to section in order to serve the through-narrative. Even their instrumentals were frenzied. It was Phil who made sure that when supper was ready, it was piping hot; Phil who turned the crank on the musical box, Phil who somehow got us dancing, and skipping around, on the surface of that volcano that spewed its magma in the strangest of time signatures. Could other progressive rock drummers have turned the trick?  Well, maybe, but it’s worth noting that Bill Bruford, fantastic as he is, could never get comfortable in the driver’s seat when he was briefly handed the keys.

And if that’s all there was to Phil Collins, he’d still deserve a position alongside Bruford and Neil Peart atop those drummers’ lists. It wasn’t — not by a long shot. Uniquely among prog-rockers, the classic era isn’t where the Phil Collins story ends. It’s where the Phil story begins. Once fashions changed and multi-part dramas about the Giant Hogweed were out of vogue, Phil was the man who adapted best to the new reality. Arguably, he did his most ambitious and far-reaching work during the heyday of ’80s soft rock, which is not considered a playground for fantastic drummers. When other timekeepers of the classic period fell back on naturalism and turned a skeptical eye toward new wave innovations, Phil Collins was getting down with early drum machines, figuring out a way that he might use mechanical beat generators to enhance his own vigorous pulse. 

Even nonbelievers who mock Phil know in their bones that he changed music forever with his fill on “In The Air Tonight.” Right there, at 3:41, the world turned upside down; he stood sonic expectations on end and invented a true sound of the future. But the first three and a half minutes of Roland CR-78 was just as radical. It’s the contrast between the slow-dripping, ominous drum box and the thumping, adrenalized, man-made tom roll that puts the primal terror in “In The Air Tonight”, and created a paradigm for ambitious pop producers to follow. Noah “40” Shebib and Francis Farewell Starlite sure were listening, as was Genesis fan Jeff Bhasker, and The Weeknd, and what was “Love Lockdown” if it wasn’t Kanye assuring us that if we were drowning/he would not lend a hand?  When I wrote that Phil invented trip-hop on Face Value, I was only half joking. He showed us all the power of a sudden irruption in a slow, mesmerizing groove, like the head of the alien bursting through the sternum of pop that was, and streaking onward toward pop to come. 

There’s plenty in the Genesis prog catalog that foreshadows “In The Air Tonight;” check out, just to give you a for instance, the stupendous fills that carry home “Eleventh Earl Of Mar.” But it’s unlikely that Phil would have reoriented the sound of ’80s pop if he’d only played in one sandbox. Yes, that’s Phil Collins hammering away on every single Genesis progsterpiece (and there were oh so many of them). Phil also hit the skins on a series of albums that, while not progressive rock per se, split the difference between ’70s bombast and ’80s sophistipop sleekness. Drum aficionados know that Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham came up with the “In The Air Tonight” drum sound while monkeying around with the talkback microphones during sessions for Peter Gabriel’s third album. Yet for some reason, few people realize that Phil Collins played the drums — quite brilliantly, too — on the visionary Brian Eno solo sets that continue to cast a long shadow over adventurous pop music. Robert Fripp is associated with Eno for very good reasons, but Phil was every bit as valuable to the team of lunatics that made Another Green World.  Only Phil Collins could have provided the tailwind for John Martyn’s Grace + Danger, and only Phil could have played those parts, and sung those backing vocals, in a manner that calls no attention whatsoever to the guy doing them, but, once concentrated on, couldn’t have been done by anybody else. When Robert Plant needed an accomplice for his artier, more auteur-like solo albums, it was Phil he called; when Bruce Hornsby needed someone to shake a tambourine, unobtrusively but expertly, on Harbor Lights, he did the same. A long history of subordinating his own star to that of his flower-wearing frontman, and putting his creativity to the service of his cranky piano player’s fantastic stories, made him an ideal side-person for an ambitious songwriter. 

So it’s particularly galling to me when Phil gets knocked for his turn as a pop star.  It’s not just that he earned it via substantial dues-paying and self-effacement. It’s that he’s the only one among his peers who could have managed it in the first place — and that demands respect. Could you imagine Ginger Baker singing “One More Night”? Would Barriemore Barlow have come out from behind the kit to do a spot-on early-’80s soul duet with Phillip Bailey?  Phil Collins wasn’t just a drummer turned singer: he was a drummer who stepped into the shoes of progressive rock’s most charismatic vocalist and stage performer and barely missed a trick. Wind & Wuthering is just as progressive and ambitious as the Gabriel albums, and when the group pared back and charged into the new decade with Abacab, it was Phil who led the way. There is no story in the annals of pop and rock that’s remotely like his, and it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be one again.

Why, then, is it so hard for people to give Phil his props? No doubt the pop career is at least partially to blame: those driven to distraction by “Sussudio”, “Just Another Day In Paradise”, and other Collins numbers played to death on Top 40 radio are still pissed off about it. There’s an entire generation of listeners who associate Phil Collins with ’80s lite radio and couldn’t tell you the first thing about Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid, and the scary thing is that the members of that generation are now fairly long in the tooth. Phil is the first to admit he was overexposed during the Reagan-Thatcher years, so omnipresent, in fact, that some seem to have mixed him up with Reagan and Thatcher themselves.  For awhile he was everywhere, guest performing, acting in movies, hopping the Atlantic to play both halves of Live Aid.  It was hyperactive go-getter stuff, delivered with a gremlin’s grin, compatible with Phil’s inexhaustible creativity, but easy to conflate with the worst of the era of the Coffee Achievers.

The irony is that Phil Collins wrote some of the most pained, vulnerable, candid music of the era — excoriating songs that sting plenty once you peek behind the pop veneer.  Unlike Peter Gabriel, who sang his songs of paranoia and destabilization from the perspective of fantastical, outlandish characters, Phil played an everyman: short, scruffy beard, working-class cap on his largely bald head.  He did not look the part of a rock god. That underscored the power of his best performances, all of which demonstrated that ordinary joes had the ability to feel immense anguish. Among the roles inhabited by Phil on Duke, the saddest album in progressive rock history, are a delusional television addict, a shmoe stood up by a two-timing girlfriend, and a divorcee crying to his inaccessible ex-wife about how much he misses his children. (Tony and Mike contributed a few doozies to that set, too; they all must have felt like the prog-rock jig was up.)  Being a little pathetic became part of Phil’s public image, and helped endear him to a mass audience.

Rage, frustration, and rejection were motivating forces for his solo writing, too, including many songs that became huge hits: the shitfit of “I Missed Again,” the searing dismissal of “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the rubber room balladry of “Take Me Home.” On the outro of “Against All Odds,” Phil has a microphone meltdown intense enough to make Chris Conley blush. Emo fans should recognize and respect the technique: freight the arrangement far past its carrying capacity, and make the contrast between the poised music and the bananas vocal performance as stark as possible.  It’s supposed to sound a little wrong, too much, a berserk transmission from a man who has snapped, and who is determined to call your attention to a major meltdown.

Phil Collins learned to be a frontman by modeling himself after Peter Gabriel, and Peter Gabriel got his wigged-out compositions and concept albums to move by leaning, hard, on his imaginative drummer. So I don’t like to participate in those Peter vs. Phil debates that have roiled Genesis fandom since 1977. I prefer to recognize them as two seeds that grew symbiotically but blew apart (but never all that far apart) in the stiff breeze of rock history. Neither one is my very favorite member of Genesis, anyway: I’ve been attempting to emulate Tony Banks for decades, and the only reason you might not have noticed is because I’m a damned klutz.

If I was forced to choose, I’d have to agree with the consensus that Genesis with Peter was a better group than Genesis fronted by Phil — with the caveat that Peter had Phil in the band, while Phil did not have the benefit of Peter’s legendary imagination. But all sledgehammers lain aside, there ought to be no doubt about which of the two is closer to the main thread of the story of popular music. Phil Collins was a world-class progressive rock drummer in one of the best bands ever banded, he was a sympathetic sideman on some tremendously influential albums, he rewrote the rules for arena rock and new wave drumming, and he was, in his way, a pioneering electronic musician whose use of early drum machines was both audacious and effective.  We associate the TR-808 with early hip-hop and Detroit techno, but it was a balding gremlin from London who first brought it mainstream and took it to the top of the charts.

Even his covers were audacious.* As a singer, Phil had passion, which made up for his technical imperfections, and his version of blue-eyed soul was substantially less appropriative than that of most of his peers. (His fake Mexican accent on “Illegal Alien” is another matter altogether, but I still say the time is right for somebody pleasantly problematic to bring that song back.) His true mark of distinction was his way with a tune: at his peak, he was, like Kanye or Taylor Swift, practically inerrant at the art of finding just the right note in the chord to advance the melody and move the composition from introduction to conclusion with the proper balance of inevitability and surprise.  

Why am I writing this now?  Well, folks, I’ll tell you why. It bothered me that I let Neil Peart die before I registered my appreciation. I did it with an essay that corrected some of the popular misapprehensions about his writing, but posthumous honors bug me. Genesis is presently touring, sort of; Phil can’t play the drums at all anymore, and has to front the group from a chair. Clips from the tour are moving — but only in the way that reminiscences of past glories and showers of affections directed at elder statesmen sometimes are.  So I felt that I’d stick up for Phil while he was in the living years: give a little love to a master who has never quite gotten the recognition that his talent and achievement warrants. Phil Collins belongs in the pantheon of pop game-changers, inimitable, visionary artists with unrepeatable career trajectories, and if that seemed unwarranted to you a few paragraphs ago, it’s probably because you didn’t know the whole story.

Now you do.  

*While I’m at it, let me register another hot take. In my considered opinion, Phil’s version of “You Can’t Hurry Love” is better and more affecting than the Supremes original.  Phil’s take is a stealth grimdark reimagining of a strand of spun sugar from Holland-Dozier-Holland. In the Supremes version, the narrator is a teen girl with her whole life ahead of her: momma is right there, giving her solid advice. The listener sympathizes with her frustration, but there’s every reason to believe she’ll find love. The song turns on her urgency: she’s worried about never getting something she’s obviously going to get. She doesn’t know that, but you do, and the result is charming.

In Phil’s version, the narrator is a thirtysomething man.  He may never have experienced true love or anything like it. Momma is probably dead.  Waiting, for him, is much more consequential, because he’s running out of time and staring at a future of emptiness. When he sings “I can’t bear to live my life alone,” the listener is confronted by the very real possibility that the narrator is sentenced to a life of solitude. 

When Phil Collins cut that cover, he’d just come off of a brutal divorce. If you take the songs on Duke and Face Value at… um… face value, it’s pretty clear that Phil was worried that he was a deeply unloveable person. That’s the perspective from which he does that cover. He sure made me feel it. 

Okay, on to the annual individual achievement section:

Best singing

Mon Laferte

Best rapping

Megan Thee Stallion

Best vocal harmonies

Parcels. I strongly undersold these guys in the Abstract. Protracted exposure to Day/Night has convinced me that they’re more than just a Daft Punk copy act. There’s lots of early ’70s Beach Boys in what they do, and ELO, and a little Floyd, and more than a little Steely Dan, and yes, they do rip off Daft Punk shamelessly. But they’re buddies; Bangalter and De Homem-Christo produced their first album. If you’re going to stay up all night to get lucky, you’re going to want some friends around in case you don’t.

Best bass playing

Nick Movshon on Aaron Frazer’s Introducing… Nick had a tough job: he couldn’t just deliver an ace James Jamerson impersonation. He had to evoke classic soul as it might be understood by a millennial who mostly knows about it through hip-hop samples. Any old bass virtuoso can mimic Stax or discipline himself enough to suggest that there’s a loop going. But a musician who can sound like Philly International and Wu-Tang at the same time has got to be some kind of visionary. I don’t know how he did it, but do it he did.

Best percussionist

Otoniel Nicolas on Tanda. Well before Graceland, Paul Simon hired the great bossa nova percussionist Airto Moreira (check him out on Jobim’s Stone Flower, particularly their rendition of “Brazil”) to liven up his singer-songwriter material. Alex Ferreira isn’t an ethnopirate, but he sure is an appropriator, and his gentle, gorgeous Latin Alternative pop songs are quite a bit closer to Simon than they are to reggaeton. Otoniel Nicolas takes to the Airto Moreira role with relish, and he makes Ferreira’s songs shimmy and shake in the Dominican sunshine. Every year, there’s one album I associate with clear skies and perfect weather. In 2021, this was it.

Best rock drumming, best synthesizer playing, best band

Steven Buttery/Katie Dvorak/The World Is A Beautiful Place. I don’t know exactly what happened to these guys after Always Foreign, but I’ve got to think it involved a great deal of woodshedding.

Best piano playing

Craig Potter of Elbow

Best guitar playing

Bad Bad Hats, my indiepop guitar heroes.

Best instrumental solo

Annie Clark, “Living In The Dream”. I thought Daddy’s Home was a nice try, and a more interesting set than Masseduction, but I do understand how some of Annie’s choices put off longtime fans. I hope we can all agree that it’s a good thing that she’s playing more guitar these days.

Best instrumentalist

Hayley Williams handled everything on Flowers For Vases/Descansos, including the drums. It’s all beautifully rendered, of course. If I’m ever on a plane with Hayley, and the pilot passes out and she’s forced to take the yoke, my heart wouldn’t even race. I’d expect a perfect touchdown with minimal turbulence. Bet I’d get just that.

Best drum programming

Pahua. It’s a testament to Paulina Sotomayor’s ingenuity that I can never tell what she’s programmed and what she’s banged out with her hands. Not that it matters around the rim of the digital Caribbean, where synthetic tradewinds blow just as warm as organic ones do. Is that the whisper of an ocean breeze through the palm fronds, or is it pink noise plus a low-frequency oscillator?

Best production

Noah “40” Shebib. I hear you groan. You’ve had enough of it, haven’t you?, the muffled kick drum and the distant synthesizer, the downtempo rhythms and mid-song beat switches, the smoke curls of sound, the late-nite rumination, the pulse-quickening rush of string pads, the long, drawn out sections where next to nothing happens, followed by sudden irruptions and moments of emotional acceleration. It’s been over a decade of this, and it’s everywhere, bleeding out from 40 headquarters like an ink spill, saturating the entire pop landscape. I now recognize 40’s influence on genres that have nothing to do with hip-hop or even trip-hop; I hear bluegrass that’s Drake-aware, big band jazz with Drake tricks in the background. We’re long overdue for a course correction. But. The producer’s task is so fashion a sonic environment for the storytelling to inhabit — that’s it; that’s the whole job. Drake made meaningful adjustments to his approach on Certified Lover Boy and 40 was right there to shadow every step and enhance every phrase. Their symbiosis is such a part of the tapestry of modern pop that it’s practically taken for granted, but when 40 is nowhere to be found, Drake has a tendency to drift: see, for instance, Dark Lane Demo Tapes. They both showed up for the Certified Lover Boy sessions with new stories to tell, and a new mood to generate, and they did what they’ve been doing since the beginning of October’s Very Own. They made each other make sense.

Production gambit that, against the odds, worked out pretty damned well

Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross + Halsey. And so what if it sounds more like the Social Network soundtrack with pop vox than Nine Inch Nails? It was a throw of the dice for everybody involved, and they came up with something cohesive and even, may we say, brave, because the label couldn’t have been thrilled that their hitmaker opted against the delivery of a red-hot single. What could she say? She’s from Jersey. It’s artistry over commerce forever, here on these benighted Turnpike exits.

Best arrangements

Tanda

Best songwriting

Jeremy Gaudet of Kiwi Jr.

Rookie of the Year

Much as I appreciated Black Country, New Road’s klezmer-meets-Crimson amalgam, this trophy belongs to Olivia Rodrigo.

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

Daniel Quien

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Dave Grohl

Most Overrated

Jazmine Sullivan

Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like

Spirit Of The Beehive

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

J. Cole

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2031

Hayley Williams

Forecasted best record of 2022

Whatever Julia Jacklin puts out.

Long overdue: My favorite singles of 2021

Everything is all reused.

Taylor Swift has never won our annual Poll.  Neither has Hayley Williams or Paramore. Elastica hung them up a long time ago; they got their votes, but they didn’t come close to the top. Fond though we all are of Carly Rae Jepsen, she’s never sniffed a Poll win, either.

Yet if I tallied up the Top Ten lists of the people I know well, and who vote in this Poll during the years when I have it in me to tally, our winner would have been an artist whose borrowings from Elastica and Carly Rae were barely disguised, and who pinched so shamelessly from Taylor Swift and Paramore that she had to put their names in the credits. We’re hardly alone. Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour topped critics charts all over the world: mainstream showbiz ones like Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the BBC, and placed on aficionado’s lists in Pitchfork, Spin, Consequence of Sound, etcetera. All three New York Times critics placed Olivia Rodrigo in their Top Tens; Robert Christgau had Sour at #4. Hey, I dig it too. I may not have listed Sour, but I sure did sing along to it with a huge smile on my face.

So here’s my question, for you, and me, and everybody else who makes assessments of the merits of pop records for fun and occasional profit: what the fuck happened to us? We, who used to thrill when Carl Newman stacked chords in gravity-defying arrangements, when Kevin Barnes extended melodies into the ether, when Liz Phair turned the structure of the pop song inside out, when Kanye and Kendrick and Lauryn Hill found unexplored intersections between soul and gospel, hip-hop and R&B?  Do the virtues implied by those records mean nothing anymore?  Originality, or innovation at least, was once everything to us. Then we were taught that everything was borrowed, and nothing is new under the sun, and every artist’s notion of sui generis songcraft was nothing but a high-romantic conceit.  We’ve internalized that lesson and kept on going.

You might remember when Stefani Germanotta took it on the chin, hard, for a similar infraction.  A million Madonna-wannabees cried foul, justifiably so, after the release of “Born This Way,” and Jay Lustig responded with one of my favorite Ledger headlines ever: Lazy Gaga.  I didn’t like the record either, but I thought she did us all a favor. She reminded us that plagiarism was real, and it’s absolutely unwelcome in pop music. Pop requires practitioners to work within strict parameters, but it also requires novelty. A pop song needs to remind you of songs you already know — it’s got to be familiar — but it can’t be a copy.  That’s what makes this such a murderously difficult art form to master: it’s a tightrope walk between recognition and surprise.  One errant step in either direction, and you either plummet into the abyss of experimental music (usually bad) or you land in the net of the tribute acts and revivalists (usually worse).  

That every pop song recycles elements of other pop songs is a given, and it usually isn’t a problem. Elvis Costello, broadminded as always, waved off Olivia Rodrigo’s reuse of the “Pump It Up” riff  (on a song called “Brutal,” no less!) as fair play: we’re all magpies, flying off to feather our nests with what we’ve stealthily gathered from our friends and neighbors.  But what distinguishes a written pop song — and all great pop is written, even if the writer is simply directing a team of song technicians — from one assembled by a mainframe is that the writer shuffles around the pieces and adds the irreducible mark of her personality; “spell a brand new world with the same old letters,” Robyn Hitchcock gave us our marching orders in 1985. That’s exactly what Lady Gaga didn’t do with “Born This Way”. She put “Express Yourself” on the stovetop, warmed it over, and tried to serve it even before it sizzled. It was an affront to pop from an artist who is usually a credit to it, and we were right to receive it as a betrayal.

Since then, those of us holding the line against facelessness have lost ground to the Death of the Author team: those who believe that pop is simply a can of beans, as Billy Joel inelegantly put it on “The Entertainer,” production like any other production, stamped out according to algorithms calibrated to light up human pleasure centers. So why bother insisting on originality?  Even Damon Albarn, who really ought to know better, accused contemporary pop of being a center-free team sport. Sour, some of its supporters (!) argue, is a glittering example of the triumph of craft. There doesn’t need to be an author, because everything is so tightly assembled and beautifully performed. 

But wait a second: Sour does have an author, or a pair of authors, anyway.  It isn’t one of those pop albums made by a zillion contributors holed up in a compound in Hawaii.  It was created, almost in its entirety, by two people, one of whom is the star herself. Olivia Rodrigo isn’t exactly a rookie. She was the main character on the High School Musical television program, which you certainly didn’t watch, but which fluttered around the Disney Channel for a while. During that time, she sang a lot, and even did some writing, and those songs exhibit many of the same compositional and performance characteristics of her world-famous 2021 hits.

Those songs caught the attention of author number 2.  Daniel Nigro sprouted from the same fertile Long Island soil as Taking Back Sunday and Straylight Run: his old band, As Tall As Lions, split the difference between parking lot emo and schmaltzy, super-immediate Coldplay-ish pop-rock.  They were good, honestly; I remember seeing them at some wonderful-stupid emo blowout. (Probably in a parking lot). He caught on with another thirdwave-emo refugee — Ariel Rechtsheid, who is best known for his work with Haim and Vampire Weekend, but who I, an emo kid in old crank’s clothing, will always think of as the man behind Valencia’s amazing We All Need A Reason To Believe. As a Rechtsheid henchman, Nigro got to inject some Southern State Parkway grease into a few of the best pop records of the teens, including Carly Rae’s E-MO-TION and “I Blame Myself,” Sky Ferreira’s unbeatable declaration of autonomy through excoriation. 

This is exactly how Jack Antonoff wormed his way into command position — he parlayed his experience in a theatrical, over-the-top post-emo outfit into tight, sympathetic relationships with talented female pop singers. And in 2021, Nigro had a better year than Antonoff did.  “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” one of several numbers he co-wrote and co-produced on Caroline Polachek’s Pang album, caught fire on TikTok, and spawned a trillion dances and cover versions from Squirrel Flower and Waxahatchee. “Roots”, his track with Cautious Clay, was a neat demonstration of his flexibility. Then there was Sour, which he’s all over, playing nearly every instrument, programming the drums, producing the whole shebang, and sharing compositional credit with Olivia Rodrigo on everything but the back-to-back tearjerkers “Happier” and “Enough For You.” Others assist here and there, but this is mainly the Rodrigo-Nigro show, and Nigro’s particular sensibility and mallpunk attitude does lend the album some coherence. That Nigro, who is pushing 40, has conjured up these tales of high school betrayal with a girl half his age is a matter best left for his priest and his psychiatrist; what matters to us as fans of pop is that the collaboration is dynamite.

Nevertheless, they both should have known better. Nigro comes from an emo scene where everybody sounds rather similar, but nobody was ever trying to sound similar.  The Bamboozle belonged to kids who thought of themselves as geniuses, and whose songs, they believed, emanated from individual, inimitable souls.  The artists he worked with alongside Rechtsheid epitomize the pop star as auteur, especially the prolific Jepsen, who is the master of the invaluable trick of minting melodies that you think you’ve heard before, but are always hers alone. As for Rodrigo herself, she’s supposedly a Taylor Swift superfan. She didn’t just pick a songwriter for the ages to emulate. Her hero is the one who works out minute and ingenious variations on formula within some of the tightest compositional restrictions (those of country-pop, new wave, indie folk) ever invented. If you’ve got to know one thing about Taylor Swift, Damon, that’s the thing to know.

Olivia Rodrigo’s lyrics suggest that she’s either fully in on the joke, or the heist, or that she’s too close to her primary topics — imitation, and envy, and our envy of those we can’t help but imitate — to see things clearly. She can’t swerve away from the mimeograph; she’s consumed by jealousy-jealousy, and of course the things we criticize most fiercely about others are those things we hate the most about ourselves. One of the primary implications of Sour and other 2021 albums like it, including Ora Gartland’s under-appreciated Woman On The Internet, is that the social media game has scrambled our synapses so thoroughly that we have no choice but to walk around in a fugue state, desperately attempting to match the achievements of those whose like tallies are higher than ours. Obviously this is no way to live, and I’ll take Olivia Rodrigo’s word for it that many young people have fallen head first into this trap. The, er, rampant borrowing becomes both a cautionary tale and a metaphor: an actualization of the album’s themes, a token authenticating the star’s insecurity and paralysis. 

Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that all of that is bullshit — that Rodrigo is an actress, and by all evidence a very good one, and she’s playing at contrition for her copycat act and laughing, arm in arm with Daniel Nigro, all the way to the bank.  Every teacher who has ever caught a kid plagiarizing (which means every teacher) knows how the reaction goes.  First comes the bewilderment, then comes the stonewalling, then the tearful confession that they were just doing it to live up to impossible standards.  It’s all nonsense, of course. People plagiarize for one reason and one reason only: writing is hard. It’s far easier to be Lazy Gaga.

Which brings us back to my original question: why have we chosen to give Olivia Rodrigo a pass?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because of that very talent as an actress, which makes her a powerful pop singer, able to express desire, rage, and petulance in one continuous breath.  Your tolerance for overwrought teenagers might not be too high; as an arrested overwrought teenager myself, bawling over jilted love is and will always be right in my lane.  I also think that the questions of authenticity and sympathetic identification raised by Olivia Rodrigo’s best songs are interesting ones, and have much less to do with online competition than with the age-old race for attention.  She’s also incredibly adorable, a proper Filipina pan-de-sal bun of a human being: possibly the nicest-looking American pop star in decades, and in beauty is virtue and all of that. 

But mostly, I think this is what baseball fans refer to as a make-up call.  Many critics missed the boat, badly, on Taylor Swift and have been playing catch-up ever since; Pitchfork declined to review Red upon release, only to later place “All Too Well” atop its list of the best songs of the decade. Many of the fustier rockers among us dismissed her writing for years as little girl’s stuff, ignoring that the same was said about The Beatles, and Michael Jackson, and The Wizard Of Oz, and everything else that’s ever been worth paying attention to. Hayley Williams still hasn’t been properly recognized for what she is, and that’s because two of the four styles she manages to catalyze in the heat-furnace of her diaphragm are considered embarrassing to acknowledge an interest in. (I mean mallpunk and Christian Contemporary music; gospel and pop-soul are cool with everybody). As indispensable new acts cite Paramore as a primary influence, the critical neglect looks increasingly egregious.

Critics don’t want to miss again. We want to get into the elevator on the ground floor, so we’re going to look the other way. Unfortunately for us, Olivia Rodrigo isn’t Taylor Swift, or Hayley Williams, nor is she a visionary culture-scrambler like Kali Uchis, or somebody who is going to bend the tastes of the listening public in her direction through sheer obstinacy like Lana Del Rey did. She’s a little too palatable for any of that. This is somebody who comes along with a bag of seeds after other, braver artists have broken the ground, spills them, and gets some beautiful flowers to bloom. While there’s a lot of value in that, of course it matters that she’s well past the legal limit for biting in pop. Of course it’s a black mark on her record, and of course it means that she’s off to a shakier start than her idols and role models, no matter how many hits she’s scored. Of course it’s a little bit shameful, and as critics, we shouldn’t hesitate to point that out, and stand up for originality, which is now and always will be a real thing. And I will say so, loudly, right after I get this damned song out of my head:

Best Singles of 2021

Song Of The Year

“Wilshire”

Best Lyrics (Over The Course Of An Entire Album)

KRS-OneBetween Da Protests. We were having a pseudointellectual conversation about the political thinkers whose writing influenced our worldview, and while I’ve read everybody in the canon from Plato to Hegel to Arendt to Irigaray to the dude who wrote Tipping Point (not the one by the Roots), I had to admit that for me, the answer was Mr. Lawrence Parker from the South Bronx, the South South Bronx, and there wasn’t anybody close. The dynamics of power and the justifications given for its exercise that are outlined on “Illegal Business,” the Sex & Violence album, “Sound of the Police,” “Invader,” you name it, resonate so profoundly with my experience of life that I would be fronting, to use a very KRS word, to pretend that my guiding star was Amartya Sen or somebody like that. I mean, I doubt that guy can rap at all. Not a day goes by when I don’t apply a KRS-One lyric to a headline; sometimes I think the only good thing about following current events is that the news tends to get Boogie Down Productions songs caught in my head. KRS says a lot of crazy shit, and sometimes it seems like he’s just stirring the pot for his own ill amusement. But as the old autodidact just proved again on his umpteenth album, nobody slices up conceptual Gordian knots with the same skill as he does. Nobody believes in teaching, or heritage, or literacy, or peace, with any more ferocity. Nobody mixes up realism and idealism so audaciously, or shakes it up so vigorously, or lights the match and hurls it against the authorities with such glee. He’s been on a roll for about eight years now, and you probably didn’t notice, because he does not always bother to match the interesting sentiment with interesting sound. But if the words are powerful enough, and the vocalist is charismatic enough, sometimes, in very rare cases, once in a blue moon, lyrics are all you need.

Best Lyrics On A Single Song

Aubrey Graham doesn’t get much love for his lyrics, even as he continues to supply us with memorable ones. I think I know why. It’s because the guy won’t get out of our faces for forty seconds. There’s no way to get any historical perspective on Drake when there’s a new Drake quintuple-album project to digest every time you turn around. There’s a lot of Drake out there for you to sift through, and its not exactly hiding on the left of the dial. As a professional Drake-sifter, allow me to draw your attention to a mid-album stretch on Certified Lover Boy — roughly “Yebba’s Heartbreak” through “Get Along Better” — that contains some of the best writing he’s ever done. The ride peaks with “Race My Mind,” a song that is such an elegant restatement of major Drake themes (late night longing, interpersonal friction, romantic possession, ass-grabbing in the cluuuuub) that you might miss the specificity of the language, and the very real way it differs from other songs in his catalog. It’s an unsparing portrait of a man with an alcoholic girlfriend, and a close examination of his racing thoughts as he waits for her to get home from wherever she’s at, possibly in one piece, and possibly not. Drake nails everything about the experience: the loneliness, the blinding jealousy, the brief declarations of independence and autonomy that quickly resolve to fretting resumed, the flashes of clarity, the intimations of sudden death, the constant watching the window, the desperate prayers. Notice how the lyricist and the producer (the great Noah “40” Shebib) respond to each other; Drake keeping things recursive during the dreamier sections, repeating Drakish signifiers, and launching into gear when the beat smooths out and provides him a spacious lane to speed ahead on. Even as he’s stuck in one place, waiting for release. Does she make it back before sunrise? Does she make it back ever? He’ll keep checking that driveway, and pacing a groove in the floor.

Most Romantic Song

Courtney Barnett — “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”. Among other things, she understands separation anxiety.

Funniest Song

Black Country, New Road — “Sunglasses”. That singer, who isn’t even in the band anymore, can be a bit much, but I did laugh out loud when he set the high-strung, upper-class suburban scene like this: “with frail hands she grasps the Nutribullet”. That’s practically a Zach Lipez line. Also, I’m sure Zach hates this group.

Funniest Song About Which It’s Impossible To Explain Why It’s Funny

Cool Ghouls — “Look In Your Mirror”. This is a comically plaintive number about the narrator’s love for his car. The second verse goes “I rode the train/but it’s just/not the same/it belongs to everybody/not to me.” Makes me crack up every time. I think you’ve got to hear it to get it.

Most Frightening Song

Everything on By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Injury Reserve‘s requiem for group member Stepa J. Groggs, who died during the pandemic. Also, I admit that no matter how many times I play it, Any Shape You Take still makes my stomach drop. I don’t believe that Indigo De Souza really wants her boyfriend to kill her — at least I hope she doesn’t — but the part on “Bad Dream” where she sends up a hopeless entreaty to God always gives me the chills. It’s the way her voice breaks when she confesses that she’s having a hard time. In case you couldn’t tell.

Most Moving Song

Ka‘s “Need All Of That”. It’s the pain of institutional racism, and the residue of hundreds of years of discrimination and injustice, oozing out of an exhausted emcee’s wounds.

Most Moving Performance

Miranda Lambert — “Waxahachie”. Nobody tells a breakup story like she does. It’s that combination of venom and ache, that unquenchable desire to be held, and also to murder the motherfucker who broke her heart. You could drop the needle anywhere in her unbeatable discography, and you’d get it at once.

Sexiest Song

Mon Laferte — “Amado Mio”

Most Inspiring Song

I think I covered this yesterday, but my answer is “Hard Drive” by Cassandra Jenkins. An Overview On Phenomenal Nature might’ve made my Top 20 if it was just a wee bit longer.

Meanest Song, and also Most Disgusting Song

Sleaford Mods — “Shortcummings”. Not that Dominic Cummings didn’t deserve it, but the Sleaford guys really laid the jizz jokes on thick and goopy. I’m sure he’s been getting that all his life. Might just have driven him to join the Tories.

Saddest Song

Julien Baker — “Ringside”. It’s hard to evaluate Julien #3, because listening to it feels like rubbernecking. Little Oblivions is a brutally frank set narrated by a woman who is losing herself in the bottle and finds it impossible to arrest her slide. “You can either watch me drown/or try to save me as I drag you down”; that’s about the size of it. Billy Sunday said it long ago: there’s a place for beer and liquor, and that place is Hell. Nothing but the Devil at the bottom of that glass, Julien.

Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation

Gotta thank Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys for hypnotizing me with Hill Country blues covers on Delta Kream. I also loved Spanish Model, the reinterpretation of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model done, at Elvis’s request, in Español by Latin American singers. I may well have been the only one.

Least Believable Perspective On A Song

I don’t believe Halsey is a god. I’m pretty sure she’s a woman. Were she really a god, she wouldn’t pronounce it “gaaaaaahd.” Gods are all-powerful; they have better elocution that that. Unless she means she’s the god of the Grover Cleveland Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike. If she were, that would actually explain a lot.

Best Music Video

Because it pissed off the Moral Majority and precipitated some excellent Twitter quips, everybody went wild for Lil Nas X’s Satanic lapdance clip. And that is pretty great, but my queer three dollar bill is on the “Industry Baby” video instead. Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow subvert a bunch of prison clichés, send up Shawshank Redemption, bend over enthusiastically for the soap, and deck themselves out in some excellent pink jumpsuits. The gag, see, is that Lil Nas X has managed to turn the penitentiary flamboyantly gay from the inside, as this is his homosexual superpower, and the final crane shot of the dance in the prison yard and the Pride Parade breakout is so glorious that it almost makes you believe it’s possible.

Best Choreography In A Music Video

Usually, my Busby Berkeley dreams prompt me to tap something grand and over the top, but I really liked Ora Gartland’s humble pas de deux with her Internet role model in “More Like You.” She’s trying to make a statement about the futility of jealousy and social media copycattism, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t achieve what she set out to do.

Best Musical Moment Of 2021

It saddens me that the last sixty seconds of “Died In The Prison Of The Holy Office” by The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die is exactly what I was trying to do on my song “Midnight (Now Approaching)”. It gladdens me that somebody actually did it.

Best Line Or Rhyme

Drake says: the world is yours but the city is mine.

Worst Song Of The Year

Van Morrison — “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”. Dude really thinks we’ve got nothing better to do than to listen to him whine about his ex-wife’s profligacy. If he keeps this up, he’s going to get kicked out of the Hall of Fame.

Worst Singing

Rostam Batmanglij

Worst Rapping

The guy who busts into the remake of Natalia Lafourcade’s “Tu Si Sabes Quererme” and coughs all over the track. I realize Natalia feels that her songs are infinitely flexible, and maybe they are. But she’s pushing it.

Worst Instrumentalists

Palberta

And While We’re At It

Matthew Sweet is an excellent songwriter. A one-man band he is not.

Worst Lyrics

Toby Keith — “Happy Birthday America”. Love it or leave it, pal.

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

Jackson Browne — “My Cleveland Heart”

Worst Song On A Good Album

Weezer — “Precious Metal Girl”

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Guess who’s going to jaaaaail tonight?”

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

Ingram/Lambert/Randall — “Homegrown Tomatoes”. They really are delicious.

Okay, individual awards (and a heartfelt essay) tomorrow!

Long overdue: My favorite albums of 2021

Poised to put a bike track and a zipline in the other-other crib: Tyler, The Creator.

One of the many things that hip-hop has in common with the Internet: before it belonged to the world, it belonged to the nerds. It was nerds who reveled in the minutia of the genre, and nerds who converted hip-hop from the Bronx party music of the yes y’allin’ period to the dense, skills-based, language-intensive, self-referential ‘80s and ’90 art form we remember so fondly. Golden Age hip-hop was extraordinarily nerd-driven, and we know this in part because only history nerds talk about Golden Ages. Rap’s pivotal early movers were nerdy people — politics nerds like Chuck D, obsessive record collectors like Rick Rubin, clever-clever culture jammers like Prince Paul, budding literati like Slick Rick, true gamesters like Kool Keith, theologians like Prince Be, autodidacts like KRS-ONE. Only a nascent form of popular music could have accommodated this. Lucky you, you got to live through it.

We nerds like block parties as much as the next normie, especially if there is a contest to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. We’ve got a formula for that. But once we got our hands on hip-hop, it was never going to stay in the park. We nerds are not in the mood to throw our hands in the air and wave them like we just don’t care, and that’s because we do care. It’s been a bad day; things did not go right.  We need a larger-than-life scenario to insert ourselves into, some elbow-throwing braggadocio, some declarations of superpowers and application of those superpowers in a detailed storytelling context, words to memorize and samples to recognize. The brain requires some lighting up. The booty needs some backup.

Those crowd-pleasing Internet rappers who tickle millions via TikTok do not satisfy the same cravings. Idiosyncratic dudes wrote the original hip-hop rules, and there are still plenty of nerds out there experimenting with language and form and making grand statements. Take Tyler Okonma, creator of a sound that resembles no one else’s — a sound that amalgamates Stevie Wonder chords, sunshine pop, syrupy backing vocals and thick, blocky drums, a little tropical nonsense and murk in the mix, melted butter synthesizer, energetic, growly stung-on-the-ass-by-a-bumblebee rapping. These days, Tyler’s profile is like something straight out of the Sarah Records catalog: lovelorn, yarn-spinning, melody-drunk, fussy, bisexual, identified with Baudelaire. And butthurt, of course, because nerds are so often butthurt.

The reason Tyler is upset is one that ought to be familiar to nerds worldwide. A pretty girl has led him on and let him down. The catch, explained in detail on Call Me If You Get Lost, is that the pretty girl wasn’t fair game: she was already involved with one of his friends. Ever cagy, Tyler doesn’t come out and tell you this straight away — he hints at it, insinuates it, and dances around it for a good forty minutes, playing little mind games with his audience, his collaborators, himself, and with the girl, who he continually addresses out of the corners of his mouth while he’s yelling to the rest of us about his lifestyle. Then, on the penultimate track, the dam breaks. “Wilshire” is eight and a half minutes of sustained storytelling, and a full, minutely detailed catalog of the entire non-affair, from its flirty beginning to the acts of self-deception that sustained it to its inevitable conclusion in tears. “My shirt look like a showerhead got it,” Tyler concedes, proving himself as artfully lachrymose as Robert Wratten of Trembling Blue Stars, and just as adept at investigating the treacherous dynamics of infidelity. It was never going to end in dry eyes; Wratten could have told him that. The effect of “Wilshire” is seismic, excoriating, scalding; Tyler questions his motivations, her motivations, the motivations of his nearly cuckolded mate, searches around for an appropriate place to assign the blame, gives up, calls himself a bad person, and finally points the finger at love itself. “All the morals and power you have just vanish when a certain energy is nearing,” Tyler mumbles, exhausted, in the outro. He claims to have done the whole thing in two possessed takes. I believe him.

Why does it take Tyler fifteen songs, some of them ostentatiously blithe, all of them amped and frazzled and more than a little mad, to get around to telling us what’s eating him?  Well, remember: he’s a huge nerd. One who introduced himself with kill people/burn shit/fuck school, sure, but anybody who mistook that for an actual act of provocation didn’t know thing #1 about the desperate one-upmanship that characterizes the competition for attention among rappers, and teenagers, and boys in general. Even during the days when Odd Future was the scourge of the Moral Majority, Tyler was a master of indirection, a smoke-and-mirrors conjurer, concealing his wounded heart (and his queer sexuality) behind the monstrous mask of the angry emcee. Here and there, he’d let the façade slip; it’s not inaccurate to say that knowing when to let that guard down was, and is, central to his artistry. The Flower Boy album was one great game of peek-a-boo that culminated in a dance through a field of daisies. On Igor, Tyler falls for a male friend, but ultimately fails to outflank the friend’s heterosexual partner. But not until Call Me If You Get Lost does he rap the line that explains these sets, and maybe his entire writing career: “everyone I have ever loved had to be loved in the shadows,” he tells us on “Massa.” And as the sun goes down, no shadows hang longer than the ones we create ourselves.

To get him through those first fourteen tracks of darting from shadow to shadow, limping, hemorrhaging, and hollering as he dashes, switching styles and flows, entertaining/distracting you with lovely tessellations of words, Tyler demands a pep talk. And since, as he often reminds us, he’s got a big budget now, he’s shelled out for copious hype from hip-hop’s cheesiest, and therefore most effective, hype man: DJ Drama. For those who don’t remember the craziest excesses of the mixtape era, Drama was the big-voiced dude who screamed all over those Gangsta Grillz compilations he put together in the ‘00s. No bragging too outrageous, no superlative too absurd, every hypercharged claim designed to make the fact-checkers’ hair stand on end and turn white. On Call Me If You Get Lost, Drama is Ricky Linderman to Tyler’s Melvin Moody, Jordan Catalano to Tyler’s Brian Krakow, Drillbit Taylor to Tyler’s Ryan the Geek. He’s the authenticator, the bodyguard, the cool guy, filling the air with boasts about Tyler-supremacy so wonderfully ludicrous that they practically satirize themselves: “This is what it sounds like when the moon and the sun collide!” “Just too lavish to post on the ‘gram!” “We on a yacht! A young lady just fed me French Vanilla ice cream!” Soon it becomes apparent that without this supersonic act of sustained puffery, Tyler would be sunk — he’s taken an L, as he tells us several times, of the worst kind. He’s wiped out and weary, unsure of his ethics, worried about his desirability, and angry that his opulence hasn’t bought him what he really wants.

Is this not what we’ve asked of hip-hop from time immemorial?  What rap fan among us hasn’t chased away a terrible event by hollering along to a ridiculous boast track, or lost ourselves momentarily through identification with a bad boy or girl, someone irresistible, larger-than-life, able to fend off slights and laugh away heartache in the offhand manner we always wish we could?  Because swagger is just the wounded soul’s attempt to transcend its own frailty.  If hip-hop wasn’t a tonic for misfortune, we wouldn’t keep mixing it up with the blues. Tyler once tried to dispel his own insecurities by being as foul-mouthed and equal-opportunity-offensive as he could. That’s an old game, and one that was a little beneath him, even when he was a teenager; older, wiser, and more heartbroken, he’s more self-conscious about his own strategies.  Funnier and more ironic, too.  

As he does not have patience with half-measures, he’s also all in with the mixtape conceit. Call Me If You Get Lost is full of guest verses — amazingly good guest verses, including some actual quality rapping from Pharrell (!) and searing bars from Lil Wayne that had to have been unearthed from a mid-’00s time capsule. Astoundingly, none of this upstages Tyler in the slightest, or interferes with the through-stories or scene-setting; it’s all perfectly paced to generate excitement and add color to the protagonist’s journey to self-excoriation, or enlightenment, or some amalgam of the two.  It helps that Tyler is, when he wants to be, one of the very best rappers around: an oaken-voiced growler with immediate vocal I.D., supreme intelligibility, and a wry undercurrent running through everything he says.  

I’m not often right about artists’ futures.  With Tyler, I always knew.  Back in 2011, when the New York Times and NPR were wringing their hands over Odd Future and Australia was considering extradition, I wrote in a family newspaper that Tyler was a traditionalist entertainer at heart, one with a firm grasp on pop compositional strategies and an ear for jazz and soul harmony, and that this would all become apparent in the long run. Anybody who watched Tyler at awards shows, sitting with his momma and clapping like a schoolyard goof to artists he liked, had to recognize that this was not the goblin of the popular imagination.  He was always a good bet to make classic albums.  He’s done three of them now — none better than the brilliant, beautiful, lovelorn, generous, travel-happy set he gifted us last summer. One for the aficionados and the rap obsessors, the heartbroken and bewildered, and those willing to have a good laugh, and a good cry, at Tyler’s expense: 

Best Album of 2021

Best Album Cover

Caroline Kingsbury — Heaven’s Just A Flight. What can I say?, I like kissing, and nice shoes, and well-lit parallelograms.

Best Album Title

Saint Etienne‘s I’ve Been Trying To Tell You. Good handle for a mostly-instrumental set from a normally wordy group.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Natalia LafourcadeUn Canto Por Mexico, Vol. 2

Most Welcome Surprise

I thought I had Magdalena Bay pegged as mere ‘net content providers, not synth-disco provocateurs with a stack of prog classics to pinch textures from. They sure showed me.

Biggest Disappointment

For instance, this year, Magdalena Bay out-progged the suddenly ham-handed Steven Wilson. I’m not really sure what he was doing with The Future Bites. While I agree with his points about commodity fetishism and alienation, it all sung about as well as treatises usually do. I love an argumentative record, and I’m usually willing to sacrifice a little melody on behalf of a good polemic. But some albums are better as essays, and this was one of them. And if Steven were to sit down and write that essay, I’m sure I’d read it. So maybe he should?

Album That Opens Most Strongly

The first three songs on Mito by La Lá (Giovanna Nuñez) are a gorgeous fusion of Peruvian folk, pan-Latin jazz, bossa nova, and tweepop. The rest of the album isn’t up to that very high standard, but it’s all very good; this was a strong contender for the #20 position on the list above.

Album That Closes Most Strongly

It’s hard to beat the one-two-three punch that closes Any Shape You Take: the party at emotional ground zero of “Hold U,” followed by the gesture of radical acceptance on “Way Out,” followed by the suicide chorus — so dark it’s downright hilarious — of “Kill Me”. But there’s simply no topping the conclusion of Illusory Walls. The World Is A Beautiful Place caps two fifteen-plus minute epics with the fiercest accusation hurled at God since Randy Newman’s Sail Away, and then marches through a glorious callback to “Getting Sodas,” the finale of their first album, with David Bello and Katie Dvorak singing, as hard as they can, keeping their little flames lit against the odds. For an hour and change, they outline, in unsparing verse, all the ways in which the cruel and competitive world we’ve made is killing us all. They know they’re going under, too. But they won’t go down without a fight. And to that end…

Album That Most Deserves A Laser Show

Illusory Walls might be the best progressive rock album any band has made since Fish left Marillion. That it’s also 100% emo is largely incidental, but it does further raise stakes that were already high. I’ve got to think Roger Waters would approve.

2021 Album I Listened To The Most

Cassandra JenkinsAn Overview On Phenomenal Nature. We saw Phenomenal Nature at the Breuer, too, and I believe we talked to the same security guard that Cassandra did. Maybe she was there when we were there. We wouldn’t have known. We’d just staggered up from the hospital after getting bad news from the doctors, and we were reeling. I would have identified with Cassandra’s flight from grief and psychological disintegration in any case; the fact that we shared the experience of the Mrinalini Mukherjee show was too sweet a coincidence to waste. So when Perry with the gemstone eyes assures Cassandra that 2021 would be a good year, and encourages her to take a deep breath and count to ten, you can be sure I counted along.

2021 Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Pom Pom SquadDeath Of A Cheerleader

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

Cool GhoulsAt George’s Zoo. Moby Grape, somebody still loves you.

Best Sequenced Album

I always kinda liked the loopy, pot-zonked Uruguayan singer-songwriter Juan Wauters, but I doubted he had the focus necessary to make a great album. Sometimes strange circumstances catch you and blow you wide open, though, and in 2020, Wauters was between cultures, cornered by the global health crisis, and possibly out of doobage. The fog lifted, and Wauters delivered what I’ve come to see as the definitive musical document of the early pandemic era in New York City: bewildered, guarded, hopeful, sometimes hippie-angry, and sometimes even angry-angry, spiked with the voices of those left to bear the brunt of the storm. And for those who skipped town for Wyoming or wherever, hiding out on a farm while poor people kept NYC running, Wauters has a message: to you, the city was never camaraderie/it was only a commodity. He’s not going to forget. So I won’t, either.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Ashley MonroeRosegold. I love Ashley enough to give her the benefit of every doubt, but those were some limp corn cakes.

Album That Sounded Like It Was Fun To Make

Aaron Frazer‘s pure soul workout Introducing…

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

CHVRCHESScreen Violence

Album You Learned The Words To The Most Quickly

The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita. Hey, I remember entire episodes of The Dukes Of Hazzard, too. Also…

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Dood And Juanita. I needed one more expository number in between the tragic death of Sam the Hound and Dood’s miraculous rescue by the Cherokee. Maybe something with Uncle Jesse in it.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

Donda, of course. It’s very good, though. Don’t deny yourself it’s pleasures because… aw heck, I’m tired of running interference for this fucking guy. If you never want to hear Kanye’s voice again, I can’t blame you.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was At First

Montero. Initially, I was annoyed that Lil Nas X had exchanged wry, subversive Internet-era commentary for over-the-top mallpunk. Then I remember that I’m from New Jersey, and here in New Jersey, we know that one good over-the-top mallpunk song is worth all the wry, subversive content on the Internet. And Montero has more than one good over-the-top mallpunk song on it.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Kiwi Jr. — Cooler Returns

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Lorde’s phone-it-in Solar Power.

Album You Feel Cheapest About Liking As Much As You Do

See tomorrow’s essay.

Album You Don’t Feel Cheap About Liking In The Slightest

I’ve written a lot about Morgan Wallen this year, and I don’t suppose I’ve convinced anybody of anything, because Morgan is a very hard guy to warm up to, and this is not a time in American history when we ought to be humoring the perspectives he gives voice to on the aptly-titled Dangerous. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out that a lot of country bumpkins have attempted to fuse roots music and hip-hop rhythms. Some have even done it pretty well. But nobody has even made that integration happen half as seamlessly as Morgan did on Dangerous, and yes, you can go ahead and call that ironic if you like. I’m just glad it happened, and I’ll continue to celebrate it. When Morgan closed 2021 by saying he’d like to work with Kendrick Lamar, I don’t think that was just a marketing move. I see that as a backchannel in the culture wars, and one that our showbiz diplomats might do well to keep open.

Okay, singles and stuff tomorrow!

Love,

Tris

The 2021 Pop Music Abstract

The Pop Music Abstract is an annual exercise in automatic writing which uses the year in music as a prompt.
www.trismccall.net/pop-music-abstract-2021

I’ve strung the albums of 2021 together in alphabetical sequence, and I’ve popped off, impulsively as I can, about each. Writing is done as close to the speed of (screwy) thought as I can manage, and since there’s lots of ground to cover — fifty thousand words on two hundred records — I’m forced by circumstances to chase escape velocity.  My main rule: I’m not allowed to go back and edit; if I have an opinion, I’ve got to write it down, and then I’ve got to live with it.  If it’s ugly, or dumb, that’s okay: I’ve learned something about myself and about the way in which I interact with the recordings that frame my experience on planet Earth.  Just as a musician can’t un-sound the notes she plays, I don’t allow myself to alter the words as they roll out of my brain and down my arms and into my fingers. I’m attempting to achieve the spontaneous quality of a soloist, only my instrument is the English language.  

I free-associate sometimes; I go off topic; I declaim and make sophomoric jokes. But sometimes the paragraphs cohere into something interesting — for instance, there’s one, the longest one, where I PolitiFact-check the new Marina album. Hey, she asked for it. The Anchoress album prompted the only thing I’ll ever have to say about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Further reflections on the encroachment of NFTs into the crypto-imperiled realm of good taste and sanity are deposited in the Kings Of Leon and Glass Animals entries. I’ve got some opprobrium for an all-time favorite, a defense of the indefensible, and a summary statement (so don’t read it first) under Toby Keith. Since I couldn’t bring myself to write about The War On Drugs, I pivoted in panic, and plunked down my reflections on The Mandalorian instead.  And there are plenty of paragraphs on old buddies, of course: Lana Del ReyMon LaferteDrakeKanyeElvis Costello, and everybody else whose music made a ripple in my consciousness this year.

You’ll also see plenty about mushrock, which is my name for the inescapable monogenre that now dominates popular music. It’s my position that most current celebrated styles — shoegaze, dream pop, neopsychedelia, cloud-rap, avant-R&B — are actually just mushrock.  They’re all expressions of the same artistic impulse, unified by certain aesthetic characteristics: murk, reverb, phasing, obscurantism, indirection, and, I think, no small amount of avoidance. There’s a long explanation of mushrock in last year’s Abstract, which I’ve re-posted to the site so I can link to it, over and over.  It’s my way of coping with a landslide of mush. 

The Abstract only lives on the site for a short time.  After a few weeks, in an effort to declutter the Internet a bit, I pull it down.  This one-of-a-kind funnoying experience is available to you for a limited time only, so get Abstract while you can.  

Love,

Tris

Lewis Spears for Mayor

It’s time for something new.

A few days ago, the Jersey City Times published an editorial that declined to endorse either of the two candidates for mayor of Jersey City. The piece argued that neither the incumbent nor his young challenger is worthy of support. I’ve written many pieces for the Jersey City Times over the past two years. While I respect the Times’s reasoned position on the election — check out their lengthy, excellent interviews with City Council candidates if you haven’t yet — I can’t concur. Tomorrow, without reservations, I’m going to vote for Lewis Spears, and I suggest that you do the same.

When I vote for Spears tomorrow, I won’t just be doing it to register my disapproval of the incumbent. I’ll be voting for something, and somebody — a candidate whose agenda, interests, connections, and demeanor represent a clean and definitive break from the priorities and direction of the current administration. For the past eight years, public life in Jersey City has been dominated by rich people from the gentrified Downtown. As the Jersey City Times recently reported, policies pursued by the administration have empowered the Downtown at the expense of poorer parts of the city. Even if you don’t find this unfair, or downright immoral, I hope you’ll agree that a swing of the spotlight to neglected parts of Jersey City is long overdue.

Lewis Spears grew up in the Booker T. Washington housing projects. Those are just a ten-minute bicycle ride from the towers on the Waterfront, but to many wealthy Downtowners, they may as well be on the moon. Spears talks about losing a cousin to gun violence, right before his eyes, right in the middle of the projects where he was raised. He’s got a degree from NJCU, and he’s taught at Dickinson High School, and Kismet of Kings, the nonprofit he founded and runs, holds events at Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center on MLK Drive. His perspective is not that of a condominium owner in Paulus Hook. He’s not thinking about how to create value for real estate developers. He’s got other things on his mind. After the last eight years, that alone ought to feel like a shot of oxygen.

I am a Downtowner; I’ve eaten the tomato sandwich at the Downtowner. I speak from personal experience when I say that the policies of the last eight years haven’t been particularly good for us, either. They might have lined our pockets (well, some of us), but they’ve impoverished our souls. There’s a heavy psychological cost to living on a casino floor. We’ve coped as best as we can with constant renovation, building on every available lot, street closures to prioritize the building needs of developers, day-ruining power line and water main accidents, storm runoff from paved lots, big, impersonal towers rising over previously human-scale neighborhoods, everything calibrated to feed the hunger for elevated property values, and the mayor’s desire to stuff as many people into Jersey City as possible. The Newark Avenue pedestrian plaza has been a messy construction zone for a year. In our quest for higher prices per square inch for property owners and profits for developers, we’ve made the Downtown a hard place to live. If you’re a Downtowner yourself, you’re probably exhausted. You might prefer a mayor who’ll direct the redevelopment emphasis elsewhere — or, perhaps, one who thinks about redevelopment differently.

If you aren’t from the Downtown, I cannot begin to understand the rationale for a vote to return the current administration for a third term. Inertia is powerful, and the lure of the devil you know is seductive, but things have been so sharply slanted against you and your neighborhoods that self-respect ought to guide your hand to the Spears column. Supporters of the status quo have made much of the challenger’s inexperience, and the incumbent’s grasp of policy detail. But it’s not at all clear that the mayor has been able to translate that expertise into anything tangible. His record on public safety has been spotty. His crisis management has often been nothing but spin. The inclusionary zoning ordinance he pushed was a developer-friendly disaster. Most problematically, the mayor’s mind — and, perhaps, his body too — is not always fully present to the city he’s supposed to be leading. When Hurricane Ida swamped many of the town’s poorer neighborhoods, the chief was radio silent for days. I do not believe anything like that would ever happen in a Lewis Spears administration.

Political experience isn’t meaningless, and education and training are important qualifications for office. But there is no degree or course of study that can adequately prepare a person for the unique job of running a complex city. When we rule out voting for people with unusual or unorthodox backgrounds, we don’t merely lock ourselves in to the status quo. We also shut out arguments that deserve to be heard, and perspectives that ought to be respected.

When I vote for a chief executive, I’m asking myself the following three questions:

  1. Is the candidate reflexively compassionate?  In a dispute between the powerful and the disadvantaged, is he instinctively on the side of the powerful, or instinctively on the side of the overlooked?
  2. Can the candidate keep his in head in a crisis?  Does he have an even temperament; does he refrain from blowing up at subordinates and wasting energy on petty feuds? When bad times come — and they always do — will he be on the scene, helping out, or will he try to govern from a distance?
  3. Does the candidate have the humility necessary to hire good people and take their advice?  Or is he going to ram his agenda through, regardless of the consequences?  Will he listen and keep the door open, or will his administration become an exclusive province of the well-connected, and inaccessible to everybody else?

Lewis Spears passes my test. The focus of his campaign hasn’t been on wealth generation; it’s been on opportunity and fairness. This has confounded those who believe the role of the mayor is to increase the resale value of their condominium units, but I hope you’ll agree that those people have dominated local political discourse long enough. Spears’s personal story testifies to his level-headedness in the face of challenges, and everybody who has met him describes him as a genuinely kind, open, and enthusiastic person. He strikes me as the first guy to grab a bucket when the street floods.

Most of all, he’s surrounded himself with grassroots activists, good-government groups, affordable housing advocates, religious leaders, teachers, business owners in some of the remote corners of the city, and ordinary people interested in a new direction for a town that desperately needs one. He is not a creation of real estate developers.  Their role in his administration will be minimal.  If you’re looking for a mayor who you can actually access — one for whom claims of transparency are more than just a bait and switch — Spears is your man.

Neither I, nor you, nor the Jersey City Times, expects Lewis Spears to win. The Times’s tacit approach to the election — abstain from a mayoral endorsement and work instead to change the City Council to something that might be productively oppositional — isn’t illogical. I’ll be voting for James Solomon tomorrow; he’s one of the few politicians in town who has had the guts to stand up to City Hall, and he merits re-election. Frank “Educational” Gilmore is the most interesting politician to emerge in Jersey City in many years, and I’d like to see him victorious in Ward F.  Kevin Bing in Journal Square, Josh Brooks in Ward B, the Gadsden-Jones-Dominici ticket for the At-Large seats: I am rooting for all of these people.

But that doesn’t mean the top of the ballot ought to be ignored.  A strong showing for Lewis Spears tomorrow would send a message to everybody in town who believes we can do much better than we’re doing. That message would say: you are not alone. Those who see that complicity with City Hall as the only way to get anywhere in Jersey City public life may recognize that there are other routes to unity and progress. A Spears boomlet would embolden officials who are too worried about the wrath of the mayor to speak out about the direction the government has chosen, journalists who couch their words of criticism in exchange for limited access, artists who believe they’ve got no choice but to play ball with the powerful in order to win favor, and independent businesspeople who feel pushed around, but who’ve decided that popular consensus is too thick and too general to inveigh against. It would also remind everybody in Jersey City, and in Hudson County, that Downtown priorities aren’t the only priorities, and the Downtown outlook isn’t the only outlook.

For eight years, real estate developers have called the tune in Jersey City. That’s the song we’ve all had to dance to. It’s been fun (at times), it’s been lucrative (for a select few), and it’s been genuinely transformative, but that transformation has been neither an aesthetic nor a political success. It’s also been loud, brash, and extraordinarily divisive.

Friends, it is time for a new song. It’s time for Lewis Spears.

tris@trismccall.net

Poll 31: End Note, Pt. 3 (In The Crypt O’Currency)

Please don’t do an NFT.

Imagine you’re walking through the woods, and you encounter a tree. Suppose you knew that you could have your voice amplified, and your projects circulated, and you could capture the esteem of your peers, and all you have to do to make that happen is chop that tree down. You’d do it, wouldn’t you? If you’re an artist driven to communicate an idea, even if it’s just an idea about you, I’d wager you would. There are lots of other trees in the forest. Another might grow in its place. You may reason that all of our activity on the planet does damage to something or other; why be squeamish about this one tree?

But what if it was more than one tree?  Suppose it was five?  Would you still do it?  How about ten? Twenty? How many trees must be felled by the blade of your ambition before you’re satisfied? Would you destroy an entire habitat — all the plants and bugs and beasts — if it meant you could put a record out, or sell a painting, or get a screenplay filmed?  

You know this isn’t science fiction. You know this is a choice you face every day. Even word writers, plunking away at our keyboards, need to blow through electricity in order to bring our humble text-scratchings to an Internet audience. We might not be drinking as deeply from the fossil fuel reserves as a traveling airshow does, but slurp we do, and our contribution to worldwide habitat destruction isn’t negligible. We must believe that what we’re doing is significant: that the impression on the planet made by our words is worth whatever we’re removing from its energy reserves.   

If you’re the guilty type, you don’t want to think about this too much. You don’t want to envision a gopher, its meadow destroyed and its biome immutably altered by human activity, wandering around in desperate search for a drink of water.  You might reason — this time a bit more disingenuously — that if your art found a mass audience through the Internet, you’d be in a position to help that gopher.  You might transplant it to a beautiful farm where it might live out the rest of its days in harmony, or at least until somebody else’s ambition destroyed that farm.

Which, at the rate we’re going, may well be tomorrow. Looming eco-catastrophe has not curbed the human appetite for recognition, and it certainly hasn’t slowed down those whose ambition is to accumulate as much wealth as possible. For instance, if you’ve got an Internet connection, it’s a lock that you’ve heard about the utterly bananas market for NFTs, and the race among artists and investors to release new material through this new channel. You may also have heard that the NFT is the future of whatever branch of the culture industry you happen to inhabit. This may be true. But if nothing changes, it’s going to be a desolate future for the gopher, and the farm, and the tree, and, sooner or later (but probably sooner) me and you.

To understand the scope of the problem we face, we have to understand what NFTs are — and, more importantly, what they aren’t. NFTs are not tangible objects. They’re not even digital files of the kind that we’ve all grown accustomed to. They aren’t JPEGs or MP3s, or anything widely shareable. An NFT is a link to a single, exclusive copy of a digital work. Theoretically, this work is the original, but since the entire point of digital art — its sole advantage over its analog cousins — is reproducibility, authenticity and primacy on the Internet oughtn’t mean anything to anybody.  The NFT exists on the blockchain that is the habitat for cryptocurrency transactions, and is, in effect, a kind of cryptocurrency itself. The owner possesses it in the same imaginary way he might possesses a Bitcoin.

But heck, even that isn’t true. Although your NFT guarantees access to an exclusive iteration of a file, it doesn’t mean that other people can’t reproduce other versions of that file. Since that file is indistinguishable from the NFT, there’s no difference between copying that one and copying yours. You cannot stop other people from using that file, and you’re not buying a share of the copyright, either. You have no influence over the work you’ve purchased, and you can’t restrict or monetize other people’s access to the art. This is not like Martin Shrekli with the magic box with the sole copy of that Wu-Tang album in it. Everybody can hear those Kings Of Leon songs that were initially released as NFTs earlier this year.

You might be wondering who in their right mind would pay thousands of dollars for one of these codes. Unfortunately we’re not in our right minds and haven’t been for quite some time. Collectors have convinced themselves that the exclusivity conferred by an NFT is worthy of investment, and the wild spikes and crashes of the NFT market demonstrates that human beings will speculate on anything.  Imagine, if you can, a million dollar exchange of those certificates that say the holder possesses a share of a star. And if that was all there was to the NFT trade, it could be dismissed as another irritating Internet craze; a get-rich quick scheme for artists who kinda wish they were stockbrokers, and excitable bankers who’ve had a little too much punch at the gallery opening.  But it isn’t. Not even close.

The problem with the NFT market is that it runs on the blockchain used for minting, or “mining”, cryptocurrency — Ethereum, specifically — and mining cryptocurrency is spectacularly wasteful. You’re using a computer right now, sipping silently but steadily from the pool of fossil fuels, and you’re likely thinking, how much worse could crypto activity be?  I am here to tell you: boy howdy, it’s worse. A lot worse. The electricity needed to create a cryptocoin will stagger you. The Guardian estimated that the 2020 carbon footprint of Bitcoin was equivalent to that of the entire nation of Argentina; those radicals at Morgan Stanley conceded that the network consumes as much electricity as 2 million American homes. And Bitcoin, alas, is not the only cryptocurrency.

Waste is not a byproduct of cryptocurrency mining. It’s the heart of the system. A cryptocoin is a tokenization of waste: it represents the guarantee of expenditure of electricity.  Most cryptocurrencies require proof of work (usually abbreviated PoW), which means that value is generated through intense computer activity.  The system is designed to make it increasingly difficult to mine a new bit of currency — this is the means by which those who originally bought into the scheme maintain value in a closed economy with a fixed number of coins. At the dawn of Bitcoin, a home investor with a quick connection to the Internet could mine currency by himself. A decade later, it requires an armada of high-powered computers, yoked together in a server farm and guzzling huge amounts of electricity, to achieve the same effect. If we continue on this mad trajectory, we’re soon going to turn the world inside out in an effort to mint funny money. 

Being the richest man on a burned-out planet is not, I hope, anybody’s ambition. In order to avoid an association with waste, Ethereum — the cryptocurrency that hosts NFTs on its blockchain — has announced its intention to abandon PoW and switch to a system called Serenity. If there’s a crypto-apologist in your life, you might have already heard about Ethereum 2.0, and the greener Serenity upgrade, and you may have been told that the cryptocurrency has already put in place a “beacon” chain that runs on something called proof of stake (usually abbreviated PoS, I kid you not). Unlike proof of work systems, proof of stake chains generate value and validate ledger transactions on the basis of your prior investment. In other words, if you hold a large amount of a particular currency, that’s a kind of leverage — you’ll generate rewards within the system, and you won’t necessarily need to nuke the planet while doing so.

The organ-grinders at Ethereum have been playing this verse for quite some time, and they haven’t once come to the chorus. You don’t have to be a cynic or a luddite to have noticed that proof of stake has been the carrot on the end of Ethereum’s stick from the moment the currency was launched (2015, if you’re keeping score.) The beacon chain, on closer inspection, isn’t a particularly load-bearing economic instrument.  No big transactions are happening on there.  It’s mostly a guide for steps that Ethereum wants its investors and coin-holders to believe they’ll take in the near future. Even the Ethereum website owns up to the fact that the roadmap to Serenity, as they call it, is no brief joyride.  By their own estimates, it’s going to take them another five to ten years to roll the system out.

Ladies and gentlemen: we don’t have five to ten years. We probably don’t have five to ten seconds. If we’re going to check the widespread habitat destruction that’s happening worldwide, we need to change what we’re doing and how we are living — right now. When Mr. Blockchain comes knocking with a deal with the Devil for you, you should politely decline. Even if Ethereum does switch to a proof of stake system, there is no reason to believe that it’ll be carbon-neutral. By contrast, there’s quite a lot of reason to be suspicious of every single thing that fintech people say. The crypto arena is the home field for the old bait and switch.  Don’t go for it.

I’m not a neophobe, and I know you aren’t, either. I, too, like technologies, and things that run on fossil fuels, and I’m hoping that all of this investment in science — including financial science — will yield real results in the ongoing battle to bring humanity into better alignment with the biosphere.  Given their horrendous track record, though, you’ll pardon me for doubting that greening the blockchain is a major priority for any of these currency salesmen and digital hucksters. No matter what Ethereum says, it’s unlikely that PoW is about to budge. My great fear is that in order to dislodge this horrific system, the cryptocurrency market is going to have to crash.

Currencies are either fixed to a standard or they float free. On balance, institutional investors and bankers prefer a free floating currency because it gives them greater creative latitude. Since the second Nixon Administration, the U.S. dollar has been a fiat currency, which meant that there’s nothing to support the dollar bill except the government’s word.  This has been a good thing for the government: it means the treasury has the ultimate control over how much money there is in circulation.  If they want to fund a war, or a social program, or a public-financed political campaign, they sell some bonds, phone the Mint, and start rolling the greenbacks off of the presses. Printing money doesn’t cause inflation — printing money is inflation.  In 1950, the average American home cost around $7,500. Today, that figure is more than $220,000.  Those homes didn’t get any bigger or better.  The value of the dollar has shrunk. If you held nothing but dollars under your mattress for the past half-century, you’ve watched as the purchasing power of that currency has whittled away, year by year, until there’s nothing left but chump change. 

This was one of the problems that cryptocurrency was created to address. In a PoW scheme like Bitcoin, there’s a fixed amount of currency that exists, and the escalating electricity costs of mining a new coin is a feature deliberately designed to generate artificial scarcity in a system that is wholly imaginary. The great benefit of this is that the currency does not inflate. Investors loathe inflation. It eats away at the foundation of their portfolios like a swarm of termites. As long as those computer servers continue to run harder and harder, and the necessary proof becomes more prohibitive to secure, the value of the coin will always be set by the market alone. This is the elegance of the system, and it is exactly that simplicity and purity that draws techno-utopians into the crypto trade. It is, in a scary way, incorruptible. This libertarian fantasy is only made possible by burning unspeakable amounts of fossil fuels. That’s usually glossed over by those who need you to enter the marketplace in order to ensure that the value of their original investment continues to rise. 

Proof of stake doesn’t guarantee anything like that. There are no equivalent safeguards against currency inflation. Because proof of stake rewards those who hold a great deal of cryptocurrency, a big PoS system is always going to be at risk of overheating. With mining costs eliminated, there’s no artificial check on the number of blocks that can be added to the chain. The brakes are gone. There are, no doubt, financial innovators who are cooking up ways to make PoS chains more appealing to investors than PoW chains are, and maybe they’ll succeed.  But in 2021, it’s not hard to see why most cryptocurrencies and their enthusiasts are sticking with proof of work. And if you need further evidence, consider that there are already many cryptocurrencies that are running on a PoS system, including Peercoin, NXT, and PIVX. You haven’t heard of any of those, you probably never will, and the NFT marketplace and its gigantic transactions is, unsurprisingly, right there on a PoW chain.

You may have heard it said that Ethereum will run whether or not NFTs are present. This is true. But it’s also misleading.  It misrecognizes the role of the artist in the planned popularization of the blockchain.  Artists who’ve pitched their tent in the crypto arena like to think of themselves as investments. They’re not. They’re advertisers. They’re fancy names, there to get more people excited about the possibilities of cryptocurrency, even though they don’t understand it, and to entice entertainment journalists, who don’t understand it either, to place stories in online periodicals with eye-popping dollar figures in the headlines.  The artists’ famous fear of missing out is getting monetized in a manner that passes that fear on to the general population. Investors encourage this to happen because cryptocurrencies are pyramid schemes. The people who hold the lion’s share of the currency know damn well that none of these invisible coins are pegged to anything.  If new investors stop entering the market, the coins will vanish back into the digital ether from which they were summoned by the illusionists of capital.  Sound investments do not need evangelists, and no ethical person should voluntarily participate in a bubble — especially one with such a steep ecological cost.

So: you don’t want any of this.  You don’t want to be a shill for institutional businessmen, you don’t want to dehumanize and depersonalize your work by turning it into a plaything for capitalists, and you don’t want to burn the world to a cinder. There’s nothing that the NFT sphere can give you that you can’t already get from the Internet, or, Lord help us, from an art or pop scene once the doors to the clubs and galleries are back open. The impressive new abbreviations and proper nouns that have entered the vernacular are only kept arcane in order to confuse and swindle people. There’s nothing novel going on here. A blockchain is just a ledger with technologically enforced security safeguards.  A cryptocurrency is just another speculative investment based on a standard confidence trick. An NFT is just a trading card. You didn’t want to go to business school for a reason, and friends, you are looking at that reason. If you’ve got a name, and even if you don’t!, they’re going to come calling for you.  Just say no. The gopher will thank you, and so will I. 

tris@trismccall.net

Poll 31: End Note, Part 2 (Promotions)

In 2021, I doubt it’s possible to overestimate the wearisome degree to which constant sustained promotion has become standard practice for public figures in all branches of the culture industry. For instance, my neighbor Wanda* is engaged in constant sustained promotion. She’s a wannabe influencer, and the whole block hears her hitting Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch every other day. Surely somebody with a how-to guide told her to: she was advised that in order to gain traction, she needs to be all over the Internet as much, and as regularly, as she can. This may or may not work for others. I am 100% positive that it’s not going to work for her. There is a limit to the amount of Wanda-related content that Planet Earth can handle. At a certain point, she’s going to be annoying people. Every subsequent post and dance and pitch past that point detracts from whatever profile she’s building. What Wanda needs is what nobody gets anymore: periodic targeted promotion.  She needs a marketing plan that gives everybody a break, including her.

There is no such thing as a great influencer. There is certainly such a thing as a great artist. Great artists will adapt to whatever the world slings at them: if the biosphere runs out of trees and there’s no more paper, they’ll scratch their stories into rocks. If participation in the industry requires the practice of constant sustained promotion, they’ll figure out a way to square that demand with what they do, no matter how awkwardly it fits.  

In 2021, this means being extremely online. That artist obsessively dropping new projects every two weeks has become an anachronism already – she’s lost ground to the artist who is constantly present via social media, and putting out an amalgam of tweets, posts, scraps of songs, backstage glimpses, whatever. We require the artist to remain in character 24/7, and to project a persona via social media in perpetuity throughout the universe. Great artists are acceding to this demand. I have the highest regard for Aubrey Graham and Elizabeth Grant, and I admire the discipline they demonstrate; they’re as brand-consistent as Reese’s Peanut Butter, and to me, that’s very pop. Then there are artists like Moriah Pereira, who has used the Poppy character as an instrument for commentary on all sorts of things, including constant sustained promotion. Yet Elizabeth Grant is one in a million. Her talent for keeping a straight face is supernatural. It is unrealistic to ask random singer-songwriters to do what she does. It’s become necessary to ask the question nobody seems to ask anymore: is it psychologically healthy for the artist to be behaving like this?  Is it right for people in the industry – heck, people in the audience – to demand that our entertainers never leave the stage? 

I think the answer to this question is that it isn’t healthy at all. For proof of this, it’s helpful to look to hip-hop, where we’re losing an entire generation of talent to constant sustained promotion. No longer is it permissible for the artist to put on a roughneck costume for storytelling purposes, and then take off that costume when the show is over and live to the ripe old age of 35. Now rappers must play to the cameras constantly, and actively indulge in self-destructive behavior in order to advance and reinforce the characters they’re playing. If an artist demurs, he risks losing his audience to somebody who won’t. So these dudes are dying of overdoses at 20 and heading to prison on gun charges, and even if people in the industry aren’t tacitly encouraging this, they’re clearly not doing enough to stand in the way of it. They’re burning through artists at a staggering rate, asking them to stay in “relatable” (read: self-destructive) character constantly, overshare on the Internet perpetually, and drop new material whether it’s ready or not. In teen-pop and Nashville machine country, the horror stories aren’t quite as graphic, or as visible, but they’re just as prevalent, and just as upsetting. As a big fan of all of this stuff, I am tired of seeing talented artists crash and burn because their handlers aren’t paying attention to the awful psychological repercussions of never-ending promotion. Human beings can’t be treated this way – especially creative human beings. It’s unsustainable.

I imagine that people in the industry might say that they’re just giving the audience what it wants: this is what the fan asks of the idol, and the executive’s role in the modern era is merely that of a facilitator. To me, though, that’s just passing the buck, and ducking culpability for the exploitation of talent that’s all too prevalent in ’21. We all have a moral responsibility to cool it – and an aesthetic one, too! – because I don’t think it’s difficult to see where this is headed. Those insiders who tell artists to work harder and accelerate the pace of their promotional efforts aren’t geniuses. They’re just amplifying a signal that’s already ear-splitting. A truly visionary thing to do would be to figure out how to reintegrate periodic targeted promotion into marketing campaigns; that’d be thinking long-term, which is something that nobody in showbiz seems capable of doing anymore. 

Honestly, it makes my stomach drop to hear people in the music industry call compulsion, addiction and addictive behavior part of the human condition, and talk so blithely about it, as if it’s something worth chasing. This isn’t merely because I’ve watched so many lives destroyed by addictive behavior. Addictive thinking is something cultivated by the vampires, dopamine-jugglers, and algorithm-runners at the social-media companies. It’s not something that arts advocates should have any time for. Addiction is antithetical to art. That’s true for many reasons, and none more important than that we’ve lost far too many great artists to it. If the artist’s representative isn’t there to stop the artist (and the artist’s audience) from racing down the cliff, what, really, is he good for?

*name changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Poll 31: End Note, Part 1 (Misrecognitions)

You probably think of Elvis Costello as a genial presence in pop music: a sophisticated lyricist and concept-master, and an occasional thoughtful talk show host, too. But in March 1979, Elvis Costello was an idiot. He referred to James Brown and Ray Charles as “ignorant niggers”, and once his vicious blue streak made it out into the public, there were press conferences, there were apologies, there was embarrassment all around. When your dad feels the need to write letters to the editor to assure your fans that you aren’t a racist, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ve stepped in it hard. Elvis wasn’t exactly cancelled, but he did substantial damage to his commercial prospects. His ’78 and ’79 albums both went platinum in the U.K.  After the incident, he’d never go platinum again.

I didn’t become a superfan of Elvis Costello until many years afterward, so I can’t say how bugged out I would have been by his early edgelord activities. His early albums make his anger manifest — there’s an assaultive quality to that music that was intrinsic to his initial appeal to audiences. Students of his album know that the working title of Armed Forces was Emotional Fascism, and he liberally peppered his lyrics with references to Hitler, Quisling, goon squads, concentration camps, decapitation, puns about the final solution. The hit single, written in response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, contained the phrase “white nigger.” In retrospect, it’s apparent that he was spoiling for a confrontation. Somebody was going to read him the riot act.

Lyricists understand the power of words; that’s the business, and if you’re trying to make yourself an attraction, you light the fuse on the loudest firecrackers you can find. It’s not possible to argue that Morgan Wallen is a great lyricist —  he’s far too willing to advance his narratives via Music City cliché. He’s an effective one nevertheless. Halfway through the first disc of Dangerous, you’ll have a character portrait in full. You’ll know exactly what sort of an ornery character you’re dealing with, and you’ll have a pretty good measure of the chip on his shoulder and the strip-mine depth of his resentment. You might see Morgan Wallen as a shit-kicking Appalachian analogue to Elvis Costello in the late ‘70s: a talented, opinionated, red-assed guy with an urge to provoke that often outpaces his desire to entertain.  

In February, Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using the n-word.  Industry reprisals were immediate: he was kicked off of satellite radio and streaming services, his major label record contract was suspended, and Dangerous, his album, was disqualified from CMA consideration. Nevertheless, the records kept selling. Dangerous held the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for ten weeks, and songs from the set remained on the streaming charts; much as gun sales spike in the wake of school shootings as ammo enthusiasts fret that the government will use the controversy as a pretext to take their weapons away, Wallen fans raced to get their hands on his music before he got shipped to entertainment Siberia. Those who don’t like contemporary country music were sure they knew what had happened: recalcitrant red-staters were sticking it to the virtuous and censorious, and infuriating the social-justice warriors by standing by their man, no matter how insensitive he might be. Even those of us who do like contemporary country music had to acknowledge that, yes, some spitework was going on.

But we also know that’s an insufficient explanation. The real reason why the Morgan Wallen album keeps selling is because of the state-of-the-art craftsmanship it contains, that, and the sincerity and strange purity of its sentiment. A shocking number of the 32 (!) songs on the set are keepers; they’re undeniable, even when they’re unpleasant. Dangerous, which is appropriately titled, reveals Wallen to be a messed-up person — one conscious of every sneer directed at the sticks, suspicious of the condescension of outsiders, and defensive of his way of life; i.e., “country-ass shit.” Not since Jamey Johnson’s Guitar Song has a mainstream artist expressed such tacit contempt for coastal city slickers. But while Johnson was convinced that California would soon burn, and only those who’d gotten back to Macon (love allll night) would survive the meltdown of the liberal order, Morgan Wallen grudgingly accepts that none of his vengeance fantasies are going to be realized. The girl at the beach bar isn’t going to follow him back to the Eastern Tennessee hills, beer isn’t really colder or tastier in the mountains, a “little ride around the farm” won’t pry anybody away from the metropolis, and all of these realizations magnify Wallen’s insecurity and bitterness. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the past decade, it’s that Wallen is speaking for an awful lot of Americans here — maybe not Americans who you want anything to do with, but your neighbors nevertheless, determined to impose an ill will on a country that they share with you. We ignore them, and shame them into silence, at some peril.  

This isn’t to excuse Morgan Wallen’s (or Elvis Costello’s) stupidity. Hitmakers have big platforms, and when the sensitivity and openness that the job requires turns them into a channel for ugly stuff, they ought to be called out on it. Most good artists recognize that they’re vessels for volcanic forces, and when they’re pulled back from the edge, they tend to be grateful to those who do the yanking. Elvis Costello has spent decades apologizing to Ray Charles in various ways; Morgan Wallen was quick with contrition, agreed with his critics, and dropped off his summer ’21 tour to work on himself, which, given the context surrounding the incident, probably mean some kind of detox. And I can’t help but think of another legend who loved to make the normies uncomfortable — David Bowie, who claimed to have no recollection of his mid-‘70s praise of Hitler and fascism, and his bizarre fascination with Nazi memorabilia and iconography. Convenient, yes, but I doubt that was a case of selective amnesia. During the Thin White Duke period, Bowie was zonked out of his mind on every pill and powder in Eurasia. Costello, too, was drunk and high when he went on his tirade; ’79 was probably the apex of his speed ride. Morgan Wallen’s n-bombs were dropped near the bleary end of a three-day bender. Intoxicants don’t just make people stupid. They corrode morals, too. Give a nonstop supply of whiskey and coke to St. Peter, turn the digital recorder on and roll the camera, and it’s dead certain you’ll catch him saying, or doing, something regrettable, and maybe even cancellable.

We’re reluctant to lean too hard into this, because we don’t want to accidentally argue that the fault is in the bottle and not in the man. Maker’s Mark did not create our racist society, and perhaps the hippies are right that puffing on a spliff might have improved Hitler’s disposition. But in our rush to expunge bigoted discourse from the public sphere, we keep missing salient details that might help us evaluate the offenders, and their offenses, fairly. There’s very little chance that Morgan Wallen is a member of the Klan, or a legitimate threat to race relations, or much more prejudiced than the next self-identified Tennessee redneck lout, but anybody who gives Dangerous a cursory listen can tell that the guy has a ferocious drinking problem. It shouldn’t have taken a national scandal for his handlers, and his listeners, to acknowledge this and attempt some sort of intervention. All the evidence of a booze-induced mind meltdown is right there in the lyrics, and in the star’s occasionally scary performances. When Wallen sings that living the dream is killing him, and runs down a list of the pharmaceuticals that have been propping him up as he tours, his voice is heavy with that precise combination of fear and exhaustion that any addict, or even a friend of an addict, will immediately recognize.

Unfortunately, the default position for fans — and not just country fans! — is to cheer their heads off at any mention of alcohol. Self-destruction brings the house down. When Wallen tells the bartender to set ‘em up, over and over, this is supposed to be a thrilling recapitulation of bad boy tradition; when the chickens come home to roost, and Wallen acts the goat and says or does something idiotic, we’re all supposed to turn on a dime, assume the moral high ground, and wag our fingers. Can you see how we’ve lost the sense of proportion necessary to respond to Wallen, and Wallen’s fans, in a manner that suits the offense? We encourage angry, talented young men to broadcast recalcitrance and indulge in anti-social behavior, and then act shocked when those young men stumble over the line into the widening sphere of the problematic. When this happens, we’re being as dumb as Morgan Wallen on a bender, because we, too, are failing to see the obvious consequences of our actions. Ultimately, cancellation is a fantasy of direct audience control that doesn’t actually exist: it’s easy enough to make PWR BTTM vanish, because they were always a media-driven mirage, but Wallen, like Costello and David Bowie, is actually talented, and talent is no cheap commodity. If he takes himself off the table, it won’t be because of anything he says. It’ll be because of what he does — to himself.

Ideally, our pop heroes would be unimpeachable people as well as magnificent singers and writers. I’m not sure it ever works that way. Most good artists are deeply troubled people: they’re driven to do what they do because of some unquenchable desire that they can’t satisfy through sane means. Elvis Costello, famously, cited revenge and guilt as his motivations; someone with such an ill wind in his sails was always going to head straight into trouble. Morgan Wallen is driven by furies, too — that’s hard to miss, and it’s what makes Dangerous more than just typical Nashville machine music. It’s not incumbent on you, or anybody else, to accept Wallen’s apology. If a slip of the tongue keeps him civilian, he certainly wouldn’t be the first drunk to mess up his life while he was blacked out. I just wish we were all a little more honest about what we ask of these guys, and a little less stunned when they go ahead and give us what we want.

Poll 31: Results

They were screaming right back, from what I remember.

It should not be as hard as it has been to see the next sunrise. We made it through 2020, but a month after the calendar turned, I’m still not sure how we did it. There were many days when no betting man would have taken odds on our survival. Often, I assumed that our problems were greater and more intractable than those of my neighbors. Perhaps they were. But if there’s a single thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that there are wolves at every door. We’re all beset, and there’s nowhere to run.

There are those among us who didn’t experience a feeling of constant existential threat in 2020. They didn’t feel jeopardized by poor leadership, or by the police, or the proliferation of guns, or by the growing sense of entitlement among those who prefer violent solutions to everyday problems. Perhaps they convinced themselves that the virus was a network news exaggeration or a political ploy. They had no crippling psychological or physical problems to contend with. We all know people like that. But chances are, you don’t count them among your pals. They’re certainly not voting in this annual Poll, brought back from oblivion, by me, to help ease the chill of a treacherous winter: one where we’re busily binding up wounds, warily looking out our windows at days we’re not permitting ourselves to enjoy, and girding ourselves against what’s to come.

Fifty-three voters submitted Poll ballots. Almost all of them came from regular respondents. It was a tough year to make new friends, and this exercise has always been, at its essence, a roundup of friends’ opinions. Because I know you, I can say with some authority that you’re part of an anxious tribe. Even during sunnier days, we’ve tended to pick stormy soundtracks: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy in 2011, Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? in 2007, The Loud Family’s Days For Days in 1998. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not your number one jam. In 2020, there was always very little chance that this resurrected Poll would be topped by anything other than a ghost story.

Phoebe Bridgers put a scribbled apparition on the cover of her debut album. For Punisher, she’s dressed in a skeleton suit, and she poses, bent backward under the weight of night, contemplating a vast and starry sky. She wears the same suit in the video for “Kyoto”, and surfs through a green-screened Japan like an animate memento mori. But a spirit in the material world she is not — she’s a flesh-and-blood woman, grappling with cosmic forces, cracking jokes as her stride quickens near the gates of the cemetery. “A slaughterhouse/an outlet mall/slot machines/fear of God”: this is her ten-word State of the Nation report on “I Know The End”. Once older listeners (and we voters are now more than three decades older than we were when we began this tradition on placemats in a Jersey sit-down deli) might have found her fatalism premature. Times have changed. These days, the ghosts rattle their chains in earshot of everybody. Phoebe Bridgers was the reporter who gave it to us straight, and with no small amount of gratitude for her candor and courage, we’ve put her second album atop the thirty-first edition of our Poll.

The music on Punisher is not extraordinary. The arrangements are straightforward. Melodies don’t take unusual turns. It’s stark and spectral West Coast folk-pop, aligned with that of college rock practitioners, and it is descended in spirit from the ’70s records of the songwriter who Phoebe Bridgers reminds me of the most: Jackson Browne, another generational spokesperson with one eye on his deteriorating interpersonal relationships and another on doomsday. The words, however, are uncompromising, and, at times, downright scary. Her narrators live too close to the hospital; they’re hearing ambulances and getting spooked. One love song is called “ICU”, another chronicles an affair with a married man who “might be dying”. A character stalks the songwriter Elliott Smith, even though he killed himself two decades ago. Romantic metaphors are delivered with an undercurrent of terror: a lover is a “work of art”, but she stands too close and “sees the brushstrokes”, another pulls her in so deep that her feet “can’t touch the bottom”, and there’s a strong intimation of death by drowning. She thinks of the things she’d do for love, and when her mind flashes to the Brian Stow beating in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, it somehow makes perfect sense. Characters duck ontological anxiety by picking fights: a pointless quarrel about John Lennon, invective about “Tears In Heaven”, condemnation of a boyfriend’s mother who is probably neck-deep in QAnon propaganda. In one pivotal sequence, a character gets into a shouting match with Westboro Baptists, only to admit to herself, in the solitude of her room, that she envies their certainty that the soul will transmigrate. She tries to hear the ghosts in the walls, but is confronted by the limits of her own materialism: that’s impossible, she concludes, to her dismay. All things are sliding inexorably to the same finish line, and when she passes the “End Is Near” sign on the highway, she stands up straight and confronts its blank back side. The world Phoebe Bridgers is describing is not a pretty one, or a particularly survivable one. But it’s most certainly our world, and if we must live in it, it’s nice to know we’ve got company.

Album of the Year

Punisher finishes, comfortably but not thumping-ly, ahead of 2012 Poll winner Tame Impala. I chalked up the popularity of Lonerism among our voters to Kevin Parker’s occasional vocal resemblance to John Lennon, and the enduring popularity of pop-psychedelia. I now acknowledge it’s more complicated than that. Tame Impala lyrics are candid and incisive, and although Kevin Parker often makes you fight through the machine processing to get to them, they’re always worth riddling out. Many of the respondents who voted for The Slow Rush mentioned the album’s themes: the inexorable passage of time, romantic disillusionment, the awful inevitability of growing up. Sorry about that; it happens to us all, if we’re lucky. Fiona Apple’s celebrated Bolt Cutters wears its theme more boldly, and that figures, since outspokenness as a means toward self-definition is one of the things she’s angling for. The Canadian-Colombian Lido Pimienta makes many of the same points, only en Español, which, given the emotional clarity and pure vehemence of her performances, ought to be no obstacle to appreciation of her music. I’ve been waving the flag for Miss Colombia since its release this spring, so if its appearance at #5 seems a little high to you, you might blame the Pollmaster for that. It’s the highest finish for any Spanish-language album in the history of our Poll.

I’ll have a lot to say about T. A. Swift over the next few days, and I don’t want to start the engine roaring just yet. For now, I’ll just point out that over the last fifteen months, she’s released fifty-two songs and three albums. I believe that’s unprecedented. Even if you don’t like what she’s written, it’s hard to knock the productivity. I’m reminded of the crazy streak that Roger Waters was on in the late ’70s, but Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking — which was apparently written at the same time as The Wall and The Final Cut — didn’t come out until 1984.

Those who voted for Punisher and Fetch The Bolt Cutters tended to place those albums at the very tops of their lists. Nobody had Football Money very high, but it appeared on many of your ballots: 15 of the 53 submitted. Because I hadn’t even heard of Kiwi Jr. until December, this surprises me. Maybe it shouldn’t. Many of the voters in this Poll are veterans of power pop and indiepop bands, and Football Money has the verities in place: sardonic lead singer as mentally restless as early Joe Jackson, plenty of guitar textures, jangle and snap, copious chord changes and hooks delivered at high velocity, brevity, wisecracks, references to being broke. Indie musicians can relate. Kiwi Jr. finishes in a flatfooted tie with perennial Poll favorite Of Montreal, and The Beths, whose Jump Rope Gazers is moody and lovelorn but never less than tuneful. Several Jump Rope voters made it clear that they don’t like this one as much as Future Me Hates Me, the Beths debut, and an unadulterated exercise in New Zealand power pop. I know ’em both, and I’m pretty sure the new one is better. It’s certainly less frantic.

You might assume that this is friendly territory for Springsteen: we’ve got lots of Jersey voters, and I’m a Jersey guy. But the truth is that the Boss has usually taken a beating on our Poll. Some of our most reliable voters are passionate E Street detractors, and he’s been a landslide winner in certain negative categories in the very recent past. The embrace of Letter To You isn’t even a restoration, because he’s never finished in the Top Ten before. Our voters just liked this one. Most of those who tapped Letter To You had never submitted a ballot with a Springsteen album on it before.

Hip-hop arrives in the early teens. None of that kid stuff: these rappers are skills-heavy veterans with loud mouths and personal agendas to push. The Alchemist provides Freddie Gibbs with a silky backdrop for his pleasantly vicious storytelling, Quelle Chris matches spy music and weird, off-balance beats to Homeboy Sandman’s latest clever/curmudgeonly verses, and Jaime Meline fires up the RTJ machine for another trip to the barricades with co-pilot Killer Mike delivering broadsides from the shotgun seat. Superficially, Andy Shauf couldn’t be more different: on The Neon Skyline, he’s a mumbling barfly who, through his own romantic inaction, has allowed the girl he wants slip through his fingers. But even though he isn’t as assertive as the rappers are, his dilemma — which is elaborated in some detail on a concept set that features the sort of linear storytelling that our voters always like — isn’t too different from theirs. He’s dealing with thirtysomething desperation, and the creeping feeling that he’s about to enter a period of irrelevance. Mike blames the government, Homeboy Sandman blames his girlfriend, and Freddie blames his rivals on the street. Andy blames himself. By the end of The Neon Skyline, you might feel that he deserves a good scapegoat.

Juice WRLD was less than half Killer Mike’s age when he died of a drug overdose a little over twelve months ago. We’ve lost too many promising rappers over the last few years: Pop Smoke, whose posthumous release Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon narrowly missed this Top 40, was shot to death in February. Stepa J. Groggs of the excellent Arizona group Injury Reserve — Rookie of the Year candidates in 2018 and 2019 — died this summer. Emcees with the potential to make it through their twenties and deliver solid music, Homeboy Sandman-style, well into their forties are getting waylaid by a combination of violence and self-destructive compulsions. It’s another horrible American phenomenon, and one that ought to concern everybody who loves music.

  • 21. Sparks – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (100)
  • 22. Laura MarlingSong For Our Daughter (98)
  • 22. Open Mike EagleAnime, Trauma And Divorce (98)
  • 24. Nada Surf – Never Not Together (96)
  • 25. MorrisseyI Am Not A Dog On A Chain (95)
  • 26. CaribouSuddenly (92)
  • 26. SevdalizaShabrang (92)
  • 28. Touché AmoréLament (91)
  • 29. Field Music – Making A New World (90)
  • 30. Coriky – Coriky (88)

A few interesting names in this section, and at least one that’s become a genuine hot potato. Even as his venomous statements have pushed him past the periphery of pop music and into the netherzone of the non-personed, many of our voters have not turned on Morrissey. I couldn’t agree less with the political positions he’s taken — I don’t even want to dignify them by calling them a coherent ideology — but as an appreciator of pop records, I find his recent ones aesthetically successful. I’m not sure he’s ever sung more passionately or more communicatively than he has on his last three albums, including the covers set California Son. Morrissey was adamant that I Am Not A Dog On A Chain was his best work, and he complained, Curt Schilling-like, that critics were intentionally withholding the approbation he deserved. That’s probably true. If we can agree that he did it to himself, and if we can further agree not to feel bad for him when he whines (I sure don’t feel bad for Schilling), I think we ought to be able to approach his records and appreciate them for what they are: very solid pop-rock recordings from a talented but deeply unpleasant practitioner of the style. He’s always been highly misanthropic. If you remember him differently from his days with the Smiths, well, I think you were missing the essence of the man.

Moz comes in three places and three points after a musical hero of mine: the Berkshire folk-rock singer Laura Marling, who, if we’d held this Poll in 2017, would’ve likely won it. Our voters were less enthusiastic about Song For Our Daughter. She hasn’t finished in the twenties since Alas, I Cannot Swim, her debut, in 2008. Going in the other direction: Nada Surf is a group that has always gotten votes here and there, but has never finished in the Top 30 before; their (early) association with Ric Ocasek and the talkiness of Matthew Caws’s approach and the er, power in their pop are all hallmarks of groups that do well in this Poll. Finally, it’s always gratifying to see Sparks on a year-end list. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate that group, and yes, if you’ve read this far, I reckon you’re that type.

  • 31. AC/DCPower Up (84)
  • 32. Elvis CostelloHey Clockface (83)
  • 32. Perfume GeniusSet My Heart On Fire Immediately (83)
  • 32. Sad13 – Haunted Painting (83)
  • 35. Soccer MommyColor Theory (77)
  • 36. Idles – Ultra Mono (75)
  • 37. Benny The Butcher – Burden Of Proof (75)
  • 38. Thundercat – It Is What It Is (73)
  • 39. Jason Isbell & The 400 UnitReunions (71)
  • 39. Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream (71)

Votes for Elvis Costello, votes for the Boss, votes for Angus Young and company, but very few votes for Bob Dylan. We’ll talk more about that in the coming days. You know how it goes: singles list tomorrow (Feb. 2), a round-up of miscellaneous categories on Wednesday (Feb. 3), and then I post my own ballot on Thursday and Friday. Will there be a final essay? I hope so, but life does have a way of intervening.

Other albums receiving #1 votes:

  • Ariana GrandePositions
  • Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
  • Blake MillsMutable Set
  • Young Jesus – Welcome To Conceptual Beach
  • Game Theory – Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript
  • Seeming – A Birdwatcher’s Guide To Atrocity
  • Haim – Women In Music Pt. 3
  • Finlandia/Singapur – 19 Junio, 1955
  • The Menzingers – From Exile
  • The Killers – Imploding The Mirage
  • The Microphones – Microphones In 2020
  • The Bye Bye Blackbirds – Boxer At Rest
  • The Corner Laughers – Temescal Telegraph
  • Leslie Pereira & The Lazy Heroes – Good Karma
  • Eyelids – The Accidental Falls
  • Willie The KidCapital Gains