Critics Poll XXVI — My ballot, part II

Single of the Year

  • 1. Ezra Furman — “Lousy Connection”
  • 2. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue”
  • 3. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy”
  • 4. Tame Impala — “Cause I’m A Man”
  • 5. The Decemberists — “Make You Better”
  • 6. Drake — “Hotline Bling”
  • 7. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta”
  • 8. Natalia Lafourcade — “Hasta La Raiz”
  • 9. Vince Staples — “Norf Norf”
  • 10. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach”
  • 11. Laura Stevenson — “Jellyfish”
  • 12. Carly Rae Jepsen — “I Really Like You”
  • 13. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright”
  • 14. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey”
  • 15. The Wonder Years — “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then”
  • 16. Pusha T — “Untouchable”
  • 17. Dutch Uncles — “Decided Knowledge”
  • 18. Nate Ruess — “Great Big Storm”
  • 19. Fashawn — “Out The Trunk”
  • 20. Freddie Gibbs — “Fuckin’ Up The Count”

Best Singing

Erykah Badu

Best Rapping

Lupe Fiasco, especially on “Mural,” a nine minute water walk.

Best Vocal Harmonies

All over the Social Experiment album.

Best Bass Playing

Thundercat. Did you know he put out a solo album? He did — and he sings on it, too. (He’s not half bad.) It’s called The Beyond, and if you dug his playing on To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington’s Epic, you ought to check it out. At 20 minutes, it’s definitely the most manageable leg of the journey.

Best Live Drumming

Marco Minneman is the foundation that makes the prog-out that is Hand. Cannot. Erase. possible. If you call yourself a prog-rock fan — somebody with even passing interest in the history of progressive rock from Magical Mystery Tour to Marillion to Strange Mercy — and you told me you didn’t like Steven Wilson’s latest album, I wouldn’t believe you. It would be as hard to swallow as an indiepop fan who claimed to be able to resist Let’s Get Out Of This Country. While we’re on the subject of live drumming, Roisin Murphy gets an absolutely mesmerizing performance out of a percussionist named Eddie Stevens on “Exploitation.” It’s probably computer assisted, but hey, so am I.

Best Drum And Instrument Programming 

Timbaland for the umpteenth time. This year it was his creepy, abandoned funhouse beats on the Pusha T album that did it. Virginia is a weirder place than you think it is.

Best Synthesizer Playing Or Programming

Dutch Uncles, a British band that recalls (in no particular order): ABC, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Tears For Fears, A-Ha, Frankie, Talk Talk, Scritti Politti, David Sylvian, Naked Eyes. All of the sleek, jazzy feel and sleek, jazzy flourishes, none of the sleek, jazzy hooks. But the music is never less than interesting, and the words, which concern a young man alternately adopting and mocking the ritual masks he has to wear in order to assimilate to successful adulthood, are even better. This year’s Metronomy/High Llamas/’80s-throwback sophistipop album. Now I hafta go hear their other three.

Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing

Adam Holzman of the Steven Wilson band.

Best Guitar Playing

Laura “Just A Girl Who Can Play Guitar” Marling. She says so herself; who are you to cross her, knave? Now we know she can do Chrissie Hynde as well as she can do Sandy Denny. I hope I live long enough to see what else she has to show us, because I have a feeling we’re not even at the midpoint of this story. Short Movie kicks fanny, but to truly understand where Lord Marling’s butter-colored head is at right now, your best bet is YouTube. Here she is, blowing the lid off of “I Feel Your Love.” On the album, she’s meditative and maybe even sorrowful; in performance, she swings the song around like a cleaver. One she just got sharpened, mind you, and that she’s eager to try out on a side of beef, or somebody quite like one. How about this electrifying version of “How Can I?”, shorn of the string section that she recorded without letting them practice beforehand. Here, it’s just you, her acoustic guitar, and her voice, and that smoke you smell right now is coming from your eyelashes. I’m a musician, sort of, and I do occasionally ask people to come hear me play. My studio performances are doctored, amplified, Auto-Tuned, comped; whatever we have to do to get them presentable. I never want to hang it up more than I do when I see Laura Marling knock out flawless one-take versions of her songs that are even better than the stunning ones on her album. It sure does hurt. But yup, I keep right on playing them, and re-playing, and re-playing.

Best Guitar Playing, Stealth Division

We know about Richard Thompson and the guy on Hand. Cannot. Erase. who sounds more like Steve Howe than Steve Howe has in years. Brad Paisley didn’t put out anything new this year, but the trailing singles from Moonshine In The Trunk bounced away on country radio all summer. All of that was plenty flashy. But sometimes virtuosity isn’t what you need from a six-string player — sometimes it’s more important to get a few notes in the right place and hit them with absolute conviction. Meet Kerry Alexander and Chris Hoge from a Minnesota outfit called Bad Bad Hats. They’re an indiepop band, and we all know I have a weakness for the style; if you don’t like indiepop, you might think that they’re a couple of no-distortion wimps. But if you do like indiepop, you might agree with me that the guitar licks on “Say Nothing” and “Psychic Reader” are ruthlessly effective. They might even prompt a heart-flutter, which is the goal here. Alexander has a severe case of generic girl voice, but she knows how to use it: on music a little too pro to be cupcake pop, but which attains its charm via its acknowledgment of its own attainable ambitions.

Best Instrumental Solo

The ludicrous, over-the-top synth-guitar ride that decorates “Shameless,” a cheeseball power ballad that Max Martin gifted The Weeknd. The liner notes tell me that it was played by a man named Klas Ahlund, a hired gun from a Swedish band called the Teddybears. No kidding. Abel Tesfaye and a teddybear — a sickeningly appropriate combination. Runners up: the yakety-yak sax honk that puts the exclamation mark on the end of Ezra Furman’s “Wobbly,” Holzman’s Moog widdle on Steven Wilson’s “Regret #9,” Ben Gibbard’s wasp-sting in the middle of “Black Sun,” and Stevie Jackson’s runaway go-cart lead during the closing jam of “Book Of You.”

Best Instrumentalist

Kevin Parker

Best Songwriting

Straight outta Coatapec in Veracruz, it’s Natalia Lafourcade. Long have I dreamt of an artist who can do the indiepop thing and the Latin pop thing simultaneously. Ximena Sarinana almost had it in her hands, but it slipped through and sizzled away on the desert floor. (No Todo Lo Puedes Dar, though — that was pretty fucking cool.) Julieta Venegas nearly made it happen, too, but she was never quite delicate enough to turn the trick. But Lafourcade is the alchemist with the proper solvent for any obstruction, chemical or otherwise — she takes her inspiration equally from Nick Drake and Agustin Lara, and on the first four tracks of Hasta La Raiz, she puts the jigsaw puzzle together with such efficacy and confidence that you won’t even notice the grooves between the pieces. The rest of the album isn’t quite as good, but she’s got such a tasty cupcake of a singing voice that it all demands to be gobbled up until you’re scraping the wrapper for crumbs. More, please.

Best Arrangements

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

Best Production

No I.D., whose dreamy, chilly, deeply musical productions gave Vince Staples the exact backdrop his storytelling needed. Remember how I said that Kendrick was corny? Well, Summertime ’06 wasn’t corny at all, and much of that had to do with No I.D.’s oversight. My favorite production on a single track was “Terrence Loves You”; I really dig what they did with the reverb on Lana Del Rey’s voice. Give LDR this, at least: few artists have ever matched a personal brand of bullshit with a sonic aesthetic that suits it so well. In retrospect, the link between Portishead and Sinatra’s depressed Capitol albums was always pretty apparent. Leave it to Ms. Grant and her producers to make that clear to slowballs like me.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

“Sunday Candy”

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of An Album

Kendrick Lamar

Band Of The Year

The Social Experiment. Also, I, like you, wasn’t too impressed by this year’s Decemberists album, but give them this: they’ve all gotten mighty good at their instruments.

Best Show I Saw In 2015

Brian Dewan @ Pianos. Some hymns, some originals, autoharp, zither, and accordion, mock authoritarianism expressed through a straightforward version of “Do Not Mortgage The Farm” from the 1891 Grange Songbook, Edward Lear’s “Akond Of Swat” recited from memory while banging a marching-band bass drum, some ancient anti-tobacco polemics, etcetera. The Dewan concert experience still feels like falling into the best sort of schoolbook, filled with jokes, admonitions, bizarre asides and attitudes that were cashiered for no other reason besides the demands of fashion. (He still looks like a John Tenniel illustration, too.) Dewan needs to swoop down to the city from his Hudson Valley aerie more often.

Best Bill

Gospelfest, as usual.

Live Show You’re Kicking Yourself For Missing

Steven Wilson did Hand. Cannot. Erase. at NJPAC. We must have been out of town. I expect I’ll regret missing that until the end of my life, or the end of the synthesizer solo; whichever comes first.

Best Music Video

Gotta be “Hotline Bling,” right?, but you already know that one. How about one that you might not have seen? Natalie Prass’s clip for “Bird Of Prey” is as customized for small-screen viewing as Drake’s — all the action is right there in the center of the screen — but it was clearly done for pennies, proving again that a music video doesn’t need a big budget to be effective. The special effects here? A woman, a wardrobe, a brolly, and Roy G. Biv.

Best Choreography In A Video

Apologies to Aubrey, whose dancing really is astonishing (not to mention gutsy), but I’ve got to go with Cecilia Suarez and friends in Julieta Venegas’s clip for “Suavecito.” Don’t look for the song on Algo Sucede; it’s not there. Wish it was.

Videos That Best Captured The Themes Of The Albums They Were Shot To Promote

Vince Staples’ “Senorita” and “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. These are superficially similar — they’re both protest clips shot by artists who know what it means to be poor and black and at constant risk of harassment by authorities. But when you look a little closer, the differences in the rappers’ worldviews become apparent. Kendrick is the superhero who flies through the air and pits his empathy and openness against the cold, impassive policeman; his vision is Romantic with a capital R, his struggle is noble and even beautiful, and since he believes the one in front of the gun lives forever, he accepts his bullet with a smile. He’s a Christian, and the heavens are his friend: the streets may be murky, but the sky above him is open. Staples, who walks the streets of his neighborhood desensitized to violence, is much more pessimistic. The officer in the “Senorita” clip is scared shitless, and for good reason — he’s trapped on the inside of a bubble made transparent for a viewing audience with an appetite for exploitation and carnage. Death is arbitrary and senseless, and is no triumph over anything; instead, it’s just entertainment. Also, if I haven’t persuaded you yet to check out Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, now might be the time. There aren’t many things in life better than being in the school play.

Most Romantic Song

Laura Marling, “How Can I”

Funniest Song

Lana Del Rey’s “Salvatore,” la da da di da, soft ice cream. I’ve said it before — her greatest talent is for keeping a straight face. Doesn’t mean you have to.

Most Frightening Song

Joanna Newsom’s “A Pin-Light Bent,” which is about a stewardess falling out of an airplane. The imagery was vivid enough to give me some pre-January vacation nightmares about spacerocks and bird-strikes and nosedives into the freezing Atlantic Ocean, so thanks for that, Newsom. Seriously, though, she continues to be a polarizing figure in this Poll, with many voters thinking that she’s brilliant, and many others thinking that the voters who think she’s brilliant are maybe not so brilliant. I hope we can all agree that she’s an extraordinary, singular talent, even if you know what you’re getting from her these days. Joanna Newsom has become a pro, and I do mean that in ways both good and bad. In 2015, we know her songs are going to be wordy and worldly and “well done,” but she’s not really interested in expanding the lane. Divers turned out to be a smooth ride, which, given the pilot’s taste for turbulence, came as something of a shock. The incessant vocal tremolo remains an issue, but her singing has gotten stronger since Have One On Me; her lyrics can be digressive and hippy-dippy, but they’re never less than smart, and for every overstuffed mouthful of syllables, she’ll turns a phrase poetically and succinctly. Then there’s the harp, which sounds just as nice in ’15 as it did on The Milk-Eyed Mender. In a strange way, she’s become one of the most consistent entertainers in America, which is not what I would have thought would happen when I first heard Yarn & Glue. Call her good old reliable Newsom Newsom Newsom Detroit.  

Most Moving Song

Wait, did you watch that “Sunday Candy” video? Go on and click that link above. Also, there’s Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston,” a small-scale tearjerker about house-shopping in the charmless exurbs that is likely to tickle your urban planning bone. Sometimes I Sit And Think: good songwriting, good lyrics, good singer, good band, nothing not to like here. It’s the kind of project that makes it seem easier than it really is. It’s not this easy.

Sexiest Song

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That,” plus, once I got a good translation of it, Natalia Lafourcade’s “Antes De Huir.” Sigue atrapandome en este rincon indeed.

Most Inspiring Song

“Mortal Man”

Meanest Song

Emile Haynie’s We Fall is an interesting album from a peculiar fellow with a regular-guy motivation. Haynie, as you might remember from the hours you’ve spent poring over Kanye West tracklist credits, co-produced “Runaway,” which gives him bragging rights for life and the sort of ironclad credibility that L.A. industry-types don’t often enjoy. Anyway, his many cool points did not stop him from getting dumped by a starlet, which is an occupational hazard in Southern California no matter what business you’re in. He retaliated by getting some legendary jerks, including Brian Wilson, Colin Blunstone of The Zombies, Nate Ruess, Father John Misty, and Randy Newman (!) to sing absolutely vicious songs about his ex. A toast to the douchebags indeed. (In fairness, Lana Del Rey contributes a song that’s meant to represent the other side of the argument.) Haynie is spared the trophy in this category by Kevin Barnes, who is now on his forty-fifth breakup album in a row. His is a record of sustained lyrical savagery unequaled in modern pop, and for his own sake if not his cardiologist’s, I hope he now takes up gardening or something. “Empyrean Abbatoir” isn’t even directed at his usual target — his ex-wife. Instead, it’s a broadside against a former bandmate, and if you’ve followed Of Montreal over the past four years or so, you can’t mistake who he’s slandering. Obviously some shit hit the fan, and I’m still a fan. But did you ever get the feeling that it would be hard to be Kevin Barnes’s friend?

Saddest Song

“Happy Returns” from Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation

But You Cain’t Use My Phone. All of it.

Rookie Of The Year

Julien Baker goes for distraught and guitar-stark and Nebraska-ey, which is always a nifty way to set a wrist-slitting mood. What distinguishes Sprained Ankle from the forty thousand other albums that employ the same calculus (see Torres, Sharon Van Etten, various Oberst projects) is the rolling boil it reaches about… hmm… three times over nine tracks. If that sounds like a batting average that’d get you dropped from the team, well, maybe you don’t enjoy a rolling boil as much as I do.

Best Guest Appearance

Bun B on “Wavybone”. He always feels like the adult in the conversation.

2015 Album You Listened To The Most

Currents

2015 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Jay Rock’s 90059. Just because I defend rappers against charges of misogynistic worthlessness doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be really fucking nice if they’d stop rapping about how women did them wrong. Here I give you Jay Rock, Top Dawg Entertainment featured performer, talented rapper, Kendrick collaborator, and a theoretical hardcore act who wastes bar after bar on whiny-ass complaints about girls. “Hanging with Laquita brought the ho up out you.” What’s your excuse, pal?

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

No kidding: Home Blitz really does sound like Game Theory. That’s not a sentence I ever expected to write about any band, ever.

Most Convincing Historical Fakeout

The Tallest Man On Earth. Dark Bird Is Home is the kind of project that used to get called Dylanesque. It’s very American plains/folkie stark — the acoustic guitar is mixed so that there aren’t a lot of overtones, like a high pass filter has been applied to the whole shebang, and the drums, when they come in, play in that Midwestern death march style popularized by Levon Helm. The lyrics, too, are homespun in a crocheted How To Make An American Quilt sort of way. Which is why it’s no surprise that Tallest Man On Earth is from North Dakota. Right? Isn’t he? No? Wait, he’s from Sweden?!? Honest Injun? I swear these Scandinavians are pod people. Get your own culture, Swedes. You can start with the lingonberries and build from there. Quit putting our singing cowboys out of work. You’re making Donald Trump’s case for him.

Best Sequenced Album

To Pimp A Butterfly

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

Sounds like I’d like the Sleaford Mods. King Krule, too. Maybe I ought to turn my attention back to the United Kingdom. Oh, and I have to check out Carla Morrison. Gonna do that right now; hold on, I’ll be right back. (Some time elapses.) Yeah, wow, that’s dynamite. Kind of like a cross between Ximena Sarinana and Lana Del Rey. That’s going to be part of my 2016 for sure.

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

The Most Lamentable Tragedy. I guess we have to take this seriously. No, really, we do. It’s about ninety years long and it comes from a magnum opus specialist, so to quote Phife, it gets the E for effort and T for nice try. A couple of these numbers are goodenuff punk rock tunes, and the band always goes for “it”, where “it” can be defined as a ceaseless spastic fartout signifying protest against the galaxy. Unfortunately, Patrick Stickles insists on barking out all of his lyrics like an autistic gunnery sergeant. It’s wearisome on song number one; by song one thousand and one, you’re ready to give up your CBGB badge and enlist in the Celine Dion army. And while I don’t necessarily think that recording an epic triple album about your specific and personal mental problems is per se self-indulgent (I do love In Defense Of The Genre) humorlessly ramming it all into the ears of listeners does not exactly strike me as a humanitarian gesture. Though I guess his fans do. They’re welcome to him.

Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

What A Time To Be Alive

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Surf

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Pagans In Vegas

Most Inconsistent Album AND Most Predictable Commercial Compromise

Beauty Behind The Madness. What with mainstream America obsessed with the ins and outs of the S&M lifestyle, I guess we all could have seen this coming. Sex researchers suggest that there are more ems out there than esses, so the task was to match the (mainly female) M audience with the rare pop singer shameless enough to be an S. So here comes Abel Tesfaye, with those cartoonishly evil fantasies, that voice of his and, natch, a song called Shameless. Next thing you know he’s number one not with a bullet but a whip. But after the velvety reverb fades, does this music have any lingering charms for those few of us left who’d like to keep the b.s. capitalist power dynamics out of our bedrooms? Tune in tomorrow on Yet Another Fifty Shades.

Most Consistent Album

The Blade by Ashley Monroe. High quality throughout; nothing that would have knocked a song off of the first Pistol Annies set.

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Natalie Prass. Five very good songs, a reprise, some Stax-Volt wannabe iffiness, and total Tinkerbell nonsense like “Christy” and “It Is You”. Her voice ain’t the most powerful instrument in pop, but she knows how to write ’em, so she’s got the hard part covered. She could make a really good album if she determined to cut the crap.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Going Down. Still more mellow marijuana music to mellowly smoke marijuana to. This probably sounds good if you’re high as fuck, but so does a busy signal. If you’re stoned enough to boogie down to a sixty cycle hum, save yourself ten bucks (or the hard drive space) and short-circuit a toaster.

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

Aureate Gloom

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Paper Wheels by Trey Anastasio. The knock on this guy is that he can’t sing. I’ve always resisted this, because you don’t go to a Phish show to hear Hayley Williams, or Pavarotti.  Jam band music requires a subordinated lead vocalist. But after listening to Paper Wheels a bunch more than I usually listen to Anastasio’s solo albums, or even recent Phish albums, I begin to see what the detractors mean. This is a good record — much more Dan (Steely, not Rather) than Dead (Grateful, not Night Of The Living) — and it would be even better if Trey could seize any of his stories by the horns, hop in the saddle, and ride them around. But he can’t. Instead, he sings his pseudophilosophical observations in that friendly, knowing, winking, emotionally detached voice of his. He’s got an awful knack for making the stakes of his lyrics feel far lower than they actually are. It does not help when he is shouting such things as: Skinny little legs!/heads removed! But that’s Trey. That which inspires him is not what inspires other humans, and we should be grateful (Dead, not Hezekiah Walker gospel choir). Anyway, if you, like me, agree that the Kamakiriad has aged well, you might want to give this a shot.

Album You Like More Than You Respect

San Cisco, Gracetown. Further goofballin’ from the Land Down Under. Though they’re basically an indiepop band, San Cisco devotes a large amount of time to inexpert funkouts. Time and again they are saved by their lightfootedness; their sensayuma too. Much of this album suggests the band Supergrass could have been had they ever gotten serious about scoring toothpaste commercials. Regardless, your shrimp on the barbie party could do worse.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

After getting banned from NXNE, Action Bronson called himself the white Luther Campbell. That’s a massive exaggeration, because no policeman was waiting at Yonge and Dundas with handcuffs. The Canadians are allowed to run their dopey festival the way they want, and if that means no grotesque Albanian-Americans allowed, that’s their mean-spirited prerogative. But it’s dispiriting to me how many of the arguments used against Action Bronson were exactly the same ones — practically verbatim — that the PMRC trotted out thirty years ago to warn impressionable yoof away from the Mentors records. I would have hoped that we’d grown in sophistication, or simply in understanding of how artistic representation works, since then, but the Internet keeps showing me that we haven’t. We’re still fighting the same old battles, and even though I’d like to blame Canada and say it can’t happen here, we all know damn well it can. Telling it is that the concerned citizens who went after Action Bronson had no problem with leaving two other rappers on the bill who aren’t exactly gentlemanly — and of course they did, because those rappers are black and photogenic, and Bronsolino is an obese, filthy, ugly white guy. He is an easy target to assail from the so-called left, and I wish these people would start calling a spade a spade, or in this case, a non-spade a non-spade. Now I realize that I am and have always been easy to caricature as First Amendment Absolutist Man, or Artistic Expression Man, or just Hip-Hop Apologist Man, and I’m okay with that, because goddammit, you’ve got to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Words do hurt, and rap lyrics can be awfully nasty, and we can all afford to be less careless, but pulling lyrics and images out of context and hanging storytellers on the basis of those lyrics and images is really best left to the Spanish Inquisition. Because when you put the stuff in the context of works such as Mr. Wonderful, you see Action Bronson for what he is: a total fucking clown about as threatening to the public welfare as his hero “Mediterranean” Mario. Bronson is a mean rhymer, and he does indeed sound like Ghostface. But he’s also a thematic lightweight who sticks bad Broadway crooning interludes in the middle of his records and takes lyrical inspiration from Billy Joel. He is not somebody the moralists really need to worry about, and hey, here’s an idea: the next time an artist comes to Toronto whose music loudly celebrates alcohol, why don’t the citizens get together and raise a fuss about that?  The next assault in Canada won’t be inspired by Action Bronson’s music. But I’ll bet you dollars to Tim Horton doughnuts that booze will be involved.

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

Frank Turner’s Positive Songs For Negative People. Funny that he used to get Billy Bragg comparisons. Not only is he increasingly allergic to Bragg-style lyrical subtlety, it’s also become clear that he’s not much of a social democrat. When he first confronted arena crowds with his acoustic guitar and no backing band, he won plaudits for his courage. He still deserves them. But the weight of his strident one-man-on-the-barricades fantasy of himself has now crushed every ounce of nuance out of his music. These days, he may as well be Shepard Fairey: all of his tactics are borrowed from the reds, but he’s got no cause to apply them to other than his own capitalist-individualist mythmaking.  Not something B. Bragg would have appreciated. Incidentally, Butch Walker produced this. Butch… did not have a banner year.

Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album

The Blur comeback. Former United Kingdom spazmos get melancholy and ruminative in old age. Reports that Graham Coxon played on The Magic Whip remain unconfirmed. As for Damon Albarn, who, naturally, dominates this album?, his latest quasi-ironic position statement on our modern technodystopia is that There Are Too Many Of Us. And people wonder why I have always sided with the Gallaghers.

Most Sympathetic Perspective Over And Album

Ezra Furman

Album You’re Most Ambivalent About Evaluating

The Alabama Shakes. Everything about Sound & Color is an almost. As in: the band rocks almost as hard as it should to justify its Southern rock ambitions, and the singer is almost as rowdy as she wants to be, and the contempo-R&B experimentation is almost audacious enough to turn the heads of people who like contempo-R&B, and the legit-smart words are almost enough to make you think. How many times can you miss the bullseye but still get credit for the prettiness of the target or the elegant dart-chucking form?  I understand the enthusiasm for it, and I might be dead wrong about this. But it still hasn’t grown on me yet, and too much of its tentative revisionism feels like straight-up Grammy bait.

Artist(s) You Respect But Don’t Like

Tobias Jesso, Villagers, and Father John Misty.  Jesso is pretty good at bouncy piano pop, Conor O’Brien of Villagers does the sensitive male thing fairly well, and Father John Misty is a very good singer. But none of these artists has any idea how to turn his assets into a good song, let alone a good album. Jesso aims for cute and ends up cutesy, O’Brien shoots for impressionism and drowns in his own abstraction, and Father John tries to be an asshole and, predictably, achieves his aim. I Love You, Honeybear plays like weird sociopolitical cabaret, and that only works (and even then, rarely) when the sociopolitical points being made aren’t thumpingly obvious.

Biggest Head-Shaker

Zac Brown. I am not sure anybody in the country is wasting his talent as spectacularly as this guy is, and yes, that includes Yasiel Puig and the President. Consider his assets: when he sings, he actually sounds like James Taylor, which is an endeavor that just about every other male American has failed at. He’s got a kickass band that can play in a variety of modes, and he’s a sure hand with an anthemic chorus. So what does he apply himself to? Why, bro-country/bro-electronica crossover, of course. Perhaps that we can be thankful that he is concentrating all the bro styles in one place where they can be crushed with a mop like a bunch of cockroaches. On my generous days I tip my cap to his energetic grab for the lowest common denominator. Those generous days come infrequently, though. Most of the time I see Brown as just another casualty of runaway populism.

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Rattle That Lock. Remember how I said how I wished there were some Gilmour vox to break up the monotony on Distant Stream Of Urine, or whatever that last Pink Floyd album was called?  Be careful what you ask for.

Album You Learned The Words To Most Quickly

Honeymoon

Album Or Artist You Re-Evaluated In 2015

I spent most of February and March discovering Jackson Browne’s back catalog. Not every Jackson Browne album is great, or even good, but if you’re a fan of ’70s soft rock, you should make Late For The Sky part of your life.

Album You’re Probably Underrating

Y Dydd Olaf. Gwenno, former lead singer of the Pipettes, kicks nine synthpop songs in Welsh and one in Cornish, which makes this a good rebuttal piece the next time I’m going on and on about how music needs to be intelligible to be good. I have no idea what she’s singing about, but I keep replaying this anyway. Then again, I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that this came out in the year of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP insurgency, and rumblings from Plaid Cymru, too. When was the last time a Welsh-language album was released in the USA anyway? Gwenno’s dad turns out to be a poet in Cornwall and an outspoken advocate for local self-determination. Chances are good that he’s got the same opinion of the Tory Like The Cat With The Cream as Stuart Murdoch does. Chances are good that his daughter does, too. The United Kingdom: enjoy it while you can.

Worst Song Of The Year

Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye”. Marvin didn’t die for your sins so you could use him as a verb, pal.

Worst Song On A Good Album

Natalie Prass, “Christy”

Worst Video

Taylor Swift & Kendrick Lamar, “Bad Blood”. I mean, I guess it’s funny? Sort of? But how much money did they spend on the execution of each joke? After awhile, it starts to feel a little like the Jeb Bush campaign: three thousand dollars for each vote he got in Iowa, and plenty left to blow. We’ve got enough evidence now to declare Taylor Swift a poor video performer, which is fine!, she can’t be good at everything. Like Colin Meloy, she was meant for the stage.

Worst Singing

Action Bronson

Worst Rapping

Kanye West on “Jukebox Joints”.

Worst Lyrics

“Cha Cha”. “I like to cha cha in a Latin bar with a Dominican that resembles Taina?” “I am not of Spanish descent but I’m fucked up so that’s the way I talk?” Really? No matter how sweet he croons it, it’s still dumb as heck. Fairly offensive, too. Come back, Phil Collins, all is forgiven for “Illegal Alien”.

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

Colin Meloy. I don’t think he exactly phoned it in this year, but it did feel like he turned a few of these songs over to the Decemberists lyric generator, which is how everything became misbegotten and ill-begotten and cannonball in the bosom of your belly-ish.

Most Overrated

Dan Bejar. You know, I have always put up with this guy because he is a member of a really good band, even though he is at best an adjunct member of that band, even though he won’t tour with that band, even though his contributions to that band tend to be the least repeatable songs on any given album, even though the originals of those songs are dullburgers that are polished for presentation by bandmembers he won’t even tour with or harmonize with, even though his vocals suggest what Robyn Hitchcock would sound if he was indifferent to pitch, rhythm, or timbre, even though he has never, ever, with the possible exception of “Myriad Harbor”, written a single lyric that bears up under scrutiny, even though his attitude toward pop is condescending at best, which reflects badly on his bandmates, who, with all their faults, do love a good melodic hook. What I cannot tolerate is his new belief that he is some sort of Chet Baker style crooner. He cannot hold a tune when he is doing garage rock, and he thinks he can get away with noir B.S.?  I would think he was baiting us, if I had any faith that he cared a jot about the rest of the human race, which I certainly, certainly, certainly do not.

Also Way Overrated

In Colour by Jamie xx. Great music for shopping for high-end perfume. Eau de bullshit.

Not Overrated, But Widely Misrepresented In The Music Press

Young Thug. “We already knew he was rap’s most wildly creative stylist: a rogue alchemist of undiscovered melodies, an electrostatic bonding agent for new metaphors.” PFFTFTFTHHHTHF. Pitchfork: prompting spit-takes since…. when did they start paying attention to hip-hop, anyway? I feel like it was pretty damn far into their run, and it still shows. Back in the day, there were no brothers on the wall. Now, they’re ready to hyperventilate over every “zany” negro on the mixtape circuit. It’s really two sides of the same coin, and the coin just got spent on their stupid festival and now there’s no money to hire writers. I personally like Young Thug, but I will not pretend that he, or Future or Fetty or Ty Dolla $ign, sings about anything other than (1) cooking/selling/doing drugs (2) joyless, machine-like sex (3) how he is superior to his enemies and will personally murder them or have them shot by his goons. That’s it; that’s all he’s got for you. There’s nothing visionary about any of that, and these people are going to force grandma over here write a letter to the editor. C’mon, don’t make me write a letter to the editor asking why you people can’t recognize a southern dirty-blues singer when you hear one. Young Thug does indeed have a terrific ear from melody — not the undiscovered or electrostatic kind, but the timeworn pentatonic stuff that’s been washing up on the banks of the Mississippi since the days of Robert Johnson. Ty Dolla $ign is basically a blues singer, too, but he’s got a slightly wider range; that said, his album peters out like crazy at the end and the same cannot be said for the mixtapes of Future and Thugger, all of which maintain a remarkable level of consistency given their ostentatious offhandedness.

Somewhat Underrated, All Things Considered

twentyonepilots. The new Panic! At The Disco, and I say that not just because they record for Fueled By Ramen. Like Panic!, twentyonepilots has built a mass audience by peddling an aggrotheatrical version of yoof music to malajusted male semi-adults too busy getting tatted up and/or putting on makeup to smash the state. Fifteen years ago that meant mall emo, but in 2015, Tyler Joseph is required to rap. As an emcee he is marginally better than the guy from the 1-877-KARS4KIDS commercial, but his choruses do tend to be memorable, and the records have personality and “guts,” which in pop is usually better than guts, if you can put aside any cravings for authenticity. And if you can’t, there’s no way you’re listening to twentyonepilots in the first place. As was the case with Panic!, no tastemaker will admit that he likes twentyonepilots until ten years have passed, and by then they’ll have broken up. It’ll be okay to write a revisionist thinkpiece. The coast will be clear. Nobody’s pass to the Fader Fort will be revoked.

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

No Closer To Heaven by The Wonder Years. That’s just way too murky and aggressive, guys.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Ahha” by Nate Ruess.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

“I Didn’t See It Coming”

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Cee-Lo. Do I vote for him every year? Very well, then, I’ll make a more painful call….

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Just Produce Records For Others

Dr. Dre. “And don’t forget that I came from the ghetto.” Gee, Andre, I totally forgot; I spaced on the last twenty five years of popular music and mistook you for a Short Hills native. The problem with this guy is always the same: his craven need to self-mythologize always gets in the way of his putative social statements. Is Compton a hellhole where the black American Dream goes to die, or is it a romantic-survivalist proving ground that produces wonderful battle-hardened specimens like (the character) Dr. Dre? He would like to have it both ways, of course, but he’s never been a good enough rapper to resolve the internal contradictions of his screwed-up worldview. Notably he farms out the I Can’t Breathe moment to Kendrick, who is really cornering the market on afropsychodrama. Dre could never have pulled that off himself. Snoop also throws him a couple of much-needed lifelines. He’s a good man in a pinch.

Lovable Old Bastard Who Is Losing Altitude

Craig Finn has now sustained diminishing returns longer than anybody since Cesar Cedeno. I guess that testifies to how great he was when he was great. He had a long way to slide.

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

FKA Twigs. I am still waiting for my lightbulb moment with FKA, who I am assured is really artful and really socially-conscious, though nobody can point to the song where she demonstrates any of that. She’s got a weak voice, her songs are indifferently constructed, and her lyrics are about as feminist as Roosh V the pickup artist. I don’t get the appeal. Maybe it’s the diastema.

Also Cut From The Team

Halsey. Jersey kid, blue hair, anthemic voice-of-a-generational lyrics over regurgitated Swedebeats, allegedly bisexual, grotesquely tattooed. Representative chorus: “We are the new Americana/high on legal marijuana/raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” Speak for yourself, Halsey; no need to drag your innocent peers into this. Badlands is selling, but I think it’s mostly because of the Bieber co-sign. Move along, nothing to see here.

Right On The Bubble

Little Simz. For a British rapper, not half bad. Not half good, either: too often she slips into that bakalakarakalaka flow that, I guess, denotes seriousness of intent to U.K. audiences. They don’t call it hard, I’m told they say “grimey.” They’re cute, them and their crumpets. Give them a break — Nicola Sturgeon and Gwenno’s dad are tearing their nation apart.

That Breakout Is Probably Never Gonna Happen

This might not be true straight across the country, but in the blast radius of Philadelphia that includes Jersey, there is no man who causes more rambunction in a live setting than Meek Mill. He comes out and does his holler my way out of poverty routine, and the crowd goes apeshit nuts. This has never been translated to wax for the same reason that Bim Skala Bim and Plate O’ Shrimp couldn’t capture their live act in the studio either: there is a variety of rambunction that only works onstage, and this is it. If Mephiskapheles could not make the necessary adjustment, why would we have any higher hopes for Meek?

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some New Ideas

Brandi Carlile. She says she has a drawerful of pop-country songs stashed under her bed. I think she needs to raid that drawer.

Should Have Been Better

Secret Someones. In theory this outfit ought to be fantastic: Bess Rogers on lead guitar and Lelia Broussard on bass, a fine songwriter named Hannah Winkler fronting the act, and a decent drummer, too. Theory must be verified in the lab, though, and this test tube of chemicals seems oddly inert. The baking powder volcano is fizzling out and now the second grade class is getting fidgety. In the press material I got, they called themselves Weezer with boobs, and regardless of how the boy drummer feels about that, it’s a horrible image, and now I have to brush and floss my brain. (Sorry to pass it on).

If I Could Be In Any Band Or Musical Project, I’d Pick This One

Belle & Sebastian, of course.

Lifetime Achievement Award

You could make the case that Tracy Bonham has had as much career value as Joanna Newsom. And you’d lose that case badly, but you could sustain your argument for a few sentences before you crashed and burned. Bonham has made five good to very good albums, each of which has its own distinctive personality and sound. That puts her around where Kate Miller-Heidke is. Maybe the songwriting hasn’t been as consistent, but  she’s such a good singer that she makes up for it there. I’m almost out of gas here, people, the finish line is in sight, and I’m popping off. Funny that “Mother Mother” was lumped in with the rebellious “angry woman” stuff when it came out. Even at the level of the plot, the mother and the narrator have a good relationship; she ends “I miss you, I love you.” She just yowls louder than Alanis can. And Alanis can yowl.

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From

Richmond

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2025

Chancellor Bennett

Will Be A 1-Hit Wonder

Rachel Platten

Biggest Musical Trend Of 2016

Neo-masculine backlash (ugh.)

Best Album Of 2016

Metronomy 5.

Conspiracy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

tris@trismccall.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trembling Blue Stars — Alive To Every Smile

41FBDZK28ALAct: Trembling Blue Stars

Title: Alive To Every Smile

Year: 2001

Format: Ten song LP.

From: London. That’s rainy suburban London, mind you — the London where the architecture is monotonously pretty, and a double-decker bus splashes muddy water all over your trousers.

Genre/style: There’s good reason to call Trembling Blue Stars a tweepop band, and foremost among them is the reverence in which the band is held by the twee and heartbroken. If you yourself are an indiepop fan who has been dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend and now suffer from the pains of unrequited love (not to mention being pure at heart), it’s a good chance you already have several TBS albums in your collection. If you aren’t, you probably have no idea who I’m writing about today. While the band’s tonal resemblance to the Lucksmiths is minimal, Trembling Blue Stars fits in with twee indiepop because it really can’t be placed anywhere else. This stuff could be confused with Air Supply if you weren’t listening closely, and I suspect the same could be said about many of the most melodramatic indiepop records made in the ’90s and ’00s. Yet many of the best-known tweepop bands get by with slapdash declarations of romantic longing, skeletal arrangements, and questionable chopsmanship. That’s not what Trembling Blue Stars does. Even the Field Mice — that’s the band TBS evolved from — were much better at their instruments than their peers were, and their records were meticulously recorded and produced to a sheen that’s liable to make a punk rock fan gag. So: heartbroken enough to spend album after album dwelling on it, but not too distraught not to obsess over the drum and synthesizer sounds. Just like Air Supply.

Key contributors: The main perpetrator here is Robert Wratten, who is kind of a test case: just how lovelorn can a songwriter be? How long can a band sustain the same even, doleful, wrist-slitting tone? Wratten is to mournful heartbreak as Wiz Khalifa is to marijuana. Better yet, Wratten is to heartbreak as the Insane Clown Posse is to Faygo: like a juggalo of sadness, he sprays the stuff all over you. You don’t come to this music to dodge what he’s got. You come to be showered in it. Camera Obscura once called an indiepop album My Maudlin Career, and this would also be a good name for Robert Wratten’s biography. If you’re the type of music listener who is attracted to extremes, you’ll want to check out Trembling Blue Stars just to experience how morose popular music can get. The sage Elton John told you that sad songs say so much; Wratten is the man who proved him indisputably right, and kept on proving him right until everybody cried uncle. He turned on the tap in 1987, and whether he’s called the project Northern Picture Library, The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars, or one of the other names he’s used, it’s always been the same. He’s fixed his stories of romantic desperation to six-string shimmer, sweep synthesizer pads, and occasional techno beats, and sung it all in the stupefied but unsurprised mumble of a chess club president who’d just seen his former girlfriend in the arms of the football captain. Other Trembling Blue Stars albums cut Wratten’s misery with female vocals mixed to emphasize the woman’s unattainability; Aberdeen’s Beth Arzy and Annemari Davies (who we’ll get to shortly) both sweeten Alive To Every Smile a bit, but more than anything else in a pretty big catalog, this one is the bandleader’s show. The other major force on this record is producer Ian Catt, who is probably best known for his work with St. Etienne, an electropop act that has never been properly appreciated in the States. Catt has fitted Wratten with various shades of melancholy since the days of the Field Mice. Occasionally he’s been accused of overproduction, as if the whole purpose of his job wasn’t to get everything to shimmer, swoon, and ache by all means (and by all overdubs) necessary. Lucky for Wratten, Catt is a shimmer, swoon, and ache specialist, and he’s never let his pal down. That means that Trembling Blue Stars albums rise and fall on the strength of Wratten’s writing, and his ability to sustain and focus his peculiar vision.

Who put this out? Sub Pop. By 2001, the label had more or less completed its transition from an outfit that backed the likes of the Screaming Trees to an outfit that backed the likes of the Shins. Still, memories of Kurt Cobain howling from the muddy banks of the Wishkah don’t fade so easily, and TBS’s jump to Sub Pop at the turn of the millennium was accompanied by a mild jolt of cognitive dissonance. (St. Etienne made a similar leap from an indiepop label to Sub Pop around the same time.) Broken By Whispers, the Trembling Blue Stars album that preceded Alive To Every Smile, was the first Wratten project to be released through Sub Pop, and I recall it got a pretty nice push from the imprint. For a shining afternoon, it seemed possible that TBS could gain the same sort of foothold in the States that Belle & Sebastian had. Back home in the U.K., Wratten was still working with Shinkansen, the successor label to Sarah Records, a quasi-legendary operation that put out albums that sounded exactly like what you’d expect to get from a label called Sarah Records. Picture a girl named Sarah with a hair clip and a bicycle with a bell and a basket, and a tear-stained love letter in the front pocket of an argyle sweater. Go on, give her an ice cream cone for good measure. The Field Mice are sometimes described as the quintessential Sarah act, yet Wratten’s understanding of classic pop architecture set the band apart from the very beginning. Those interested in further study might make an investment in Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?, an exhaustive compilation that inspired ten thousand cupcake pop bands, at least fifty of which I played synthesizers for.

What had happened to the act before the release of this set? The Field Mice were followed by the slightly more electronic Northern Picture Library, followed by the slightly less electronic first Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly more electronic second Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly less electronic third Trembling Blue Stars album. To complain that these records all sound the same is to miss the point utterly. It’s monomania that Wratten is chronicling. He required an aesthetic to match his obsession. The early history of Trembling Blue Stars is one run-on journal entry that begins in a blue funk and descends further into despondency from there. The first album is a clutch of fresh breakup songs, and they’re redolent with not-so-secret fresh breakup hope: somehow the tectonic plates will reverse and the dawn will break and the girl will come running back with mascara a little smudged from weeping but no worse for the wear. By the time of Broken By Whispers, Wratten’s faith was shot to pieces, and he’d arrived at the conclusion that even if he managed to land the girl he was fixated on, she’d changed so much since the breakup that the rekindled relationship would be worthless. “The person you were, I know you’re not her, she’s gone away,” he sighs on “She Just Couldn’t Stay.” All is lost, all is shitty, nothing on the horizon but the dreary procession of loveless days. The one-two gutpunch of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes” that concludes Whispers could be the most depressing ten minutes in the history of recorded music. Here Wratten has resigned himself to a life of misery and meaninglessness; the breakup he still can’t make sense of has put a hole in the hull, and the ship is destined to limp around a torpid sea until it finally goes down. In its fatalism, many wounded indiepop kids found this romantic. Some of us, God help us, even found it sexy.

What obstructions to appreciation did this album face? This brings us to the one leading fact that even casual fans know about Trembling Blue Stars: Robert Wratten wrote many, and quite possibly all, of these confessional, excoriating, self-pitying early songs about his bandmate Annemari Davies. TBS was initially designed as a vehicle for Wratten to express his devastation about the breakup. In case there was any ambiguity, he put a picture of Davies on the cover of the second album. What’s remarkable about this is that for the first two albums at least, Davies remained in the band, and continued contributing to Trembling Blue Stars until the very end of the project. (Those must have been some rehearsals.) If this had happened between, say, Beyonce and Jay Z, there’d be an industry devoted to unpacking the nuances and dynamics of the lyrics; since it’s indiepop, we’ve got to satisfy ourselves with occasional weblog posts. Davies does not seem like the sort who kisses and tells, and interest in the vagaries of Wratten’s romantic life has waned, so we’ve got the albums to go on, and that’s about it. In any event, there’s something deeply sadomasochistic about this arrangement — although even at the time it was hard to tell who the masochist was. It is instructive to know that as twee as the handle sounds, “trembling blue stars” is actually a phrase pinched from The Story of O. To indiepop fans nursing their own wounds and resentments, it was something of a relief to realize that no matter how pathetic they felt about their own love lives, Wratten was willing to be even more pathetic, and in public. Here was a man who didn’t even have the stones to throw the girl who’d dumped him out of his band. As good a songwriter and wordsmith as he is — and he is — it is indisputable that Trembling Blue Stars owed much of its prominence within indiepop to the soap opera at the heart of the project. Wratten, a calculating musician, was willing to capitalize on his own emotionally dysfunctional life story. Yet by the time of Alive To Every Smile, this had become something of a problem. Never mind that there was nowhere to go after the desolation of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes;” he was beginning to be known as the guy who couldn’t stop writing about getting dumped. Now, as pop brands go, that’s a pretty good one, but like all pop brands, it’s confining. Since there’s not much sonic differentiation between TBS album, it was easy to assume that Alive To Every Smile was more of the same. Just about every reviewer jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Sad Man Wratten was at it again. Only he wasn’t; not really. Because unless there’s a dimension to the Davies story that he hasn’t chosen to overshare, this time around, he’s writing about somebody else.

What makes the words on this album notable? Right off the bat, Wratten signaled that this was going to be a different trip. “Under Lock And Key”, the kickoff song, opens like this: “You’ve got to stop fucking her up, you’ve got to grow up.” Let’s examine both halves of this uncharacteristically profane (by Trembling Blue Stars standards) note to self. Wratten hadn’t ever been too concerned with growing up before, and that’s because he presented his heartbreak as an apocalypse that had forever halted the hands of the clock. Yet here he was hinting that he knew there was something adolescent about the position he’d taken on the first three Trembling Blue Stars albums — and in Northern Picture Library and the Field Mice, too. I hope you realize that I’m not being pejorative in any way by calling Wratten juvenile. If my girlfriend were to dump me, I’d throw a tantrum so whiny and immature that every DYFS agent in town would be forced to storm my house. Even if I’ve never lived through the unpleasant things Wratten sings about on Her Handwriting, I can sympathize with the extent of his meltdown. Sometimes the only justifiable reaction is a toddler’s reaction, and there’s no sense in dressing it up in sophisticated b.s.; that’s why “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, as laughable as it is, goes straight to our souls. Anyway, that’s not the Robert Wratten we’re getting here. We’re getting a version of Wratten who understands that the meter is running, and that love affairs are pierced through the core by time’s arrow along with everything else. With it comes another realization: the narrator is just as responsible for the turmoil as the object of his affection is. On Alive To Every Smile, Wratten plays the perpetrator, not the victim. He’s no less soft-spoken than he ever was, but now he’s unashamed to admit that he’s as driven by the sexual imperative as any frathouse mook: “I wanted her so bad, you see,” he explains, flat-footedly, on the album’s centerpiece, “I just wouldn’t stop at anything”. Desire, on Alive To Every Smile, is a force that prompts people to behave impetuously and irresponsibly, and the more Wratten’s protagonist tells himself he’s doing wrong, the harder it becomes for him to locate his virtue. The woman he’s after is probably married, certainly off-limits, and tempted to play with fire. The main character begins the story as a would-be tweepop lothario interrogating his own morally compromised position, plunges into the deep end of the pool anyway, and discovers the water is a lot hotter than he expected it to be. By the end of the album, she’s taking the train back to the life she knows, and he’s the disbelieving, heartbroken schmuck on the platform talking to himself. So, yes, the result isn’t so far removed from what you’d get on other Trembling Blue Stars projects. The crucial difference is that this time Wratten knows that he’s been an active participant in his own emotional demolition. This is a grownup’s realization, Alive To Every Smile is a grownup story, and as every grownup knows, but every pop song attempts to mystify, an affair is always a tragedy. In order to make the ultimate album about what it’s like to be in the midst of one — because that’s what we’ve got here — it takes an experienced tragedian, one painfully familiar with the dynamics of self-deception. “I think love should come with madness,” sings Wratten on “Maybe After All,” and this preference stands as an implicit critique of the girl he’s chosen to seduce: she’s not going to go utterly crazy with him and sacrifice everything, and he knows it, but he’s already gathered too much momentum to stop himself from going over the edge of the cliff. “When we see a chance to be loved,” he sings on “With Every Story” in a prompt that sums up all of his work, but especially this album, “who knows what we’re capable of?” Now, Robert Wratten’s lyrics are often called diaristic, and it’s possible that Alive To Every Smile is just as autobiographical as the first three TBS albums. He may have actually picked up and fallen for a married woman, she may have refused to ditch her husband, and this set may be at least as epistolary as Here, My Dear. Those still interested in Wratten’s personal story will no doubt notice that the writer has appended a mysterious set of initials to the lyrics printed in the CD booklet. Me, I think it’s more significant that Wratten chose to include printed lyrics in the first place. This is the only Trembling Blue Stars album that comes with the poetry attached, and I do not believe that this is just the residue of Sub Pop’s art design department. Wratten is particularly proud of this set, and he wants to make sure you notice how succinct and epigrammatic they are, how economically the story is advanced, and how each image has been carefully seared into the lines to reinforce the narrator’s move from ambivalence to rhapsodic abandon to destabilization to stupefaction. “It’s the rest of our lives — that’s all we’re making a difference to!,” he sings on “Ammunition,” in a typically sympathetic but histrionic closing argument. Apparently she’s unmoved. Or, more likely, her idea of the value of the rest of her life differs sharply from his, and she’s calculated that she’s got more to lose than he does. He believes surviving isn’t everything; she doesn’t want to be drowned. Tough luck, Bobby.

What makes the music on this album notable? It was the canny Tim Benton of Baxendale who, on “Music For Girls,” implicitly called for solidarity between fans of lovelorn tweepop, delicate dance music, and every other form of art that the chavs can’t stand. Since we’re all facing the same beatdown from the same fraternity brother on the same cultural playground, a missing link between Belle & Sebastian and the Pet Shop Boys shouldn’t be that difficult to find, right? Benton wanted Baxendale to be that missing link; Ian Catt probably felt the same way about St. Etienne. Trouble is, no matter what Robert Smith and Bernard Sumner were able to accomplish in the ’80s, it is brutally hard to mope and dance at the same time. Brood and dance, maybe, or indulge in glorious self-pity while kicking at the pricks. But true heartrending tweepop has little relationship to the booty. (Please oh please be a pal and don’t bring up “Stillness Is The Move”.) Ironically, Robert Wratten, King Mouse himself, is the practitioner who’s come the closest to a genuine fusion. Some of this is probably accidental; while he’s got his heart in the house music experiments on the Lips That Taste Of Tears album, I think they’re there to evoke the psychic destabilization of the disco and, only distantly after that, to get you to shake it. Since it’s basically a concept set about putting trouble where there wasn’t any, Alive To Every Smile steps back a bit from the dancefloor and privileges mood over motion. There are more achingly slooooooow Christopher Cross ballads here than Wratten usually foists on his listeners, which is not to say that they aren’t really good Christopher Cross ballads. The exception is the slightest song on the set, and the only one that doesn’t really advance the story — “St. Paul’s Cathedral at Night,” a reverie with a comedown-phase techno pulse and a breathy vocal sample. Like “ABBA on the Jukebox,” an earlier song, “St. Paul’s” consists of Wratten flagellating himself with strands of memory; thus, the music needs to simultaneously sting and feel dreamlike. He pulls it off, but the ambience comes at the cost of the album’s forward momentum. Other experiments work better. Album closer “Little Gunshots” is semi-bossa nova, which ought to be a farce but works brilliantly instead by sucking every breath of equatorial breeze from its dessicated version of tropicalia. “Here All Day” extends Wratten’s fascination with fatalistic early-’60s pop ballads; “Under Lock And Key” sets the tone with mildly distorted drums and guitar and a marginally rougher vocal approach than anything TBS had yet attempted. It all serves to anticipate, echo, offset, or frame Wratten’s Fifth Symphony: “The Ghost Of An Unkissed Kiss.” Here is the maestro of lovelorn excess in rosy overdrive, layering guitar track upon guitar track (natch, one is even backward), saturating the frequency spectrum with organ, synth, and backing vox, mixing machine beats with live drums, and letting the whole shebang run for four-and-a-half minutes of indiepop glory. In case one melodic hook wasn’t sufficient, Wratten baits the fly-trap with a second, and then a third, and then a fourth, with each one steady enough to support a song on its own. The composition couldn’t be any more assured, but the motivation is frantic: if Wratten can just make the song catchy enough, irresistible enough, the girl will get tangled up in it like a kitten in a ball of yarn, and he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye again. In years of playing indiepop, I’ve never seen it work out that way, but our best songwriters go right on trying. As romantic fallacies go, it’s one of the most fruitful.

Dealbreakers? Wratten’s voice is something of an office-worker grumble, and it can sound downright comical when paired with the gigantic arrangements of songs like “Unkissed Kiss.” No matter what the band does, or how many glossy six-string and backing vocal tracks he overdubs, he always sounds like a sad sack, and you may occasionally tempted to slap some sense, or some animation, into him. (This said, Leonard Cohen has gotten away with the same thing for decades.) On other albums, Davies and Arzy brighten things up with lead vocals of their own, but this one is his narrative masterpiece, and he holds center stage for nearly an hour, only breaking the soliloquy for long sections of guitar wash. If you haven’t warmed up to him by the fourth song, there’s a good chance this isn’t for you. I am also aware that there are those who still believe male pop singers ought to behave on record like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, and others who are moved to write thinkpieces about the bothersome sociocultural implications of the twee aesthetic, and others with a reasonable distaste for the act of kissing and telling. If you fall into one of these categories, you will certainly pitch Alive To Every Smile out the window. Pop-rock did get rather wimpy and passive-aggressive in the ’00s, and there certainly is a time and a place for Motorhead. But if you want to argue, and some do, that Robert Wratten’s beleaguered, poetic diary entries constitute illegitimate rock practice, I can’t hang with you there. Heartbreak is as essential subject for American popular songwriters as Cadillacs and blue balls. As Fleetwood Mac, or Kanye West, might tell you, if you’re going to indulge yourself, you may as well take it to the limit.

What happened to the act after this? Wratten followed up Alive To Every Smile with the only dud in his discography: The Seven Autumn Flowers, which wasted a great TBS handle and a beautiful cover image on soporific, unmotivated, second-rate material. The exception is the terrific lead single “Helen Reddy,” sung by Arzy, which is probably about the same affair that consumed Wratten on the prior set. Seven Autumn Flowers would be the last Wratten project to get a decent, albeit indie-sized, push in the States (it was released by Hoboken’s own Bar/None); its failure to expand the Trembling Blue Stars audience probably threw the last shovelful of dirt on Smile. In America at least, tweepop moved on to other heroes, and it seemed likely that we wouldn’t be getting any more installments of the Adventures of Robert Wratten. As it turned out, the old fox had one last trick to play. The Last Holy Writer, released in 2007, broadened the arrangements, varied the tempos and the beats, and let a few rays peek through the clouds. A few songs were, in longstanding indiepop tradition, gay-affirmative; “A Statue to Wilde,” the seven-minute closer, manages to be gorgeous and also make a political statement, and if you think that’s easy, try to come up with another song you can say the same thing about. The presence of topical verse demonstrates that Wratten had stepped out of the confessional, at least momentarily — and when he does sing about himself, as on “November Starlings,” he’s provisionally content. He remains willing to put a chorus like this one, from “Idyllwild,” in Arzy’s mouth: “Life was so open then/now it’s closing in/one by one our dreams have disappeared.” Yet for the first time, it seems possible that Wratten is singing about another character, and that means a substantial difference in tone. Trembling Blue Stars retired from live performance after briefly supporting Holy Writer; Fast Trains And Telegraph Wires (is Wratten good at titles or what?) followed, almost as an afterthought, a few years later. It’s a good album and a fine end-note, but it played like a reiteration of past glories. In America, it sunk without a ripple.

Will this album ever receive its propers? Tweepop posterity, lusting after youth in strict conformity with the stereotype, tends to overrate the Field Mice and underrate Trembling Blue Stars. That’s when people are thinking of Robert Wratten at all, which happens all too infrequently. The grand, glossy arrangements that he and Catt favored have gone out of style;  the Pains of Being Pure At Heart — an obvious bunch of Wratten fans — are more inclined to run their mixes through nasty-ass distortion. Consider that the latest Pains album has been slated because Kip Berman has cleaned up the sound and made something not unlike a mid-’90s TBS set, and you begin to realize the problems that the Wratten revival faces. The Field Mice stand to be rediscovered first, and with it the story of Sarah Records and the doomed Wratten-Davies romance. Thus, even if Americans get hip to Robert Wratten in the future — not at all a likely thing — Alive to Every Smile is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Wratten probably won’t be able to call attention to his narrative masterpiece without getting back on the road and playing songs from it — preferably “Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss,” but “Little Gunshots” and “Under Lock and Key” are likely to intrigue pop fans, too. Luckily, Wratten appears to have unretired again: there’s a Facebook page for a new project called Lightning in a Twilight Hour, which I can’t believe wasn’t already the name of a Trembling Blue Stars song. I’ll be the first in line at the record store, if there were still record stores that stocked this stuff, or if there were still record stores, which there hardly are, but you know what I mean.

 

Tris McCall: tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXII — Singles

Let’s get the foregone conclusion over with first:

1. Adele — “Rolling In The Deep” (284)

There was a moment in December when I thought “Video Games” would win, but that was before we found out Lana Del Rey was a Nazi war criminal or something. Just as it was in the world outside the walled garden of content that is the Critics Poll, Adele dominated our Singles list. Adele is an interesting character and one who merits some discussion, but first I want to talk about another singer who didn’t make the list below, or the albums list yesterday. While Adele was rolling to a win, Lady Gaga was getting shut out.

This was supposed to be Gaga’s year. She told us so herself, back in the early spring: she was about to release an album that would be as epochal as Thriller, and which would spawn singles that would become the soundtrack to our summer. She was going to turn pop music inside out. The funny thing was that this wasn’t just hot air or pre-fight hype. Lady Gaga really tried. She emptied everything she had into that album, and as it turned out, she had an awful lot to empty. That is why the Born This Way listening experience is akin to tripping over doohickeys and thingamajigs that Lady Gaga has pulled out of her bag of tricks and left scattered on the floor. And then there’s “Americano.” The less said about that, the better.

Born This Way did not flop. An Amazon deal in which she unloaded copies for 99 cents made the album an instant bestseller. Lady Gaga was on top of the world, and then she wasn’t. Adele took the steering wheel back, and she’s held it ever since. Without the benefit of an extensive American tour behind it, or fifty thousand singles from it, or some silly, headline-grabbing scandal surrounding it, 21 has been at or near #1 for more than a year. It’s still #1 now. Adele has spent the last few months on the disabled list with throat problems. While her peers have been dragging ass around the concert circuit in the vain hope of moving some units, Adele has been lapping them all from the comfort of her gurney.

That’s not supposed to happen. You’re only supposed to maintain a vice grip on the #1 position if your label is in promotional overdrive and you’re playing shows nonstop. At the time of the release of Born This Way, Lady Gaga was wrapping up the umpteenth leg of the Monster Ball. She kept touring behind The Fame Monster as she was releasing the lead singles from her new set. Then she went to Europe and Asia and kept right on dancing. All of this happened, mind you, after a solid seventeen thousand months on the road. For better and for worse, Lady Gaga is an artist incapable of taking a rest. She needs the approbation, or she’s afraid she’s going to get Wally Pipped by somebody, or she’s like the Blues Brothers and the cops are outside the arena waiting to take her away, or those stagelights just feel mmmmm so good. You will never again see an artist sneer in the face of overexposure as boldly as Lady Gaga did. She asked for a backlash like she was sitting at the counter at the Backlash Diner and she had the munchies. The only real question was what shape that backlash would take.

I hope you will not think I am diminishing the very real accomplishment that is 21 by pointing out something that has been obvious to me for at least nine months now: Adele is that backlash. Everything that is celebrated about Adele is a not-so-secret repudiation of the woman who was, at this time last year, the queen of popular music. Lady Gaga wears meat and jumps around; Adele got on MTV at the VMAs in a black dress and hardly moved as she sang. Everything about Lady Gaga’s public mission is oriented outward: she wants to make big statements about life and death and Mary Magdalene and how male homosexuality is nice. Adele has one topic: her inner pain. Lady Gaga sings souped-up ultramodern synthpop and over the top, kitchen-sink productions like “Edge of Glory” that would make Bonnie Tyler blush; Adele cut an ostentatiously organic album that sounds as if it was made in 1977. Lady Gaga is pop’s great postmodernist — a jumble of signifiers held together by the centrifugal force of the star’s charisma. Adele radiates integrity. Adele makes a show of her polite traditionalism; Lady Gaga makes a show of her vulgar iconoclasm. 21 is intimate, personal, confessional; Born This Way is the work of a reflexive exhibitionist. Lady Gaga emphasizes the inhuman aspects of her appearance, exaggerating her cheekbones and wearing prostheses, and identifying herself as a monster. She aims to make people uncomfortable, and she often succeeds. Adele is Just A Girl.

This Sunday, the music industry will celebrate Lady Gaga’s deposition by taking the crown off of her head in front of a national televised audience and putting it atop Adele’s beehive. Or maybe they won’t — Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year last year, and so confident was I that that could never happen that The Suburbs was the only nominated set I didn’t bother to prepare a lede about. But even if the voters plump for Bruno Mars and name “Holocene” the best record in the history of ever, the job is already done, and Lady Gaga did more than a bit of it herself. 21 was going to be a hit no matter what — the conservatism of “Rolling in the Deep” does not undercut its intensity, or the astounding force of the encounter with Adele‘s disappointment and rage. That’s a classic record, and one by which we’ll all remember 2011. But I believe there is no way that 21 would have sold as much as it did if we were not, on some unconscious level, punishing Lady Gaga for her audacity. Even as she entertains us, we find offensive her unwillingness to stand still, open up, and assume a fixed identity with an elaborated interiority. The more shows she did, the more she plastered her face on to the news and into magazines, the more absurd Very Gaga Thanksgiving specials she convinced the networks to air, the more passionately we praised Adele the good daughter. It turned out that Adele didn’t have to tour in support of 21 after all. Lady Gaga was doing the legwork for her.

I dig both of these artists. I am somewhat less thrilled about the prospect of four zillion Adele clones scaling the charts and clogging the airwaves over the next few years. 21 works because Adele is such an impassioned singer (Lady Gaga is an excellent singer, too) that the atavistic elements of her project don’t overwhelm its spirit. Others who’ve worked the same territory — and that included Amy Winehouse — have not been able to turn the same trick. That jazzy, gooey, taffy-voweled delivery all the rage among contemporary singer-songwriters with an eye on the adult-alternative market has become the biggest cliché in pop. Actually, it became the biggest cliché in pop about three years ago; these days, it’s more like a calamitous failure of imagination that makes me wish I‘d devoted my time to designing dungeon modules after all. God bless Lady Gaga for refusing to sing that way. It’s nothing principled, I’m sure — she’s just got different antecedents. She draws from an arena-pop tradition in which the singer must constantly demonstrate that she can fill an airplane hangar with sound, sans microphone. That’s a style that will always be associated with the 1980s, which may finally be drawing to a close after twenty extra years of Reaganomics and dayglo. If the ’80s are finally over, we can thank Gaga oversaturation for helping to kill them off. But as a big phony and a pop guy, I will always prefer ’80s pastiche to ’90s sincerity. We’ve probably turned that corner for good, and nostalgia now means flannel, Guided By Voices albums, and Clinton-era earnest hooey. I imagine that’s good news for the man in the Oval Office. It is not good news for the girl on the disco floor.

Okay, as promised, here’s the rest of the list:

2. Foster The People — “Pumped Up Kicks” (174)
3. Britney Spears — “Till The World Ends” (159)
4. The Throne — “Niggas In Paris” (152)
5. Rihanna & Calvin Harris — “We Found Love” (143)
6. Lana Del Rey — “Video Games” (132)
7. Bon Iver — “Holocene” (122)
8. Lykke Li — “Get Some” (117)
9. M83 — “Midnight City” (116)
10. Adele — “Someone Like You” (111)
11. LMFAO — “Party Rock Anthem” (110)
12. Eleanor Friedberger — “My Mistakes” (106)
12. tUnE-yArDs — “Bizness” (106)
14. St. Vincent — “Cruel” (97)
15. The Decemberists — “This Is Why We Fight” (92)
16. Wild Flag — “Romance” (91)
16. Drake — “Marvins Room” (91)
16. The Horrors — “Still Life” (91)
19. Beyonce — “Countdown” (87)
20. Cass McCombs — “County Line” (86)
21. Cut Copy — “Take Me Over” (85)
21. Florence & The Machine — “Shake It Out” (85)
23. Nicki Minaj — “Super Bass” (83)
24. Drake — “Headlines” (81)
25. The Throne — “Otis” (80)
26. R.E.M. — “Uberlin” (79)
26. The Strokes — “Under Cover Of Darkness” (77)
28. Kreayshawn — “Gucci Gucci” (76)
29. Frank Ocean — “Novacane” (75)
30. Tyler, The Creator — “Yonkers” (73)

We’ll get in that miscellany really soon, I promise. Tomorrow I have fewer deadlines. But a big train is coming down the track, and it says Grammy Awards in red letters on the smokestack. Your man has to ride that train or get runned over.

In case you missed it, here’s the Album of the Year list.

Critics Poll XXII — Albums

21st Century schizoid woman.

In “The Courage to Be,” the kickass theologian Paul Tillich argues that anxiety is fundamental to the human condition. Confronted by the inevitability of death, we’re hounded by the anxiety of impending nonbeing. Unleashed on earth without any instructions about what we’re supposed to do here, we face the anxiety of meaninglessness. And since in order for us to prosper, we’re pretty much required to mow through forests of plant and animal life — not to mention other human beings who might happen to be in our way — we feel the burn of the anxiety of condemnation and the guilt to which there is no earthly answer. There is no Gucci you can buy, no Louis Vuitton to put on, as Kanye realized in “Pinocchio Story”, that allays the anxiety that underpins existence.

Depending on what genre of popular music you call home, you’ll have different strategies of coping with this unpleasant reality when you sit your big butt down to write. There is a tradition of pop that attempts to wallpaper it over with platitudes about eternal youth and freedom that is always free. We tend to think of this stuff as disposable, but sometimes a dumb three minute escape is worth more to your immortal soul than a brilliant philosophical treatise. The Christian artists believe as Tillich does — that there is a supernatural force in, or around, the universe of matter that will salve our fears if we stand just so. A superior writer like Brooke Fraser can indeed get her listener catch some religion, but a lesser artist handling matters of faith can make Christianity look mighty facile. Even the rappers who go on and on about “reality” lyrics often falter when confronting ultimate reality: they have a tendency to romanticize the struggle by making every cosmic problem assume a self-dramatizing dimension. For every Geto Boy sitting alone in his four-cornered room, there are dozens of emcees who stitch their disregard for mortality, meaning, and culpability into a garment of sharply-tailored nihilism.

It is my opinion (which is a weirdly professional one these days) that the style that confronts anxiety with the greatest amount of courage is progressive rock, and while I like a story about Baba Yaga’s Hut as much as the next veteran of White Plume Mountain, it is that courage that keeps me returning to prog. Among many pop listeners, the image of prog-rock is and will always be elves dancing around in Arvandor, which is certainly cool in my book and probably yours too. But for those who really know it, the story of prog-rock is different. The story of prog is Greg Lake screaming about life on a knife-edge, and Roger Waters’s clocks all going off at once, and Kate Bush wailing about the terms of her bargain with the big guy, and Jon Anderson fretting about our stewardship of Mother Earth, and Peter Gabriel’s intruder and Tori Amos’s letter to Lucifer and Adrian Belew’s death by drowning in analysis and Fish from Marillion waiting on the whistle to blow. Progressive rock has its dodges and dead metaphors. But after the lightning flash of the virtuosos fades, you are left with a peek into the abyss that is admirably unflinching, and that has only ever been matched in its steeliness by the work of the best rappers.

Our winning album has guitar passages as fleet as Steve Howe’s on Relayer. There are synthesizer freakouts that would make Keith Emerson squee with delight, signal processing as far out as Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, and at least one bass instrument (there is no bass credited) that generates the primeval ooze percolation sound of Tony Levin’s Chapman stick. None of that is why I align Strange Mercy with progressive rock. Well, okay, some of it is. The style assumes instrumental excellence and daring on the axe, and if there’s a better, more imaginative player out there than Annie Clark, I’d sure as hell like to have her in my band.

But Clark isn’t prog because she can shred. She’s prog because she devoted her entire album to a battle with anxiety that, by the time the set is over, achieves cosmic reverberations. Clark has made an album that sounds like an anxiety attack: she hits us upside the head with sudden instrumental breaks, meltdown noises, leftfield interruptions of the standard pop trajectory from soft to loud and back again. The traditional Chinese medicine people like to talk about rising qi: the dragon that lives near your spleen and rushes up to the vents in your head when you’re beside yourself with panic. The Western doctors say the same thing in different language — the fight or flight mechanism kicks in, your hands go numb, and your head becomes so overloaded with frantic energy that you think you’re going to tip over. St. Vincent has the skills to translate that experience into pure sound: synth oscillators that go from a low burble to a high, thick wail and then overtake the whole song, dirty guitar that starts on the bottom strings and rips across the mix like a blunt knife, drums that pound the same stiff and unvarnished rhythm over and over, frail and intricate melodies that seem in constant peril of getting engulfed by the tidal wash of the arrangements.

I don’t know if Annie Clark has panic issues, and I’m not really sure I want to know. She might have read about them in a book, and she could be sufficiently imaginative that she extrapolated the whole messy business about the best finest surgeon, the summer on her back and the kingdom for a cup of coffee in the year of the tiger. Or she could have had a single attack long ago, and it was such a profound experience that she keeps writing about it. But listen: there is a moment in “Northern Lights” when Clark’s composition, which had been steadily building, suddenly becomes as intense as a unwelcome bell in the brain, and the singer, breathless, admits that she’s convinced that she’s living in end times. And then the whole thing collapses, like a tower imploding, into squiggles of chaotic synth and filthy fuzz guitar. The eschatology doesn’t need to apply to the universe. It is enough that it applies to her. She’s pushed past metaphor into a place where ontological ground is disintegrating, or, to put it another way, Annie Clark is scared shitless. She’s in touch with something all too real, and she’s looking it straight in the face, with nothing but her guitar to protect her. It could never be a consolation, because there is no consolation, but I hope this latter-day prog-rocker — the heir to Tori Amos’s throne — knows she’s carrying on tradition.

Okay, enough from your friendly neighborhood headcase. Let’s do this the way we do: artist, album, then total points.

1. St. Vincent — Strange Mercy (322)
2. Destroyer — Kaputt (318)
3. Okkervil River — I Am Very Far (309)
4. The Throne — Watch The Throne (270)
5. PJ Harvey — Let England Shake (231)

Yup, that’s very close — the closest win, place, and show finish we’ve ever had. In a not-so-surprising turn of events, you guys almost gave the honor spot to yet another part-time Pornographer. That’s a long-standing habit for Critics Poll voters: find the nearest member of the New Pornographers and catapult him or her to the top of the list. Kathryn Calder didn’t make the top 40, but she certainly got her votes, and if her album had been publicized a little better, I think we’d be seeing her name somewhere high on this page. Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far had its many detractors, mostly since Will Sheff decided to jettison the clarity that had always been his calling card. The experiment seems to have worked. After taking some time to shake hands with the newest OR, many of the voters who initially confessed confusion about Sheff’s new direction ended up listing the album anyway.

6. Eleanor Friedberger — Last Summer (226)
7. The Decemberists — The King Is Dead (216)
8. The Weeknd — House Of Balloons (183)
9. Drake — Take Care (178)
10. Wild Flag — Wild Flag (172)

Some crunchy numbers for the numbers-crunchers: 121 people voted in the Poll, which is the exact number we had last year. Strange Mercy topped more ballots than any other album (12), but did not appear on as many lists as Destroyer did (23). The most frequently named album, Last Summer, (listed on 26 ballots) only received one Number One vote. Eleanor Friedberger did far better on this Poll than on any other I’ve seen, and she keeps up the streak of strong Fiery finishes. Brother Matt released something like nine experimental solo albums in 2011, and nobody voted for any of them; I don’t think Winter Women did very well in the Poll either. Our Furnaces-crazy voters seem to prefer Matthew Friedberger in a support role.

No matter what stunts he pulls, Critics Poll voters are resolutely in Colin Meloy’s corner. The rest of the world slammed The Hazards Of Love; we found room for it in the Top Five. The King Is Dead was another 180 degree turn — these days he’s left the taiga for American territory that he’s defending with both fists. He wants us to know why he’ll fight, and if you rise to him, he’ll blow you down. Meloy imagines California falling into the Pacific Ocean, and let’s just say he doesn’t sound too bummed out about it. The implications of all this are pretty obvious, but Meloy and the Decemberists are teflon Poll contestants, so I’m not surprised that they weren’t punished by us pinkos for their sudden patriotism. (If you’re just joining us this year, Critics Poll sweethearts are the New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian, the Decemberists, and the Fiery Furnaces, and after this year’s result, Okkervil River should be added to that list. Poll voters do not turn on their sweethearts.)

11. Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost (165)
11. tUnE-yArDs — w h o k i l l (165)
13. Tom Waits — Bad As Me (163)
14. TV On The Radio — Nine Types Of Light (160)
15. The Mountain Goats — All Eternals Deck (152)

St. Vincent is our first female winner since Liz Phair took the Poll in 1993. That’s pretty damning. Women did better this year than they have in the past few: Eleanor Friedberger, PJ Harvey, Wild Flag, and Merrill Garbus all made appearances in the top 15. The weird thing is that our distaff voting contingent shrank substantially in 2012: many female regulars opted against submitting ballots. That sharply reversed a ten-year trend in which our once-pitiful female base grew with each Poll. Last year, 45% of the votes cast were by women, which was an all time high for this enterprise. This year, we were all the way down to 31%. New voters were overwhelmingly male, rock-o-phile, and from New Jersey, which surely says something I don’t want to hear about how I’m living. While those new voters got with the program fast and submitted deep ballots, they didn’t have much of an impact on the final score; in fact, if I’d just counted their votes, the Foo Fighters would have won (Wasting Light placed 45th with 84 points.) Women strongly supported our winner — of the 12 number one votes cast for Annie Clark, only two were by guys.

A few more splits: Girls (the band, not the gender) was almost entirely supported by out-of-state voters, who made up 60% of this year’s electorate. That number, too, is down, as the Critics Poll continues to come home to New Jersey after a few years of wandering around Williamsburg in a fugue. We’ve all been there. The Jer-z favorite this year was Okkervil River, and some of the locals, who we’ll get to in a bit.

16. The Antlers — Burst Apart (148)
16. Fucked Up — David Comes To Life (148)
18. Kurt Vile — Smoke Ring For My Halo (147)
19. Fountains Of Wayne — Sky Full Of Holes (145)
20. The Roots — undun (142)

Movement: The Roots took one of the biggest leaps forward for any returning group, jumping from 82nd place for How I Got Over to 20th place for undun. It was the group’s best finish since Illadelph Halflife made the Top 10 in 1996, and back then, there were only a handful of voters in this Poll. St. Vincent’s Actor, by the way, finished 33rd in 2010, which is a reminder that she didn’t come from nowhere to take the prize. The biggest drop by far? The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, whose debut tied for 9th place in Poll XX. Their sophomore album wasn’t named on a single ballot. I’m not completely sure, but I think that’s unprecedented.

Other acts barely changed position. The Antlers finished 19th with Hospice two years ago; this year, they’re up to 16th. Girls, who were 5th last time around, sagged modestly to 11th place. Real Estate finished 30th two years ago. With slightly stiffer competition, the Ridgewood band placed 33rd in Poll XXII. Everything about that band is a flat line.

21. Low — C’mon (135)
22. Raphael Saadiq — Stone Rollin’ (133)
23. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues (131)
23. Paul Simon — So Beautiful Or So What (131)
25. Radiohead — The King Of Limbs (130)
26. Wye Oak — Civilian (128)
27. Bon Iver — Bon Iver (126)
27. Iceage — New Brigade (126)
29. The Joy Formidable — The Big Roar (118)
30. Danny Brown — XXX (116)

A question posed to me by a non-voter privy to the results: why don’t Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, or Radiohead ever do as well in this Poll as they do in all other Polls under the sun? Am I subtly, evilly manipulating the data to give the shaft to the heavily bearded acts I don’t particularly dig? Well, for starters, I do like Fleet Foxes quite a bit, even if I wouldn’t care to be a functioning cog in some great machinery. I think Robin Pecknold is a very good singer and songwriter, and if he were to win a Critics Poll in the future, as he very well might, I wouldn’t be ashamed of that result at all. Radiohead is a group that I respect as long as I’m not concentrating too hard on the singer, which he usually makes next to impossible. If they’re not threatening to win the Poll anymore, I believe it’s because that wave has crested, and not because I am uninterested in publicizing their various chartbusters, as Matthew Friedberger once described the band’s output. Bon Iver is a different story, though. After Kanye brought him to Hawaii for the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions, I was predisposed to like his new record. I thought Justin Vernon would use electronics creatively, which he did. I was not prepared, however, to get a disc where I couldn’t make out a single word he was singing. If Bon Iver had been a metal album or some heavy-duty psych rock project, that would have been vaguely permissible, but on a folk-rock disc, it’s the kiss of death. I am not alone here. Look at the groups I’ve called the sweethearts of this Poll: Belle & Sebastian, the Decemberists, Okkervil River, the Pornographers projects. They do not tend to obscure their lyrics, even when the lyrics aren’t too good. Over twenty-two years, Critics Poll voters have developed an aesthetic preference, and Bon Iver did not fit it.

31. Robyn Hitchcock — Tromso, Kaptien (112)
32. Real Estate — Days (111)
33. Val Emmich & The Veeries — Aide Memoire (108)
33. The Mekons — Ancient & Modern (108)
33. Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter — Marble Son (108)
36. The War On Drugs — Slave Ambient (102)
37. My Morning Jacket — Circuital (99)
38. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks — Mirror Traffic (95)
39. Cut Copy — Zonoscope (92)
40. R.E.M. — Collapse Into Now (91)

Longtime Jersey favorite Val Emmich makes his first appearance in the Critics Poll Top 40 with Aide Memoire, his sixth set. Other local legends scoring well: The Smithereens (#53, 73 points), the Feelies (#64, 62 points), Kevin Devine (#66, 59 points). A few other interesting names bubbling under: Gang Gang Dance, a group that topped three ballots, Spottiswoode and his Enemies, the inescapable Adele, a band called Army Navy that I’ve never heard of before, and Noel Gallagher, who narrowly missed knocking his old pals R.E.M. off the list above.

Okay, that’s it for tonight, but there’s lots more to come. Tune in tomorrow for the singles list. Thanks, as always, for reading and voting and giving the Count something to count up. I love playing this game — it makes the short days of January and early February go a little quicker. We start our preparation for the Critics Poll in mid-December and we don’t look up until Super Bowl Sunday, and by then, it’s light out at five o’ clock and pitchers and catchers are threatening to report. It certainly beats waiting for the best finest surgeon to come cut me open, which is always a possible pastime.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

Amos Lee — Mission Bell
A$AP Rocky — Live Love A$AP
Battles — Gloss Drop
Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
Bill Callahan — Apocalypse
Carsie Blanton — Idiot Heart
Childish Gambino — Camp
DJ Quik — Book Of David
Eisley — The Valley
EMA — Past Life Martyred Saints
Fruit Bats — Tripper
Handsome Furs — Sound Kapital
Jack O’ The Clock — How Are We Doing And Who Will Tell Us?
Joe Rigby Quartet — For Harriet
Kathryn Calder — Bright And Vivid
Lil B — I’m Gay (I’m Happy)
Lindsey Buckingham — Seeds We Sow
Little Dragon — Ritual Union
Mastodon — The Hunter
Mates Of State — Mountaintops
Middle Brother — Middle Brother
Mike Quinn — MAGICO
Randi Russo — Fragile Animal
Silos — Florizona
Smith Westerns — Dye It Blonde
The Close Readers — Group Hug
The Gimps — Bath Salts
The Laureates — Spells
The Strokes — Angles
Thomas Wesley Stern — Hope Folk
Thrice — Major/Minor
Troubled Coast — Letters
When Saints Go Machine — Konkylie
Yellowbirds — The Color
Yes — Fly From Here

The Myth Of The Acid No-Hitter, And Other Drug Stories

Does this man look high to you?

As a kid learning about baseball, Dock Ellis was, to me, just another face on a bubblegum card. Not a particularly valuable card, either, considering Ellis was doing his pitching in near-anonymity under the Arlington sun. I would have given you three of Dock for one of Amos Otis or John “The Count” Montefusco. Shortly thereafter, I would learn an important life lesson — value is not constant. My baseball reference books told me so: Dock Ellis had once been the pitching star for the great Pittsburgh Pirates team that had upset the Weaver Orioles in the ’71 World Series. While I was busy being born, Ellis was dousing Clemente with champagne.

Later still, I would learn that Dock Ellis and Roberto Clemente had shared more than a uniform and a victory cigar. Ellis, like Clemente, was part of that first generation of post-segregation ballplayers who would not take any shit from Whitey. I reconstructed my image of Dock Ellis — not the soft-tosser getting thwacked around by the Yanks and Royals en route to an early shower, but a fallen ace with a golden, if erratic, right arm and attitude to burn; sort of the Baseball Gods’ dry run for that other Doc who was then all the rage in Gotham.

Old baseball obsessors collect anecdotes like young baseball fanatics collect picture cards. This is how we engage with ballplayers we were too young to watch on television, and, in a more roundabout manner, with the history of an ancient American game: we tell goofy tales about The Time When. Ellis hung up the spikes in 1980; Dock Ellis stories kept right on taking the field. Nothing unusual about that: folks like us will be rehashing Dizzy Dean fables as long as there are other boring seamheads to hear them. But then a truly curious thing happened — Dock Ellis became a site of interest for folks who couldn’t tell a curveball from a bowl of Cheerios. In recent years, Ellis has, as the kids like to say, blown up: musicians sing of him, rock bands are named for him, abstract painters have portrayed him in oil, news tickers clatter on about him, the Baseball Reliquary has enshrined him, hell, even those notorious bandwagon-chasers at NPR elbowed their way into the action. If you’re reading this, you probably know why. On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD. And four years after he retired, he told the world what he’d done.

It is fashionable, I suppose, to claim that the Acid No-No story is one that is bigger than baseball. It is certainly bigger than the baseball player named Dock Ellis. Ellis had an alcohol problem that swallowed his talent; his LSD problem has swallowed his image. You will never see an article about Ellis that doesn’t mention hallucinogens — in fact, most references to the pitcher will be nothing but silly gags. Some celebrate Ellis for his psychedelic experiment, others just make fun of him, but everybody has something clever to say about the Pittsburgh Pirate who was tripping balls while throwing strikes. See, I did it, too. It’s irresistible: Dock Ellis’s name has become a byword for pitching under the influence, and triumphantly, hilariously so. When Ellis died of liver failure a few years ago, Will Leitsch of Deadspin wasn’t the only one treating the Acid No-No as a monumental achievement (all while, you know, crackin’ jokes.) Mainstream press obituary writers sang the same hippie folk song. Right smack in the shadow of the Bonds trial and the Clemens mess, here was a player honest enough to admit that the peak (*giggle*) of his career, the true highpoint (*snicker*), had been chemically-assisted.

But was that really accurate? Not the LSD part; that’s Ellis’s own account of his habits, and there’s no reason to doubt that he really did drop acid and take the hill. Did the drug really help Ellis throw the no-no? Or was it, as some eulogists suggested, an obstacle to the pitcher’s performance, one surmounted against heavy odds? What did the intoxicant do to the athlete? Writers looking to enhance the craziness of the day often point to Ellis’s eight walks and one HBP: he must have been out of control and dangerous! But Dock Ellis always hit batters*; he plunked ten in thirty starts in 1970. And for a genuine staff ace, his walk-to-strikeout ratio was terrible. Ellis wasn’t an overpowering hurler — he relied on movement and deception to retire hitters. It is not unusual for pitchers with Ellis’s profile to have games — even good games — where they’ll issue a walk every inning. For years, we watched Al Leiter and Ron Darling do just that.

Dock Ellis threw the Acid No-No against the Padres at the old San Diego Stadium. When we were growing up, they called it Jack Murphy; after that, Qualcomm bought the naming rights. Whatever handle they slapped on it, it was always a wonderful place to pitch. In the thirty-four years that Jack Murphy Stadium hosted major league ball, there were only three seasons in which the park favored hitters. 1970 wasn’t one of them. That year, the Padres lost 99 games and finished dead last in the National League West. It was only their second season of existence post-expansion; in their inaugural, they’d dropped 110. In ’68, the Padres pulled an absolute rock at their expansion draft, saddling San Diego with a leaden roster that would languish in the cellar for six straight years. Still, there was a legitimate bright spot: Cito Gaston, who hit .318 with 29 home runs in 1970. Gaston was exactly the sort of hitter who’d give Ellis problems — a contact guy smart enough to wait out an inconsistent hurler and jump on a mistake.

Wait a minute, though: the June 12, 1970 game was part of a doubleheader. Cito Gaston didn’t play in the game that Ellis pitched. Nor did the starting shortstop or the regular third baseman. Remember that San Diego was an expansion team with no bench to draw upon; they barely squeaked together a corps of starters. Understaffed, the Padres batted Dave Campbell, who finished the season with a .219 average and a stomach-churning .268 OBP, at the top of their lineup. I repeat for emphasis: this was the leadoff man. Punchless Steve Huntz, whose lifetime BA barely cracked the Mendoza Line, hit behind Campbell. Throw in a journeyman centerfielder, a fill-in at short who’d promptly demonstrate he had no business in the majors, and a catcher with eighteen homers in fourteen seasons; dear Padres fan, you’re dead in the water.

So one of the National League’s best young hurlers takes the hill in a pitcher’s park and faces a last-place team running at half-strength. What do you suppose is going to happen? Baseball is a notoriously contrary game, and balls take funny bounces — but if Dock Ellis hadn’t handled the Padres with ease, that would have been a shocker. Zeroes on the scoreboard make a tidy story, but the Acid No-No wasn’t the pinnacle of anything — in fact, it wasn’t even one of the five best games Ellis pitched that year. Two weeks later at Forbes Field, he threw against a Cubs team muscled up with Billy Williams, Johnny Callison, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. Ellis went the distance and beat them 2-1. On August 6, he shut out the Phillies, and in the process bested future reactionary Jim Bunning. On July 9, he took the mound at Busch Stadium and fired a two-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals, striking out ten batters. (There was the peak of his 1970 trip, folks.) In thirty starts, Dock Ellis completed nine games and tossed four shutouts. Nothing about the Acid No-No was even slightly out of line with the expectations he’d already set for baseball fans.

What about all the walks? Well, lousy as they were, the Padres did get their free passes that year: catcher, the leftfielder, and the godawful third base fill-in were exactly the sort of hitters who stepped to the plate looking to take four wide. With Gaston getting a blow, pure slugger Nate Colbert was probably the best hitter left in the San Diego lineup: he’d clouted 38 round-trippers that year. Ellis walked him twice. You might say that he saw the catcher’s target as a pizza pie and he was looking to avoid splashing the marinara sauce. More likely he’d identified the one guy in the Padres order who could hurt him, and he’d wisely pitched around the threat. Dock Ellis may have been in touch with the cosmos that day, but his strategic thinking was entirely terrestrial. He did not issue a leadoff pass, most of his walks came with two outs, and he had no qualms about handing over first base with a runner on second. No matter how high he was flying, he remembered to set up the force.

And this brings me back to my initial question, and the one that resonates with contemporary controversies — what effect did the drug have on the athlete? Ellis’s own anecdotal account of the day involves a sense of disassociation on the mound, falling down, diving out of the way of line drives, etcetera. It’s colorful; it’s also misleading. Dock Ellis had three chances — including the second-to-last out of the no-hitter — and he fielded them all flawlessly. By now you probably think I’m missing the point: acid is a mind-expanding chemical that undermines the subject’s ability to accomplish quotidian tasks like hurling the ol’ horsehide, and Ellis’s mastery of the Padres demonstrates his superhuman focus and restraint. Or maybe his dealer slipped him a dud; a blotter nowhere near as potent as the one you and your ex-girlfriend had in college. Me, I’m inclined toward a different interpretation. The pitcher may have been tripping his ass off; he may have been seeing swirly colors and talking back to the little buccaneer on his cap. He may have thought his manager was a salt shaker. But the drug didn’t change his approach. The drug didn’t alter his velocity, his movement, or his concentration. There is no evidence whatsoever in the linescore or boxscore that LSD either impaired or enhanced Dock Ellis’s ability to play baseball.

And what psychedelic explorer could, in his burnt-out heart of hearts, really be surprised? Trips feel like epic voyages while you’re in the midst of them, but the first thing you realize when you come down is that those around you barely noticed you were gone. Maybe they thought you were acting weird, or self-conscious; most likely, they chalked it up to your usual freakitude and went about their business. Those things you were investing with profound symbolic significance?, they were probably the same damn things you always do. The problem with drug tales is always the same: they’re told by a druggie. An intoxicated person is hardly the best judge of the profound effects of his own high. Of course he’s going to overstate the power of the substance. He’s the one under the influence.

Besides, more than just the placebo effect is working on him. When he swallows the pill, he swallows all the pharmaceutical hogwash along with it. This is because we live in a culture obsessed with self-medication through substance intake. We believe that which we put into our bodies will profoundly alter not merely what we feel, but who we are. One pill makes us larger and one pill makes us small; and the androstenedione on the shelves of the GNC can turn an ordinary Joe Jockstrap into a pace-setting superman. Right now, there are a shocking number of educated baseball writers who believe that we must rip up the last twenty years of the Encyclopedia because some players did drugs. There are those who will refuse to vote Roger Clemens — the winningest pitcher of our lifetime — into the Hall of Fame because of something they believe he injected.

This isn’t fanboy stuff; I hate Roger Clemens, too. But I also hate witch hunts. The same puritans who insist that the record books have been hopelessly skewed by drug use cannot begin to measure any concrete effects that the drugs have had on player performance. Look at the names listed in the Mitchell Report, and try to impose some kind of order or pattern on what you see. You’ll fail. There are guys who were scrubs before the drugs who got better, and guys who were stars before the drugs who got worse. There are players who flamed out of the league, guys who improved dramatically, guys who’d popped their heads up from the minors for an injection only to be sent right back down. There are pitchers whose endurances improved after HGH, and others whose arms fell off and are still rolling around in the dirt. There are superstar outfielders and pine-riders, slugging first basemen and journeyman relievers, banjo hitters and flamethrowers, household names and palookas anonymous even to their own mommas. In short, it is the full panoply of organized baseball, there in its chaotic and unmeasurable splendor. Attribute it all to the drugs if you must. But acknowledge that when you do — when you insist that there’s nothing the drugs can’t do — you’re essentially giving up on pinpointing what the drugs can do. The drug becomes an idol of the worst and most tribal kind: all-powerful and vague, explaining everything and nothing, stealing the agency from the real human actors who make actual history.

It is no great surprise to me that, struggling as we are at the intersection between pharmaceuticals and athletic performance, we’ve become fascinated by the Dock Ellis story. LSD was the scourge of the sixties, but compared to modern compounds made by boffins in secret laboratories, it feels positively innocuous. There’s humorous friction between an American establishment sport played between the lines and a psychedelic chemical taken by counterculture types who desperately wanted to blur them. The irrationalist in me wants to leave the myth alone, and instead sing the ballad of the rogue Pittsburgh Pirate whose abilities were accidentally elevated, or distressed, or scrambled, or something by a hallucinogen. But I can’t. Sick and beleaguered and overmedicated as I am — as we all are — I don’t want to pretend that evidence for chemical performance enhancement exists; not when it doesn’t. Dock Ellis didn’t need a drug to be a terrific pitcher. He didn’t need a drug to be a character. He didn’t need a drug to be a hothead. And he shouldn’t need a drug to be remembered.

Tris McCall, a San Francisco Giants fan, encourages you to take your asterisk and shove it.

*one last thing about Dock Ellis’s propensity to hit batters, and then I’ll leave you alone until opening day. Ellis is semi-famous among fans of criminal assault with a baseball (and there are many) for plunking three Reds in a row, and attempting to hit two more before getting yanked from the game by his manager. He did this on purpose — he didn’t like the Reds, and he was attempting to motivate his team via violence. This happened on May 1, 1974, just after the Pirates staggered through an awful April. Disturbingly, most discussions of this incident will give Ellis credit for inspiring his ballclub; the Baseball Reliquary says “the strategy worked, the Pirates snapped out of their lethargy to win a division title while the Reds failed to win their division for the first time in three years.” Left unsaid is that the East was weak that year and the West was very strong — the Pirates took their division with 88 wins, while the Reds won 98 and finished second to the Dodgers. More to the point, aggressive behavior did not light a fire under the Pirates: they were 6-13 when Ellis went on his beanball spree, and didn’t reach the .500 mark until three months later. In large part, this was because those same Cincinnati Reds beat their brains in for the remainder of the season. The Pirates finished 1974 with a 3-8 record against the Reds; if they’d played Cincinnati in the postseason, they would’ve been trounced. As for the offender, after getting yanked from the first inning of the May Day game, he did not pitch a single inning against the Reds for the rest of the year. He didn’t pitch a single inning against the Reds in 1975, either. The next time Dock Ellis took the hill against the Reds, he was wearing pinstripes and it was Game Three of the ’76 World Series. Long deferred, revenge could not have been sweeter for Cincinnati: the Big Red Machine sent Ellis to the showers in the fourth inning. Dan Dreissen, whom Dock had plunked in ’74, chased the pitcher from the game with a longball. See, the actual story doesn’t add to the tale of Ellis the triumphant acidhead, but it turns out to be a lot more literary. Unseemly petulance in ’74 was rudely punished in ’76, and right there on the sport’s biggest stage. Rarely is poetic justice delivered with more grace or conviction, and it is a terrible shame that the story has been mangled in order to serve Ellis’s myth. Unchecked hostility was what was bad about Dock Ellis; a thoughtful and intelligent person, he surely would have conceded that. There’s enough in the Ellis story to inspire us. We don’t have to go casting around for ugly anecdotes to retrofit and glorify — especially not when the punchlines are so perfectly tailored to expose Ellis’s faults.

Critics Poll XX: My Ballot

You're gonna make mistakes; you're young.
I’ve always underrated Belle & Sebastian. In ’97, If You’re Feeling Sinister won this poll. I had it behind (among other things) Funcrusher Plus, Be Here Now, and the Dubstar singles collection. I’ve come to count Dear Catastrophe Waitress among the two or three best albums released this decade. It was #5 on my ’03 list (Her Majesty The Decemberists was #2. I guess I was really down on “Lord Anthony” that day.) The Life Pursuit, winner of the ’06 poll, didn’t make my list at all. I still don’t think it’s one of the group’s hotter sets, but consider this: I have spun Ys, my #7 album, exactly zero times since Poll day 2006. Life Pursuit has been in heavy rotation (along with all the other B&S albums) in my house since I picked up my copy at Tunes.

So am I at it again?

The year’s most appealing album was also its most audacious: God Help The Girl, the imaginary soundtrack to an equally-imaginary film by Stuart Murdoch. If Sinister felt like a sudden, welcome break from the relentless midrange guitar nonsense that ruined pop in the ’90s, GHTG is even more of an outlier: an album loaded with ostentatious musicianship and boisterous personality, released to a college rock demimonde that has had little time for either lately. The college rock is now a druggy, underproduced, inarticulate mess; that’s part of its appeal. Murdoch’s new recordings are as tight and bright and crisply-illustrated as candy bar wrappers. In the early years of the decade — back when blueberry boats were still in vogue, I mean — its ornamentation and comprehensive storyboarding wouldn’t have been astonishing. In 2009, God Help The Girl sounded radical.

A surprising (to me) number of B&S diehards slept on this set. They might have been turned off by the devotional-sounding name, or the two recycled tracks from Life Pursuit, or prior bad experience with the band’s imaginary soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s not-so-imaginary Storytelling, or Murdoch’s insistence in interviews that this was something other than a Belle & Sebastian album with a female singer upfront. Only that’s Richard Colburn on drums, and the great Bobby Kildea on bass, and Chris “Beans” Geddes bouncing away on the electric piano. Stevie Jackson funks out on the guitar and contributes a fairly good song, just as he does on all the other Belle & Sebastian albums. Murdoch doesn’t sing, except for the songs where he does. The lyrics are about sexually-ambiguous and bookish students in the city (likely Glasgow) who struggle with romantic relationships, eating disorders, and the pains of being pure at heart — as they have been on every B&S set since Tigermilk. There’s even a soft-focus picture of a chick on the cover. So, yeah, it’s a Belle & Sebastian album.

And the female singer upfront isn’t just anybody. For reasons I don’t understand, Murdoch has attempted to obscure this, circulating the story that he’d assembled a girl group by anonymously placing “musician wanted” ads on the Internet. There are many voices on God Help The Girl, and I’m willing to believe that a few of them were waiver-wire pickups; you can pad out a championship team like that. However, the Girl herself is no stranger — astute B&S completists will recognize Catherine Ireton’s face from the front of the White Collar Boy EP. And upon close inspection, the “girl group” turns out to be a bit of a conceit: Ireton takes many of the songs herself, handling lead and backing vocals with equal confidence. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy and Asya from Smoosh drop in to portray characters in Murdoch’s narrative, but Ireton steals those songs, too.

These Poll designations are all subjective, of course, and if you didn’t like Ireton’s vocals at all, I can’t say I’d be surprised. She has absolutely zero in common with any other singer on any other album released in muffled old 2009. She refuses to slur any of her syllables; instead, she articulates every consonant, pausing over her “r”s and “p”s and marking each glottal stop precisely. She sings chromatic runs, like she’s Jenny Lind or somebody from the last turn of the century. She carefully invests every word — right down to the conjunctions — with personality and meaning; throughout the album, she sounds almost unbearably awake. She gets all of Murdoch’s jokes. Were Henry Higgins a voter in Critics Poll 2009, I am confident he’d list Catherine Ireton as Best Singer.

This presents a problem for Murdoch’s storytelling: the more command Ireton demonstrates, the less she has in common with the typical aimless B&S narrators. This disjunction may torpedo the film project. But I’m not a moviegoer, so I don’t care. I’m just glad Murdoch finally found a foil who could jump him out of his routine — and maybe even make fun of him a bit in the process. Ireton may not be “Eve”, the hospitalized main character of the story that accompanies God Help The Girl, but she’s completely believable as a funny, literate ingenue with a desperate desire to get the hell out of a gray university town.

I placed the album third. Really, nobody had any chance against my #1 — that set went straight into my bloodstream. Max Bemis’s last set (which also topped my list) was meant to be an intervention in an age-old fight between establishmentarians and the kids whose lives they casually ruin; this one, I am convinced, was made especially for me. But I’ve also listed God Help The Girl behind the latest from a singer-songwriter whose debt to Belle & Sebastian is greater than Colin Meloy’s. The reasons feel familiar to me: like all B&S sets, God Help The Girl is uneven; it rehashes old ideas; some of the other girls aren’t too impressive. The jazz-orchestral instrumentals (especially “Unified Theory”) are time-killers. At times the project does feel like one of those Woody Allen vehicles where the director casts a bunch of nubile Hollywood starlets in leading roles so he can have a legal excuse to do nude scenes with them. We’ve always known that Stuart Murdoch likes to surround himself with pretty girls. Sometimes lightning strikes: one of those girls proves to be more than just a fantasy. If you’re very lucky, she might even show you that she’s the mack, and you’re just along for the ride.

As for Ireton herself, all bets are off. She might get shipped back to Cork, never to be heard from again. She might put out dazzling records of her own, or she might decide to front some sadly-generic folk-rock project. Murdoch might pull a Carl Newman and find a place for her in his band. Or maybe that movie will get made, and she’ll prove to be every bit as revelatory on the big screen as she is on compact disc. The story of Eve that accompanies God Help The Girl is, if you’ll forgive me, a comprehensive encapsulation of everything that’s bad about Belle & Sebastian: on the printed page, tales of young girls lost in the system start to feel very much like fodder for the Television for Women. Ireton saves Stuart Murdoch from his worst excesses. She may go right on saving him. One way or another, I hope to be hearing from her for a long, long time.

One last word about #6, and then it’s on to the list, I promise. Many believe that since Colin Meloy is never going to top the “Apology Song”, he may as well hang them up and go home. I prefer to say that since he’s never going to top the “Apology Song”, he may as well attempt to craft neo-prog epics about mystical beasts on the Scottish taiga. The Hazards Of Love ends like Titanic, and of course that’s not so good. But I love everything else about the album: the over-the-top ELP organ breaks, and Tull sludge guitar, the Strawbs-y harpsichord, the Annie Haslam art-folk melodies, the subcontracted performances from Shara Worden and Becky Stark, the absurd theatrical aspirations, the little kids who play the ghosts of the Rake’s victims. I don’t even mind that Meloy hogs all the good songs; unlike Murdoch, he didn’t change the name of the band on the sleeve of his concept set, so he knows he’s singing to the initiated. It doesn’t deserve the top spot, but it might deserve a laser show. In 2009, that’s enough.


Best Album of 2009:

1. Say Anything — Say Anything
2. Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern — Pram Town
3. God Help The Girl
4. Jamie T — Kings & Queens
5. Drake — So Far Gone
6. The Decemberists — The Hazards Of Love
7. Cruiserweight — Big Bold Letters
8. Ace Enders & A Million Different People — When I Hit The Ground
9. Metric — Fantasies
10. The Dangerous Summer — Reach For The Sun
11. The Roadside Graves — My Son’s Home
12. Why? — Eskimo Snow
13. Mos Def — The Ecstatic
14. Holly Williams — Here With Me
15. Tanya Morgan — Brooklynati
16. Paramore — Brand New Eyes
17. Lights — The Listening
18. A Fine Frenzy — Bomb In A Birdcage
19. Future Of The Left — Travels With Myself And Another
20. Slaughterhouse — Slaughterhouse


Album I didn’t know where to place:

Every Avenue’s Picture Perfect. Since critics are snobs, most do not bother with the corporate rock. Those of us who do will often glibly demand of our faceless favorites that they sprout personalities and shoehorn some specifics into their generic heartache numbers. Be careful what you wish for. David Ryan Strauchmann (now just David Ryan) used to be just another lonely masturbator, wanking himself asleep in his empty room. A year later, he has morphed into every woman’s nightmare: a glib, winking, self-entitled emo Lothario comfortable leading the gang vocals about the “trap” between his girlfriend’s legs. After the ’08 release ofShh… Just Go With It (boy, does that title sound sinister in retrospect), I likened Strauchmann to Huey Lewis. With Picture Perfect, the comparison still holds — Huey was a smug motherfucker, too. The casual cruelty of “I Forgive You” and “Tell Me I’m A Wreck” — in which the singer deadpans the vicious breakup couplet “I guess we just want different things/I want space, you want a diamond ring” — make the romantic “don’t go” power ballads feel all the more emotionally manipulative. But I cannot front: I always ask artists to inscribe a specific time and place in their recordings, and Strauchmann really does get you right in the middle of a tawdry Midwestern pick-up scene. You can almost smell the onion rings coming from the Applebee’s kitchen. No, it isn’t a triumph, and it’s not better than Slaughterhouse or A Fine Frenzy, but Picture Perfect is a weirdly compelling album that does reflect genuine growth. He’s drawing characters and establishing settings. His knack for rafter-raising melodies hasn’t deserted him, either.


Most unfairly-maligned album:

Til The Casket Drops. The latest Clipse got body-slammed because it isn’t as good as Lord Willin’ or Hell Hath No Fury. I have to believe there is a double-standard operating here, or perhaps our expectations for rappers are higher than they are for college rockers. Those who came for verbal acrobatics from Pusha T and got nothing but intermittently-hot flossing anthems are pardoned their disappointment. But listen again: it’s Malice who makes this album indispensable. His Christian conversion — the first convincing one in rap music in a blue moon — makes his verses a fascinating counterpoint to his brother’s. Also, “Door Man” is off the hook.


Nicest try:

Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane, And Sugarcane. With nothing left to prove, MacManus tries to pull off musical miracles. (Just for kicks, I mean.) Here, he gathers the detritus that washed up onshore when his musical about P.T. Barnum foundered on the rocks of its own (welcome) conceptual overreach, some outtakes from the pseudo-country set The Delivery Man, a quick revision of a not-so-good tune from All This Useless Beauty, and a few new originals about old obsessions. Noted accomplice T-Bone Burnett attempts to harmonize these show tunes, folk tunes, and standard-issue Costello tunes into something resembling an album. He does so by recording them all with a bluegrass band, coaxing a few stellar performances out of Costello’s whiskey-strangled throat, and I will be damned if he doesn’t almost turn the trick. Costello threatens to push into new territory, too, hinting in his lyrics at connections between prison, slavery, 19th century propriety, hidden shame, and the myth of the American West. If he’d started writing from scratch, he might’ve come up with another classic, or at least another Momofuku. As it is, it’s a frustrating set, and a compendium of interesting dead ends. As B-sides compilations go, it’s one of the bravest.


Best Single of 2009:

1. Metric — “Gimme Sympathy”
2. Owl City — “Fireflies”
3. The Blackout — “The Warning (S.O.S)”
4. All-Time Low — “Weightless”
5. Gucci Mane — “Lemonade”
6. The Dangerous Summer — “The Permanent Rain”
7. Big Boi & Gucci Mane — “Shine Blockas”
8. Camera Obscura — “Honey In The Sun”
9. Panic! At The Disco — “New Perspective”
10. Kid Cudi — “Day ‘N’ Nite”
11. Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance”
12. Micachu & The Shapes — “Golden Phone”
13. Ilyas — “Real Hip-Hop Don’t Die”
14. God Help The Girl — “Come Monday Night”
15. Brandi Carlile — “Dreams”
16. Ne-Yo — “Mad”
17. The Leftovers — “Telephone Operator”
18. Every Avenue — “Tell Me I’m A Wreck”
19. Pitbull — “I Know You Want Me”
20. New Boyz — “You’re A Jerk”


Best Album Title:

Mum — Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know


Best Album Cover:


The Best In Town
, by the Blackout. Help me out, though: is it a human ascending from a hell town, or a straight-up evil exaltation? Works for me either way.


Best Liner Notes And Packaging:

Say Anything. The dumpy kid on the cover does battle with Max Bemis throughout the booklet. Max is the villain, see, and the kid is the superhero. They use as many toys from his bedroom as they can. (Yes, I have left the pronoun intentionally unclear.) My favorite band shot was the one on the back of I’m Going Away: the Friedberger siblings, sitting together on a sofa in a stark hi-rise living room decorated with African art.


Most Welcome Surprise:

The Hazards Of Love. I figured “The Island” was about as far into the prog-folk as those guys were willing to go; I mean, they’re crowd-pleasers at heart. I didn’t think Colin Meloy had the stomach to alienate his fraternity fanbase. Now I have to believe that they’re all in, and that we’ll eventually look at The Crane Wife as a transitional album. Welcome to the cabal, Colin.


Biggest Disappointment:

Before I Self-Destruct. I was the only person on the globe who expected it to be great. I was wrong, the world was right. Not for the first time, either.


Album that opens the strongest

Slaughterhouse. I don’t think any of the four emcees pause to catch their breaths until the second song. Then they just keep on passing the baton in a circle, running lap after lap at full speed. Eventually they hit the skits, the lactic acid catches up with them, and they all get cramps. Until then, it’s a hell of a race.


Album that ends the strongest

Eskimo Snow peaks with “Blackest Purse”, the penultimate song, and probably the best thing Why? has ever recorded. A thrillingly bitter digestif follows.


Song of the Year

After …Is A Real Boy dropped in 2004, some well-meaning grownup critic hung the “new Bob Dylan” tag on Max Bemis. I have come to see this as an insult to Max. The newly-converted Dylan stuck us with the flat and humorless Saved, which still plays as a pretty good advertisement for the Devil. Say Anything’s “Cemetery”, on the other hand, records a conversion experience that, from the sound of it, had to have been akin to getting thrown through a plate-glass window. Throughout the song, Bemis sounds absolutely astonished by his depth of feeling; like all the greatest Christian badasses from Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Brooke Fraser, he has come to realize that faith gives the ultimate middle finger to bureaucratic authority. He inhabits his belief as an act of defiance — and in so doing, he liberates himself. Christianity, as Chesterton points out, is the only world religious system with the guts to make God a rebel, an underdog, and a lifeline for reprobates, a leading light for inveterate punks, provocateurs and mischief-makers, and anybody angling against the establishment. Better still, his new wife (almost certainly the instrument of his conversion) sings backup on the choruses. Sherri DuPree is the “you” of the second verse, the true believer who convinces Bemis; later, stuck in the lake of fire, condemned but personality intact, it hardly matters if he’s shouting Jesus’s name or hers. God knows the important thing has already happened: he’s been reborn, flamethrower mouth intact, more himself than ever. Just like C.S. Lewis promised. Thanks, Max, for letting us in on it.

Okay, I have reached the strange word limit that this software system imposes. I’ll pick this up tomorrow.

Critics Poll XX: Miscellany

Sorry, old friend.
Man, I love those miscellaneous categories. Gives everybody a chance to pop off and get cranky, and if this Internet isn’t for cranks, I don’t know what it’s for. I’m itching to get to my own ballot, so I’m going to try not to get bogged down with too much explanation. Breeze in, breeze out; let the tallies do the talking. We’ll start at the top with:

Best Album Title:

Fewer votes in this category than usual, and many of those that did come in expressed frustration with the enterprise. “Not a good year for titles”, wrote Alan Young, and indeed, our winner was something of a protest against the concept of handles: the flat-footed Album by Girls. Extra Golden’s Thank You Very Quickly got some love, as did Travels With Myself And Another and the somewhat-inexplicable No One’s First And You’re Next by Modest Mouse. But your blank fields spoke volumes, as did this reply by the reliably colorful Steve Carlson: “None. That’s right, none. The best album titles this year were those that didn’t make me wince upon reading them; those, sadly were few and far between. But in a year that brought us such gems as Raditude, Mama I’m Swollen and Big Whiskey And The Groograx King, a band had to try real hard to come up with something worse, something so terrible that it guaranteed I would never listen to a second of the band’s output no matter how many sparkling reviews they got. So congratulations, Avett Brothers, for the repulsively twee I And Love And You.”

Best Album Cover:

Rachel Neill nominates a remarkable image I hadn’t seen (and maybe didn’t want to): the shocked businessman regurgitating status symbols on the cover of You Can’t Take It With You by As Tall As Lions. Twelve votes came in for It’s Blitz by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, because who doesn’t want to see Karen O crack a raw egg with her fist? (That freeze frame of the flying yolk is a startling photographic achievement, but still, that could have been somebody’s breakfast, or somebody’s chicken.) Ordinarily, that would’ve been enough to win, but the YYYs were up against some stiff competition. The support for Middle Cyclone was enthusiastic, to say the least; Jeff Norman called it the album cover of the decade. Efrain Calderon summed up its appeal like this: “babe with a sword + muscle car = winner”. For horny devils, anyway. I think it’s cute that she’s barefoot, but who is she looking at?

Biggest Disappointment:

“It was in myself”, confessed Anna Howe, “in my inability to engage with the classic artists who put out records this year”. She meant The Boss, among others. As it turned out, many voters who had paid a call to Springsteen while he was in the living years — especially Jersey loyalists who have been backing their hometown favorite for decades — wished that they hadn’t. Others chose to name rockers who didn’t make it through ’09: Vic Chestnutt, Jay Reatard, Ron Asheton. Ironically, nobody mentioned the year’s most earthshattering passing, but maybe the cosmic implications of MJ’s death aren’t best understood as disappointing? As always, there were many political themed answers submitted, including the Supreme Court, the Massachusetts electorate, the Democratic leadership, and the Senate Democratic Caucus. No votes, though, for a fella with the following initials: BHO. Andrew Hamlin gave the most inexplicable answer — he voted for “my feet”. I didn’t ask; it seemed impolite to ask.

Most Welcome Surprise

Forest Turner voted for the Booker T comeback. Did you know Booker T came back? I sure didn’t, but I certainly welcome it. Most of the rest of you were shocked at the quality of contemporary radio. You don’t listen to me, do you? Taylor Swift got her votes, as did Alicia Keys and (especially) Lady Gaga. Here’s Oliver Lyons on the old-school postmodernist with the expansive wig collection: “It’s a damn shame we already know so much about Lady Gaga when she was a nobody because, at this point, Marilyn Manson was the last truly crazy musician to get people worked up into a frenzy as to where this strange thing came from. Regardless, the next Madonna she is not but I’m never not going to love someone who incorporates stage blood into their pop videos.”

Worst Song Of The Year

A few of you nutcases were even surprised (positively) by the Black Eyed Peas. I’ll give them this much: they’re better than they used to be. will.i.am is nothing if not a diligent follower of contemporary fashion, and let’s just say he’s been spending some quality time with his copy of *808s and Heartbreak*. Those of you who suggested renaming this category the “My Humps Memorial Award” got your shots in, too: eight votes in this category for “Boom Boom Pow” and another five for “I Gotta Feeling”. Pitbull found his way into your sights in ’09, which I can’t say I understand — what’s the difference between “I Know You Want Me” and the last twenty singles he’s released? — and supervillian Chris Brown, which I certainly do understand. But our plurality winner (eleven votes) was the song that came closest to denying Phoenix a Critics Poll sweep. Zack Lipez, on “New York State Of Mind”: “I like Jay Z. Saw him perform and instantly got what people have been talking about. Mick Jagger at his hymen melting prime levels of personal charisma. What a crap song. The first 30 times I heard it, I thought someone was just playing an old NY State tourism jingle from the ’80s. Seriously, some Gavin MacLeod bullshit.” Take it from a real New Yorker, Jay.

Best Singer

Neko Case in a landslide. Carl Newman’s foil was named on a remarkable sixteen ballots. That said, I feel I must point out that not a single vote for Case came from a woman. Looks like she appeals to the Joanna Newsom demographic. I’d like to propose some new Poll terminology: a “Newsom” is any critically-acclaimed female artist whose fanbase is disproportionately comprised of dudes. Is Neko Case a Newsom? No way to say for sure, but let’s consider that album cover one more time. Margaret Cho might dig this image; maybe Camille Paglia too. But no other woman on earth is going to get with that iconography. Other singers recieving multiple votes: Richard Hawley, Taylor Swift, conversational Eddie Argos, and Catherine Ireton of God Help The Girl.

Best Rapper

Mos Def in a mini-landslide. Boogie Man did not get much love for Tru3 Magic, but his globetrotting latest has reintroduced him to Poll voters. Senior citizens Jay-Z, Eminem, and Raekwon drew their loyalty votes, and one of those guys even deserved the praise. The man on the rise is Gary, Indiana mixtape master Freddie Gibbs, whose roughneck verses has won the hearts of our notorious inna-city voters. In other news of the unlikely, George Pasles nominated me in this category, again. What on earth is George talking about? A better leftfield response came from Milton, who voted for Chuck Berry. In a weird sort of way, that’s a fantastic answer.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head And Drove You Crazy

Resident globetrotter Jason Paul spent the year touring the Far East. His vote was for something called “Feng Hang Chuan Qi”. Even the name has a catchy cadence. Back stateside, a few of you pop warriors seem to have a problem with Taylor Swift, especially her “Love Story”. Steve Carlson reports that “most of te time I’d at least try to salve the pain by rearranging the lyrics into pornographic entreaties.” Hey, I did the same thing with “1,2,3,4” a few years ago. We all have our coping strategies; we can’t be blamed when the survival instinct kicks in. Presumably, Ben Krieger did not need to resort to our gutter tactics — he voted for something called “Two Girls One Cup” by Toby Goodshank. If you don’t catch the reference, take my advice and forget you ever read this. Seriously.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

“Why do you continue to ask me this?”, begs Jonathan Andrew. Blame my Catholic upbringing, Jonathan; the nuns trained me to be a guilt-generation machine. And what fun is dirty laundry if you can’t air it and offend the neighborhood? Bradley Skaught played it safe by naming Smokey Robinson’s latest smooth jazz record; I don’t know, that sounds pretty sweet to me. Generally, this is a dump category for day-glo radio hits that are irresistible but still kinda boneheaded: Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You”, IYAZ, “Birthday Sex”, Ke$ha’s lovably-inept “TiK ToK”. Other true confessions — Natasha Marena digs Das Racist’s admittedly-unforgettable stoner anthem “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell”, while OG punk Jim Testa takes a shine to the cast of Glee. A surprising number of poll respondents feel cheap about boarding the Animal Collective bandwagon. Don’t worry, guys, I know that if you were indulging in ‘net-driven groupthink, you wouldn’t be doing this Poll. Finally, foreign correspondent Tom Snow steps beyond 2009 to file this report from the ski resorts of Switzerland: “I’m now playing in a cover band here in Geneva, catering mainly to the expat anglophone crowd. Our repertoire is mainly classic and modern rock, and we play ”What I Like About You,” and, to my infinite surprise, it fucking rocks. Out of fidelity to the Romantics’ version, the drummer sings it [Tom is the drummer], although we’re still waiting for our leather suits to arrive. Awww-hawww, hey!”

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

“Hey, to each his own”, answered Wesley Verhoeve. Wes is good-hearted; he doesn’t want poison anybody’s prune juice. The rest of us weren’t so squeamish. “If you were watching Neil Young’s performance on Conan’s last Tonight Show broadcast closely”, wrote Matt Sirinides, “you could see his lunch off to stage right: grilled cheese, tomato soup, jello.” The gerontocracy came under fire: votes were counted for Lou Dobbs, John McCain, Chris Christie, Mitch McConnell, Arlen Specter. Brad Luen named Harry Reid; whether Senator Harry wants to pack his desk or not, Brad, I think you’ll be seeing that happen this November. Bruce Springsteen — the leader of the Democratic Caucus of Rock — was asked by many to step down. In ’09, it pains me to admit I have no ammunition to use against those asking for his gavel. But the winner by plurality was Bob Dylan (again). That Christmas album really left the old coot wide open to potshots from the pop-radio paintballers. I’d give him credit for chutzpah if it didn’t sound so much like he was caroling from his gurney.

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

Mike Cimicata voted for Cole Hamels. Mike, he’s already won forty-eight games in the bigs! He threw about forty thousand pitches in 2008; of course he was dragging ass last year. The Cimicata ballot was pinstriped-themed: he voted for the Boston Red Sox for Most Overrated, the New Yankee Stadium for Most Welcome Surprise, Joe Girardi’s bullpen management in the ALCS for Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job, and Championship Number 28 for Best Album of 2010. Let him bask in the glow of the championship trophy if he wants; I doubt the upcoming season will be kind to the interlocking N and Y. Here come the Kansas City Royals, I tell you. Here come the Royals. Stop laughing at me. STOP LAUGHING AT ME. Oh, you want a musical answer? How about the Vivian Girls (five votes)? How about Wavves (five votes)?

Most Overrated

Animal Collective. When an album tops nearly every year-end poll and critic’s list, you’d better hope that it’s overrated. You’d better hope that’s the explanation. Otherwise, shit starts to get really spooky, in a hurry. Possible alternative theories: mind control on a national scale, orchestrated by shadowy (and possibly alien?) overseers. Chips implanted in the wrists of rock critics, set to detonate unless Merriwether Post Pavilion wins Album Of The Year honors. The discovery of musical vibrations that generate unreasonably euphoric responses in primates; the scientific isolation of these narcotic frequencies and their subsequent mass broadcast via Animal Collective’s recordings. Bullying, peer pressure, breaches of journalistic integrity on a cosmic scale, zombification, sunspots, strange vibrations from beneath the earth’s crust. Yes, you’d better hope that Merriwether Post Pavilion is overrated, and the near-unanimity of the critical response to this album is simply the product of unprecedented herd mentality among rock writers. Otherwise, friend, you’d best fit yourself for a fallout shelter.

Album That Wore Out The Quickest

The Eternal“, answered Jens Thuro Carstensen, “ironic, no?” Jens, Thurston Moore should have known he was baiting you with an album title like that. Usually it’s the freshly-minted buzz bands that take this title, though, and 2009 was no different — The Big Pink’s Brief History Of Love and The XX tied with six votes apiece. Strangely (at least to me) The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart got away scot-free this year; Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, and Dirty Projectors all took their lumps on the Poll, but I can’t find a single negative citation for Kip Berman’s equally hyped debut. Nobody wants to throw stones at Sarah Records soundalikes — that hits a little too close to home. Steve Carlson cited a project that was almost universally vilified: “I initially gave Chris Cornell’s Scream a spin because I figured the vicious reviews had to be reacting against the idea of the album instead of the album itself, and I was right — it’s weird and screwy and awkward and doesn’t quite work, but it’s not as bad as all that and even has a few memorable tunes. I listened to it a second time to confirm that impression. And then I never listened to it again, and I don’t really feel bad about that.” Oh, and Working On A Dream drew opprobrium in this category, too. What can I say, Brucie?; you’ve got some angry fans on your hands.

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

“I want to spend more time with Micachu And The Shapes”, wrote Jeff Ciprioni. Well, I definitely like it. But like the Timbaland productions it quietly (and inexpensively) apes, it’s never going to get any better than that first arresting listen. Meanwhile, Ben Krieger made a rare concession to mainstream tastes: “I’m sure there was at least one album on the Pitchfork Top 40 I ought to get”. Come to think of it, Ben, it’s probably Micachu.

Most Thoroughly-Botched Production Job

Look, I don’t want to discuss Brendan O’Brien’s association with the Boss any more than you do. It depresses me. Allow me to point out that while the dynamic range of Magic was indeed squashed, he didn’t bury any of those songs. Devils & Dust sounds just fine, thank you; I realize there’s not so much damage a producer can do to an acoustic guitar record, but at least he didn’t pull a Steve Albini on Ys. Brendan O’Brien makes a nifty lightning rod for our collective frustration, but he didn’t write the lyrics to “Outlaw Pete”. He didn’t make Bruce put those jackass blues numbers on the album. He didn’t force Bruce to include stupid checkout scanner noises in the outro of “Queen Of The Supermarket”. Well, okay, maybe O’Brien did have something to do with the checkout scanner noises. But the Boss is a big boy. The buck stops with him. And since I don’t want to talk about this anymore, I’m going to concentrate instead on the other leitmotif running through your replies — if you weren’t bashing Springsteen, you were complaining about the marijuana haze that is currently choking the underground. Calling out Woodsist Records, Dan Purcell writes “I’m no audiophile, but ‘Hey, what if we made the entire studio into a bong?’ is not what I’m looking for.”

Most Unsexy Person In Pop Music

Allow me to turn over the floor to Zachary Lipez: “I understand whatever girl may feel the need to say Lady Gaga to this question. Shit can get pretty intense out there. Any GUY who answers Lady Gaga,however, is trying to impress whatever female may be helping you proofread this. Are you going to let that disingenuous graduate school prick, that emo singer in castrato’s clothing, that wikipedia skimming WEASELWORD do that to you,Tris?! He’s fucking lying. There’s NOTHING sexier than borderline ugly girls who make themselves hot by sheer force of will. Noth. Ing. Dig? Lose that dude as a friend, Tris, he’s an Iago in waiting.” I feel the need to assure Zack that Lady Gaga is A-OK in my house.

Your predictions and commentary on Miscellany, Page Two!