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!

Critics Poll XX: Miscellany, Part Two

Trends For 2010

Matt Sirinides: Don’t make me say a blog buzz word.

Sudeep Dutt: NOISE.

Jason Paul: Hipster music (Ke$ha finally breaks the mainstream.)

Efrain Calderon: New artists delivering over-hyped debuts that will be forgotten before you can clap your hands and say, “Yeah!”.

Sara Hayes: Lots of crappy pop music, and not enough attention paid to music that’s actually worth a listen.

Jim Testa: Disney sitcom stars with hit records.

Christopher Amann: Music in the cloud. Having all your songs or all songs ever recorded on whatever device that is connecting you to the Internet.

Marisol Fuentes: They will try to put all of the music in the cloud. But it will rain! And all the music will instead be in a puddle.

Alan Young: Hi, we’re New Order – oh yeah, I mean Jesus & Mary Chain. I think that trend still has legs. Unfortunately.

Ben Krieger: More reunion tours that suck. The first inklings of an effort to identify the next generation of rock critics online. In time people are going to want follow a few good men and women again.

Ariel Bitran: The end of this passive shit, lets make some real music people! stuff that doesn’t necessarily have anything to say about politics or foreign relations or your mother or vegetarianism or sleeping late, but instead states its message through the music’s intent: to be bold and direct. too many bands are settling for the easy way out and not challenging themselves to really challenge their audience: not in a way which involves complex time signatures but one that makes them think: wow, great MUSIC can still be made without pretension hanging over it. Let’s remove that cloud, and make way for the biggest statements of this generation’s musical lifetime.

David Singer: Guitars.

Paula Carino: Damn synthesizers. No offense. (None taken, Paula.)

Brad Krumholz: Non-traditional stringed instruments.

Jonathan Andrew: I will continue listen to 70s classic rock and outlaw country and fail to listen to much contemporary rock – Kris Kristofferson, get your ass over here!

Sue Trowbridge: ’80s new wave nostalgia.

Mike Cimicata: ’90s nostalgia.

Adam Copeland: What is lower fi than lo-fi? Shit-fi, I guess.

Natasha Marena: More shitty-sounding Wavves-style guitar bands.

Stephen Mejias: More psychedelia, and more genre-crossing, more girls making noise, and more rebellion against digital media. I see lots of cassettes and vinyl LPs in my future.

Zachary Lipez: I hope it’s a D-Beat revival. Realistically? More bad facial hair and AM nonsense from the kids, bitter nostalgia (often involving Jonathan*Fire*Eater) from my peers, and Haiti jokes dominating the message boards by mid-February.

Brian Block: Critically-acclaimed albums entitled ‘I am Afraid of You and You Will Beat My Ass’. Depending on truth-in-labeling law, at least.

Sherri Locker: Trying to sound like Animal Collective.

Forest Turner: Animal Collective influenced hip-hop.

Steven Charles Matrick: Acoustic guitar hip-hop.

Mitchell Manzella: Rock/Rap mashups.

Steve Carlson: Whatever it is, will.i.am will probably be involved in some way. Since he isn’t going anywhere, and even talented artists are starting to request his services (hi, Murs!), I guess I’m gonna hafta make peace with his continued existence.

George Pasles: Dancing potatos.

Steph Auteri: Lip-sync videos.

Milton: Laptop records.

Oliver Lyons: Books on tape

Joe Coscarelli: Island Music.

Jay Braun: Mayan culture.

Anna Howe: Conservative politics rock.

Jens Thuro Carstensen: More kid-friendly indie-rock shows. And then the kids in question getting into whatever the equivalent of Insane Clown Posse is 12 years down the road. [It’s brokeNCYDE, isn’t it?]

Brad Luen: Bad puns.

Val Emmich: Slightly out of tune vocals. A man can dream.

Your Comments And Questions

Jens Thuro Castensen: JC: Any band the New York Times profiles is dead to me.

Zachary Lipez: Man, Billy Joel must have been rolling in his track suit about what a complete fucking embarrassment his daughter has turned out to be. She took what I take when it’s 9am and I’m too lazy to go get a handful of Tylenol PM’s and called it an attempted suicide. Oh, and to draw attention to the “problem of heartbreak”. Worst thing to happen to piano men since Tom Lehrer’s retirement.

Steve Carlson: There’s really no reason anyone should go nuts for Jeremiah’s “Birthday Sex” – it’s no more than a perfectly serviceable if undistinguished bit of minimalist R&B. So why did I find myself looking forward to it popping up on the radio? I think it’s the ghostly “oooOOOOooo” in the background of the chorus that got me.

Oliver Lyons: People tell me to check out Kid Cudi but these people are also white though which makes me instantly suspect.

Mike Cimicata: How much did Michael Franti get for selling his soul?

Efrain Calderon: I want to just mention that the whole Taylor Swift/Kanye beef was staged. They both share the same agent. (Also the agent for 50 Cent..remember the Kanye/50 cent beef?) The word on the net is that Jay-Z would perform at the VMAs only if they made Beyonce look good. So “controversial” Kanye embarrasses the poor young white girl. Then gracefully Beyonce gives Taylor the spotlight. Kanye looks like a dick (and therefore helps out his image) and apologizes the next day on the Jay Leno Show which happens to be having it’s debut in the earlier time slot. Taylor ends up gaining pity and overcomes the evil Mr. West’s remarks on SNL, plays on the whole “fearless” thing. Re-releases her record, sells a hell of a lot more units. In the end, here I am, a self-admitted hipster talking about the VMAs, they’ve accomplished they’re mission. Leno gets ratings, Kayne gets press, Beyonce gets press, and Taylor gets press, VMAs get talked about, SNL gets ratings. The only one who ends up looking like an idiot is Jay-Z as Lil Mama gets her B-boy pose on during “New York”… the VMA’s only unplanned fuck up.

Adam Copeland: You recommended 808s and Heartbreak as your album of the year of 2008. I guffawed. I scoffed even. Then I listened to it. I was entranced. I started telling people about it, waxing poetically about its merits and then – IMMA LET YOU FINISH. Kanye had to go and be a total jackass this year and produce absolutely nothing of redeeming value. Unless you like his character on The Cleveland Show or his work with 30 Seconds To Mars. Scoff. Guffaw. Even the President called him a jackass. Still, “Coldest Winter” is fucking awesome.

Oliver Lyons: The world is being too kind to a child actor from Canada (Drake) by legitimizing his music career right out of the gate. At least Alanis Morissette paid her dues for awhile.

Dan Purcell: Best video – Pill’s “Trap Goin Ham.” Americans almost never have to suffer the indignity of seeing actual poor people on TV. Certainly images of extreme American poverty are basically verboten. I remember how jarring Juvenile’s “Ha” video was back in ’99. While New York, cradle of hip-hop, was wasting its time with Puff and Ma$e, Juve introduced you to his friends inside the ‘Nolia projects. The “Trap Goin Ham” video consists of actual, improvised footage of folks on the streets of Atlanta’s 4th Ward and is a step beyond “Ha,” since it’s not just poor folks dancing around a camera but poor folks waving in polite society’s face what polite society likes to think of as their pathologies. Maybe you find some of the images problematic, but they’re not half as problematic as fucking poverty.

Efrain Calderon: Best song that simultaneously references T.J. Maxx and getting a blowjob by a girl in special education? Kanye West in Clipse’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal”.

Jens Thuro Carstensen: (on “Empire State Of Mind”) My distaste for self-congratulation is a major reason I can’t get into hip-hop, and an even major-er reason i can’t deal with Jay-Z. Alicia Keys remains every bit as shrill and un-nuanced as ever. The track seemed cynically composed to capitalize tune on yet another boring Yankees post-season run. And after all this, even I liked it.

Bradley Skaught: “Empire State Of Mind” – Kind of loved it, now I don’t. That chorus seemed great the first time, but it’s actually a really lousy lyric.

Oliver Lyons: Biggest Disappointment – Charles Hamilton Twitter’ing and blogging himself out of a career. Actually, make that “rappers who use Twitter” is the biggest disappointment of 2009. I now have to believe the Diplomats were lying when they said that, if you live in Harlem, your only options for survival are getting the rock and shaving that shit or getting the glock and blazing that shit when, clearly, a few paragraphs on XXL.com from your 125th st loft can accomplish the same.

Adam Copeland: How is J Dilla still producing better shit from the grave than most living producers?

Steve Carlson: (on Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette”): This one amazes me. All the reasons I like it are the same reasons it’s, in all honesty, a pretty terrible lead single – it’s stark and creepy and alienating and for fuck’s sake RIHANNA SHOOTS HERSELF AT THE END OF IT. It makes sense for Cage to make his stalker/serial-killer anthem “I Never Knew You” the lead single for Depart from Me because it’s an ugly, difficult album that isn’t really relying on airplay to sell it anyway, but Rihanna’s suicide fantasies/domestic abuse metaphors are supposed to be confined to the deep-cuts bin while she and her record label push forth some braver-than-thou uplift. This shouldn’t have even charted, and I assumed it didn’t when I saw how quickly the powers that be hustled out the more conventional “Hard” as a followup. Imagine my surprise when a bit of research turns up that the damn thing was a Top Ten Hot 100 charter. I will never understand the American public.

George Pasles: Worst album cover – Chris Brown: Graffiti.

Brad Luen: The only Chris Brown song I listened to was “Changed Man”. I can’t like the guy but I don’t want to hate him. When he repeats “it ain’t over”, I want to hate him. So I’ve stopped listening.

Tom Snow: For me, listening to drummers these days is like watching basketball on television. These kids are so good, and so inventive, and so advanced, that I have a hard time drawing parallels from what they’re doing to what I (used to) do, even though it’s called the same thing.

Jeffrey Norman: Most ridiculously charming video by a local musician even though the song itself isn’t much… Pezzettino “You Never Know”

Ben Krieger: I didn’t hear the new Decemberists record, but I understood what was really behind the critical venom: is Jethro Tull EVER going to get some respect? I mean, why just King Crimson?

Brian Block: I just discovered yesterday that all of Jim-Bob (Carter USM)’s solo albums finally were issued in the U.S.A., including a 2009 one. But I have no idea whether he’s still brilliant. I hope so.

Joseph Mallon: Worst trend of 2009 – Indie bands discover sequencers.

Sue Trowbridge: Most Overrated – Animal Collective. I keep hoping I’ll “get” them eventually.

Jens Thuro Carstensen: Biggest Disappointment — the utter predictability with which Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear occupied top spots of every Best of 2009 list in music. It was practically pre-destined the second downloads became available.

Jer Fairall: Biggest Disappointment – that the Animal Collective hype that gripped everyone this time last year lasted all year, after all.

Marisol Fuentes: The Animal Collective album was good. But the hype about the Animal Collective album ROCKED. I have learned my lesson. From now on I will skip the album and listen to the hype.

Bradley Skaught: Seemed like a strangely over-hyped year in general. Grizzly Bear? Animal Collective? Bill Callahan? Antony? Nothing special, really.

Zachary Lipez: Even the critics didn’t seem that psyched by all their top tens and fifties and whatnot, so I’m just going to assume that 2009 was a year of cashing checks for the Pitchfork staff. I mean, I know they’re not sitting around listening to Dirty Projectors or Bat For Lashes, THEY know they’re not, so, really, why make a thing about it. Honestly, I have never woken up in a room with a Grizzly Bear CD in it. So I begrudge the world nothing.

Christopher Amann: Seeing just how far indie has come, When blockbuster teen vampire movies are using a duet by Bon Iver and St. Vincent and Chrysler is using Phoenix in a car commercial, you know there is no longer an underground. I overheard a kid on the train tell his friend that “Oxford Comma” was his favorite song (I hope he didn’t mean ‘of all time’). The next week, the new Vampire Weekend was #1 on the Billboard 200.

Alan Young: Is the blogosphere ever going to make a real break with the corporate media or just continue to imitate it? How long is it going to take before the mass audience in this country is completely fragmented into little niches like the way it was fifty years ago? How long is gonna take before everybody realizes that 60% of people who tweeted last month got sick of it and moved on?

Jens Thuro Carstensen: The 2009 Snake on a Plane – I’d briefly pondered renaming this Bánh Mì Award, for this is the year I was inundated with something even more inane than blog-rock: “foodie” culture. But, since this accolade is dedicated to soon-to-be-laughable trends and generally aging poorly, I should really keep it the way it is. As for the recipient, that’s been decided for months: Wavves. The assent was too immediate and out-of-nowhere, the prospect of proving to be not even remotely up to the hype was too obvious, the festival circuit flame out and subsequent blog backlash was too predictable. This guy had the career trajectory of a model rocket with its nose cone taped on… even the scuffle with the dude from the Whack Lips felt like an odd afterthought, like the mom from Family Ties finally declaring she’s gay. Congratulations, Wavves. That said, I already forgot Chairlift even existed. [Note: Jens awards the Snake On A Plane to the artist who goes from unknown to absurdly hyped to all but over in a single calendar year.]

Dan Purcell: Worst song of the year – Eminem’s “We Made You.” First, Em, who is already the most consistently annoying emcee of all time, hits you with his most creatively awful style yet — half Rasta, half Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Second, his mighty flow is unleashed in service of a series of cruel and unclever swipes at low-hanging celebrity fruit like Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, and Sarah Palin, all of whom I’m not sure Em realizes he’s got much more in common with than he does any of us. Third, whoever came up with the vocal hook needs to go back to drawing board. It’s sad, it’s mean-spirited; there’s nothing good about it. I also want to say a word to Bon Jovi, for their “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” which at first I thought was a grammatical correction of the old Goffin/King song from The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Sadly, no. Anyway, the song is harmless geezer music; it’s the title that kills me. Guys, you’re not fooling anybody. You were totally born to follow. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. You still sold a lot of records. You had a pistol for action; you went in and out of love; on a steel horse you rode; now you have boats and wine cellars. You don’t need to pretend you were innovators.

Jim Testa: Best Comedy Album – Bob Dylan, Christmas In The Heart.

Jeffrey Norman: Most welcome surprise – Bob Dylan’s Christmas album not as horrific as advance jokes led us to expect.

Ariel Bitran: Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job – Brendan O’Brien’s reissue of Pearl Jam’s Ten – YUCK – such a horrible horrible job of turning a record that sound at best was a high mediocre to just unlistenable.

Matt Sirinides: Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job – Pearl Jam’s Ten reissue. I’d prefer that album to sound like it’s playing out of a broken speaker for the rest of time.

Dillon DeCrescenzo: Boss needs to get a restraining order against Brendan O’Brien. Seriously.

Bradley Skaught: Magic was such a great rock ‘n’ roll record — melodically realized, focused, structurally sound. Working On A Dream is bloated and underwritten — awkward, dolled up.

Dan Purcell: You know those Internet apps that tell you what your name would be if you were in the Wu-Tang Clan or if Sarah Palin was your mom? I know; they’re a lot of fun. If there were a Bruce Springsteen Title Generator app on a website somewhere—who knows, maybe there is one—it couldn’t generate a more perfectly vacuous title than Working on a Dream. I guess it’s nice that Bruce finally rediscovered the importance of pop melodies and radio hits, but this record suggests he thinks the defining characteristic of pop songs is simple-mindedness. I don’t know why he holds this belief; he himself has contributed many counterexamples over his career. Not too long ago, Bruce completed a solid decade without writing a single melody, but as boring as his 90s output might have been at least it was never simple-minded. Most of Working on a Dream—and here I mean the title song, “My Lucky Day,” “This Life,” and other, similar bullshit—is like freeze-dried Bruce, high-fructose corn Bruce, Bruce with all the valuable nutrients removed. And when he tries a little harder, it gets even worse. “Outlaw Pete” was billed as Springsteen’s attempt to recapture the spirit of “Incident on 57th Street” and all those other early, epic romantic compositions, but those songs sidestepped schlock and bathos only because their lyrics situated them in a specific and identifiable place (even if that place was imaginary). Those songs were informed by history and tradition and other songwriters, Dylan for sure, but they were unburdened by cliché. “Outlaw Pete” is like a cliché hoagie—shopworn imagery piled sky-high and slathered in vinegar. You could excuse it by saying the artist is a victim of his own success, that his innovations have become industry standards over time, but come on; the truth is the song doesn’t work on any level. Then there’s the song about the hot checkout girl at the supermarket whom Bruce can’t (or at least shouldn’t) fuck because he’s a world-famous 60-year-old rock superstar and she’s not. The narrator’s riveting yearning is paired with a sub-Spector kitchen sink arrangement that erupts all over your face like a cheese fountain. I sort of like the minimalist blues “Good Eye,” but not that much, and anyway that’s just one song.

Ben Krieger: Springsteen’s 2009 performance was disappointing, but I saw it coming down the pike way back in the fall of 2008. He is certainly capable of leading America through our current mess, but at this point fans should feel rightfully unsatisfied. I have faith in the man yet, but if an upswing is on the horizon we’ll probably have to wait several years for it. Hopefully he’ll still be around at that point. Despite my sheer disillusionment, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather help fill a stadium for. But when it comes to working on a dream, let’s stop talking and start walking, OK?

Ben Krieger: Obama’s 2009 performance was disappointing, but I saw it coming down the pike way back in the fall of 2008. He is certainly capable of leading America through our current mess, but at this point fans should feel rightfully unsatisfied. I have faith in the man yet, but if an upswing is on the horizon we’ll probably have to wait several years for it. Hopefully he’ll still be around at that point. Despite my sheer disillusionment, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather help fill a stadium for. But when it comes to working on a dream, let’s stop talking and start walking, OK?

Brad Luen: Best songwriter – Brad Paisley. The Obama hope expressed in “Welcome to the Future” and the rest of the American Saturday Night album perfectly capture the mood of the country a year ago. That the mood of the country so quickly turned angry and pig-headed only makes Paisley’s optimism more valuable.

Jeff Ciprioni: Best guitar player – Alistair MacLean of the Clientele, because his band is breaking up and he’s underappreciated.

Brian Block: Best guitar player – Mike Keneally (soloist from “Nice When I Want Something”), and it’s my bad that I haven’t voted for him every single year. Admittedly he’s understated and subtle during actual songs — jawdropping only once you de-focus on the words and main tune — but he always includes plenty of instrumentals, so he was hardly hiding. MVG, however, is Beep Beep’s Eric Bemberger: his weird arsenal of chords, tones, and melodic runs make the sole difference between deeply mediocre indie-rock generica and an album I’ve Honorable Mentioned.

Jonathan Andrew: Best bassist – Kathy Foster of The Thermals. Lots of 8th notes, but sometimes that’s what you need to get the room moving, right?

Jim Testa: Most ubiquitous non-traditional rock instrument of 2009 – glockenspiel.

Zachary Lipez: (on Lady Gaga) I like her verses, and I’m grateful for her existence. Madonna comparisons are weak. She takes the only good song Madonna ever did –“Get Into The Groove” — mixes it with the neato sounds of Borderline and comes up with something WAY better.

Dan Purcell: I like all the Lady Gaga singles at least a little. I understand the Madonna comparisons, but Gaga actually has a sense of humor. She seems more like the new Bette Midler.

Adam Copeland: I appreciate what Lady Gaga has done for Pop Culture by making people uncomfortable. I just don’t like her tunes very much. Sorry.

Oliver Lyons: I hate to keep running with the populace but it’s nice to know in these trying times that as we lose our jobs, houses, families, 401k’s, etc…we’re all bumping “The Good Life”, “Slow Jams”, “Sweet Escape”, and “Poker Face.” USA! USA!

Jens Thuro Carstensen: I still don’t know why you don’t have best and worst live show categories, but i’ll answer this non-question anyway. Best: Feelies @ Maxwell’s. Two sets, four encores. Hung on every note. Worst, in a surprisingly crowded field: Sun O))) @ Brooklyn Masonic Temple. Anybody who takes that band even remotely seriously is a complete idiot.

Sara Hayes: Best live show of the year – J. Tillman chapel show at the Unitarian Church. Pretty near musical transcendence.

Dan Purcell: Best live show – I can’t front, it was our old friends Phish at Red Rocks on 7/31/09. It started raining fairly heavily about halfway into the first set, as we’d been warned it might. The band immediately loped into “Water in the Sky.” (Do you get it?) It only got worse from there; by the set-closing “Split Open and Melt,” it was coming down in sheets. The band gets credit for not half-assing the improvisational segment; all around them the crew was sealing the amps and monitors with polyurethane and building small plastic yurts around each of the band members. Eventually they finished up, bowed, and jogged off, leaving all of us to fend for ourselves in the monsoon. It got steadily worse for about twenty minutes; we had to pull up the tarp that our friends had used four hours earlier to save seats in the general-admission craziness, to use for shelter. I was stationed on the front of the tarp, working to hold on when the wind surging up the mountain dipped under it and tried to tear it away into the sky. It wasn’t very much fun. But the rain did slow and then finally stopped about 45 minutes after the band had gone off. The crew came out and dismantled the yurts. The band emerged a few minutes later and were highly motivated. Predictably opening with “Drowned,” the Who song, they speedily downshifted into a funky little polyrhythm that segued as if composed into Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless.” That shot off into a clever and pleasant little jam before spiraling downward into “Joy,” the set’s first Phish original, which Trey Anastasio wrote after his older sister died from cancer. “Joy” has a chorus that by rights should be too cheesy to tolerate but is so fundamental to the band’s appeal to its audience that you have to give them a pass: “We want you to be happy/’Cause this is your song too.” Hate if you must, but hate at your peril. Anyway, the “Joy” breather led into one of the two or three best versions of “Tweezer” that Phish gave us in 2009, not to overstate the significance of that, since 2009 was their first year back from a long time off and obviously they were spending most of their effort finding their footing and working on the fundamentals. As with most ’09 jams, there were only three minutes or so that were really on point, but they were bewitching. The closing sequence was a blizzard of energy: first (a) “Fluffhead,” historically a special treat but all up in the ’09 rotation; into (b) the perpetual-motion machine of “Piper,” into a piano coda that morphed into (c) their cover of “A Day in the Life,” which also had the nostalgia factor for me since I saw the band debut it at the same venue back in 1995. The drenching was no price to pay for 75 minutes of that degree of wall-to-wall heat.

Jonathan Andrew: Best concerts of 2009 – Mountain Goats at TLA in Philly, Frightened Rabbit at Maxwell’s, Lucero at First Unitarian Church in Philly.

Christopher Amann: It’s no news to lament the closing of record stores, but Virgin Megastore in Union Square was one of my favorite venues in the city. The in-store performances were a great place to check out a few tracks from bands usually on the day that their new album came out. What’s better than a 20 minute show at the very easy hour of 7 PM in a decent room that never got too crowd and never had a cover? Plus you could meet ‘n greet or get your boob/cd signed by the artist too. Memorable In-stores: Robyn, St. Vincent, Black Kids, Carl Newman, that red-headed 19 year-old British piano-playing chanteuse who is half-way between Patrick Wolf and Nellie McKay.

Alan Young: Most Welcome Surprise – The new Knitting Factory. No Nazis, trendoids separated by a glass wall from the crowd watching the band.

Tom Snow: Most Overrated – Kasabian. I need to stop buying Q magazine every time I’m in Heathrow terminal 5.

Best lyricist – Rod R. Blagojevich

Sudeep Dutt: How did Tiesto, Basement Jaxx and Crystal Method put out better indie records than Kings of Leon but not get any radio play or cred?? Someone needs to rethink that.

Zachary Lipez: I have zero (ok, very little) interest in becoming some sort of indie contrarian, Armond White-esque cartoon; year after year berating my fellow responders for their insistence on loving the most de-sexualized, namby pamby Orange County Ska by-way-of-all-the-Wilsons-but-Brian blog infused bullshit, but, you know what, Tris? I am as God made me. And he made me to love cocaine, vaginas, and Crimpshrine. And if all these mathematicians think Neko Case is going to let them in her boat when the waters rise, just because they read The Infinite Jest and preferred Pharcyde’s 2nd record,well, they may be right. And the world SHOULD be repopulated by centrist Democrats and Canadians. But my sperm is weak anyhow and while Fall Of Efrafa cd wasn’t REALLY my number one album, given the choice between crustpunks doing three album song cycles about Watership Down and nice hearted and evil hatted faux spaniards playing too many instruments and talking about nothing but the summer and implying by their references how their listeners are smart and clever and wonderful and not at all intentionally grinding their comfortable shoes into the throat of the world, give me the deluded crusties. Every fucking time. At least they smell human.

Matt Sirinides: This year I revisited a lot of albums loved past and I discovered that no act has aged more gracefully for myself than YO LA TENGO!

Jonathan Andrew: Old artists I listened to way too much in 2009, causing me to miss out on much (possibly good) 2009 music: Grateful Dead, John Prine, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Townes Van Zandt, and The Beatles (particularly the remastered versions of Beatles for Sale and Let It Be.)

Tom Snow: Musical equivalent of an ironic mustache – Fits, by White Denim. But I still dig it.

Oliver Lyons: Best album of 2010 – Juelz Santana reads the collected works of Nabokov.

David Reynolds: Amazing comp – Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007.

Ben Krieger: Song/album that shouldn’t have been shorter – 13 Japanese Birds by Merzbow. 13 hours of noise is bound to yield some dull patches, but look at what we got in return: one CD per month with enough variety to keep fans interested, a unifying musical theme and thirteen cool album covers. When was the last time I waited for release dates with baited breath and dashed off to the record store once a month for an entire year in order to pick up a release that rocked my stereo and looked cool lined up with its counterparts on my shelf? A brilliant marketing ploy by an artist who loves the thrill of holding a physical record as much as his fans do.

Stephen Mejias: I bought more records this year than in any other year of my record-buying life. I continue to be amazed by the quality of music being released. Artists are doing a better job of reaching their intended audiences, which is leading to better art, in general. I think something special is going on, and I’m looking forward to more of it.

Joe Evans III: I’m slowly, but gradually getting back into more music that isn’t just dumb punk records. I actually started to get into Beyonce and Lady Gaga, but I don’t actually own either of their records, and I’m fairly certain both came out before 2009 anyway. Hopefully, at this rate I’ll be caught up enough to make “real” contribution to this Poll by 2017?

Jay Braun: I’m hungry.

Christopher Amann [on behalf of everybody]: MJ, RIP.

Critics Poll winners over the years:

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

Okay, while you’r patiently waiting for my own list, review your singles and album results. Sorry about the disaster; this is a big document, and it takes a long time to reconstitute once you’ve screwed up and lost it.

Disastro

I am really sorry about this. I’ve been struggling with this interface, and today, it tripped me up. For reasons I don’t understand, the software reverted to a prior save just as I was about to post the Miscellaneous Categories page. That page is the biggie. It takes me about two days to do. The prior save had just about nothing on it. I couldn’t believe it, but there it is.

I’d like to — I ought to — get right back to it, but I can’t. I have to finish my work and get to practice. I promise I’ll be back to it as soon as I can.

Tris

Critics Poll XX: Singles

It's no secret what this symbolizes.
I’m sure the dates have some significance to the band. Many people were born in 1855; logic dictates that some of them were French. And of that generation, more than a few must have died in 1901. 45 is young to kick the bucket, but diphtheria was rampant back then. Now, all we have to do is look through birth and death records in Paris, and cross-check those with history books Thomas Mars might have read during a typical —

Aw, hell, who am I kidding? Guys, this song is totally meaningless. You can tell me that you’ve got a reading of “1901”; I won’t believe you. They might as well be saying papa-oom-mow-mow. At least the Trashmen had the common decency to sing their nonsense words in batshit-nuts voices. Phoenix sounds so smooth and sane. These verses all seem like complete sentences until you bother to riddle them through.

Pop history is littered with nonsense verse. Some of it is downright brilliant; consider Sam The Sham singing about his Ring Dang Doo, or Little Richard’s friend who says Bama Lama Bama Loo when asked for a kiss, or Arlo Guthrie riding around on a pickle. For me, the existence of God is only the second most perplexing existential riddle: “who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong?” will always be number one. Beyond the sheer puerile glee of singing garbage — something I know all about, thank you — nonsense verse allows to allude to stuff that would otherwise be rude to inscribe in a pop-culture artifact. Sometimes Ebeneezer Goode shows up to smuggle a drug reference past the censors; i.e., if you want some fun, Paul tells us in an unguarded moment, take Obla-Di-Bla-Da. More often it’s an expression of sexual frustration: a placeholder for meaning that can’t be analyzed on paper, but sure as hell can be committed to tape. On the page, “Woolly Bully” means nothing; sung by Sam, it means everything.

By no means is this technique a thing of the past. Britney Spears didn’t mind becoming ungrammatical and incoherent on “If U Seek Amy”, because every third-grader in the country got her drift. The operation called for a stealth F-bombing of Middle America, and Sergeant Spears reported ready for combat. (And then there’s Soulja Boy. ‘Nuf said?)

Is that what’s going on here? Does Thomas Mars use code words that ancient spacemonauts like me don’t get, but the little girls understand? It’s a possible explanation. Something sparked this fire. This year, “1901” became the first song since “Hey Ya” to take the Singles category and Most Overplayed; it didn’t make the playlists on Z100, but who (besides me) listens to commercial radio anymore? No restaurantgoer, party person, or web surfer would ever dispute that Phoenix received a healthy slice of exposure pie in ’09. Voters were excited enough to list it on 29 of the 115 ballots submitted (“Lisztomania” made another 17) — again, the best percentage since “Hey Ya” ate Poll XIV. In ’03, I was chock full of theories about why that happened; I think I even pulled in a quote from Henry Louis Gates. This time around, I’m not so sure. Okay, I’m not sure at all. But you know me — I go down swinging.

Allow me to present some theories, or float some hypotheses, or just screw around and help you waste your workday:

Theory #1: “1901” is full of coded messages that, while mystifying to outsiders, made sense to a certain subculture. Or perhaps “1901”, while incoherent on its surface, communicated something between the lines.

Could be, but it seems unlikely. The date is cryptic, and cries out for interpretation, but there are no chronological clues in the lyrics. The chorus — fall in, fall in, fall in (or is it fold it, fold it, fold it?) — is one that can be fitted to all sorts of psychological uses. It might refer to the sensation of falling in love, or destabilization, or dropping through space; coupled with the big portamento synthesizer, it could suggest the rush of freedom or the thrill of danger. This makes “1901” roughly equivalent (I am not joking) to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”. But where Petty backed up his chorus with a convincing character sketch and some worthwhile observations about fin-de-siecle California, there’s nothing in the “1901” verses that reinforces this reading. The bit about the girlfriend is intriguing, but it’s never developed. It doesn’t sound like he’s horny, it sounds like he’s doing a phone survey with a telemarketer.

Moreover, while most “leading” nonsense verse is delivered with a nod and a wink — think of Chuck Berry in “My Ding A Ling”, or Pimp C in “Sippin On Some Syrup”, or Holly Johnson telling you when not to relax — Thomas Mars sings “1901” as if everything out of his mouth ought to be transparent to the listener. He could be reading a stock report. It almost makes me want to smack him. Whatever its charms, this song lacks the sense of humor and play that characterizes most songs written to evade the censors. He’s detached, not conversational; there’s very little emphasis placed on particular words. He doesn’t want to call attention to his lyrics. He wants you to forget that there are lyrics.

Theory #2: It’s just a good piece of music, dummy. The album is called Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix for a reason; treat it like a classical piece performed by insanely-talented instrumentalists. “1901” blew up because the band is terrific and the production is tight. End of story.

None of that is wrong. Phoenix really is an excellent band. The rhythm guitarists, in particular, have developed a highly characteristic style that involves straight strums that ought to be boring, but somehow never are. Don’t try it at home; trust me, you’ll never get away with it. The bass player gets his big-brontosaurus tone in perfect harmony with the six-string shivers. I don’t think the drummer is a permanent member of the band, but he sure seems acquainted with the guys. We already discussed the synths; overdubs are minimal, and Phoenix can and does play the song live with the same sort of mastery they’ve committed to CD. This is a state-of-the-art modern rock production, and one you can cut a rug to.

So why, then, do I find this theory unconvincing? Maybe it’s because there’s so little correspondence between musical excellence and alterna-pop acclaim. They don’t play Yo-yo Ma in the Mini-Mall. There are virtuosos working the college rock circuit, but their rate of popular acceptance doesn’t seem any better than that of the amateurs who’ve just picked up their instruments. Think of the songs that have made the leap from underground party favorite to mass acclaim: do these seem, in general, like dazzling performances or productions to you? Usually they become hits for the same reason that Plies or Kelis reach the urban audience: they put a novel spin on the story of an age-old itch. Karen O might be sadomasochistic about it, and Tracyanne Campbell might be melancholy about it, and Lovefoxxx from CSS might be foreign-freakazoid about it, but the message is the same. Give us a rubbery beat and a charismatic vocalist with rage in the pants, and you stand a good chance of penetrating mass consciousness.

So, yeah, I don’t think it’s satisfactory to say that Phoenix kicks hot jammies and hot jammies will inevitably carry the day. It’s part of the explanation, but it can’t be the whole thing. Why this piece of slick studio-craft, and not the one designed by you and your cousin last weekend? Especially since you and your cousin composed a lyric about child slavery in North Korea and the hole in the ozone, and this French guy is busy singing about nothing. It’s almost as if you’ve missed a cue, and spaced on a current cultural predilection for bosh. Hence,

Theory #3: Might “1901” satisfy a generally-felt desire for a reprieve from meaning and verbiage? Has lucidity become unfashionable?

Look at it this way: you probably spent much of 2008 shouting yourself hoarse on behalf of a man you never met. Why? Because his long, eloquent speeches seemed to promise a break from irresponsibility and bad manners and War with Everybody. You got him elected, and now what? The speeches continued, but nothing changed. The man who would be Messiah turned into a walking example of the limits of language. As it turned out, all the wind in Washington couldn’t budge the weathervane. Yesterday Dan Purcell reminded us that G-side opened their album with the following couplet: “My president is black/but we still in Iraq”. Kinda sums up 2009 in nine words.

Even if the Obama Show had become a viral hit rather than the tired rerun it turned out to be, we’d still expect a cultural backlash against the values that he represents. He’s the chief, the enforcer, the administrator, the top cop. There’s nothing cool about that. Pop music is still made by young folks for young folks, and even though Barack Obama is more identifiable to college kids than Rudy Giuliani would have been, he’s still up there with a suit and a tie, talking like somebody’s daddy. In the mid-’00s, George W. Bush fought a losing battle against the language, right there in public; every time anybody asked him to put his agenda into language, he looked flustered and irritated. Is it a coincidence that rock got so wordy? When the chief is ostentatiously illiterate, speaking in complete sentences becomes a rebellious act. When the chief is an unceasing, well-constructed paragraph, the speech-act loses much of its power to shock. An oppressively articulate state — a state that uses language and rational argument to grind its opponents into submission — ought to engender resistance through incoherence.

The problem: if this was true, you’d expect to see reverberations far beyond the college rock. Hip-hop retreated into fantasy during ’09, but that’s a different chess move altogether. Meanwhile, pop-punk kids — exactly the people you’d expect to be the most disillusioned with Barack Obama — continued with their desperate attempts to communicate through language. I don’t watch movies or television shows, but if either began tipping into gobbledygook, I didn’t notice. My mimeographed SDS newsletter informs me that college campuses are hotbeds of rebellion, and that subversive acts may initially wear strange masks; when I was at school, the counter-cultural thing to do (apparently) was to spray-paint the word “Nugent” on the walls of the campus center. So, yeah, each generation of college kids probably gets the college rock it deserves, and the typical college student is probably more inclined to prank things up than shake things up. This generation seems to want to bury the words behind reverb, talkbox, sheets of noise; when the batteries run out, they’re just going to sing stuff that signifies nothing. Maybe it’s an act of protest, and maybe it’s the residue of well-targeted marketing campaign. Which leads me to a theory that I really don’t want to float, but my conscience insists I try out:

Theory #4: “1901” became a hit because Apple and General Motors wanted it that way.

I couldn’t help but notice that our single of the year also caught the ear of TV licensing people. For me, it is now forever linked with Cadillac’s effort to get me to purchase one of their sleek automobiles. Not just a car, mind you, but a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle; you know, exactly the sort of rolling climate-wrecker that the French are supposed to loathe Americans for driving. If you were privy to any televised sporting events during 2009, you heard Thomas Mars singing while the hot chick drove her SRX through the tunnel. Many times. In this case, the meaning was clear: you were meant to be fallin’, fallin’, fall-in’ down to your auto dealership to drop thirty grand or so.

Hey, I’m a loyal American; I know our automobile industry is on the ropes. If Lafayette wants to land at Yorktown to lend us a hand, that’s okay with me. I’m just glad we all got over the “freedom fries” episode. But I hope hope hope that Critics Poll voters did not put a glorified jingle atop our list. If “1901” took off because of Thomas Mars’s singing, or Laurent Brancowitz’s rhythm guitar, or the strange psychic connotations of the chorus, or because we’ve developed a taste for abstract-expressionist lyrics, that’s great. I can work with that. But if Phoenix became popular because we were all numbed by the repetitive logic of Madison Avenue (not to mention prominent placement in those iPod spots that played on every high-profile music website this summer), then the walls really are caving in. It’s bad enough that we all sat at the monitor and watched those reconstituted Slap Chop commercials for their alleged entertainment value. The hypnotic quality of the television screen was always a myth perpetrated by those who wanted a supernatural excuse for tuning in and staying that way; YouTube has exposed the ugly truth that we really do like to be pitched.

I don’t believe it. I am sure the Cadillac ads (and the iPod ads, and the trailer placements) helped “1901” get traction. But I think it is easy to overstate our susceptibility to marketing suggestion. Advertising people still chase after pop music because of its power, and, it bears repeating, its anti-establishment glamor; if it ever gets tethered to the production wagon for good, it’ll lose its status as rebel art, and the car salesmen will have to go find other things to stick in their commercials. Cadillac chased after Phoenix for a reason, and I doubt that reason is all that different from the reason it topped this chart. I think there’s something to theory number three, and something to theory number two. And as for theory number one, we dirty-minded “Ding-A-Ling” fans can always hold out hope. As Tom Lehrer put it, when correctly viewed/everything is lewd. The apparent sexlessness of Phoenix’s music may put that axiom to the test, but knee-deep in the filth-rock and booty-rhyme era, I appreciate the challenge.

Top thirty singles, 2009:

1. Phoenix — “1901” (193)
2. Jay-Z & Alicia Keys — “Empire State Of Mind” (175)
3. Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance” (174)
4. Phoenix — “Lisztomania” (165)
5. Girls — “Lust For Life” (155)
6. Owl City — “Fireflies” (144)
7. Grizzly Bear — “Two Weeks” (131)
8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Zero” (111)
9. Dirty Projectors — “Stillness Is The Move” (109)
10. Kid Cudi — “Day ‘N’ Nite” (108)
10. Animal Collective — “My Girls” (108)
12. Jamie Foxx & T-Pain — “Blame It” (102)
13. Kanye West & Young Jeezy — “Amazing” (95)
14. Morrissey — “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” (90)
15. God Help The Girl — “Come Monday Night” (87)
15. Metric — “Help, I’m Alive” (87)
17. Lily Allen — “The Fear” (84)
18. Lady Gaga — “Poker Face” (83)
18. Metric — “Sick Muse” (83)
20. Ke$ha — “TiK ToK” (79)
21. Passion Pit — “Little Secrets” (77)
22. Julian Casablancas — “11th Dimension” (75)
22. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — “Young Adult Friction” (75)
22. Girls — “Hellhole Ratrace” (75)
25. Taylor Swift — “Fifteen” (71)
26. Owl City — “Hello Seattle” (69)
27. Big Boi & Gucci Mane — “Shine Blockas” (66)
28. Tori Amos — “Welcome To England” (64)
29. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros — “Home” (62)
30. YACHT — “The Afterlife” (59)
30. Peter, Bjorn & John — “Nothing To Worry About” (59)

Okay, tune in tomorrow for the miscellany. Yesterday we ran down the top albums, Thursday I’ll post the answer key, and Friday’s my closing thoughts. Thanks for reading.