Critics Poll 27 — Results

Vexed, fuming, had it up to here.

Dateline 1991. Playing in the background: “Can I Kick It?”, the first Tribe song I ever heard. So polite, so laid-back and crowd-participatory, so jazzy and skilled, so confident, so redolent of the new New York we were trying to create. Here was my first encounter with a friendly character we’d all come to know very well over the next few years–Q-Tip, who was, even then, cool and composed, intellectually nimble and completely in charge of the operation. Phife was the junior partner, the little brother, and hadn’t found his feet yet; nevertheless, he came up with one of the song’s most memorable lines. Midway through the second verse, he directs a plaintive request toward a guy who probably wasn’t listening to very much rap music:

Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?

Phife, then just barely free of his teen years, gave voice to a feeling that many New Yorkers of all ages had. We hoped that many of the troubles afflicting the city — racial dissension, economic inequality, gentrification, incivility, disappearing greenspace — might be eased if an African-American were to helm the municipal government. Police might tread lighter; neighbors might be more cooperative; a black face in a position of civic prominence might undercut some of the cruel assumptions about nonwhite leadership that were then (and still) ambient. All of that was present in Phife’s delivery. He had none of the strategic reserve and artful detachment that was already his partner’s hallmark. Phife sounded guileless — so straightforward and wide open to the possibilities of the future that it was hard not to be a little scared for him. What would happen when this wishful kid encountered reality? Would he still think that bureaucratic functionaries would be doing us all a really big favor by assuming authority?

Ten years and hundreds of hip-hop quotables later, A Tribe Called Quest took the stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom for a farewell concert. Q-Tip hadn’t changed very much, but Phife was a different character altogether. He’d become a battle rapper; a lyrical samurai with a bottomless grab bag of clever rhymes and pop-culture references at his disposal. His voice, too, had set and hardened like old wood. He’d grown into the role of the Five Foot Assassin: the Tribe’s lethal counterpuncher and no-nonsense connection to street wisdom. The four-man crew — for Jarobi had come along to be part of the big goodbye– was still promoting The Love Movement, but they did some of the old favorites too. And when Phife came to that second verse of “Can I Kick It?:, I recall he did an edit on the fly:

Mr. Dinkins was a fucked-up mayor.

No further elaboration, nothing specific about what made him change his outlook, no implication that he had a partisan agenda or ax to grind; nothing but cold-eyed disillusionment. Just like Phife, we’d all lived through the Dinkins years, and we’d learned that if it was as easy as electing a black man to an administrative position and waiting while he worked his magic, our problems would have been over long ago. But they weren’t, and Phife, who’d long since lost his patience with bullshit and smoke-blowing, had become constitutionally incapable of rapping to mislead or obscure. If he’d come to the conclusion that David Dinkins was a fucked up mayor, well, that’s what he was going to say, no more and no less.

The Tribe split up. Q-Tip did solo sets, starred in Poetic Justice, produced and arranged and networked, and assumed the role of Secretary of Something-or-Other in Kanye West’s cabinet. Phife got sick. The man who called himself “the funky diabetic” — and famously boasted that he drank so much soda that they called him Dr. Pepper — exacerbated his disease. He did manage to get out one album of his own–its lead single, “Flawless”, attacked Q-Tip’s blatant showbiz moves. The tension between the precise, ambitious, stylish Tip and the earthy, combative, unglamorous Phife made the sporadic Tribe reunions fascinating to watch. It also seemed to guarantee that they’d never be able to hang together in the studio long enough to make another album.

Malik “Phife” Taylor, as you know good and damn well, is no longer with us. 2016 was loaded with music-star death; Phife’s might have been the saddest of all because it felt so avoidable. Hip-hop loved him, his friends loved him, Jarobi loved him enough to move to Atlanta to cook for him, his wife loved him enough to give him one of her kidneys. All of that affection and respect couldn’t save him, and he went to his grave at 45 — even for a reluctant celebrity carrying the heavy mantle of Queens hip-hop and burdened with the expectations that always accompany early success, that’s way too young.

The death of Phife is one of the two major topics on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, the group’s surprise-released sixth full-length and a handy winner of our 27th annual Poll. The other is the pitiful state of American civil society and the not-unrelated question of generational transition in hip-hop: how do elder statesmen get the new kids to carry on their values without appearing schoolmarmish? Q-Tip sprinkles sugar and praises star pupils (Kendrick and J. Cole, natch); he cultivates a performance of understanding and wags an olive branch. Unwilling to get with the program and eager to fall back on his core competency, Phife just wants to battle. These mumble-rap kids are easy pickings; should they show up to the fight, which is unlikely given their assumed cowardice, the Madman Malik stands ready to administer a lyrical beatdown. Diplomacy was never his thing.

Neither was mysticism. On the album’s tear-jerking second half, Tip and his associates reanimate their dead friend through rhyme: sometimes they deliver encomiums and testimonials, sometimes they imagine him at peace with “no more worries”, and sometimes they adopt his character and use his leftover verses and catchphrases and bow bow woof woofs. Realist and materialist that he was, it is hard to imagine Phife having time for any of this. His experience, as he makes manifest in his own rhymes, was one of pain. Show business, for him, was a thin veneer and one liable to rip at the slightest pressure. Behind it was the poet, operating cushion-free, confronting a big world and his own problems with his fists balled up.

As for the deft-as-ever Q-Tip, he fights the suspicion that the slow-motion destruction of his partner is an analog for the slow-motion destruction of the country. On the political songs that start the album, he sounds braced for the worst, frayed, neurotic, occasionally shattered, unwilling to summon the breezy confidence that characterized his delivery in the early 1990s. Most of We Got It was written and recorded in the wake of the Paris attacks, and Tip, who pointedly rhymes about the “woman with the wisdom who is leading the way”, expected Americans to regain their senses. We were dancing close to the brink, yes, but we’d be spared the full cataclysm.

Phife wasn’t so hopeful. He had harder words for those who thought we could joke or entertain our way out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. His snarling verse on “Conrad, Tokyo”:

Trump and the SNL Hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no time for comedy/Blood clot you doing, bullshit you spewing/As if this country ain’t already ruined.

As innocently and optimistically as he delivered the Dinkins line?, that’s how angry and defeated he sounds on “Conrad”. This is how Phife Dawg went out — with no illusions about the mess we’ve made or our capacity to clean it up, convinced of our collective complicity, and realistic about his own self-destructive behavior. Heroes or saviors weren’t coming; if there were any consequential decisions left to be made, we were surely going to choose the wrong option. Because he took the world on its own ugly terms, and because he kept his defenses down, courageously and heroically and in the name of good, concise writing, he was able to get straight to the point with no filigree and no excuses. His story ended in tragedy. Ours hasn’t just yet, but we’re sure as heck heading that way — and if it does and he was around for it, he’d have said so. He’d have rhymed about the rope on the way to the gallows. It’s the only way he knew how to play the game.

Q-Tip is one of the great musicians in hip-hop history. Phife, for all his talents, was no such thing. But the prospect of A Tribe Called Quest without Phife’s participation is absurd — his distinctive sensibility and perspective was always essential to the project. Q-Tip was the leavening, Phife was the astringent; they went together and reinforced each other, and now that the Madman Malik is lost to him, his former partner will never find another collaborator who complements him anywhere near as well. They grew up together and developed interlocking skills; now Tip is a free radical, but he’ll never truly be home again. Word has it he’s got a solo album coming this year. It’ll be good, I’m sure, but it won’t win this Poll or any other. By the timeWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service came out, Phife was already long gone, which made it an elegy, a glance in the rear view mirror in a year of loss where everything worthy seemed to turn to sand in our hands. From the moment of its release, it was a reminder of something, and somebody, gone forever — and a memento of a brutal fight that the good guys lost.

Your albums of 2016, plus points:

  • 1. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (381)
  • 2. David Bowie — Blackstar (304)
  • 3. Mitski — Puberty 2 (252)
  • 4. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial (238)
  • 5. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker (235)

Gosh, that’s a grim Top 5. Guess it suits these sad times. Also, our regular voters are far older now than they were when we started this exercise, and our results reflect this. Since 2016 forced everybody to confront mortality, the high body count is not that much of a surprise. That said, the other two albums here are all about the late-teenage predicament, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten where we came from. I’ve noticed that aging individuals often accompany their principled disengagement from new music with a complementary detachment from the concerns of young people. Even though we’re no longer young people ourselves, that hasn’t happened to us yet. I hope it never will.

  • 6. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo (232)
  • 7. Solange — A Seat At The Table (230)
  • 8. Frank Ocean — Blonde (188)
  • 8. Anderson.Paak — Malibu (188)
  • 8. Drake — Views (188)

There are more black faces on this list than there often are. Not just ours; almost all of the mainstream end-of-year lists are similarly skewed toward megastatement records made by people of color. The average African-American pop star has become an unabashed critical favorite and cultural luminary, and how different this feels from the years of my youth when MTV was Michael Jackson and the seven thousand dwarves. Part of this is due to the stars themselves: the Knowles sisters, meticulous footnoters and chroniclers and students of history that they are, do make sure to engage in contemporary societal debate in a way that Whitney Houston didn’t, or couldn’t. No knock on Whitney; you know I love her. Even if she’d wanted to, the music industry would never have allowed her to make an album like Lemonade or A Seat At The Table. The major-statement records that critics then loved were exercises in cultural mediation, if not outright appropriation: Peter Gabriel’s stuff, and Paul Simon, and Sting. Hip-hop changed all of that. Now when old rock stars like U2, Coldplay or Green Day attempt to protest, or engage with current affairs, or ride the zeitgeist, there’s always a whiff of Broadway schtick about it. We don’t trust it. We don’t feel like they’re entitled to their critique in the same way that Kendrick is.

But before we all pat ourselves on the back for our broad-mindedness, I’d like to point something out that wasn’t always true. After David Bowie — who had been living on Lafayette Street in Soho for years –you’ve got to go all the way down to #23 to find the next non-North American artist on this list. Again, that’s not just us: pop artists from the upper part of the Western Hemisphere are monopolizing critical attention. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to the upheaval that’s currently happening in America. It is now our civic responsibility to concentrate on homegrown debates, and the parlous condition of our inner cities, and babies are dying in Detroit and hey, those European rappers aren’t any good anyway, right? Wait, there are musicians in Mexico?

I, too, love American pop stars best. Of course I do: I’m as ugly an American as you’ll ever see. But I also recall that in the heyday of Blur I used to write a column called British Inversion, and that I once followed musical developments on the Continent. I don’t anymore, not really, and I’m not alone. Consider it another manifestation of the sharp inward turn that we’ve taken together. I fear we’ve exchanged one big blind spot for another.

  • 11. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book (185)
  • 12. Beyonce — Lemonade (181)
  • 13. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger (164)
  • 14. Noname — Telefone (161)
  • 15. Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution (159)

That said, the major developments in 2016 pop were welcome ones. With varying degrees of success — but an extremely high level of commitment and enthusiasm right across the board –nonwhite female artists attempted to seize the means of aesthetic production and tell their personal stories without the usual mediation from the boys. This happened in the industry’s most celebrated quarters, as Beyonce, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys all helmed personal-statement records that, at the very least, attempted to create the illusion of artistic autonomy. It happened in the great American mid-level, where college rock acts (Mitski), upper-middlebrow jazzbo entertainers (Esperanza Spalding), and Downtown rock-chuckers (Xenia Rubinos) sang feminist fightin’ words and made their identity politics explicit. Most importantly, it happened in the trenches. Independent artists like Noname and Jamila Woods (#44 on this Poll; ought to be muuuuuuch higher) dispensed with the intermediaries and uploaded their music straight to Soundcloud. This allowed them to be as gently incendiary as they wanted to be; Woods’s HEAVN was, in its quiet way, the year’s most militant album and its most concentrated application of black girl magic; Telefone is a more personal set but one absolutely grounded in her experiences on the South Side of Chicago.

Of course there were many men, some of whom are melanin-deficient, involved in the making of all of this music; Solange’s for-us-by-us anthem credits Dave Longstreth, for Pete’s sake. That doesn’t invalidate any of the critiques advanced by these projects or make me any less certain that we’ve got something cooking here. Not all of these albums are hip-hop per se, but they use its accumulative logic and confrontational methods to make art that totally rejects the sort of grotesque objecthood that is usually a girl’s lot in show business. Hip-hop has often refused to accommodate female perspectives, but this year, I watched some of that long-frozen resistance begin to thaw — I mean, if you, rap fan, couldn’t respect Lemonade (or HEAVN, or “Diddy Bop”) for what it was, there’s a pretty decent chance you weren’t just sexist but also a little dense. There are no coincidences in American culture — it’s far too garish for that — and in 2016 we all had to watch a woman with a long resume get humiliated by a guy who probably hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Alas it remains a man’s man’s man’s world, and the music industry is very much part of that world. The women with the wisdom rarely get to lead the way: they’ve always had to scramble and compromise and cut corners to find their places in it. So while you’re mourning the disfigurement of your country and plotting your resistance, save a prayer for Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae, and Maplewood’s own Ms. Hill, who died, over and over, in public, for our sins.

  • 16. Shearwater — Jet Plane And Oxbow (149)
  • 17. Pinegrove — Cardinal (141)
  • 18. Nada Surf — You Know Who You Are (140)
  • 19. Okkervil River — Away (137)
  • 20. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat (135)

It’s also encouraging to me that many of these artists — Jamila Woods and Noname and the rest of your World Champion Chicago SoX — released their music for free via streaming services. Local heroes Pinegrove had the  Cardinal  tracks up for grabs on Bandcamp for awhile; I believe they’re asking for seven bucks now, but if you’re a cheapskate, you can always direct your browser to YouTube. Barring some kind of corporate conglomeration disaster that, given the mutability and slipperiness of digital files, probably wouldn’t affect pop music very much anyway, this right here is the wave of the future and the death knell for Apple’s dominance. Because when you can distribute files straight from a streaming site, why bother with iTunes? Rather than muck around with a library/database that has always felt to me like a grey administrative chore, I’ve taken to going to Soundcloud and streaming albums directly. If I’m on my bicycle or walking around town and I want music, there’s really no need to make a playlist: Saba’s album is right there for me, and all I’ve got to do is press start. This would have developed even if Chance the Rapper hadn’t made giving music away seem cool, but Chance’s selfless example has accelerated the process — and also demonstrated that it’d never stop anybody from becoming a mainstream star; I mean, turn on your TV, he’s doing Kit-Kat commercials now. His momma was dead on when she called him culture.

  • 21. Tegan And Sara — Love You To Death (134)
  • 22. Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition (132)
  • 23. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (130)
  • 24. Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost (125)
  • 25. Weezer — White Album (117)
  • 26. Bob Mould — Patch The Sky (114)
  • 26. Drive-By Truckers — American Band (114)
  • 28. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound (111)
  • 28. Moor Mother — Fetish Bones (111)
  • 30. Aesop Rock — The Impossible Kid (109)

You may recall that Okkervil River nosed out  Yeezus to take the 2013 Poll. Three years later, Will Sheff’s outfit didn’t do as well; in fact, this was the first time Okkervil polled lower than their friends in Shearwater. Kanye West lost some ground, too — after nearly winning in 2013 and finishing second in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he slides a bit to sixth place. As we’ll see in a few days, this was the year that Kanye’s antics (if you even want to call them that) went over the line and began to affect your assessment of his music. Frank Ocean, author of the year’s most polarizing album, slid a little too. Tegan And Sara gave back some of the ground they gained with  Heartthrob; Danny Brown continued his incremental descent down Poll mountain; despite my many attempts to stamp out the menace, Radiohead still persists, down a bit but squarely in the Top 30. Damn weed-b-gone never works.

So who, then, is on the way up? Many older artists, strange to say. A Tribe Called Quest did win this poll before, but it was 1991 and we were still doing it on the placemats at Syd’s diner in Millburn. Even people I think of as long-time regulars hadn’t had an opportunity to vote for the Tribe before. You did like Bowie’s Next Day enough to put it in the Top 5, but Blackstar drew an even more enthusiastic response. Interestingly, Stranger To Stranger  is Paul Simon’s best finish on a Critics Poll — had we been doing this in ’86, he might very well have won, but none of his post-Graceland releases have come close. Weezer, Bob Mould, and Aesop Rock continued their steady ascents in the league tables; by the time they’re 90, they’ll probably win one of these things each. Don’t laugh: Chuck Berry has a new album coming out soon. Won’t be surprising at all if I vote for it.

  • 31. Lucy Dacus — No Burden (108)
  • 32. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years (106)
  • 33. Angel Olsen — My Woman (103)
  • 34. Shirley Collins — Lodestar (94)
  • 35. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered (93)
  • 36. Kevin Devine — Instigator (91)
  • 37. Saul Williams — MartyrLoserKing (88)
  • 38. Britta Phillips — Luck Or Magic (87)
  • 39. Rihanna — Anti (86)
  • 40. Trash Can Sinatras — Wild Pendulum (82)

Okay, that’s a wrap for today! Back tomorrow with the singles list, and an essay about a misapprehension that’s screwing with our understanding of contemporary pop. Thanks again for reading and playing, and please stay safe out there.

Other albums getting #1 votes

  • Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die
  • Haley Bonar — Impossible Dream
  • Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.
  • Jeremy Bible — Music For Black Holes
  • Mikey Erg — Boys And Girls And Tentative Decisions
  • Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
  • Nice As Fuck — Nice As Fuck
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
  • Norah Jones — Day Breaks
  • Noura Mint Seymali — Arbina
  • NxWorries — Yes, Lawd
  • Savages — Adore Life
  • School Of Seven Bells — SVIIB
  • St. Lenox — Ten Hymns From My American Gothic
  • Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  • Teleman — Brilliant Sanity
  • The Rolling Stones — Blue & Lonesome
  • Tim Heidecker — In Glendale
  • TUNS —TUNS

 

 

 

Yum ’16

I swiped this image from the Little Park website. Looks pretty representative of what those folks do over there. Also, I'm hungry now.
I swiped this image from the Little Park website. Looks pretty representative of what those folks do over there. Also, I’m hungry now.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of record reviewers who don’t play in bands.  How can they properly evaluate an album if they’re unfamiliar with the delicate art of sticking quarter-inch cables in holes and/or screen freezes and “ProTools has unexpectedly quit” errors? Consequently, as I appear to be incapable of making toast without burning my face, I am doubly suspicious of me when I take to the computer to review a restaurant. I don’t want the same things out of a restaurant experience as the average man: I don’t drink, I eat meat once in a blue moon, and I much prefer bumbling, endearing, drop-the-fork waitresses to smooth-ass pro service. I’m also pretty sure I don’t want the same things from a restaurant as a sophisticate diner does, either: for instance, I have tried to do the multi-course omakase tasting thing, and… no thanks. Dinner should never last as long as a Springsteen show. Give me some bread, a light appetizer, a main course (usually pasta), and maybe a scoop of ice cream and send me home grinning.

There’s one other thing that might make me a suspect dining critic, but this one I’ll stand by: unlike Joe Yelp, I don’t care at all if the plate I’m given is small. A tiny bit of something good is always preferable to a whole lot of mediocrity — and that is true at any price. I never need to be inundated with food: if I just wanted to fill my belly, I could stay home with a paw in a box of Cap’n Crunch. The relationship between value and volume is a funny one to pin down. After 40 years of eating out in restaurants, I’ve come to understand that it’s the cheap joints and barangrills that rip you off, not the fancy establishments with pretentions. A plate of pasta cooked at a Michael White restaurant in New York City could cost you twenty-five bucks, and it might not overflow the bowl the way a fifteen-dollar macaroni grill option at a strip highway restaurant does. But the difference in quality between the two dishes is not ten dollars. It isn’t even ten hundred dollars. It actually approaches infinity. One dining experience was conceived and executed by artists, and the other one is just bulk provided to sop up the beer.

If you order like I do, it’s possible to eat at Michelin-starred places without breaking the bank. Of course, if everybody ate like I did — pasta, a little side dish, nothing to drink, sil vous plait — there wouldn’t *be* any Michelin-starred restaurants. They’d never turn a profit. No restaurant likes to deal with a bunch of lushes, but that bar tab does pay for a hell of a lot of good ingredients for the chef to work with. But I don’t feel too guilty about it. Even in the past five years or so, I’ve noticed a big change: the modern-day chef-auteur prefers it if you’re on your toes. He does not care for a customer who is too blotto to appreciate his taste notes of cardamom, hibiscus, and mahogany wood chips or whatever. Just as Joanna Newsom cares that you notice the subtle vibrations of the rebec and the tarhu in her mixes, a really good chef wants you to apprehend the full depth of her craft and culinary erudition. I do. Or at least I try. Let that be her consolation as I send her off to the poorhouse.

My ten favorite restaurants of 2016, in reverse order, starting with:

#10. The Dabney (Washington, DC) We threw the dice on this relatively new restaurant for three reasons. 1.) the name reminded me of Dabney Coleman, whose work alongside Geena Davis in the Buffalo Bill Show I appreciated.  2.) It’s located in Blagden Alley, a post-industrial, historically preserved area of DC that I’d never visited, and 3.) the chef had cooked at McCrady’s in Charleston. Southern-style restaurants in Washington are always a dodgy proposition, since no matter what the locals try to tell you, DC is effectively extra-regional. The Dabney didn’t remind me much of the Low Country. But what we had was mostly delicious and commensurate with the Dixie farmhouse theme, including ricotta and sunflower sprouts on a pumpernickel toast, smoke-saturated vegetables charred in a big wood-burning hearth and served over whey, a skillet of corn bread and sorghum butter, and some sort of farro thing with sweet potatoes that I still think about. Plus they make reezy peezy, which is tough to find north of Cape Fear. We’ll be back.

#9. The Grocery (Charleston, SC) See, a real Charlestonian restaurant is guaranteed to have seafood on the menu that us Yanks have never heard of: triggerfish, barrelfish, wreckfish, zipperfish, etc. I think I made the last one up. But the other three are real and caught somewhere beyond the point where the Ashley meets the Cooper, and then they’re brought directly to the table, or at least it tastes that way. Carolina seafood ruins me for fish caught and cooked elsewhere, and as far as I can tell, the best place to have a seafood dinner — even better than FIG — is The Grocery. I got a triggerfish, or maybe it was a barrelfish (pretty sure it wasn’t a wreckfish, because I would have made ceaseless, unfunny “getting wrecked” jokes, and I would now not have a girlfriend) and it blew away all the other seafood I’d had in ’16, including the outrageously delicious grilled hamachi collar coated in fish sauce I ordered twice at Uncle Boons. My worry is that the Grocery was almost entirely empty when we went. It’s not a small operation. Hope it’s still around when we visit Charleston next.

#8. Staplehouse (Atlanta, GA) I read a bedazzled review in Atlanta Magazine that suggested that Staplehouse was a restaurant worth flying in for. Atlantans are always trying to get you to visit and wagging bait in your face; guess I’m a sucker because I made us a reservation when we were in Georgia, and lucky us, although we had no idea what we were in for. I figured Staplehouse for a comfortable Southern dining plus daring experience akin to the one I’m accustomed to having at Miller Union. Instead I got some of the weirdest and most compelling food I’ve ever put into my mouth. Many of the dishes were as difficult to describe as an acid trip, but I distinctly recall a carrot and edible flower arrangement that looked like a big orange crown, and a great swirl of green farro and peanuts over some kind of transmogrified mushroom that may have been sentient. Honestly, I’m just guessing. Staplehouse is the kind of place that serves you a gigantic plate of scorched alliums, and you’ll be thinking “how am I going to eat an entire plate of onions?”, and then you take a nibble and oh my god that’s amazing. Next thing you know, the ole platter has been wiped clean. A few months after we visited, Bon Appetit named Staplehouse the best new restaurant in the country. Word’s out. Flying in for a reservation isn’t going to be as easy as it was.

#7 Sarma (Somerville, MA) If you, like me, prefer vegetables and grains to meat and fish, Middle Eastern restaurants are always a decent option.  Over the past few years I’ve become aware of some outstanding ones, including the absurdly cheap-n-good Taim falafel shops in New York City, Zaytinya in Washington, the Dizengoff hummus empire that now extends from Philly to the Chelsea Market, and Zahav, a knock-you-dead Israeli place on a hill in the middle of Philly Center City. Sarma, however, beats them all. Since it’s in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville, a Boston tourist may have to take a long trip on the T to get there. Once you’re in, it’s just one fantastic, creatively conceived dish after another, including (when we went) brussels sprouts bravas, red lentil kibbeh made with crab, a stinging-nettle spanikopita, and a ridiculous “seven layer” hummus platter with every grain in the Levant assembled around it. Part of the fun, too, is that the waitstaff bring around dim-sum style plates that aren’t on the menu, and dangle them in front of you like a kitty treat. This kitty finds it difficult to resist, and that sure does run up the bill.

#6. Little Park (Chambers Street, Manhattan) This place is part of a very well known New York City restaurant group, but it doesn’t seem to get the landslide of love that the other NoHo Hospitality establishments do. It’s possible they hired the wrong publicist, or maybe the place’s well-foregrounded resemblance to J-G Vongerichten’s ABC restaurants has damaged its rep. Little Park is no mere knockoff, though, so I’ve got to wonder what gives. Ordinarily, to make it in New York, the city of FOMO, where it’s more important that food look good on Instagram than that it’s edible, a restaurant needs to come up with a signature, photo-friendly dish: the veal chop upside down, or the aluminum siding remoulade or whatever. Little Park’s food is pretty, but I don’t think they’ve got one of those. What they do have is pasta, cooked at an extremely high level, by a chef who understands simplicity and what elements to emphasize.  I didn’t think she could top the green spaghetti with walnuts and ricotta until I tasted her girandole and minced mushrooms. (She calls it a “mushroom bolognese”; she’s a card.) Also, good as Sarma was, none of their vegetable dishes were better than the roast carrots with dukkah I had at Little Park. Again this felt like it was kindasorta borrowed from the carrot salad at ABC Kitchen, but I didn’t mind: a visit to ABC means a good twenty minutes spent on the PATH plus a walk over to Broadway from Sixth Avenue. Close enough, but an odyssey compared to the trip to Little Park, which is five blocks north of the World Trade Center. Depending on tunnel traffic, it might take me longer to get into Hoboken. Also, ABC Kitchen is always booked up. Little Park tends to be wide open.

#5. Vedge (Philadelphia, PA) Food at vegan places used to taste like sawdust, tennis racket strings and moral superiority, but that’s changing, I’m glad to say. The restaurant we went to the most in 2016 was a new vegan place in the East Village that could easily have made this list. What I like best about Avant Garden is that the chefs let the ingredients speak for themselves and don’t attempt to disguise them or apologize for building their dishes around them. You’re there because you like to stick plants in your face, and for no other reason. It annoys me a little that the couple that runs Vedge always casts vegetables and grains in the role of meat — it seems unnecessarily envious. Is meat really that great? I sure don’t think so. But if I was ever craving a big juicy slice of skirt steak, I think I’d be more satisfied with a slice of Vedge’s seitan, which will make you forget all the lousy wheat gluten you’ve ever had to eat. Likewise, Vedge’s grilled rectangle of tofu, glazed with ssamjang and served with mushed-up edamame, knocks the stuffing out of most of the fish dishes you’d get at good Japanese restaurants. You don’t believe me, and that’s exactly why Vedge is so amazing — everybody leaves the house converted, even if it’s just to an understanding that vegetables and grains have expressive powers we never thought they possessed. The carrot with sauerkraut, for instance, doesn’t exactly replace a Hatfield hot dog at Citizens Bank Park, but it may make you look at one differently. (Or it may just remind you of the broccoli dog at Dirt Candy.) The composed desserts, on the other hand, are works of a total culinary visionary; I mean, who would have thought that there was room in the stomach of Philadelphians for a zucchini blondie plus rosemary ice cream and a squash blossom gazpacho? I’m glad she had faith in us. I probably would have chickened out and served a pretzel or something.

#4. Frances (San Francisco, CA) This has become one of my favorite spots on the planet, and if it wasn’t on the far side of the continent, I think I’d probably set up a bed somewhere in the dining room. I’m not sure what it’s local rep is, since it’s small and somewhat cramped, it sure ain’t cheap, and it’s buried pretty deep in the Castro. Nothing about it feels particularly fashionable. But as I have come to realize, my preferred style of cooking is Northern Californian, and dinner at Frances feels to me like tipping the entire state of California into my mouth as if it was a giant golden lavash. We have an unfortunate tendency to order the entire menu here, since everything looks so good and then ends up tasting even better than it looks. At the conclusion of the evening I am like a cartoon character too fat to fit in the cable car. San Francisco: where I behave shamefully. Especially when the Giants win.

#3. L’Artusi (West Tenth St., Manhattan) New York City, bless its soul and its bleached Italian roots, is loaded with pasta palaces. Over the past two years of dedicated testing, I have come to the conclusion that the very best of them — better than my beloved Osteria Morini, better than Locanda Verde and Via Carota, better even than the justifiably heralded Batali-Bastianich places — is this understated, long-running Greenwich Village restaurant. Pasta perfection is difficult to attain anywhere; even the macaroni kings miss most of the time. L’Artusi is the swinger with the highest batting average — we’ve been there enough to recognize patterns, and we have experienced pasta perfection at more than half of our visits. Which is unheard of, and might defy some lesser-known law of physics. It’s almost impossible to go wrong here: the vegetarian classic is the preposterously good garganelli with mushroom ragu, but their jaw-dropping spaghetti aglio e olio with breadcrumbs, simple and straightforward as it is, is pasta in its Platonic form. Seriously, if you ordered a dish of pasta in the realm of ideas, this is what you’d get. Meanwhile, Hilary always chooses the tagliatelle bolognese. Her educated position as a dedicated tagliatelle fan and notable pastasmith: nobody does it better.

#2. Piora (Hudson St., Manhattan) Even if some of its dishes are unusual, a place like L’Artusi is easy to explain. It’s an Italian restaurant, it serves pasta, crudo, bottles of wine, and some main courses that, delicious as they look, nobody in their right mind would ever order. If you’ve been to Manhattan, you know exactly the type of place it is. L’Artusi just happens to be the best one of its kind. (mind you, we haven’t been able to land a table at Lilia yet. We’re working on it.) Piora is a different story. I have never been able to describe this place to anyone in a manner that makes it seem interesting or even palatable. I’m going to try again, and I’m sure I’ll fail. What you’ll get here is American cuisine, whatever the heck that is, cooked by a chef who knows his way around the Italian kitchen and adds Korean accents to what he does. The owner of the restaurant is a Korean-American, and he’s frequently out and around the dining room, leading a team of absurdly friendly waiters and waitresses; nearly every time we go, which, given the steep price tag, is maybe once or twice a year, we’re recognized and assured that our presence in the dining room is a total delight. To a Jersey guy accustomed to rude treatment at pizza places down the shore, this kind of courtesy can be downright disorienting. Piora ran a prix fixe until they switched over to the dreaded tasting menu, and then one day they brought back the a la carte option while preserving some version of the omakase experience for high rollers. It’s all a little confusing and maybe even challenging, and if I’ve accidentally made it sound like a fusion restaurant, allow me to bite my tongue. Because it’s not that; not at all. The chef is scrupulous about the food he cooks — nothing here is a slapdash juxtaposition or cultural experiment or even a playful inside joke. He’s got a peculiar and fascinating aesthetic, and everything he does is a perfect expression of his authorship in the kitchen. Imagine a musician with a sound that he can realize effortlessly; drop the needle and within seconds, you know it’s him. That’s what Piora is like. Nothing in this room could be cooked anywhere else, or by anywhere else, and it’s almost incidental that the style is Italian with Korean influences, or American with Italian underpinnings and Asian highlights. Because anything a marketer might call it is inaccurate — what it really is is Chris Cippolone’s personal cuisine, derived from his own experience and imagination and served in Simon Kim’s beautiful dateworthy dining room. (Even the bathrooms are gorgeous.) Portions can be dauntingly small and fussily tweezed — I’ve never left Piora hungry, but then I’m a small feller who would not be able to handle a healthy Middle American portion anyway. You might find the price unjustifiable for what you get. I’m of the opinion that Cippolone is a pasta wizard, and wizardry is something that can’t be priced. The best you ever can do is guess. I concede they’ve guessed pretty high.

# 1. Cotogna (San Francisco, CA) I ask myself to picture my ideal restaurant — a place that I’d invent if I was in the midst of a SimCity-type game and designing a fantasy habitat-neighborhood that catered directly to my tastes. It would have a healthy selection of pastas in high-profile positions on the menu, but not so many that I felt like there was any chance that the kitchen played favorites. There’d be a pizza possibility that I probably wouldn’t avail myself of, although I might be tempted, and the pies and a whole lot of other stuff — mainly vegetables — would come out of a centrally-located wood burning oven. Even though the flames would be visible from the restaurant’s main area, it wouldn’t feel like a farmhouse; instead, the place would be designed to look a little like the front room of an architecture firm but a little more like somebody’s stylish apartment if the local zoning laws were changed to allow big wood-burning ovens in residential developments. Everything from the art on the art on the walls to the utensils would be chosen to reflect the aesthetic of the neighborhood the restaurant is in, thus allowing me to indulge my Godzilla-like fantasy of actually devouring the city itself. (Daintily, mind you.) The service would be friendly but not slick, and nobody would push alcohol or the seventy-five dollar Porterhouse for fifty and then act hurt/disappointed when I didn’t want it. They’d all understand that I was there for a plate of pasta and a scoop of gelato, and maybe some ricotta, and beans, or ricotta with beans, all piled on a grilled piece of bread straight out of the oven. Well, such a place actually exists, and naturally, it’s in the Bay Area. Cotogna is in the Jackson Square area of San Francisco, which is right in the shadow of the Transamerica tower and a not-long walk from the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. Downtown, in other words; right on the edge of the financial district. It’s the little sister of another place called Quince that’s supposed to be even better, and no, I don’t believe that for a second, because how could it be? Granted, I’ve only ever been to Cotogna during the summer, when there’s a corn pasta on the menu — a triangular ravioli — that is such a perfect expression of summer corn flavor that it’s actually painful to finish. That last bite feels like August turning into September and the ring of the bell and back-to-school supplies at the corner drugstore. Alas there is no more; parting is such sweet sorrow. The only bad thing about Cotogna is that eventually you do have to leave. Come to think of it, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe they can just turn out the lights and stash us in the corner.

Honorable mentions (that haven’t already been mentioned): Houseman (Greenwich St., Manhattan), the retooled Hearth (East 12th Street, Manhattan), Faro (Bushwick), Primo (Rockland, ME), Garrison (Washington, DC), Cakes & Ale (Decatur, GA)

Best Ice Cream: Humphrey Slocombe, San Francisco.  I know many bay Area locals swear by Bi-Rite. I don’t want to fight, people — I just want to finish my cone. Last summer they served me a scoop with salt and McEvoy Olive Oil drizzled on top, and holy cow. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you get it, and then it’s all you want for the remainder of forever.

Best bakery: Tartine, San Francisco. By now you sense a theme. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d weigh ten thousand pounds. Tartine is the gold standard and I won’t hear your counterarguments. That said, we’ve grown a pretty great one over here: the eight or so breads on sale at High Street On Hudson are amazing, eat-the-whole-loaf in a half-hour type experiences, so, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be going there as often as I do. The rest of their menu struck me as strange, but we’re lucky to have the bakery. Thanks, Philadelphia, for this and Dizengoff; we owe you a restaurant to be named later.

Best pizza: Arturo’s in Maplewood?, you’ll always be tops in my heart, but the 2016 title goes to your little cousin. This summer, Razza was selling a pie covered in honey, ricotta and a variety of hazelnut developed by the agriculture department at Rutgers. Everything tastes better to me when it’s framed as a science experiment. Anyway, this was like no pizza I’d ever had, and I demand another one next summer. Don’t make me raid the laboratories in New Brunswick, Razza. In general, Jersey is woefully underrepresented on this list, which wounds my pride. What can I say?; we traveled a bunch. We’ll be looking to remedy this in 2017 — stay closer to home, eat more fried dough and Italian bakery cookies, etc.

Best restaurant decor: Probably ABC Kitchen, since I’m twee like that. Make my restaurant look like fairyland, Vongerichten.

Best meat dish I ate: After going to see the Fischli & Weiss exhibition at the Guggenheim with George The Monkey, we stopped at the Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. We were tired and wet (it was snowing), and I ordered a culatello panini with artichoke cream, thinking it was some kind of cardoon. Seriously, I didn’t know what it was. Well, I found out what it was: totally delicious. I always feel bad about eating a mammal that I could have been friends with, but trust me, that pig died a hero.

Best sandwich, period:  The Noble Eatery in Phoenix sold me eggplant-leek puree plus Anaheim peppers stuffed into a hollowed-out bread that played like an Italian reinterpretation of a pita. This came with a salad of so many various grains I blacked out momentarily from herbivoric joy. Instead of going out for dinner, I ought to just roll around in a vegetable patch. It would probably have the same effect, and I’d get more exercise.

Best beverage: We’ve taken to ordering mocktails at fancy restaurants, which helps undercut some of the guilt I feel about not blowing a hundred stacks on bottle service. I think of it as a challenge to the bartender to come up with something good, and usually she’s game. But my very favorite places have nonalcoholic concoctions at the ready: Avant Garden used to serve hibiscus juice that I would happily swim in. My favorite, though, was a glass of strawberry lemonade I got at Frances. I don’t even think it was carbonated. But it was an expression of California love if I’ve ever tasted one.

Best salad: Frances almost took this one too. They graced us with a panzanella with croutons the size of golf balls. That might not sound like a selling point, but listen, pal, you didn’t taste those croutons. But the winner was a pomegranate, radicchio, and blood orange salad we got at Maialino, which was a total Christmas-season delight. Hilary attempted to replicate it for her own Christmas dinners. I think she did, but she’s critical of herself and might say otherwise; you’ll have to ask her yourself.

and finally, just for the hell of it,

The worst thing I ate all year: It wasn’t the strange, oddly pebbly filling I received in the vegetable tacos at a place called the Mission in Scottsdale, Arizona, although that was probably my most disappointing meal out. It wasn’t the onion tater tots — pungent, festering greaseballs — I ate at a Dunkin’ Donuts en route to Great Adventure, although that was definitely my grossest meal out. No, it was an alleged chocolate ice cream cone we attempted and failed to eat at an innocuous shop on the main street in Providenciales. The ice cream, which may have accidentally fermented?, tasted of greywater and floor cleanser and had the consistency of a wet cotton ball. It’s our own fault: Providenciales is basically a desert climate. We shouldn’t have expected to get good ice cream there anyway.

Okay, if you enjoyed this examination of me in listicle form, tune in tomorrow, and we’ll talk about boardgames. Can’t eat those, but they sure are fun.

Trembling Blue Stars — Alive To Every Smile

41FBDZK28ALAct: Trembling Blue Stars

Title: Alive To Every Smile

Year: 2001

Format: Ten song LP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tris McCall: tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXII — Singles

Let’s get the foregone conclusion over with first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics Poll XXII — Albums

21st Century schizoid woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other albums getting #1 votes:

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

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

Does this man look high to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics Poll XX: My Ballot

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

So am I at it again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Best Album of 2009:

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


Album I didn’t know where to place:

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


Most unfairly-maligned album:

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


Nicest try:

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


Best Single of 2009:

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


Best Album Title:

Mum — Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know


Best Album Cover:


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


Best Liner Notes And Packaging:

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


Most Welcome Surprise:

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


Biggest Disappointment:

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


Album that opens the strongest

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


Album that ends the strongest

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


Song of the Year

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

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

Critics Poll XX: Miscellany

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

Best Album Title:

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

Best Album Cover:

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

Biggest Disappointment:

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

Most Welcome Surprise

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

Worst Song Of The Year

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

Best Singer

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

Best Rapper

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

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head And Drove You Crazy

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

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

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

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

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

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

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

Most Overrated

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

Album That Wore Out The Quickest

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

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

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

Most Thoroughly-Botched Production Job

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

Most Unsexy Person In Pop Music

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

Your predictions and commentary on Miscellany, Page Two!

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