Critics Poll XXIX — My Ballot

It’s about to get ugly — flow so mean, I just can’t be polite.

I have always loved music videos.  I loved the first generation of grainy promotional spots for new wave bands, I loved Michael Jackson’s choreography and Russell Mulcahey’s cinematic interventions, I loved ZZ Top and their keychain and Prince humping the floor.  It was all magic to me, and it continues to be a mystery why a director would ever shoot anything else.   Movies, TV shows, documentaries: all of that seems like a wasted opportunity and a terrible misapplication of film stock.  Year after year, music videos delivered for me in a way that no other filmed entertainment did.  

So it is from my position as a dedicated and passionate follower of the form — a goof who knows all the dance steps in “Get Me Bodied” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” clip by heart, even if I can’t execute a single one — that I say 2018 was the best year ever for music videos.  Old masters of aesthetic hyperactivity and condensed three-minute visual messages outdid themselves: Beyonce and Jay-Z hung in the Louvre, Janelle Monae draped her frames in the colors of the bi-pride flag, Drake gave away money and fired up the crowd and danced with the freaks in the French Quarter, and it all looked stunningYoung artists who’ve shown some facility with the form took big steps forward, including Vince Staples, whose Google map-themed “Fun” clip was a distillation of everything he’s been trying to say about surveillance, voyeurism, and poverty porn, and Tyler and A$AP Rocky further sharpened their distinctive personalities in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, The 1975 nodded to Stop Making Sense and My Chemical Romance and Broadway theater; Mitski kept one-upping the arthouse flicks.  Even musicians who don’t normally make good clips rose to the occasion in ’18.  I’ve always thought music video was the weakest part of Kevin Barnes’s game, but his spot for “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia” captured his feelings of dislocation and outsiderdom (not to mention his seething aggression) better than all his other clips put together. 

But the new video stars owned 2018, and — lucky us — it just so happened that the artists who made the best clips also made the best music. Rosalia took her place at the head of the class with three superb, interrelated clips for songs from El Mal Querer, and gave us the year’s most indelible images: the dance in the back of the moving truck, the bullfighter and the motorcycle, the robed cultist(?) takeover in the mansion, the girl frantically jumping on the bed.  Kali Uchis wasn’t quite so arty, but she’s every bit as effective, and the long shot in the “Tyrant” clip through an infinite regress of car windows was my favorite special effect. Caroline Rose might be the funniest pop singer to emerge from the wilderness since Kate Miller-Heidke (and KMH isn’t too funny anymore); her clip for “Soul No. 5” was reminiscent of late ’70s Attractions videos.  No matter how many times I see her drop that hula hoop, I still crack up.

And bouncing through contemporary music like unstoppable Evil Otto, shutting the boards down with a big grin and chasing us all around, was the incomparable Tierra Whack, the Rookie of the Year and some kind of off-the-wall North Philly visionary. The fifteen minute-long low-budget but oh-so-brilliant clips from Whack World are so good and so resourcefully made that I’m not sure people realize how great the songs are.  Tierra Whack didn’t just demonstrate that she could bring developmental pop songs to a satisfying resolution in sixty seconds.  She showed that she could do it straight across genre: that the conventions of power pop, trap music, smoky R&B and neo-soul, etc., were no obstacle to her.  Then there were the lyrics, which were economical, quotable throughout, and exhibited deep understanding of hip-hop in its most elemental form. 

Some critics have compared her to Missy Elliott. That’s not misleading. Missy would also boast in verse about how many vegetables she ate. But in practice, Whack World reminds me more of D. Boon, or those late ’60s Mothers of Invention albums where Frank Zappa kept jumping from fragment to fragment in a deliberate attempt to keep his listeners bewildered. Zappa had a wide open field on which to play. Tierra Whack is responding to the challenges of an era of constricted expressive opportunities. Music optimized for Instagram was bound to happen eventually, and if the platform exists, and it’s big and it’s wide, I can’t knock talented artists for jumping on up. In one quick stroke, she did what Kanye has been threatening to do since the beginning of the Pablo release cycle. She’s managed to reimagine what a pop album can be in the present media environment.

And yes, this is an album. Running length ain’t nothing but a number.

Album of the Year

  1. Tierra Whack – Whack World
  2. Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past
  3. Boygenius – Boygenius
  4. Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake
  5. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
  6. Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
  7. Caroline Rose – Loner
  8. Kali Uchis – Isolation
  9. Rosalia – El Mal Querer
  10. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now
  11. Metric – Art Of Doubt
  12. The Carters – Everything Is Love
  13. Noname – Room 25
  14. Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
  15. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
  16. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
  17. Saba – Care For Me
  18. Francis And The Lights – Just For Us
  19. Rubblebucket – Sun Machine
  20. Black Milk – Fever

Best Album Title

The best title is probably Transangelic Exodus, since it manages to nod to Ezra’s four obsessions — queerness, spirituality, Jewish identity, and escape — in two words and seven syllables. But my favorite is Lost In Beaucaire by a French band called Woody Murder Mystery.  Their sound is mildly psychedelic, like a blunt filled with herbs de Provence.  Beaucaire is actually close to Provence: not on the French Riviera but tucked into the countryside where cattle have more rights than people.  My suspicion is that the cow on the cover of Atom Heart Mother had something to do with the making of this album because it reminds me of an early Floyd soundtrack: it’s lazy without being listless, melodic but not overly so, dotted with zone-out stretches and too-brief moments of accidental beauty, and decorated with combo organ that sounds as if it is drifting down the hall of an abandoned church.  No instrumentalist in this group can hold a candle to Wright or Gilmour, or, for that matter, Sean O’Hagan or Marcus Holdaway.   But what do you expect from cows?  They don’t even have fingers. They just have to hoof the fretboard and hope they luck into some consonance. 

Best Album Cover

Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy. The album is… it’s good, really. I like her; I think she’s a fun character. But let’s not go overboard here. Look, the worst thing about Whitey is how credulous he is.  Whitey will swallow anything.  The next time some wiseass economic determinist tries to tell you about how capitalism has been so much more “successful” in the West than it has in, say, darkest Africa, you might remind him that this is because the white man is so damn gullible that the wheels of commerce face no impediment here. Packaged properly, there is nothing he will not buy.  I speak from experience.  I myself am of the Caucasian persuasion, and I will shell out for whatever you’ve got and accept any bullshit line that flatters any object I fancy.  Jay-Z as a statesman?  Sure, I’ll buy it.  Beyonce as an articulate spokeswoman for social justice?  Yes, that sounds about right, he says, admiring that ass.  Oprah as presidential timber?  Sure, why not?, beats the alternative, yuk yuk.  But there are bridges too far even for me, and Cardi B, feminist hero?, that’s too far on the distant shore.  This Bronx loudmouth – who believes that face down ass up equals perfect posture – has made a solid corporate rap album, nothing more or less. Those hard consonants and trap beats you hear are the clinking and clanking of a capitalist tool. Believe me, I don’t begrudge her those money moves.  This is showbiz, we all ride our gimmicks as far as we can take them, and Cardi appears to be built to ride hers reasonably far.  What I can’t handle is the conviction among those who ought to know better that Cardi’s grueling sexploitation rhymes and her rote (if funny) power bottoming are salutary political statements.  The next thing you people are going to tell me that some gross Louisiana stripper and her sleazeball attorney are some kind of freedom fighters, and put them on TV all the time.  Oh, wait. Hm.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest. Will “Holy” Toledo isn’t the thinker that Ezra Furman is, which keeps him free from certain writerly pitfalls, and the noisiness of his new set comes with a built-in excuse: its template version was cut in 2011 and released on MyHamper, or Bandspace, or whatever, when he was four years old or thereabouts.  It gathered a passionate cult following, which means the fi of the redraft can’t be allowed to drift too hi. Which it doesn’t, but I’m sure the fans of tape hiss still complained bitterly. Just to make sure you’re getting what you want, Toledo has packaged the original in a double disc set with the new one, so those of you with a compare and contrast essay overdue can look no further for a subject. Once again, Toledo lets the songs run all day, long as the hut of Baba Yaga, and he doesn’t really have the musical or lyrical ideas to justify the excess.  On Teens Of Denial, he whomped up stories about drug abuse and aimless youth into bracing but somewhat empty epics; here, his subject is the Namblafied relationship between the narrator and an older man.  Since he’s interested in actual people and not anything as nebulous as a generation, these stories achieve a kind of narrative traction that’s absent in his other work.  Go back to go forward, vol. 4080.

Most Welcome Surprise

The Future And The Past. The point of pop production is to create a sonic environment for the storyteller/main personality to inhabit. That’s it; that’s the whole job. Complicating the job, though, is the artist, who often wants her record to sound exactly like something else, and who hires the producer to make this happen. Make my record sound like Van Morrison in 1972, and never you mind that there is only one Van the Man. Natalie Prass has been working with Matthew E. Smith since she was a kid, and together they have ideas: on the self-titled set, they made like she was a blue-eyed soul singer akin to Dusty Springfield.  It was a really well-appointed simulation they crafted over there at Spacebomb, even if it wasn’t exactly imaginative.  The problem was that they were writing checks that Natalie Prass’s voice couldn’t cash.  (Then there was “Christy”, and the less said about that the better).  For album number two, they switched it up – which is something most AM gold fetishists never do – and I’ll be damned if they haven’t arrived at something new under the sun.  The Future And The Past answers the following question that nobody has ever asked: what would the Kamakiriad have sounded like with Jenny Lewis in the driver’s seat and machine beats provided by, say, Pete Rock?  Never mind worrying if the voice doesn’t fit with the style, because there won’t be any prior model to compare the music to.  My feeling is that the ‘70s-loving fans of Natalie Prass are having a hard time warming up to this, which is a shame, since syncopation plus electrofunk grooves plus jazz piano plus hefty appropriation from black American music usually equals Steely Dan. Also getting lost in the shuffle is the political content: 80% of this album is fighting words aimed at the Prez and his followers.  Because she is such a pipsqueak it can be hard to register her protest as such. But when she says “we’ll take you on/we can take you all” in “Hot For The Mountain, you can damn well feel that itch in her voting finger. Do I believe that a coalition of the twee is poised to bring down this charmless regime? No, but I’m a cynical old cuss who has lost too many elections, so don’t mind me.  Do I believe that Natalie believes it?  Well… I’ll tell you this much: “Sisters” slams as hard as any hip-hop I’ve heard this year.  So don’t fuck with the Richmond kids. They’re tougher than they look and they’re loaded for bear.  Also, Virginia’s not a swing state anymore.  The Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of pop albums.

Biggest Disappointment

Daytona/Kids See Ghosts/Nasir. It’s possible to applaud Kanye for rethinking the release strategy for the modern age while still recognizing these for what they are.  They’re EPs.  i.e, extended play.  There’s something you want to play for your listeners, and it contains more ideas than what you’d get on a single plus flip side, so you extend those ideas through a few more songs, and you leave it at that.  There are many short sets that do the work of an album better than traditional LPs do – numbers one and three on the list above, just for starters.  But not all artists are suited for the EP format, and Kanye’s insistence on a one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work for his current rap clients.  Your modern Nas is generally just warming up by song seven, and it feels almost cruel to yank the platform away from him before he has a chance to hit his stride.  He’s not an extended player: he wants to spin a wide web of associations before he turns his attention to fly-catching.  Cudi, on the other hand, is going to give you the same thing in twenty seconds as he is in twenty hours. he peddles a certain sonic effervescence that stays frothy enough in a bottle of any size.  On Kids See Ghosts, the EP length feels totally arbitrary: it’s more about Kanye’s numerological obsessions than what suits Cudi best.  As for little brother Terrence, he’s a team player, and he’ll always work with what you give him. I do find it amusing, though, that certain Johnny-come-lately critics are treating Daytona like some kind of artistic breakthrough.  Listen: Pusha T has always been great.  Always. He was great in the Clipse, he was great on the Timbaland productions, and he was even great on those stupid Wrath Of Caine mixtapes that he probably made between bites of Arby’s. As a dedicated fan, I’d like more than seven tracks of that greatness, and I take Kanye’s parsimoniousness as a personal affront.  Troll me with your MAGA hat if you must, but don’t short-pour me my Pusha T.  All that registered, I do give Yeezy his props for bending all of these tough-guy characters to his will.  Here’s the infamous cocaine slinger, the legendary street poet of the Queensbridge projects, and “the most influential vocalist of the past twenty years” (Kanye’s belief, not mine, but I understand where he’s coming from). Look at them all jump to the beat of the producer’s baton. Look at them indulge his dumbass whims. Not just any producer, either — a gay fish in a pink polo shirt.  Lets you know who really holds the power in hip-hop.  

Nicest Try

Brockhampton – Iridescence.  Gotta hand it to these kids.  While everybody else is making hip-hop smoothed out on the r&b tip with the pop feeeel appeeeel to it, they remain as annoying as a bag of bugs.  Abrasive beats, throwback DAS EFX flows with hoobaly boobaly rimbally bimbally all up in your face, drum machines on the “broken typewriter” and “broken slot machine” settings, fax noises, Pathmark pickup on aisle 3 vocal filters, etcetera.  They continue to refer to themselves as a boy band, and who am I to question their boyness?  Four albums in, and Kevin Abstract remains the only recognizable voice.  Other emcees in this cast of thousands range from mumbling Mafiosos to token white guys to would-be Eminems in matricide mode to dudes reminiscent of the guy on the old De La Soul albums who did the Guido impersonation. Oh, and there’s a power ballad with a children’s gospel choir on it.  That’s the meaningful tune.  Also, there’s a big finish.  Big finish!

Album That Opens Most Strongly

Room 25. From the further adventures of Fatimah Warner: tenement floors scrubbed with Pine-Sol, tickets to Warriors-Cavs Game 5, reading Toni Morrison in a canoe, Sunny Delight, faded dungarees, giving a blowjob to a kid with Adidas on, inmate registries, opinions on Africa as a concept and the continuing career of Morgan Freeman even after getting #MeToo-ed, marijuana, biscotti, hot tamales.  I mean, god bless hip-hop, right?  Where else do they even bother? 

Most Consistent Album

Just For Us.   I could get used to this new level of productivity from the king of redaction. Twenty new songs in less than eighteen months?; that’s almost a normal pace.  Maybe Francis has just gotten more confident,  though confidence might just make him edit more rigorously.  A new Francis project doesn’t get released – it just slips through the exhaust vents in his towering quality control firewall. That’s probably why he never publicizes them.  He just leaves them on the internet and runs.  Just For Us splits the difference between the trad. piano pop of It’ll Be Better and the vox-FX experimentation of Farewell, Starlite!, but it’s more of a mood piece than either one, and i suspect it contains fewer highlights. Time will tell, unless it doesn’t.  One wag in the YouTube comments suggests that it tells its story in reverse, like undun or DAMN.  I’d wager it’s so airtight that you could slice it up and reassemble it however you pleased, and it would provide the same experience.  Francis’s music exists in stasis: there are really no directions to travel, it just spreads and fills the horizon until the record ends.  That’s only one of the many weird effects produced by his chronomancy. 

Most Unfairly Maligned Artist

J. Cole reminds me of The Economist in that he insists on talking to his audience as if it consists of adults.  Why he persists (and why they persist) I have no idea.  Because of this affront, rap listeners outside of the cult – a very large cult, mind you – call him dry.  Readers who have come to expect jolly vindictiveness from journalists say the same thing about The Economist.  They’re all wrong.  Some critics have gotten on Cole because of the nullification-via-technological-revolution argument in “Brackets”, but would you people rather have him rap about capping the President?  Wait, don’t answer that.  Funny how J. Cole has been getting less corny as Kendrick’s corniness continues to spike, right there in public in front of the Pulitzer committee, but that’s not something I’d expect superficial listeners, or haters, to notice.  I only wish they’d give Cole his props for a first-class trolling job.  Releasing his anti-drug album on 4/20?, that’s like something Kanye would do. Kanye or Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Heading For The Cliff

For what it’s worth, I am not of the party that believes that Jack White has lost his marbles.  Even during the heyday of the White Stripes, his motivation was never clear to me. Was he a dedicated traditionalist hiding his back-to-basics aims behind a patina of showbiz schtick, or was he a satirist sending up classic American pop styles?  Or was he just frustrated that the lane for guitar heroes had gotten so narrow?  Boarding House Reach suggests none of the above – instead, this is Jack as the mook, drunk and stumbling through the convenience store of American pop at 3 a.m., pawing all the merch, ripping the cover off of hip-hop, or country, with his teeth, and cramming the contents into his mouth without paying.  When the clerk says hey, Jack, you do realize there’s a price tag on that there rapper, he’s like fuck youuuuuuu pal, I am Jack White, incipient Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and I will do what I want.  Angrily, with a sense of utter entitlement, right in the corner by the john and the washbucket and the security cameras, until the cops come and drag him away. 

Album I Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Poppy – Am I A Girl?  I had Poppy as Rookie Of The Year last year and I don’t take it back.  Moriah Pereira figured out a way to get the Internet to work for her rather than getting flattened by the rest of it like the rest of us have.  But 2018 has hammered home the difference between a youtube satirist with limited, if charming, musical gifts, and a genuine revelatory pop talent such as Tierra Whack.  Are you using new media to advance your writing, or are you defined by its constraints?  On Poppy.Computer, Poppy played Poppy – it might not have been as creepy (or brilliant) as the video clips, but it was the same character with many of the same props and gags and in-jokes and whatnot.  In a way, it was the soundtrack to an episodic film project, much like the score to the Muppet Movie.  You don’t learn everything about the Muppets from “Movin Right Along”, but it is in all ways the same damn Kermit.  On Am I A Girl?, Pereira takes some tentative steps away from the character she’s created, and when she tries to put her foot down, there’s nothing there to stand on.  There to hold her arm as she stumbles is Diplo, who has gifted her with a good track but otherwise leeched out her idiosyncrasy and shattered the illusion in the name of what?, mainstream acceptance?  Like that’s going to happen. The model here is Grimes, who can’t sing either, and look!, there she is on “Play Destroy”, sounding so much like Poppy (and Poppy like Grimes) that you’ll wonder why they bothered.  The big departures here are two hard rock numbers indebted to a ridiculous degree to Babymetal.  I have no doubt that Moriah Pereira enjoys death/thrash/doom as much as the next headbanger, and I’m also sure that she and Titanic Sinclair (and maybe even Diplo, between bong hits) consider this a provocative juxtaposition in keeping with the Poppy character as we’ve come to know it.  But it’s not.  Poppy stole plenty from Japanese pop on her debut, but she was never desperate enough to stoop to pastiche.  She stood for a kind of disturbing, machine-processed seamlessness that is probably unrecoverable to her after this one.  Unless everybody just forgets about this album. And hey, I already did. 

Okay, that’s all for today. Singles next.

Critics Poll XXIX — Singles, etc.

Souped up girl and ready to blow.

Single Of The Year

  1. Caroline Rose – “Soul No. 5”
  2. Ezra Furman – “Love You So Bad”
  3. Metric – “Now Or Never Now”
  4. Soccer Mommy – “Scorpio Rising”
  5. Kali Uchis – “Tyrant”
  6. Now, Now – “AZ”
  7. Janelle Monae – “Make Me Feel”
  8. Drake – “In My Feelings”
  9. Vince Staples – “Fun”
  10. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – “Paper Rain”
  11. Tyler, The Creator & A$AP Rocky – “Potato Salad”
  12. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – “Suspect My Tears”
  13. Of Montreal – “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia”
  14. Teyana Taylor – “WTP”
  15. Rosalia – “Piensa En Tu Mira”
  16. Travis Scott & Drake – “Sicko Mode”
  17. Bad Bad Hats – “Nothing Gets Me High”
  18. Camila Cabello – “Never Be The Same”
  19. The Aces – “Just Like That”
  20. Caroline Rose – “Bikini”

Most Romantic Song

Eleanor Friedberger -“Make Me A Song”. Rebound: named for a dance club in Athens. That’s your first clue that something important has changed.  Your second clue is everything else.  

Most Moving Song

Andrew McMahon’s “House In The Trees”.

Funniest Song

Tierra Whack’s “Fruit Salad”. It’s all in the way she sings “vegetaboooools”.

Most Inspiring Song

“Django Jane”. Some of my pals accused Janelle Monae of retardating on the new one.  Technically they’re right: she returns from Hollywood with the density and conceptual complexity of her recordings pruned back so far you can see the bark on the trunk.  This happens to people who move out to L.A., right, Will Sheff?  But Janelle was already so far ahead of the competition that I’m not surprised that true fans (i won’t say fandroids) aren’t noticing.  Honestly, the futurespace/sci-fi robot/transhuman stuff was the only part of the Monae project that never worked for me – I’ve always preferred her in Girl James Brown mode – so I don’t mind that Dirty Computer isn’t set on the moon in the twenty-eighth century or whatever.  (I do miss Deejay Crash Crash a little.)  The style here is ’80s carnival music: not just the Prince, Janet Jackson, and Madonna nods you were expecting, but also a considerable amount of Kenny Loggins and Huey Lewis, too.  Anything you might have heard on a fairground during the Reagan Administration, in other words.  The man who pushes the big red START button on the Tilt-A-Whirl is Nate “Rocket” Wonder, who plays everything, brilliantly, and produced most of the album, too. He’s no spaceman – he’s a terrestrial boogie monster who is completely down with the day-glo motif.  I am sure that in Janelle’s mind there’s some wigged-out Octavia Butler narrative underpinning the storytelling  But there’s nothing on this set about computers, and despite such songs as “Let’s Get Screwed”, it’s not too dirty, either. Instead, the project is a straightforward Lemonade-ish reaction to black women getting run down, pretty much all day, in public, by assholes in power. This does not require nuanced, deeply metaphorical language involving Jupiter and spaceships.  It may help to be as blunt as possible.  It may also help to dispense with the transhumanity and embrace your plain-old-humanity.   You might say: I have rights; I’m entitled to the same things you are.  I’m entitled to my sexuality, my fantasies, and my fun.  I am beautiful, no matter how you jerks rate me.  The way you behave scares me.  Your words hurt me, and unless you’re okay with that, you might think twice before saying them.  Your actions are cruel, and unless you’re okay with that, you might think twice before doing them. I deserve – I demand – your respect. If all of that sounds obvious, and basic, but it still desperately needs to be said, well, whose fault is that? 

Meanest Song

Pusha T, “The Story Of Adidon”. Making fun of Drake: that’s fair game, if it’s how you get your jollies. Making fun of Drake’s producer for having multiple sclerosis — that just makes you look like a jerk. Gratuitous cruelty is part of Pusha’s brand, I guess, but there’s no need to be so petty about it, or to drag innocents into the dumbest and most pointless of rap battles.

Saddest Song

Pretty much everything on Fred Thomas’s Aftering, especially “House Show, Late December”: eight-plus minutes of despondent poetry recited over scratchy midwest emo guitar-and-drums.   With dead-eyed accuracy, he paints the picture of an unpleasantly inebriated party of miserable rockers pointlessly grinding it out in squalid surroundings. Also, unlike certain fingers-crossed complainers who are secretly enjoying the era of governtaiment, his reflections on current electoral outcomes feel genuinely pained.  In between complaints about the aimlessness of life and protests-too-much about going sober, he does manage to indie-rock a little – in as dour a manner as possible, mind you. If you’re not exactly an “up” person either, you might find a kindred spirit here.

Sexiest Song

Probably Natalie Prass’s “Hot For The Mountain”. I find the idea of young women seizing political power sexy. I think I’d find the reality of it even sexier, so here’s hoping. Also, I feel the need to say that Noname’s new songs seem like they’re about sex between actual human beings, rather than bizarre archetypes, and that’s pretty refreshing in this pop environment.

Most Notable Cover Version

Somebody’s gonna tell you Anderson East has a voice like Van The Man.  Really, it’s Bullet Bob all the way, right down to the ironworker clang of his consonants and the steam heat of his phrasing.  I get such a manly, gristly, silver bullet feel from his rip-roarin’ cover of Ted Hawkins’s “Sorry You’re Sick” that I think I’ve just grown a beard.  His version of R&B is built for opening shows, which is what makes it grabby; unfortch, those shows are in basketball arenas, which is what makes it dumb.  Albums like his don’t tend to have any legs — the very point is that you’ve heard it all before, and with each listen, the maudlin elements of his storytelling further overwhelm the rest of the sentiment.  But it sure is a blast to listen to him sing.  

Best Guest Appearance

Saba and Smino on Room 25

Best Show I Saw In 2018

Jenny Lewis, White Eagle Hall. Honorable mentions: Lucy Rose at Le Poisson Rouge, and my old buddies in Belle & Sebastian at Forest Hills Stadium. How To Solve Our Human Problems isn’t a high point in the B&S discography or anything, but it’s got its nifty moments, and I, for one, am glad they keep padding out their story with extra chapters. It’s been, oh, fifteen years since Stuart Murdoch eloped with Miss Private, and although he continues to insist on hiring cute backing singers – oh, like you wouldn’t — there’s no evidence that he’s straying.  Tigermilk-style revenge and wandering-bard fantasies still lurk in the dusty bagpipe of his heart, I am sure. But he’s got a kid now as well as a loving wife/photographer, and he doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy who’d turn down a home and hearth combo package when it’s offered to him.  He’s dealt with the challenge of domestic tranquility rather creatively, receding into new wave nostalgia and “songwriting excellence”, and leaning hard on the society of his band, which, in its mix of goofball personalities and its consistent flashes of gentle wit and ramshackle wisdom (not to mention the loose, sprawling feel-good shows), becomes more like the Grateful Dead with each passing year.  For the first time, I feel the absence of Mick Cooke, who sure could have punched up the fake Northern Soul arrangements on Human Problems, and Stuart’s many nips away from the spotlight are not without their cost (“Cornflakes”, echchchchch). Sarah Martin continues to pick up the slack, though. Also, “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is a genuine rarity: a letter-to-my-child song that doesn’t play as a grotesque self-justification.  Imagine this from the kid’s perspective – who would you rather have as a dad, Stuart, or Sturgill Simpson?  Which one is going to take you out for ice cream, and which one will you discover drunk on the kitchen floor?  Let’s not even drag Andrew McMahon into this.  Stick with stuart.  You’ll have a nice time at the fair. 

Best Singing

Danielle Balbuena, a.k.a. 070 Shake. This is the Jersey girl who put her hand on the stove to see if she still bleeds.  She defends that line, by the way, so you smartasses can stand down: she says that if you burn yourself badly enough, the wound will actually open.  I don’t know if she’s speaking from experience; the point is that she is calling out her critics as unburnt softies — people who do not have the same experience with pain as she does.   I doubt Kanye cares one way or another. You can see what prompted him to press-gang her into the G.O.O.D. music content farm: Glitter sounds a good bit more troubled than Kanye, who is merely insane, has allowed himself to be in the past few years.  Kanye has been driven mad from nonstop exposure to fame and the news cycle; it’s the dullest story in California, and his insistence on rehashing it as if it’s news has been having a deleterious effect on his artistry.  070 Shake behaves like she’s got no idea there’s even such thing as fame, or an Internet, or electricity.  Instead, she sings like a woman brooding over heartbreak in a cold room, maybe by a railroad trestle, who hasn’t eaten or had a bath or seen a bright light in days.  It’s snowing and the sun isn’t up, and she made it to the stop only to see the Bergenline bus pulling away.  She’s singing the blues, in other words — and that will never go out of style.  The EP isn’t all aces, and in the future she’s going to have to vary the emotional tone somewhat.  But there’s good reason to believe she’s more than the new Fetty Wap. 

Best Singing Voice

Cristal Ramirez of The Aces. She’s from Utah, of all places, which might help to explain why the world didn’t exactly pick up on When My Heart Felt Volcanic.  Imagine doing the rock up in those dry Mormon hills.  But rock they do: to be precise, The Aces mimic the crisp, professional, ruthlessly efficient pop-rock of big-money female-fronted pop-rock acts with astonishing fidelity – Carly Rae Jepsen, post-Farro Paramore, Chvrches, straight-pop T. Swift, Lorde, that last Grimes album, Haim.  Haim especially.  And lookit, I didn’t think it was possible to be any more faceless than Haim, but The Aces have proven me wrong.  Personalities may emerge as I listen to this more – and I sure will listen to this more – but I’m not betting on it; I mean, this band has included its business plan in the liner notes.  

Best Rapping

Saba

Best Vocal Harmonies

Boygenius. Just call them the Pistol Elfies, with Ms. Dacus in the role of Miranda Lambert (the natural), Rappin’ Phoebe B as a West Coast Angaleena Presley (the wry, lyrical one), and Julien Baker as Monroe Suede (high voice, high strung, tendency to dance on the edge of emotional breakdown).  Because they’re indie rockers and not trad. country singers, they’re under no pressure to write a hit; because they’re elves, they get +1 to INT and DEX and only a mild penalty applied to constitution.  Also: combat bonuses with bow and arrow.  I’m impressed by how they’ve reinforced each other strengths without accidentally amplifying any of their weaknesses: the way Phoebe’s er, unusual way of putting things manages to shake up Lucy Dacus’s writing, which was getting a little poker-faced on Historian, or how Lucy’s mahogany alto warms up Julien Baker’s wail-of-the-banshee act, or how Julien’s emo guitar punches up her pals’ usual stately classic rock arrangements.  Lucy Dacus’s two songs here strike me as her best of the year, easily.  As for Julien Baker, I’ve never thought she was best straight-up notes and chords songwriter: her diatonic, circular numbers rely on emotional crescendos to get over.  Here she gets to sing in such tight harmony that she’s sometimes rendered a sound effect — she’s the teakettle whistling when things really come to a boil.  It’s a good role for her, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the ballast that her partners provide.  Nobody dominates: Boygenius really does give the impression that all three members are equal contributors less interested in jockeying for position than in making great music. Just like the Pistol Annies, in other words.  I won’t say that more excellent artists ought to do the GTR thing and join forces, because I’d wager that it’s the rare frontperson who can put her ego in check long enough to sustain such a balanced collaboration.  After all, has it not been said that when the heart rules the mind, one look, and love is blind.  If you want the dream to last, call it a day after six songs.  Plenty of cover for that decision in the year when everything was too damned short.

Best Bass Playing

Black Milk. And while I’m at it:

Best Production and Best Beat Programming

I don’t ask the universe for justice or the industry for fairness.  I’m just saying that if Black Milk ever won a Grammy for what he does — pretty much every year — that’d be mighty nice.  Honorable mention: Iman Omari for his work on the Cavalier album. Forget Mantovanni and Barry Manilow: this is some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear.  That EZ listening sound.  Your elevator oughta be so lucky.  Black Milk is so self-effacing that he might have dropped off of your radar — he’s the Detroit cat who still must suffer constant comparisons to J. Dilla even though he stepped out of that shadow years ago.  The sounds he produces are so winsome and so rusty-city cinematic that if his rapping is any good at all, his records shine.  Unfortunately, in the past, he has often rapped like a pharma sales rep in the midst of a power point presentation.  In 2018 he was motivated, and he kept Fever at a nice simmer.  That’s probably as high as the burners on this reliable old stove go up; don’t twist them any harder, they’ll break.  Cavalier is a New Orleans kid I’d never heard of.  Turns out he is a fine, very thorough rapper from the Okayplayer school of verbal density and social conscience.  Sometimes — well, rarely — he’s even funny, which gives him one on Black Milk.  His ace in the hole is Iman Omari, whose peculiar sense of time and playful relationship to the beat remind me of… well, they remind me of Black Milk, to be honest.  Also, these two emcees kick it on similar topics: police brutality, phonies, disloyalty among friends, how us menfolk oughta treat the wimmen better, phonies (aren’t they something), the struggle for black self-affirmation in a society determined to hold nonwhites in psychological bondage, ass (but respectfully), phonies (aren’t they awful).  I only wish Cavalier would release his project on CD like Black Milk did.  Fat chance of that happening in these plastic elastic days when only Olivia Newton John is allowed to get physical.  These poor millennial schmucks better hope that the cloud really is as permanent as Zuckerberg says it is.

Best Live Drumming

Stephane St. John and Domenico Lancellotti on The Good Is A Big God. You’d figure that a record made by a curly-headed brazilian who has collaborated with Caetano and Moreno Veloso and produced, no less, by Sean O’Hagan would fit my sweet spot squarely.  And it does, sort of, though this samba never achieves the sunburnt radiance I associate with Tropicalia.  At its best it does indeed approach the rhythmic (though never the sexual) intensity of Transa and the curiously friction-free juxtapositions of Hawaii. Much of this is as soporific as the waves, though.  Nifty late nite music in any case.

Best Synthesizer Playing

Mildlife. This was a Youtube discovery: it was posted to Provocative Educative!, the same channel that tipped me off to the Jazz Spastiks and the last Open Mike Eagle record.  in ’18, a lot of the stuff they pushed on me was jazz, not hip-hop, and I’m beginning to hear the hoofbeats of a Trojan horse.  But who among you is above a little saxophone in the evening?  Mildlife doesn’t hip-hop at all — they’re a prog-jazz fusion act with extremely incidental vox, and if that sounds dreadful, remember that Air fits the description too.  I’ve turned to Mildlife when I’ve had enough of Talkie Walkie and 10 000 Hz Legend, and even though these Aussie knob-twiddlers are very different animals from Godin and Dunckel, their music scratches a similar itch.  Maybe not at the base of the spine; farther along the shoulder blade.  What you’re getting here is a congenial relationship between the bassist, who is content to lay down those hypergroovy, mechanical “Femme D’Argent”-type parts, and the analog synth player, who is a flucking wizard.  Once they get the jam where they want it, the whole band locks in and starts cooking, as the jazzbos like to say, and here I really do feel the force of the metaphor: it’s like the moment when the celery and carrots and starch sizzle into a roux at the bottom of a cast iron pan.  Along the way some buttinsky or another sings something that might be words?  In Australian?  Dude may just be marking time.  If it makes enough of an impression on you that you figure out what he’s on about, let me know.   

Best Organ Playing

Thank you, Caroline Rose, for bringing back demented roller-rink combo organ. We expect male singer-songwriters of a certain type (funny looking) to affect a sarcastic outlook as a defense mechanism, but girls who do the same are banished to the Siberia of stand-up comedy — something I have no doubt Rose could do if she wanted to, so I hope to hell she doesn’t want to.  It’d be a waste of the singular sneering-robot voice she’s developed.  She applies it to great effect throughout an album that contains some of the best tawdry boardwalk-town Farfisa-centric arrangements since the heyday of Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns.  I like it on the takedown of the music biz dickhead (“all you gotta do is put on this little bikini/and d-d-d-dance!”) and the one where they do it for the money (“they did it for the money”), and I like it even better when she plays it straight and admits that modern alienation is getting to her.  But I like it best on the one where she jokes so hard about having soul that it soon becomes clear it’s no joke.  I mean, what is soul but irreducible personality?, and doesn’t she have that in spades?  Loner wasn’t my absolute favorite album of 2018, but there was no album I rooted any harder to sell.  I’d hate to see her chuck it and start writing woke gags for Samantha Bee.  What a loss for the good guys, as Jenny Lewis might put it.  

Best Guitar Playing

Kerry Alexander of Bad Bad Hats.  Lightning Round was made with an eye on the big time: it is slicker, more processed and pro, more to-the-moment, more synth-heavy, and frankly, less twee than anything BBH has done before.  The guitar is still there, thank goodness, and while it doesn’t drive any of the songs the way it did on Psychic Reader, I dare say that Kerry Alexander is better than ever.  In fact she is using the guitar exactly how I always want pop-rock musicians to use it: picking spots, teasing out lead lines that echo her melodies, amplifying the rhythm section at strategic moments, adding coloring and shading.  It’s almost like… she knows what she’s doing.  Imagine that.

Best Instrumental Solo

Francis’s weird-ass punch-card computer meltdown on “Tear It Up”. It’s about four notes, but they do the work of four hundred.

Best Arrangements

Rosalia’s album is short, and about a third of it feels like moody American R&B in the current Beyonce-derived style; nothing to kick out of bed, certainly, but also nothing you haven’t heard earlier today. But the balance of El Mal Querer consists of a flamenco-latin pop-trap music hybrid that may indeed mark Rosalia as some kind of crazed post-ethnic genius.  It’s jam-packed with cubic inches of musical ideas, too, at a density that recalls the Tierra Whack project.  Track number two, for instance, strikes me as blown-out prog flamenco, or maybe all flamenco is as mesmerizing as this? (I doubt it).  All of it is sung in Spanish, naturally, so you MAGA hat wearers might not be feeling it. Yet it strikes me that unlike Natalia Lafourcade, who wraps up her dazzling Latinx indiepop and folklorico in the sharpest threads imaginable, Rosalia is so comfortable handling sleaze – just check out the fantastic videos – that El Mal Querer might just penetrate the American market.  J/k, I’m sure this will be about as welcome as the immigrant caravan. Oh: straight from the With Friends Like These department, Rosalia’s achievement was greeted with a bouquet of articles accusing her of cultural appropriation. Apparently she’s not from the proper subdivision of Spain that would authorize her to make use of gypsy signifiers and seriously?, what the fuck is wrong with us?  Has it really come to this?  Of course Rosalia is a child of privilege – you could never make an album like this unless you had lessons and/or a big budget.  Who the fuck cares?  Would you rather Rosalia embrace an identity as a corporate raider and leave El Mal Querer unmade? Sometimes I think we don’t even deserve music.   

Best Songwriting

Tierra Whack

G.O.A.T.

Let me begin by saying I don’t think Look Now is as good as Painted From Memory. No “God Give Me Strength” or “Tears At The Birthday Party” here. But it is a lot closer than you’d wager, and Painted From Memory – which was, you’ll recall, received upon release as a late-period high point and a possible last gasp – was twenty years ago.  It is absolutely stupefying that Elvis Costello continues to write and sing and bandlead and concept-master at this level at sixty five years old. Great musicians way younger than he is have already entered the recursive period of their runs, or just hung them up. Compare Look Now, which has the creative restlessness and depth of vision of an artist in his prime, to something like Graham Parker’s Cloud Symbols, which is just a fun reiteration of what we all loved about the Rumor in the ’70s and early ’80s. Consider also that “Isabelle In Tears”, which would be a centerpiece of anybody else’s set, didn’t even make the album.  If you want it, you’ve got to get the deluxe version.  He’s in his seventh decade and he’s still sneezing out magnificent b-sides.  It’s downright ridiculous how much water in this well: it defies everything we know about artistry, and aging, and energy, and human frailty.  And I have to say that the spot atop the career value list isn’t open to debate anymore, if it ever was.  I guess you could make a case for Dylan if you wanted to weight cultural significance heavily (I don’t), or Paul Simon, if you really dig theft.  But with all respect to the forerunners, Dylan never wrote as crisply or with so much courage as Elvis Costello does, and Paul Simon wasn’t anywhere near as prolific.  Absolutely nothing has deteriorated: not the pen, not the voice, not the sense of literary irony, certainly not the stakes.  This is probably his most Broadway set ever, which, in the context of his long arc, strikes me as just another successful experiment.  He’s singing from the point of view of women, and inhabiting those perspectives with a little more sensitivity than Woody Allen does, but he never handles it with so much care that the essential desperation that has always motivated him gets subsumed by his sense of social responsibility or fair play. It’s not that he doesn’t give a fuck, because I’m pretty sure he does, it’s that he knows damn well what’ll keep him running.  I guess you could compare it to Sondheim, but Sondheim puts out a musical once in a blue moon.  And Sondheim never could have written “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes”.  Maybe Richard Rodgers could have.  That’s who Elvis Costello is: a rocking Richard Rodgers.  We’ll never see the like again. 

Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album

Every line on Whack World is a hip-hop quotable, but I’ve got to give this one to Saba, who may just turn out to be Chicago’s MVP now that Chance has entered politics, or a monastery, or something. If the Windy City ’18 sound isn’t quite as rapturous as it was a scant few moons ago, well, in retrospect that exuberance was probably unsustainable.  You’re only the king of the after-school programme for a semester at best.  Saba, to be fair, was never big man on campus: he’s always been the nerd at home neither in the streets nor in the halls of the academy.  Care For Me is a My Bodyguard story about the Pivot Gang roughneck who serves as his tor/mentor and protector until he is, all too predictably, slain, “for a coat”, we’re told, right off the bat, in the same neighborhoods Saba love-hates.  In the density and agility of the storytelling — not to mention the occasional greyness of the production — the album resembles J. Cole’s For Your Eyez Only.  A lot.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

Saba, “Prom/King”

Band Of The Year

Boygenius. Hope that wasn’t that.

Okay, more tomorrow.

Critics Poll XXIX — Various Chartbusters

Insistent on her derecho de nacimiento: Natalia Lafourcade.

Most Convincing Historical Re-creation

Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer. For once this guy served me an onion that doesn’t make me want to cry when I slice it.  Of course he did it by abandoning the pretense that he’s a Randy Newman acolyte and mimicking Elton John instead.  Elton, great as he is, we can do; Randy is inimitable.  FJM is such a skilled singer that he really does approach the soapy, soupy, soppy quality of early ’70s records like Madman Over The Water.  The lyrics are still too dumb to justify their pomposity, but at least for once, he’s being historically accurate: Bernie Taupin was pompous and dumb, too. 

2018 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Tinashe’s Joyride. The latest from this still-young and talented artist is, like everything she’s done, a mixed bag: some Beyonce-ish piano balladry, some of that smoke-ring R&B she’s made her name with, some boilerplate sex-me-now pop that could have been singer-songwritten by any old chanteuse, and expensive guest verses from various Migos and their ilk, all of whom proceed with absolute indifference to the subject matter and emotional tenor of the songs.  We’ve been here before with Tinashe: this ringmaster cannot control the circus held in her own name.  Her mixtapes, uneven though they are, had sonic consistency to them because she produced them herself; Aquarius, her prior studio album, was as bumpy a ride as this is, but it had a couple of hits on it.  This doesn’t.  This’ll be the fourth time I write that Tinashe has everything you need to be a big star, which is about three times too many.  It pleases me that she proceeds with an ingenue’s indifference to the politics of the biz, but in pop, you can only get away with that for so long.  This was probably her shot, and her big-money backers aren’t going to be pleased with the outcome.  Like another major-label misfit once found out, if you do not want what you haven’t got, it’s a sure thing you won’t be getting what you do not have.  Capitalism: built to reward the hungry.  

2018 Album You Listened To The Most

Isolation

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

Quelle Chris & Jean Grae

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

K.T.S.E. Well, what do you know: the most complete statement out of Camp Kanye this Yeezy season turned out to be the afterthought.  Some of his productions for Teyana Taylor are redolent of the “old Kanye” in that they do recall the era when he’d just speed up a soul sample and pinch some tinny drums from a MIDI bank and call it a completed work.  But Taylor is such a miracle of a singer that it hardly matters, just like it’s never an issue that her lyrics are so stupid that she actually manages to make a three-way sound unappetizing.  I didn’t think that was possible. “Hurry Hurry” is barely even a song: it’s just some sex groaning and a guitar loop that Otis Redding left on the dock of the bay overnight.  But goddamn does it work.  The theme of the song, just like the theme of all her songs, is that she is horny as hell and needs some genital stimulation ASAP.  You can really see how this would appeal to Kanye. Where did he scrounge her up?  Some reality show?  This is what they promised me Ella Mai would be: an R&B sorcerer who squeezes the soul out of every syllable and never takes a moment off.  It’s like Lauryn Hill after several icepick lobotomies.  Also, I may not be the gayest fish in the tank, but if I was at a disco in Fire Island Pines and “WTP” came on, you’d best believe I’d vogue. Don’t sic Mike Pence on me, people.  Allow Ms. Taylor to sing the blues.      

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Of Anyway

JB Dunckel’s H+. Air without Nicolas Godin’s bass lines?, That’s like jelly without peanut butter, like Becker without Fagen, like schools without teachers, like Kathy Lee without Regis, like Rasheed without Tonya Tamika.  Like Paris without Texas. Dunckel’s moody music stays on brand, and his solo disc does indeed contain the lovably yawnsley themes of transhumanity we’ve come to expect from him, including a song called “Transhumanity” (chorus: “transhumanity/transhumanity”.) But if you’ve got a hankering for some Moon Safari action, Mildlife is the better move.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through

In The Rainbow Rain. A field of vision that was once wide enough to encompass both the My Lai Massacre and blue balls narrowed to the size of indie rock, and then to the size of his band van, and finally to the size of Will Sheff’s noggin.  That’s not a problem, intrinsically: even if it does get stuffy in there, he makes up for it with “mystic” music that borrows from Van Morrison’s undersung ’80s albums.  But never again are we getting “The President’s Dead” from this guy.  Instead, we have the hallucinatory Will, probably for good.  Honestly, I think he still has PTSD from the popular and critical reception of Silver Gymnasium, and he’s drowning his sorrows in magic mushrooms, etc.   Either that, or Jonathan Meiburg has him Monarch-programmed. 

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

When Rayland Baxter’s Wide Awake has been discussed at all, which it rarely has, it’s been called Beatlesque. Kiss of death, I know.  You do have to give Rayland his props: he’s got his McCartney imitation down pat, especially his read on “Seventy-Nine Shiny Revolvers” (note last word).  He’s even busted out the Hofner bass and achieved that Ringo backslap on the snare.  In practice, though, Wide Awake is more like what The Shins would be if they were produced by Butch Walker: reverb rolled away, copious overdubs, emphasis on clarity, a piano player who definitely ate all his vegetaboools, etcetera.  James Mercer is a better lyricist than Baxter is, and Butch’s, er… muscular treatment on the boards doesn’t leave the principal any room to hide.  But Rayland is confident that his melodies are so strong and his hooks are so shiny that you won’t even notice the words, and for ten tracks and forty minutes he stands in the spotlight and gives it to you straight.  Is his swag justified?  Well. My guess is that if you didn’t mind the Webb Brothers yanking you back to the sixties with every onanistic move they made, you won’t be too mad at Rayland Baxter for chasing his ’60s daydreams, either.  He really put the effort in; him, and Butch, too.  This sounds great, if we can agree that by “great” we mean something that would have excited the groupies in the green room at Apple Studios.  If you’re going to make a classic rock record in 2018, you may as well shoot the works.  Go on, fulfill your Sgt. Pepper fantasies.  I only wish Scott Miller was around to appreciate this.

Album That Sounded Like A Chore To Make

Lykke Li’s So Sad So Sexy. This might be the seven mary three of the synthpop revival: the moment where we recognize that we’ve simultaneously gone too far and too formulaic, and we must recognize that musical culture will shift and the party will soon be over. Scandinavian music is usually grueling — what with the monthlong nights and the rain and the freezing temperatures — but this manages to be utterly listless, too. If you’re going to tie the listener to the back of the van and drag him through the mud, the least you can do is step on the accelerator from time to time.  Why prolong the agony, you lachrymose Swede?  I can’t believe Jeff Bhasker was involved in this one; Rostam, too. They keep this up and they’re going to get booted out of the Illuminati.

Man, I Wish I Knew What This Album Was About

Fenfo.  Six or so years ago, Fatoumata Diawara, Malian singer-songwriter, put out an amazing album called Fatou that even you xenophobes ought to appreciate.  It was like a desert breeze through the souk, he wrote, cheesily, even though he’d never been to a souk, or, for that matter, a desert.  Regardless, I recognize West African magic when I hear it, and if we’re going to sit around praising the likes of Paul Simon and Ezra Koenig, the very least we can do is give their robbery victims a few spins. Anyway, Fenfo isn’t nearly as good as Fatou, so my recommendation to you Doctor Livingstones is that you start with the old one and turn to the new joint if you get desert-thirsty for some more.    

Most Consistent Album

Astroworld.  Look, Future had to take a breather sometime.  If you’re banging your knife and fork on the table, hungry for more of that steaming southern mush, Travis has you covered.  Some of this is like latter period Kanye productions minus the classical cohesion.  Some of it is just industrial byproduct.  The wrinkle here is that he switches up the beat midway through the tracks, but unless you’re sitting there with the running order in front of you, you’ll never notice. It’s just a long float on a beautiful, sluggish bayou. Occasionally, landmarks are discernible. Is that the Weeknd or a rippling reflection off the brackish water?  Is that a lump of swamp moss, or is it Drake?  

Most Inconsistent Album

For all its faults — and just now I can’t remember what they were — Views never dragged.  More Life, on the other hand, bogged down midway through the tracklisting with detours into Ja-fakin’ B.S. and various dreary guest shots from the bakalakarakalaka British rappers you didn’t want to hear.  Scorpion cuts out the ethnopiracy and most of the features, too, so when the engine stalls — and stall it does — Aubrey has nobody to blame but himself.  As this is a Drake set, there’s some magnificent music scattered about, but the connective tissue continues to weaken.  He’ll make you scrounge for it.  The principal’s disposition is as sour as ever, and this we’ve come to expect.  But this is the first drake album that adds no new dimensions to his paranoia.  There’s a lotta bad things they be wishing on him; that’s about it.  I wonder what his momma is going to say on his answering machine this time around.  Give him this: he still speaks about social media and Instagram culture with authority that no pundit or thinkpiece-writer ever comes close to matching.  He’s fully attuned to the tragedy of the moment.  Maybe that’s what makes him so damn grouchy.  He needs a computer time-out he knows is no longer an available option for him. And not just for him. 

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

Be The Cowboy

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Camila. I could go for more “esta cosa se prendio” and less “she loves control/she wants it her way”.  (“All the things I want to do to you is infinite”, on the other hand, suits me fine.)  But why quibble with this state-of-the-art pop star, fresh off the Cuban sandwich press?   Hers is not the Latin pop album of my crossover dreams; hell, it isn’t even Gloria Estefan doing the conga.  But the tropical breezes blowing through these grooves are brisker than a cursory listen might indicate.  Even “Never Be The Same”, the mainstream blockbuster, opens with a barrage of bongo drums.  Probably digital, much like the arrivals board at San Juan airport.  Camila Cabello claims Taylor Swift as her big influence, and sometimes I even hear it. But most of the time, her music plays like Carly Rae plus strategically placed habaneros.  Bite carefully.  So open and curious is this cupcake that when she asks who I am in the dark, I don’t even hear the double entendre.  And when she says she’s looking for some real friends, I honestly truly madly believe her.  

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

Boy howdy, things are getting slack around Chez Meloy.  The last album felt like a showcase for the instrumentalists; this one doesn’t even have that.  The ballyhooed move toward ’80s synthpop extends to, oh, about three and a half songs, and Jenny Conlee’s earnest imitation of New Order does not adequately compensate for the sudden lack of chord changes or interesting melodies.  They do remain in step with the times, though.  “Everything Is Awful” is not a good song, but no lyric suits the mood of 2018 any better.  Meloy sings repetitively about how bad things are, but he won’t provide any specifics, and instead pantomimes exhaustion. Even as the words are despondent, the tone is giddy.  All are having a jolly good time.  By stanza number two, you can already feel the righteous rebuke to the question the song begs: what’s so awful, exactly?  Everything, you insensitive fool! Must I enumerate?  Don’t you watch the Steven Colbert show?  The President’s latest tweet was factually inaccurate and contained two grammatical errors.  Awful!  La la la la. I expect NPR to take it up as their theme song any day.  if they haven’t already.

Most Sympathetic Or Likeable Perspective Over An Album

Insofar as most know about Port Arthur they know it from UGK. Insofar as most of those people know UGK, they know UGK from the world famous Jay-Z collaboration.  Big pimpin’ down in P.A.T. and all of that.  So I think that a wrong impression has been generated.  This is not Bun B’s fault: he just wanted to put on for his city, and he’s done plenty since to let people know that the scale of the pimpin’ in the P.A.T. may have been exaggerated.  Port Arthur is an open sore of a city, stuck up a fissure between Texas and Louisiana, irritated by the most caustic oil refinery in the country.  The slav-, er, workers who sluice the petroleum through Port Arthur live in neighborhoods abutting the plant that are as house field field field field house as anyplace in Danny Brown’s Detroit – but while Detroit has a glorious history that hipsters itch to claim for themselves, P.A.T. is just a national gutter. One American society, dependent as it is on oil, could not do without, mind you. That contradiction has always been felt in UGK’s music: that’s why they could get away with rapping from the crackhead’s perspective in “Stoned Junkee” without worrying about getting hit with a backpacker tag.  It was always going to be jail or legendary status for these guys.  Pimp C drew the short straw and got jail.  Bun is the legend – so much so that everybody in the south queued up to rhyme on Return Of The Trill.  Some of them even do okay; Lil Wayne, in particular, makes himself right at home in the swamp. Mostly this is Bun’s show, and he sounds about as weatherbeaten as you’d expect a resident of a poor city that has been flattened by four historic hurricanes (Katrina, Rita, Ike, Harvey) to sound.  Of course this album runs on way too long, and the Ja-fakin number and the Run The Jewels guest appearance should probably have been excised. But Big K.R.I.T.’s reverent production does give this set some semblance of unity, even if it’s a little creepy when K.R.I.T. does his Pimp C imitation. (Cut that out.)  Bun remains an underrated storyteller – one whose lived experience gives him the authority to inhabit characters that other emcees wouldn’t touch.  For instance, there’s one here where he plays both the dude in the car late at night with the blunt and the policeman forced by circumstances to pull him over and investigate.  He lets both voices be heard, and then he pulls the plug on the narrative.  He won’t stoop to tell you how it ends.  He knows you know how it ends.   

Mighty Cut, Foul Out

David Byrne has probably put more herks and jerks and hiccups in the rock and roll canon than any other fella.  Usually herks and jerks and hiccups get you a seat on the novelty bus next to Romeo Void. But Byrne had the Frantz-Weymouth rhythm section in his back pocket, so all the tics that made up his performances were just more fodder for the popcorn popper. A million years after True Stories, he’s still herking and jerking away – only neither Chris nor Tina nor Annie Clark are around to bail him out.  This has been the story of his solo run, more or less.  Rather than change his approach to accommodate 21st century human desires (not that he’d know anything about those), he’s stepped on the herk and jerk accelerator.  The result is not the sort of album you’d expect to get out of a man in his mid-sixties, and American Utopia, in a way, inspiring: while most of his peers are wrapping up the circus tents, the klieg lights of the Byrne off-broadway theatre burn on.  He’s still irritating; still squinting his eyes and jabbing his finger into your ribs and twisting it around, laughing his head off and making wry, whimsical comments.  He’s your well-dressed uncle, a success in a line of work you’ve never heard of, greeting you at the door with a joy buzzer.  He hasn’t given us a last will and testament album, and for that, I’ve got to thank him.  He clearly believes he’s got miles to go and many tall tales to tell himself about dogs and monkeys and etc.  He’s probably right.  What god would have the audacity to interrupt such a peppy internal monologue?        

Artist You Respect, But You Don’t Like

Kadhja Bonet. I admit to a certain fascination with Childqueen, given that it leads with its idiosyncrasies, it’s boldly (and somewhat disgustingly) anti-social, and there’s nothing out that sounds remotely like it.  Over ten tracks, Bonet splits the difference between the Love Theme from Mahogany and the march of the Oompa Loompas.  She’s taken the soundtracky bits that annoyed me on prior Janelle Monae albums, soaked them for awhile to bleed out the funk, and muted the backbeat to generate an oddly stationary feeling. It’s sort of like watching the overexposed frames of a wobbly film strip that keeps threatening to jump the frame. This doesn’t rock, it doesn’t soothe, you can’t dance to it, and good luck singing along. Too weird to be background music, too insular to be hallucinatory, and no fun in the slightest, Childqueen exists in a category unto itself. My understanding is that Kadhja Bonet, who is some sort of polymath, played all of this music herself, including the copious strings and woodwinds and fretless bass and warbling synthesizers.  I suppose that’s impressive in a way, like one of those dudes on youtube who can juggle and recite the Declaration of Independence while his dick is in a blender. but next time around, she desperately, desperately needs to work with a real percussionist.  

Best Line Or Rhyme

On “Tyrant”, Kali Uchis sings “Word on the street you got hoes/I disappear like El Chapo”.  Gets me every time.  Allow me explain why.  She’s not just comparing herself to a Latin American badass. She’s also laying down her zero-tolerance policy.  When she gets the word that her man is screwing around, no further discussion is necessary.  She’s out of that jail cell before he knows what hits him: no traces left and no fucks given. In a year of welcome statements of female autonomy and self-respect, this was the most succinct, and, for me, the most satisfying.

Most In Need Of An Editor

Smino. Noir reminded me of Malibu by Anderson.Paak in that it’s hypermusical (good) and full of jazz chords (eh… sorta good) and remains focused until it catches an air current and drifts out of reach like a helium balloon.  I absolutely get why Chance and Saba are down with this guy: he shares their Soulquarian proclivities. They’re Hippie Johnnies for the hip-hop era.  But Chance knows how to structure a song, and how to weave those songs into an album, and how to leave the impress of his personality on everything he does.  Saba is a born storyteller.  With Smino, it’s all gentle and beautiful flows and gentle and beautiful accompaniment, spreading everywhere in a great undifferentiated mush of gentle and gooey beauty.   Before you know it you’ve been staring at the lava lamp for an hour.  I realize my experience of this set is meant to be, um, herbally enhanced.   Slip me a few of those gummies and maybe I can get on this guy’s zonked wavelength.  Or, you know, just throw on the Noname album instead. 

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

Sunflower Bean. Here’s a rhetorical question for you: why are Fleetwood Mac imitators always inept? I don’t mean they’re bad at ripping off Fleetwood Mac; that they’re pretty brazen about. They steal with utter confidence and complete entitlement.  I mean they’re bad at music.  And that is the one thing you could never say about anyone in Fleetwood Mac. Zeppelin imitators?, they practice. Parliament imitators woodshed for years before they dare to get on a stage and do their copycat funk jams. Beatles imitators practice too much – their reverence gets in the way of their cribbing attempts, if you ask me.  But Mac Copyists always sound like they picked up their instruments in a thrift shop a week before recording and learned to play from For Dummies books. There must be something about Fleetwood Mac that encourages duffers to think they can approximate the sound of Rumours without working very hard at it at all.  And I think you know what that something is. {Whispers} There were girls in the band. 

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Justin Timberlake

Indispensable Elder Who, Lord Willing, Will Never Hang Them Up

The great thing about sounding like a grouchy septuagenarian when you’re young is that when you actually become a grouchy septuagenarian, everybody is used to it already.  If Graham Parker’s gripes didn’t piss you off in the late ’70s, no modern-day turn of the rusty crank of his is going to bother you very much.  Thirty years ago I started calling this guy Grandpa Graham, and I wasn’t just making light of the irritability that suggested early-onset prostate issues.  I was also acknowledging that I was his descendant — once I started writing songs, there was nobody out there whose compositional intentions and general disposition mirrored mine any better.  Look at how excitably he jams un-singable words into his already overstuffed verses; I mean, this is fun for him. Check out how wistful he gets about Maida Hill — the place itself, not merely the romantic associations he has with it. How about the pure, irascible glee with which he sings “don’t be a scumbag!” Gotta love him, unless you don’t, and if you don’t, well, he probably doesn’t like you very much either.  The new one is mellow, as a direction, but that really means he’s assembled a hotel-bar R&B combo with a horn section and a lighter touch than the Rumour ever had.  There’s even a number about his preference for brushed drums, and it’s only partially a metaphor.  So here we have an older dude playing music that would have been older dude’s music even when he was a younger dude.  Howlin’ Wind, which this album evokes, was throwback music in 1976, so what do you call this?  Also, do astringents lose their paint-peeling effectiveness when they’ve been stored in the basement too long?  Pry open this dusty can of turpentine and find out. 

Worst Song Of The Year, and Worst Rapping, Too

Kanye West, “I Thought About Killing You”.

And Furthermore…

A truth that seems to be eluding the music press: you can’t talk about Kanye + Trump without also discussing Jay-Z.  The way I reckon, it’s the poisoned relationship with big brother Jay that’s driven Kanye’s political statements, such as they are, more than any other factor, though I’m sure the president’s misogyny appeals to him plenty. Remember (Mr. West sure does) that Obama called Kanye a jackass.  Michelle Obama buddies around with Beyonce, who doesn’t like Kanye anymore, either.  So if Jay-Z is going to make an album For Forty-Four, and if Jay and Beyonce are going to hit the trail, however half-heartedly, for Hillary Clinton, well, what’s bound to piss them off more than a big bear hug with the dickhead who humiliated their candidate?  These days, Kanye is the man with the pal in the oval office, and Jay and Beyonce, members of the out-party, are stuck with, what?, true love or something?  Note that when Kanye is pressed by interviewers to say what it is about Trump’s presidency that he likes, he’s flummoxed: he winds up spewing a whole lot of management-speak about “dragon energy” and creative disruption, and invariably it ends up morphing into a statement about the iconoclasm and nonconformity of Kanye West.  Jay-Z and Beyonce, on the other hand, are much more responsible with the talking points, which, while less infuriating, is not exactly what we need out of pop musicians. By now their public politics have been firmly established, and they can speak upon black excellence/generational wealth/aspirational economics at least as well as the average pundit.  Speak they do.  As Kanye goes low, they keep going high, and higher and higher, until there’s no damn place in pop left to go.  Which makes Everything Is Love feel more like a credits roll than a victory lap, to be honest, no matter how much blue-chip confidence the music radiates.  Those expressing surprise at Beyonce’s flow, or sprechgesang, or whatever, must be inhabiting a different cultural universe than i do.  I mean of course she can rap.  She didn’t have to call herself Beeyzus, though.  Gilding the lily like that is beneath her.   

Worst Singing

I’m not exactly sure why Tracyanne felt she needed Danny, whose unctuous eardrum-murdering performance on “Jacqueline” gives me the willies just to think about it. But perhaps they’re buds, and perhaps she’s still disoriented from Carey Lander’s death.  I know I am. You have to hand it to Danny: dude does not seem to mind getting murked on his own shit, as the rap fans used to put it.  Then again, given the opportunity, who wouldn’t make a record with Tracyanne Campbell?  She could show me up any time.  She hasn’t been quite the same singer since “French Navy” and she’s never getting that Underachievers gleam back, but she remains the quintessential elfin indiepop frontwoman.  Scotland in a box, like a tin of shortbread cookies from Walker’s.

Worst Instrumentalist

I like the 1975, but Adam Hann has the worst tone and worst instincts of any lead guitarist in pop, and that includes the dude you just heard playing “Eruption” at Sam Ash. That cat-mewling thing that he does?, that would have gotten him kicked out of ABC in 1985. Maybe Spandau Ballet would have found it acceptable, and maybe not.

Worst Lyrics

You heard “The Middle” way more times than you wanted to, I am sure, but I doubt you paid attention to the words. Believe it or not, the verses are a lament: apparently, the narrator has destroyed her house while trying to have sex. Anyway, that’s what I got out of it, and I’m sticking to it. She feels bad about it, but not for the right reasons. Then there’s a chorus that 1.) makes no sense, 2.) has nothing to do with the wreckage that Maren Morris has left while arguboning (badly, it seems). Tip for kids: if you cannot do sex without also doing property damage, there is probably a flaw in the code you’re using. Bring it up with your health teacher.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better

I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. Sonos Audio pitchwoman and occasional pop star does record about her liberal guilt.  That’s the headline, and if you can’t handle that, you’d best not proceed to the lede. There’s water in the water fountain, and she drank it, and now she feels bad about it.  I am dumbfounded by her sincere conviction that I ought to care.  Enjoy your licensing money, Garbus.  Nobody begrudges you your big bankroll.  Go buy some local artisanal fair trade shit.  That blood-soaked dollar won’t rinse itself. 

Most Unsexy Person In Pop

Post Malone

Most Overrated

I see that every blue-stater’s favorite cowgirl is swimming in her customary pool of positive notice for her xanaxy new album.  Only this time, Kacey Musgraves has actually earned the praise, sort of: Golden Hour is recorded with a heaping helping of radiance and sung way better than anybody ever had reason to suspect she could sing.  So: credit where it’s due.  On the other hand, as she grows in confidence, her that lazy streak of hers becomes brighter and bolder, and I believe it’s become visible from space, cowboy; I mean, who’s going to tell her to rewrite that slack second verse?  Perk up some of these $75 spa treatment melodies?  Not these producers.  They’re too busy screwing with vocoders and artfully muffling the banjos to care.  And I think that what these non-country critics dabbling in country mean when they call this album coherent is that she’s found a sound and an approach that suits her laid-back, pot-hazy, sleepily democratic outlook.  She’s against men on high horses and she’s for moms, and taking it sloooww, as if she’s got another gear.  So what we have here is a rarity — a persuasive articulation of an inane worldview.  There are many worse things, I guess.  But we’re reminded again that the step down from Miranda Lambert to the rest of the field is a doozy.  And if Taylor Swift is going to keep taking it on the chin for remaining apolitical, how the heck does Musgraves get away with this?  

Most Underrated

After the straight-up U2 swipes on Black, how about some U2 swipes plus mandolin and quick-pickin’ banjo.  The Mountain is bluegrass, Dierks Bentley style, just like Up On The Ridge was; Dierks seems to think that bluegrass is located at high elevations.  I really don’t mean to complain: this may be Nashville machine music, but it’s absolutely earnest in its aspiration to be something more.  And more than anything else, it’s that striving above station that gives Dierks the grace that distinguishes him among his peers.  Given his unambivalent identification with the Duke boys, he could easily have been agglomerated into bro-country; instead, he’s made himself into a prime peddler of bro-related pathos.  He’ll never do that any better than he did on Riser, with its aging playboy characters who’d failed to recognize that the party had stopped long before they’d finished their six-pack.  Also, as this fucking cad matures, he slathers on the platitudes thicker and thicker.  That the songs don’t quite suffocate under the blanket of warm pieties tells you something.  It tells you he’s working, as he always does, from a sturdy compositional core.  I recognize that when I hear it, and I remain a fan. 

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

No doubt you recall how Ashley Monroe kicked off her solo career.  She reminded us that she ain’t Dolly and her contemporaries ain’t Porter.  Funny, then, that ever since, she has been retreating — and it has indeed been a retreat — into traditionalism.  Not content with hauling Vince Gill out of mothballs, she’s actually cut the new one with historical recreation specialist Dave Cobb, the carpenter who has built those sturdy old barns full of sound for Sturgill Simpson et al.  Since he’s a deep woods craftsman par excellence, he’s slathered the varnish all over the knotty pine; since he has absolutely no imagination (and since Monroe Suede is a girl) he’s decided to fit her with standard countrypolitan arrangements.  Strings all over the place:  they’re “nice”, all honeyed and shit.  The problem is that she ain’t Patsy, either.  She’s monroe suede, aka Hippie Annie — she’s got a pin-light beam of a voice, a delicate touch with the pen, and a good sense of humor, too.  She wasn’t made to swim through syrup.  Anyway, connoisseurs of Nashville pluck are digging this, I hear.  They just love when a girl shows reverence for past models, as they themselves are past models.  It makes them think that they have a snowball’s chance. 

Neatest Reinvigoration

In the ’00s, Edan was a perennial contender for my Thing You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should category.  Then he stopped doing music, and I admit I completely spaced on him.  Apparently he made a beat or two for Homeboy Sandman, and that went so well that they put together an EP.  Seven songs; it’s all the rage.  Humble Pi is hardly shorter than the last Homeboy Sandman full-length: Veins, which was what?, twenty-five minutes?, got knocked for its production, which was to say that there wasn’t any.  There were beats, there was a little synthesizer, there was Homeboy Sandman in a bad mood.  It was… well, “unalloyed” is one word for it.   And Homeboy Sandman is one of the few modern emcees who merits this treatment, and not just because he loves masticating his words and extracting their sugary flavor and blowing big greasy bubbles from them as if they were so much Bubble Yum.  It’s also because of the variance of his vocal tonality.  All spoken words carry a note plus overtones; Homeboy Sandman just makes that more obvious than other more percussive speakers.  Edan, it turns out, does something not too dissimilar with the beats: his mode is broadly psychedelic with loads of ear candy and MPC hijinx, but the feel is abrasive and smart-assy like old-school hip-hop.  The busy-ness of these production shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for a fan of, say, J Beez Wit Tha Remedy.  As for homeboy sandman himself, he’s as ornery as ever, and his irritation at his lack of recognition runneth over.  I prefer it when he directs his attacks at external targets, as he does on “Never Use The Internet Again”, which almost makes me believe he’s never going to use the Internet again.  “Anything to get a fucking like/one day I decided I should get a fucking life”.  The artlessness of the couplet amplifies the force of the message.  Also, amen.

Worst Song On A Good Album

“Best Friend”, the last song on How To Solve Our Human Problems. Gives Danny a run for his money for Worst Singing, too.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Karl Malone” by Joey Purp. I got dope, I got blow, smoke, I got coke, I got blow, I got coke, I got molly man, I got smoke, I got tabs, I got coke, I got ahahhaaaagagahahaghh.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

Tierra Whack’s “Hungry Hippos”. “Open up and bite it” became my statement of purpose this autumn. It applies to so much. But at the level of the album’s plot, she’s talking about biting rhymes, style biting — she’s dealing with a man who lacks swag, and as a magnanimous sort, she’s going to allow him to cop some off of her. He likes her “diamonds and her pearls”, and by this, she means the art she’s making. She says “thank you, I designed it”, and she damn well did.

Good Artists Most In Need Of Some New Musical Ideas

I’m pretty sure “Graffiti” is about a school shooting. That’s why the characters are in the bathroom stall: they’re hiding out from a Dylan Klebold type.  They’re writing “we were here” type stuff on the walls because they don’t think they’re getting out alive.  Now they never will/ never will grow old because they’re about to meet a loon with an AR-15.  Time to kill/time stood still, etc.  Lest you think I am being too literal, corroborating evidence for my reading comes from the rest of Love Is Dead: Lauren Mayberry believes the bad guys won, and she’s determined to meet the challenge of widespread heartlessness with the sort of big-ass, repetitive choruses that have been her metier lately.  I rather think it’s a better application of the thumping borderline-brotronica sound than it was on Every Open Eye, where the songs were about… what, exactly?, burying “it” and rising above?   Don’t point the finger at Mayberry: she was all in with the protest music in 2018, and I’m pretty sure she’s realized exactly what she wanted to.  No, if you have beef, it’s with Cook and Doherty, because what the fuck happened to those guys?  The Bones Of What You Believe earned those Vince Clarke comparisons with some of the most creative synth arrangements ever waxed.  To go from that to Greg Kurstin’s warmed-over bass drops is a long way to fall.  Then again, Yaz only had enough ideas to fill an album and a third, too.

Running Out Of Gas

I like the song Adam Young wrote about his dad, really I do, at least as much as I like any latter-day Owl City.  It’s corny, but it’s got the emotional specificity and uncool vulnerability that has always helped make this project go; see also the beautiful number about his sister on the Sky Sailing record.  But too often on Cinematic, he’s made the X-tian filmed entertainment mistake of leading with the wholesomeness and filling in the details after the fact.  Which leaves us with a version of humanity that does not intersect in any meaningful way with the one we’ve all got to experience on a day-to-day basis in 2019. It’s a strange, too-sunny diorama he’s asking us to inhabit: nothing moves, and there’s no reference to the real world outside the box of his increasingly constricted and formulaic imagination.  So I guess Cinematic is a good name for this project, since Hollywood specializes in exactly that.  The music has stubbornly refused to advance an inch since All Things Bright And Beautiful. The engine has stalled in the Minnesota snow — picturesque snow, sure, but cold all the same. As for Kenny Vasoli, I continue to find his Vacationer act the exemplary post-emo project in that it’s allowed him to be himself without jettisoning his entire Starting Line audience. Samples from obscure hula hula records plus trip-hop beats plus the usual lovelorn emo storytelling plus Chesneyish wistful summer’s-end  nonsense: that was… well, it wasn’t revolutionary or anything, but it did provide Kenny his own lane.  On Gone, Vacationer applied that sound to a fully motivated cycle of songs that benefited mightily from coherence of mood.  August is over, and they were packing up the beach chairs, and there goes Kenny’s baby with someone new, etc.  Mindset is just variations on a sonic formula, and as such, it mostly resolves to background music designed for beach bars.  This record seems to exist because the Vacationer machine broke and kept spitting out copies of Vacationer songs, each one a little more faded than the last as the toner depletes.  They should try pressing more buttons at once.  Nobody wants to pull the plug.

Most In Need Of A Rescue Helicopter

You can create a spellbinding mood.  You can get your beats in place.  You can come up with cool synth textures that remind the listener of Marvin Gaye or “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” or whatever.  You can dance around like you’ve got an iguana in your shorts, you can foreground your gender or racial fluidity, you can write tearjerkers about your experience of personal trauma.  You can check all the boxes.  In R&B, if you can’t sing your way out of a paper bag, none of that matters.  On past Blood Orange records, Devonte Hynes has always muddled through with the help of his buddies; on Negro Swan, with no Carly Rae or Nelly Furtado in sight, he’s stranded and unarmed in the combat zone.  Gulp.

Next Artist To Come Back From The Wilderness

Tracy Chapman

Best Stealth Political Statement

I usually have no truck with social utility arguments made by artists, and i don’t tend to see pop singers as heroes.  I also doubt that Natalia Lafourcade, broad-minded though she is, views herself as a pan-Latin freedom fighter: she’s too committed to aesthetics for that.  But I cannot help but notice her sub-rosa campaign for dignity and Mexican pride in the wake of… well, you know.  Like all folk music projects helmed by urban sophisticates, the Musas albums make their political undercurrents rather manifest: usually the artist wants you to respect a people and a culture that you might not think much about at all.  I know I hardly did, and I fancy myself a fan of all things Mexican.  As a pop singer and writer (and arranger, and producer) Lafourcade once led with her exceptionalism, so much so that she wrote Hu Hu Hu while living in Ottawa of all places, an expat Joanna Newsom fan who just happened to sing in Spanish.  And that, I think, was unsatisfying to her, even as it delighted the heck out of aesthetes like me.  So she’s let Manos De Los Macorinos drag her back to the soil and the common people who she’s definitely not one of, and it’s been folklorico galore for the past three years.  What Natalia Lafourcade shows me, and ought to show caudillos worldwide if they’d ever consent to listen to these sets, is that you don’t have to be a gauche populist to connect with the people.  All you have to do is open your heart.  This is a point that J.C. tried to make, up there on that mount, way way back in the day.  In case you prefer a more secular gospel, in song Natalia insists on her derecho de nacimiento: her rights by birth.  Only the ugliest of Americans would deny that to such a flora linda.  Unfortunately… well, you know.

Worst Controversy

Imagine: Pinegrove dropping an album right in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings.  Jesus H. Christmas and a gangbang on Bloomfield Avenue.  If they were a Brooklyn band, I might suspect a little anti-marketing and hashtag-chasing.  But as they’re a bunch of Jersey schmucks, I know damn well it was just terrible timing.  Me, I have been known to release music now and then, and I admit that it’s flattering that those of us who do are now getting held to the same standards as Supreme Court nominees.  I am willing to take the polygraph test and quote Dres of the Black Sheep under oath: don’t punch girls/and I don’t punch a clock.  But c’mon, our missions are a little different.  Judges are responsible for upholding the law.  Rockers are responsible for…  well, not for undermining it, exactly, but playing fast and loose with it in the name of entertainment.  We’re supposed to provide vicarious thrills and make ourselves the outlet for a collective id.  Time was — and it wasn’t too fucking long ago, trust me — when sexual misconduct was part of the job description. Guys like me who played it straight and smiley were criticized by rock bros for our inability to be properly predatory.  Nikki Sixx is very disappointed in you, young man.  My how the worm has turned, at least in the narrow realm of independent pop-rock.  These days, a rumor of sexual misconduct can un-person a singer faster than you can say PWR BTTM.  Evan Hall’s sex offender shit goes way beyond rumor — he confessed to it, sort of, in one of those posts that smacked of “getting in front of it”, as the spin doctors like to say.  It was pretty nauseating, and tone deaf too, and the Internet being what it is, the pile-on was soon the size of Kingda Ka.  if you’re among those who believe that Hall, and by extension, Pinegrove, ought to be ostracized, I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you he deserves a second chance.  At the very least he traumatized a young woman, and no, Lindsey Graham, that is not something that every red-blooded American boy does  while “boofing”.  But there is a class of people whose role it is to determine what constitutes criminal behavior and mete out punishment.  Those people are called the police.  Are you part of the police?  Or are you, you know, music fans?  Because Evan Hall’s particularly heinous sexually based offenses have nothing to do with whether his records are any good.  Spinning those records — and happily singing along! — is not the same as supporting his rapey behavior.  It is perfectly permissible for you, as a music listener, to pay attention to Pinegrove and even enjoy it without making yourself complicit in an assault.  You can leave the investigations and prosecutions to the guys with the badges.  Citizens’ arrests are for the Dukes Of Hazzard.  There are critics who argue that the work of art cannot be separated from the actions of the man who makes it, and I dunno… I think that those have got to be the laziest critics in the world.  Of course you can disaggregate the record from the biographical details; that’s the whole point of formal artistic evaluation.  That’s why you throw away the PR copy before you press play and begin your review.  I, too, would much prefer it if the members of the bands I like to cheer would be good Judeo-Islamo-Christians with a side of Buddhism.  But c’mon, people, you’ve met guys in bands.  They’re maladjusted and anti-social.  That’s why they spend all night hitting things and swinging around vibrating sticks and screaming into microphones.  I’d love to think they’re better than they used to be about grabbing ass, but they’re probably just as bad, if not worse, about a hundred and one other pernicious things.  If you believe the answer is to leave Evan Hall, and white guys in general, over at a rest stop on the side of the highway for awhile and listen instead to records by women and African-Americans, and transsexuals, and Asian refugees, and half-lobsters from Pluto, allow me to heartily co-sign that program — and also point out that this is exactly what we’ve been doing lately, and that we’ll have to keep it up for, oh, at least a hundred years before we balance the scales.  We don’t have to get the cops involved.  We don’t have to become the cops.  We can just pay attention to stories, and storytellers, whose voices we haven’t heard over and over again.  Pinegrove deserves a smaller audience than, say, Japanese Breakfast not because Evan Hall assaulted his girlfriend, but because Pinegrove isn’t half as interesting as Japanese Breakfast is.  They were never all that great, and now that they’ve grown out of quasi-emo and into standard-issue hickster country-rock, they’ve got very little to add to the musical conversation.  If you disagree with me on that aesthetic assessment, and you’re denying yourself the pleasures of the Pinegrove album because you don’t want to be an enabler, you’re not hurting anybody but yourself.  Well, I guess you’re hurting Evan Hall, too.  Guess you have to decide if that’s worth it to you — whether the thrill of punishing an offender is more gratifying than the thrills of the music would have been.  If it is, maybe you’re more of a cop fan than you are a music fan.  

And While I’m At It, Rock Writers

How far we’ve come.  Not so long ago it was tough to get readers to put records in sociopolitical context.  If in your review you teased out the electoral implications of some dumb pop lyric, people would call you a killjoy and tell you to stop overthinking things. Dance, you cocksucker.  Well, [Tony Montana voice], lookit you now, rock criticism, lookit you now.  These days, artists who express any discontent whatsoever are immediately assimilated into the political party of their sympathetic reviewer.  Here’s the lede, and you’ve read it over and over: in these troubled days when [politician I don’t like] is, unfathomably, ascendant, and the rights of [affinity group the artist belongs to] are being trampled beneath the bootheel of oppression, [album] is a shout of rage, a rallying cry, a furious, unflinching summary of the times.  Never mind that there might be deeper reasons for anxiety than the garbage tumbling around in the news cycle, and that musicians aren’t mouthpieces for an ideology workshopped in Westminster. This environment has benefited bands like Shopping – groups that, for one reason or another, are redolent of others with actual political significance and are thus easy targets for projection by the disaffected. Fifteen years ago, they would have been typical dance-punks with typical vague lyrics and typical young-adult axes to grind.  In ’18, they were received as agitators.  And hey, maybe they really were motivated by Theresa May and assorted backbenchers, but unlike Sleaford Mods, who’ll actually spend a song making fun of Boris Johnson’s haircut, they can’t be arsed to give you any specifics.  Their angry Gang Of Four-ish chants (can’t really call them melodies) could be applied to Brexit, but they could also be complaints about the chanter’s girlfriend.  The rejoinder to this is something about the personal being political, and yeah, sure, anything can be crammed into the narrow, airless hallway of party politics if you push hard enough.  But that’s nowhere you want to hang for long. Democratic politics is a street-fight, and most musicians aren’t brawlers: very few of them, bless them, have given “the issues” a fraction of the attention they’ve paid to their kick-drum sound. When we graft political trenchancy on to these guys, we risk making Milkshake Ducks out of them.  and that’s exactly what’s been happening, has it not?, mass disillusionment in the critical-discursive zone when it turns out that our favorite singers and rappers aren’t square with the platform as articulated by Bernie for America.  I think we need to reopen ourselves to the possibility of discourse that has nothing to do with who or what is sitting in office.  While we’re at it, we need to stop dragging musicians into the muck of our destructive obsessions.  That hungry void where public culture ought to be is big and black and growing by the day. The edge is greased and slippery.  You don’t want to take that tumble.  The next thing you know, you’re red-faced on a talk show and ranting about some rider attached to an omnibus bill, and that, my friends, is the end of youth, the end of rock and roll, the end of hip-hop, the bitter end of everything.

…And Finally

Let me leave this here before I run out of records to rate: no protest song is going to spring us free from this mess. The FBI won’t either.  No independent (?) prosecutor is going to fix our problems.  The independent (???) judiciary won’t either.  No member of law enforcement is going to ride to our rescue.  No deep state is going to rise up and re-set the bowling pins.  No comedian is going to sear this administration out of power with a sick burn.  No renegade Republican is going to wake up and rediscover his set of misplaced ethics.  No investigator will rake enough muck to affect the way the world is turning.  There is only one way out, and that’s the way in.  The American electorate made this happen.  Once we decide we’re not having fun anymore — once we’re done with this experiment in governtainment – the American people will make it un-happen.  Any old time now.  Annnnnnyyyy time.  

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From

Richmond, VA

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2028

Phoebe Bridgers seems built to last.

Best Album Of 2019

Um… Laura Marling will be back, won’t she? Please?

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.