Critics Poll XXV — My Ballot, Part 2

tris-mccall
I got punchy toward the end. Forgive me.

Song Of The Year

Among other things, The Voyager is an album about the psychic costs of unfulfilling compromises. Jenny Lewis is witty about them; she’s always witty. But this is also her saddest set — the year’s stealth heartbreaker — and all the wry jokes and glossy guitar overdubs in Southern California can’t disguise her narrators’ regrets. A central metaphor on the album is the three-way: people who may or may not want sexual exclusivity sharing their partners with friends and strangers. This sounds salacious, but there’s nothing sexy about a song like “Slippery Slopes,” in which Lewis’s main character, a woman who more or less resembles Jenny Lewis, battles against her tendency to excuse behavior that distances her from her boyfriend. Now old enough to weave historical references into her verses, Lewis tries to put her lonely travelogue into personal and cultural context. “Late Bloomer,” my favorite song of 2014, is as far back as she’s willing to go, and there’s probably only mist in the vault beyond this. Against the backdrop of the early days of AIDS, a sixteen year old girl travels to France and becomes fixated on a slightly older woman whose name — Nancy — is pointedly rhymed with “pansy.” As the narrator attempts to disentangle identification from desire, the pair go hunting for the musician who recorded Nancy’s favorite song. When the three meet, Lewis, in a masterstroke of lyrical economy, manages to convey jealousy, condescension, repulsion, and desire in a few neatly chosen lines. After the threesome, the main character kisses them both off. She’s asserted her autonomy, but she’s left stranded. Jenny Lewis sings it all — especially the wordless chorus of a very wordy song — like she’s spent twenty years carrying a wound that refuses to close.

Single Of The Year

  • 1. Allo Darlin’ — “We Come From The Same Place”
  • 2. Taylor Swift — “Shake It Off”
  • 3. Tinashe & Schoolboy Q — “2 On”
  • 4. Kimbra — “Miracle”
  • 5. Tune-Yards — “Water Fountain”
  • 6. Weezer — “DaVinci”
  • 7. Alvvays — “Marry Me, Archie”
  • 8. Fetty Wap — “Trap Queen”
  • 9. Metronomy — “Love Letters”
  • 10. Homeboy Sandman — “Fat Belly”
  • 11. Kiesza — “Hideaway”
  • 12. Kira Isabella — “Quarterback”
  • 13. Taylor Swift — “Blank Space”
  • 14. Cymbals Eat Guitars — “Jackson”
  • 15. Weezer — “Back To The Shack”
  • 16. Real Estate — “Talking Backwards”
  • 17. Vacationer — “The Wild Life”
  • 18. A Great Big World — “I Really Want It”
  • 19. YG — “Left, Right”
  • 20. Ingrid Michaelson — “Girls Chase Boys”

Best Singer

Taylor Swift. For the first time in her career, she received faceless production, which had never been a problem for her before. Yes, it’s her own fault; pardon her while she’s trying to save the record biz. In order to make some of that canned crapola fly, she had to apply the full force of her personality to the tracks. Which she would have done anyway, because that’s what she’s all about. But it’s a testament to her vocal talent that “Welcome To New York,” for instance, is even vaguely listenable, because Lord knows that song’s got nothing else going for it.

Best Rapper

I’m going to join the club and vote for Killer Mike here. Not for the first time, either. Seriously, I understand why Run The Jewels 2 is getting all the love it is — it’s a more focused album than the first collaboration, and Mr. Michael Render’s anti-authoritarian rhetoric suits the mood of the moment. But both of these guys have made better albums before, and by “before,” I mean as recently as 2012.

Best Vocal Harmonies

The Secret Sisters. They’re better when they’re singing old chestnuts, but I dig it that Brandi Carlile now has an outlet for her dumb throwaways.

Best Bass Playing

This and the next few categories are brought to you by Miranda Lambert’s ridiculous band. Hoe yourself down all night with these characters, trust me. The fella on bass is Glenn Worf, and he’s been with her since Kerosene. I don’t know how in hell he got that sound for “Little Red Wagon,” but there may be an elephant jumping on his strings. Honorable mentions go to the unnamed bass player on Kimbra’s disco-pop “Miracle” (Hey, Kimbra, why don’t you credit your band in your liner notes?) and Bryan Murphy of Alvvays.

Best Drumming

Matt Chamberlain on Platinum. He isn’t even part of the regular combo; he’s a well-traveled session dude. No disrespect to the guys who played on the last few albums, but I think they ought to keep Chamberlain around. While I’m at it, I realize I didn’t give Nicolle Galyon any love yesterday. My bad. She’s relatively new to the team and she ended up being one of the most valuable players — she’s the piano-playing Kansas kid who co-wrote “Automatic” and the title track. One of the many, many things that contemporary country has in common with hip-hop: these records are collaborative records with casts of thousands, and somehow, every one of those thousands has something important to contribute.

Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing

The name of the ringer/showoff on the Miranda Lambert album is John Barlow Jarvis. I don’t know anything about him, but with a name like that, he probably owns a riverboat on the Cumberland and spends his evenings hornswoggling pardners. While he’s no John Barlow Jarvis, I also wanna send some love to pianist James Raymond, who was responsible for much of the music and some of the vox on his dad’s comeback album. Dad is David Crosby, the album is Croz, and his boy did him a solid. Croz is a male analog to Joni Mitchell’s Shine: beautiful jazz-pop arrangements, handwringing about the state of the world, creaky elderly dignity. Crosby is sanctimonious as always (so was Joni Mitchell), but with “I vote for peace and the blood still runs,” he’s as succinct and depressingly on target as those dudes from G-Side who rapped “my President’s black/and we still in Iraq.” Better a limousine liberal than a limousine fascist.

Best Lead Guitar Playing

Reasonably, Paul Janeway gets all the attention in St. Paul and the Broken Bones — he really does sound like Otis Redding, and how many singers in the past forty years can make that claim for themselves? Half The City is worth spinning for the amazement factor alone. Though he doesn’t cut the same kind of figure, guitarist Browan Lollar is even more astonishing than his frontman: he channels Steve Cropper and Jimmy Johnson like he’s waist-deep in the Alabama swamps and plugged straight into a cottonwood tree. Anyway, that’s not my answer. My answer is the guitarists on Platinum, especially Randy Scruggs, Jedd Hughes and Greg Leisz, who plays pedal steel. I know, this is getting boring. Let’s go to a category that members of Miranda Lambert’s band can’t possibly take, like…

Best Drum And Instrument Programming

How To Dress Well, especially “A Power,” when Tom Krell complains about his weakness and backs it up by yanking beats out of the bass drum pattern. It’s a nice sonic metaphor for attenuation. But what’s that you say? There is drum and instrument programming on Platinum, and it’s pretty good? It’ll be better for everybody if I pretend that didn’t happen.

Best Synthesizer Playing

Bobby Sparks on St. Vincent, especially “Bring Me Your Loves.” Not quite “Surgeon,” but close enough.

Best Rhythm Guitar Playing

The Hotelier. Home, Like Noplace Is There is only nine songs long — and it certainly didn’t need to be any longer than that. Given its brevity, it’s striking how many different styles of guitar music the band manages to play, and play well, in its thirty-plus minutes: Okkervil-style narrative folk-rock, a little Hot Topic emo, a heartrending power ballad that wouldn’t necessarily scare off a Clear Channel programmer, a few song sections that verge on metal, pure pop-punk, the scariest screamo song I’ve heard in years, tricky time signature prog, and an outro that recaps the main theme of the first song on acoustic guitar. This is not a project that’s getting over merely on concept — it’s an excellent rock band, too, albeit one that is bravely staring down Christian Holden’s ghosts. Funny how motivation makes everything better. Maybe it isn’t more important than pure talent. Then again, maybe it is.

Best Instrumental Solo

There were so many memorable guitar solos this year that you’ll forgive me, I hope, for listing four. Rivers Cuomo went back to the shack and returned with a fistful of dynamite leads — and he saves the most spectacular for the three-part finale. Better still: Joe D’Agostino’s acid waltz midway through “Jackson.” Better still: the solo, probably played by Dan Auerbach, that burbles up from the murky depths of Lana Del Rey’s “Shades Of Cool.” But this was the year that Paul Rains of Allo Darlin’ graced the perfect indiepop song with the perfect indiepop guitar lead. “We Come From The Same Place” is about the flash of recognition (and desperation) that comes when a person realizes she’s hopelessly in love; Rains jangles, twirls, and scrapes out major chords against Elisabeth Morris’s ukulele, and it feels like a blind-faith backward fall into bliss. My favorite single, ladies and gentlemen; here, listen! Solo starts at 3:37 if you’re in a rush. Every note tickles my heart.

Best Arrangements

Probably Kimbra. If The Golden Echo was too ornate for you, I’m not going to try to talk you into giving it another chance. I’m the big apologist for Mighty Like A Rose; my tastes lean toward the baroque. If the idea of a Prince album produced by Mitchell Froom appeals to you, though, check out tracks three through ten. Track one is throat-clearing, track two is a convincing Timbaland fake, and I don’t even know what the last track is. I’m still recovering from that one. The year’s bravest arrangements were on the Metronomy album. I don’t know what prompted Joseph Mount kick off his new record with four minutes of Radio Shack synthesizer, a cheap, unvarying ping-pong preset drum machine pattern and miserable grumbling about a girl giving him a hard time. When the lead guitar starts to noodle, you’ll think he’s putting you on. He’s not. He’s just a very confident man.

Best Lyrics (On An Individual Song)

“Late Bloomer”

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of An Album AND Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Initially Thought

At first, I didn’t think American Middle Class was any good. I still kinda blamed Angaleena Presley for the weak moments on the second Pistol Annies album, and as she supplied the best songs on the first (“Housewife’s Prayer” in particular, which was sort of an “Angel From Montgomery” for the 21st century) I thought maybe she’d given everything she had to give. The trouble is her singing, which is pretty at best but never exciting, and her songwriting, which is always affecting but never flashy. Once I started paying attention to her tough, unsentimental depiction of Appalachia, though, I was sold. American Middle Class is a grim ride through backwoods where the good people are unemployed and dropping dead from opioid overdoses and the bad ones are busy pretending that the world they knew isn’t degenerating into chaos.  The preacher is a liar, the football coach is a dignified, downwardly mobile drunk, the deputy is unarmed, the star athlete is a corpse, and the social fabric is pulling apart. The politics here are nasty, sure, but if you’re looking to understand why the Democratic Party took a beating last November, here’s a good place to start. I only wish that Presley had the capacity to sound as angry as she is.

Best Concert I Saw In 2014

  • 1. Tye Tribbett @ NJPAC Hezekiah Walker and Friends show
  • 2. The Yeezus Tour @ Prudential Center
  • 3. Janelle Monae @ Lehman College in the Bronx
  • 4. The Clark Sisters @ Gospelfest
  • 5. Vanessa Carlton @ The Newton Theatre, Newton, NJ
  • 6. A Great Big World @ Starland Ballroom
  • 7. Beyonce & Jay Z @ MetLife Stadium
  • 8. Lorde @ Roseland
  • 9. Richard and Teddy Thompson @ SOPAC, South Orange
  • 10. Pet Shop Boys @ Revel, Atlantic City

Most Disappointing Live Show

I’ve been defending 50 Cent so long that I’ve forgotten why I started. He certainly doesn’t need me — take it from him. He’s a rock, an island, sitting up there in Connecticut with his armed guards and periodically leaving the house to appear on Oprah. At his wretched Summer Jam set, 50 took shots at his former label chief, played obvious favorites among his ten thousand guests, and ushered so many hangers-on into the performing area that nobody could tell whether we were watching a show or armed combat. Turns out at least some of it was combat: a fight broke out onstage behind 50 and had to be broken up by security. The sound was terrible — it was impossible to make out a thing he was rapping — and he clearly didn’t care at all. He wore the smug look of a playground bully who is watching his toadies stomp a nerd. This was an affront disguised as a concert; a massive act of arrogance and self-entitlement from an artist who hasn’t earned one in awhile.

Best Music Video

  • 1. Kiesza — “Hideaway”
  • 2. Metronomy — “Love Letters”
  • 3. St. Vincent — “Digital Witness”
  • 4. DJ Snake & Lil Jon — “Turn Down For What”
  • 5. Tinashe & Schoolboy Q — “2 On”

Best Line Or Rhyme

“Basking in the ambiance of the Mondrian/Starving like Ramadan/Let’s get this parmesan/I keep the peace like Gandhi with a tommy gun/Slung so many elbows I think I might need Tommy John.” That’s Kanye sidekick CyHi The Prynce, and there’s plenty more where that came from on his Black Hystori Project.

Most Romantic AND Sexiest Song

Allo Darlin’ — “Half Heart Necklace.” I love the way Elizabeth Morris’s voice becomes pure exhalation as she sings “I know nothing ever stays the same/so I’m telling you I want to share your name.” Her hands are on something so valuable that she can forget everything else. She sounds relieved — like a stupid world that never made any sense to her suddenly got wise and began adding up.

Funniest Song

Homeboy Sandman — “Problems.” This was the year I caught up with Sandman, an independent New York City rapper with a skewed/genial worldview, an enormous catalog of riddle-like and intermittently thrilling rhymes, and, apparently, a big fat belly. His weird relationship to the beat might seem suspect at first, but as he sucks you into his headspace, his tardiness begins to take on the ruminative quality of free-associative philosophical thought, or maybe just a bad headache. On “Problems,” he tries to wriggle out of the song midway, only to complain that rap conventions compel him to stay cogent. This comes after a complaint about hipsters and independent movies and soon segues into a sideways critique of Kurt Cobain. Gets me every time. Also, I wanna acknowledge this verse from Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All, an album that narrowly missed my Top 20 list: “What do you call someone who calls you out/ on DIY ethics you don’t embody/ As he drains his dad and mommy’s monthly data plan?/ Asshole/ With an iPhone.” Okay, maybe that’s not so funny. But it sure is true.

Most Inspiring Song

“Shake It Off”. Funny that in the year of a thousand and one complaints about the awful digital world we’ve wrought, Taylor Swift wrote the sanest thing anybody has ever written about the Internet. Not much of a lyric, but as users guides to the 21st Century go, there’s none better.

Most Frightening Song

Here’s a story for ya: I didn’t know Rachel Ries from a hole in the ground when I got my copy of Ghost Of A Gardener in the mail. I put it on because the cover illustration said ornate folk-pop to me (and ornate folk-pop it is) and because I’ve got a good track record with people called Rachel. Turns out I really liked the album; it could have been my Nicest Surprise, were it not for Weezer, and Elbow, and Cymbals Eat Guitars, and LDR. It was a good year for surprises. In my review, I made an offhand comparison to Housekeeping, a book by Marilynne Robinson that scared the holy heck out of me. Housekeeping is considered a classic in some quarters, but it’s hardly Jurassic Park, and I didn’t even know where I was going with the reference or why I was bothering to include it in the review. The book, which came out in 1980, was kind of like Virginia Woolf snowbound in Idaho: in it, blood ties are a flimsy bulwark against the swirling entropy of existence. A few songs on Ghost Of A Gardener — especially the prairie-apocalyptic “I Saw It Coming,” but also “Holiest Day,” which is subtle-scary, like madness — brought back the dynamics of Housekeeping so fully that I felt I had to mention it. Later I learned that Housekeeping is one of Rachel Ries’s favorite novels. Something transferred from the page to the tape to my ears. Art: it leaves its grubby fingerprints all over everything. It’s like a kid in the jelly jar.

Saddest Song

“St. Joe Keeps Us Safe,” from We Don’t Have Each Other. Curmudgeonly as he can be, Dan Campbell doesn’t usually write sad-sack characters. Aaron West, the narrator of his latest collection of musical short stories, is an exception. West’s wife dumps him on song number one; by song three, we find out that a father he’s idolized has recently died. “St. Joe” puts West across a kitchen table from his grieving mom; neither has any idea how to comfort the other, but they try anyway. This is the kind of family tragedy in miniature that Campbell writes as well as anybody, and he resists the temptation to wring it for maximum pathos. Instead, he uses it as a springboard for his narrator’s total dissipation, and he makes sure you see it coming.

Meanest Song

It’s got to be “Digital Witness,” yaaah? Shake it off, Annie.

Most Moving Song

A good runner-up in the scary song category is “Life In Drag,” the one Hotelier song that the guys scream straight through. Lots of songs address gender trouble like it’s a prelude to a fantastic party; the Hotelier makes it sound as horrifying and confusing as it surely is. What makes Home, Like Noplace Is There more than just another emo album about suicide and self-destructive tendencies is Christian Holden’s insistence on placing all of his horror stories in political context. This is very Massachusetts of him. But hey, I went to school up there, and while I sure didn’t love the snow or the flinty New England attitude, the social science was impeccable. Holden, son of Worcester, has plenty to say (or roar) about patriarchy, the cult of medication, gay panic, class struggle, false consciousness, and the psychological effects of capitalism, and if one of Holden’s characters is defenestrating herself or speeding to the E.R., it’s a good bet that power dynamics are at least partially to blame. Nobody has been this howlingly emotional and persuasively topical at the same time on record since Roger Waters’s heyday. “Dendron,” the last song on the album, puts everything together before ripping it back apart: as the narrators follow their fathers down the drain, one alive (but rueful) fellow sends his regrets to his dead mate.  On “Your Deep Rest,” (get it?) Holden’s narrator refuses to go to his friend’s funeral because “the sight of your parents made me feel responsible;” “Dendron” makes it clear that he is responsible, and so are the parents, and so am I, and so are you. My political science professors would nod along if they liked guitar rock. Come to think of it, some of them did.

Best Guest Appearance

Carrie Underwood, on Miranda Lambert’s “Somethin’ Bad” and Brad Paisley’s “High Life.” On the first, she’s a hellion headed to New Orleans with a full tank of gas; on the second, she’s a zonked hillbilly who demands a Diet Coke from Chick-Fil-A. She can play Louise to Lambert’s Thelma, and turn around and be Daisy Duke to Paisley’s Enos Strait. I’ve never been that crazy about her, but she showed me something this year: you don’t go from TV talent show prize-winner to genuine star unless you’ve got a balled-up fist hidden behind your back. Kelly Clarkson sure did.

Rookie Of The Year

Tinashe.

2014 Album I Listened To The Most

Kate Miller-Heidke, O Vertigo! I don’t like to use Spotify unless I’ve already purchased the album at some point in my life. I made an exception with this one, because after shipping, the cost of an import disc from Australia was about the same as a sofa from ABC Carpet. I blame an American pop audience that never can handle Down Under personalities. Do you hear me, America? J’accuse. O Vertigo! is the least quirky disc Miller-Heidke has ever made, but as she is still yodeling and sopranofying away on some of those choruses, I doubt she is going to be mistaken for Generic Pop Star any time soon. Some of you don’t think she’s funny anymore, and I know where you’re coming from — but I did laugh at the rap song, and the karaoke bit in “Jimmy” ought to elicit subvocal grunts of amusement, if not an outright chortle. C’mon, I see you smiling. Anyway, when KMH was in the Big Apple to sing the part of British Dancing Girl in Death Of Klinghoffer, I got a physical copy of my own. I bought it at Rockwood from a middle-aged Australian woman who might well have been Kate Miller-Heidke’s mum. So everybody’s happy: the artist, the artist’s mommy, Spotify, and me. She got my ten U.S. dollars, plus .00000001 cents for my first trillion plays. Martin Fry said it in ’85: I’ve seen the future/I can’t afford it.

2014 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Stay Gold. Everything about First Aid Kit seems designed to piss me off: rustic folk-pop sister act, Scandinavians making ostentatiously American roots music, discovered on YouTube while singing Fleet Foxes songs, everything “well done” and “hard to deny,” etc. I gave it the old college try. I’m selling it back to Tunes. Quasi-honorable mention: Recess by Skrillex. Even if dubstep has dated faster than the Partridge Family, Sonny Moore really had a moment there. Moments end.

Most Convincing Historical Re-creation

As a big fan of The Way It Is, I really appreciate what Andrew McMahon did on “Driving Through A Dream.” Any old bozo with a six-string and a distortion pedal can make believe he’s Neil Young. It takes a special talent to channel Bruce Hornsby.

Artist You Don’t Know But You Know You Should

Ought I to be paying attention to Young Fathers?

Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Sucker by Charli XCX. I should never have forgiven her for “I Love It.” I did, and look at me now: covered with dayglo paint and streamers, out in the snow with no shoes and fifteen bucks poorer. Can’t blame her too much: she did kick off the album with a song that goes “fuck you, sucker!” That’s the problem with the grown-ass American man. We always thing the girl is talking about somebody else.

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

Black Messiah. I do appreciate it, but it’s too far into the murk for this fastidious Pet Shop Boys fan to go often.

Album That Should Have Been Longer

The Roots — …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. This is a strange album. The symphonic bullshit from Undun is back in spades, and Black Thought sounds unmotivated when he bothers to show up for work. It is over in a New York minute, too. I could see a real Roots fan hating it. But you are not a real Roots fan, so you may enjoy Questlove’s paranoid take on Kanye-style bombast. You may also roll your eyes at lyrics that make fun of mainstream hip-hop as if the Roots aren’t mainstream hip-hop. I listened to it a bunch, and will no doubt listen to it a bunch more before I fling it on the pile with the nine hundred other Roots albums.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib — Pinata. This is a very good g-rap album made by a very good producer who doesn’t often do g-rap, and the pairing neither heightens nor diminishes the two principals. It delivers exactly what it promises. Like all Freddie Gibbs projects, it gets a little grey from time to time.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Brill Bruisers. Though maybe it wasn’t. I get the feeling that the New Pornographers are rarely in the same place these days — even when they’re touring together. But who doesn’t like a good e-mail chain?

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Heaven And Earth by Yes, but that’s shooting fish in a barrel. Hey, how about One Direction’s Four? This is the point where it all starts to look like a blur to the boy band, and the tires cease to make contact with the road. That said, I sure do sing along at the top of my lungs.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

“War On Drugs: Suck My Cock.” God help me. I remember when the Wonder Years tried to play a Bamboozle set on the boardwalk while Skrillex strafed the shore with ten zillion decibel nuclear meltdown noises. Getting drowned out is an awful feeling, and sometimes repercussions must follow; might as well make them funny and obscene and spawn a few thinkpieces. I don’t feel cheap at all about loving “When Will The Bass Drop?” That’s exactly what Aviici and David Guetta deserve.

Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song Or Album Is About

Sinead O’Connor, “8 Good Reasons.”

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

After the Sonos commercial, I guess it has to be Tune-Yards. Sad.

Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album

Foster The People — Supermodel. This is an awfully grouchy record from a guy who was plucked from obscurity for accomplishing the not-difficult task of ripping off Peter, Bjorn and John. You’d think he’d be counting his lucky stars. Instead he is attempting to make a statement about consumer culture, which he is against, and tweeting, which he is also against, and is this fellow career-suicidal or what?  All that given, I am shocked at how much I like this — maybe not all of it, but enough of it to make me replay it in spite of Mark Foster’s attitude. Foster The People, as it turns out, has a really good drummer. At times this reminds me of Kula Shaker. Not the Govinda Jaya Jaya version of Kula Shaker, of course, but the basic Jerry Was There pseudopsychedelia.

Most Sympathetic Or Likeable Perspective Over An Album

Christian Holden of the Hotelier.

Fouled Off, Let’s Do It Again

The Outsiders by Eric Church and Dierks Bentley’s Riser. Both of these artists are lumped in with the inebriated bro-country, and they shouldn’t be. The early Dierks was more of a free-spirited asswipe than a bro, and now that he’s matured, he’s become our premier peddler of bro-related pathos. Meanwhile Eric Church has too much homicidal rage to properly bro down. Bentley is mellowing; Church is pumping it up to satisfy the limitless appetite for beer at arenas throughout America. Both guys can write a song, but fall too easily into sleepy four-chord formula (mostly Dierks) and rural irritability as political statement (mostly Church). They can do better.

Strikeout

Coldplay’s Ghost Stories. After defending these guys two years ago, I feel personally insulted. This is the limpest, dullest, vaguest POS released by a major label in years. Did I say they were better than Radiohead? I take it back — Thom Yorke would never make a chorus out of “all I know/is that I’m lost/in your fire below.” I wash my hands of Chris Martin forever. This time I mean it. Yecch.

Artist You Respect But Don’t Like

Azealea Banks. I dunno; hip-house always seems like it’d be nifty, and then I put it on and I feel like I’m shopping for rouge at Sephora. Then there’s the Cloud Nothings, who have so far struck me as a less enthusiastic, and therefore less vital, version of the Japandroids. Here And Nowhere Else does contain a helpful mission statement: “I’m Not Part Of Me,” which takes reticence as its subject and plays as an apology for the band’s occasional inscrutability.

Obvious Beginning Of The End

The Black Keys — Turn Blue. This album is like a rusty bicycle with a bent wheel. It’ll get you from point A to point B, but never in style, and deep down you know that it wouldn’t be tough to upgrade to a better ride.

Worst Song AND Worst Video Of The Year

“All About That Bass.” We covered this in the singles essay. It’s refreshing, in a way — I can’t remember the last time I hated a song with the same energy. I hate the insipid melody, the pushbutton arrangement, and the stupid Kidz Bop choreography in the clip. I hated the passive-aggression of the lyric; I hate neurotic body obsession masquerading as progressivism. I hate that Meghan Trainor sings the hook line like her mouth is too full of hamburger to articulate the consonants. I hate being told that every inch of me is perfect from the bottom to the top: it sucks being lied to. Mainly, though, I hate that it gives bass a bad name. Get your ass out of the tonal frequency spectrum, Trainor. Phony doo-wop is the last refuge of a musician out of ideas — just ask Cee-Lo — and the 1950s Stepford imagery in the video has been overused to the point of bankruptcy. This record is a toxic spill that contaminates my good memories of the K-Pop and Eliza Doolittle records it’s ripped off from. Haters gonna hate, of course, and Meghan Trainor will shake off the criticism all the way to the bank. But dammit, you’ve got to draw a line somewhere.

Worst Instrumentalist

Hey, who’s that Guitar Center hero demonstrating a whammy pedal while my Bruce Springsteen record is playing? It’s Wankmaster Tom Morello, ruiner of the E Street Band! On High Hopes, Morello plays like a fifteen-year-old angling to get punched in the face by the frontman of his metal band. The only thing grosser than his performance was the Boss fawning all over him while refusing to give his thirty-year sidemen a cover credit. Honestly, I think they could all use a nice long vacation.

Worst Lyrics

Ariana Grande, “Break Free.” This has been covered elsewhere on the Internet, I believe. Let’s not go into it, okay? She was trolling us with that one. I hope.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better

Beyonce, “7/11.” The sad part is that I actually am interested in where her foot is.

Worst Singing

Jolie Holland. On Wine Dark Sea, she dropped the old vo-de-o-do and got some crack players to open her sound up. Some of it really does compare favorably to Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, which I take to be the model.  The problem is the same as it always is: Holland sings like she has just ingested Drano. I don’t get it and never have, but I suppose some jazzbos have a weakness for drunk women on their deathbeds.

Worst Rapping

Emcees: if a young woman who is trying to generate a sultry, seductive, Janet Jackson-y mood asks you to appear on one of her tracks, do not come through with rhymes about “beating the pussy up.” The tasteless guest shots on Tinashe’s Aquarius — every one of them — felt like an assault on the aesthetic, if not the girl, and nearly kept an excellent album out of my Top 20. Future, who did nothing but grunt obscenities through voice-altering software, was about the worst of it, but at least he did us the courtesy of rendering himself unintelligible. (I caught the part about “split you like a cigarillo,” though.) Schoolboy Q, who, as usual, wants you to hear every syllable, kept it unremittingly crass, and who okayed the A$AP Rocky line about “sticking something in her stomach”? I’m sure it was Tinashe herself. Sigh.

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

Gerard Way, Hesitant Alien.

Most Overrated

I have come to the conclusion that Future is the most overrated man in pop. With his machines he can make a platinum hook out of any old gobbledygook, and that demands respect. But like many artists who’ve developed a sound, he’s chosen to squeeze that sound for all it is worth without ever applying it to anything interesting. He’s also almost singlehandedly brought back the space-age silly-negro caricature that “advanced” Whitey loved so much in the ’70s. Apparently “advanced” Whitey still thinks it’s a scream.

Also Overrated For Similar Reasons

Young Thug. Can we cool it with the Andre Benjamin comparisons? Jeez, people. While we’re at it, let’s also remember that Lil Wayne was cogent for years before degenerating into the caricature he’s become. If all the marijuana in hip-hop were confiscated for about six months, it would work wonders for everybody presently on the mic.

Worst Song On A Good Album

The problem with “Welcome To New York” isn’t the politics or even the lyric — although “kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats” is pushing it. The problem with “Welcome To New York” is that limp excuse for a new wave beat and the one-note-Johnny melody. Related: this year I learned that a ton of New Yorkers have no idea where they live. You are not on the island of rebels. You’re in the high citadel of international capitalism. Of course Taylor Swift is coming to town. Santa Claus has other stops on his itinerary.

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

Ratking

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Robin Thicke

Probably Looking Into Retirement Facilities As I Type

Rick Ross. This roly-poly customer has always been a sure hand with formula fiction. But he peaked the day he rapped about Big Meech and Larry Hoover, and has been steadily rolling downhill like the meatball sneezed free from spaghetti mountain. For the first time, he’s acting like he knows it.

Song That Got Stuck In My Head The Most This Year

“We Come From The Same Place”

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Anaconda”

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

Craig Finn. Teeth Dreams probably seems like autopilot to most, and most has a point. It’s a step up from Heaven Is Whenever, and I liked the emphasis on Minneapolis storytelling.  But boy does the Hold Steady miss Franz Nicolay — or any other musician not content to recycle riffs from 2004.

Artist I Identified With The Most

Elizabeth Morris

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From

Harlem and the Bronx.

Will Be A One-Hit Wonder (The Chainsmokers Don’t Count)

Aloe Blacc.

Biggest Musical Trend Of 2015

Young artist/veteran artist collaborations.

Best Album Of 2015

Joanna Newsom IV.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXV — Miscellaneous Categories

real-estate-2011-678x452
From the green aisles of Jersey: Real Estate.

As I feared, the annual miscellaneous section took a beating because of my failure to overhaul the website in time for the Poll (I am working on it, honest.) Turns out you people don’t have all of the categories memorized. Who would have thought? Not me, apparently. I knew there was a reason that I’d made a form. Well, folks, it’ll be back next year. In the meantime, I’m just going to force out an abridged version of this document, much as a pastry chef might force-bake a batch of cookies out of the dried-up dregs at the bottom of the mixmaster.

In a typical year — meaning a year when I post the form — I’ll average between 25 and 35 responses in each category. More popular categories like Best Singer draw even more nominations than that. On this year’s Poll, it was rare to get five. In the absence of a quorum, the results of this year’s Critics Poll convention should maybe not be considered binding. You decide. A few of the regulars *did* submit commentary, although not quite as much as usual, which makes it a little tougher to organize. But it’s funny; you guys are always funny. This year, I’ll take what I can get, and list the winners in rough order of gang enthusiasm.

As she did in 2011, Annie “St. Vincent” Clark cleaned up in the instrumental categories, taking Best Guitarist by a nice plurality over D’Angelo the guys in Real Estate. (Alex Bleecker also drew a couple of votes for Best Bassist.) She pulled a few votes in the Best Synth Player category, too, even though she isn’t credited with any of the synthesizer on the album. You like her voice, too; Clark was runner-up to Jenny Lewis in the Best Singer category. Jenny Lewis takes the prize there whenever she turns in a halfway decent effort, which she did not exactly do on I’m Having Fun Now. Not too many of you voted for Best Rapper, but enough did that I’m comfortable calling this race for Killer Mike.

As we’ve grown and cultivated positive mental attitudes, we’ve all become less likely to vote in the negative categories. Iggy Azalea? That’s just great. Calvin Harris? Great, great. Florida Georgia Line singing about sticking the pink umbrella in her drink? Oh, the things those wacky kids get up to these days. So it was particularly striking to me how many Hoary Old Bastard votes I got this year, and how many of those votes were for the same poor fella. When Bruce Springsteen first started drawing H.O.B. fire — around the time of Magic — almost all of it was apologetic, something like “I can’t believe we have to throw grandpa out in the snow, but winter is hard and we’re down to our last three mason jars.” These days, it’s nothing so quaint. You’re done with the old Boss, and judging by the handful of votes you handed Brian Fallon, you’re not to keen on meeting the new one, either.

Only seven of seventy-nine voters bothered to nominate a Worst Song Of The Year, but three of them picked the same Ja-fakin’ tune. I am trying to save what little commentary I’ve got for the next section, but I’m going to let Tom Snow handle this one. “Magic, ‘Rude.’ I suppose we’re supposed to picture this guy standing in the driveway, defiantly holding up a boom box à la Cusack, and thus interpret the song as a sort of against-the-odds declaration of love and commitment, but the text itself reveals something much more sinister. The object of the lyric is the girl’s father, and the whole thing comes across like a cheap appeal to traditional patriarchy, which the average American might say they want to undermine but in reality are suckers for. Instead of declarations of love for the woman in question, we get demands to ‘have your daughter for the rest of my life.’ I had a similarly gross feeling when my sister’s now-fiancé called me up to tell me he was going to propose to her.’

Oh, and “Turn Down For What” is the Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat. But you knew that already.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Best Shows of 2014

Terrance Pryor:  1.) X-Japan @ Madison Square Garden. Hearing nearly 18,000 folks singing in Japanese during the chorus of “Endless Rain” is the kind of feeling that you couldn’t duplicate. X Japan made their way to the United States for their first North American show in 4 years, and fans from California to Singapore made their way to Madison Square Garden to witness a historic event. With a three hour set including Yoshiki’s elevating drumkit, the band that’s virtually unknown outside of Japan were seen as the musical titans they are in front of thousands of fans. Faint cries of “We Are X” can still be heard inside the NYC arena.

Brian Block: Ex Hex (Mary Timony) and the Julie Ruin (Kathleen Hanna) headlining a Girls Rock North Carolina fundraiser at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. I’d never seen a riot grrl concert before; I hadn’t expected Hanna to be so friendly, so welcoming, so fun (and loved). I have seen a bunch of Helium/ Mary Timony concerts, and I’ve long admired both her impressive guitar skill and her experimental desire to reinvent her work, and logically there’s no reason that couldn’t manifest itself as “this year I’m going to write Bill Haley/ Buddy Holly songs and play them like I’m in Guns’n’Roses or Van Halen”, but I sure as heck wasn’t expecting it, and she and her band seemed incredibly happy too. I almost always dance at concerts, but usually, given my taste in music, I’m virtually the only one. This time I was one of dozens, and it felt really good.

Hilary Jane Englert: A Great Big World @ Starland Ballroom.

Tom Snow: The Bad Plus, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 11/2/14.

Jonathan Andrew:  1.) Various Hudson County Rockers: A Tribute to The Band’s The Last Waltz – Northern Soul, Hoboken, 11/20/14, 2.) Kevin Devine, Asbury Lanes, Asbury Park, 10/12/14, 3.) Johnnyswim – The Bowery Ballroom, Manhattan, 8/19/14, 4.) Lucero – The Bowery Ballroom, Manhattan, 11/4/14, 5.) Kaiser Chiefs – Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2/19/14.

Terrance Pryor: 2.) Skinny Puppy @ Webster Hall. Skinny Puppy’s live performance is legendary, and the band solidified their status as a highly influential industrial act on Valentine’s Day inside NYC’s Webster Hall. Watching a man cut his arm with a blade and drink radiated water isn’t something that most folks would consider a romantic night in the town, though.

Adam Bird: QOTSA @ Barclays Center.

Steven Matrick: St. Vincent fronting Nirvana.

Brad Luen: Jenny Lewis.

Matt Houser: The Oranges Band, x4. So Cow at Cakeshop was great too.

Brad Krumholz: Shearwater @ Bell House.

Ben Shooter: Probably the best concert I went to this year was Of Montreal.  I didn’t know most of the songs but I still loved it.  Tight musicians, trip light show, singer dressed in drag 3/4ths of the show.  Very entertaining.  Also good was AWOLNation, who I also saw at Voodoo Fest.  Last, I loved Lady GaGa at MSG.  Rolling Stone tore that particular show apart but I felt like Artpop was one of her better albums, and I was glad she played a ton of songs from it.  When you see Lady GaGa live it’s not a pop show, it’s a rock concert with guitar solos, real drums, etc.

Dan Purcell: Both were arena shows. I gotta do something about this. Tops was Phish on Halloween in Las Vegas. I’m not going to tell you why, you can fucking Google it or watch it on YouTube.  Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life performance on 12/5/14 was second, so generous and such a good time. By the end Stevie was taunting the audience, demanding we call him “DJ Chik-Chik-Boom” and threatening to leave and dropping random choruses of various hits before cutting them off in mock disdain. He just added a bunch of dates in the spring, mostly in the South and Midwest.  Y’all should come out if you can. [He’s coming to the Prudential Center, too. — TMC]

On Taylor Swift

Tom Snow:  Just before New Year’s, I was driving down to Asbury Park with my daughters, and I became convinced that the outro to “Shake It Off” was not just a good piece of pop music, but actually some higher form of intelligence.

Jim Testa: Best addictive pop song: “Shake It Off” — Taylor Swift. Most wrongheaded video: “Shake It Off” — Taylor Swift

George Pasles:  I find Taylor Swift insufferably insincere, but that may be a generational difference in how sincerity is defined. How the ‘event’ move to New York didn’t immediately alienate listeners is perplexing.

Ben Krieger: Let’s get one thing out of the way: 1989 is not a strong record. It has a lot of great singles, but it’s uneven. “Welcome to New York” is a crappy song. In the spirit of Sinatra’s “Theme From New York, New York,” but nowhere near as good. Look, people, all I did when I first moved to New York was walk around with my head flopped back, staring at the skyscrapers, racking up credit card debt at Sounds and Disc-O-Rama and just basking in the fact that I was no longer a dork from Ohio, but a New Yorker. And sitting behind the largest open mic in NYC for the past 8 years, I’ve heard enough “welcome to New York” songs to tell you that they all sound the same: you all cream yourselves over riding the subways and looking at the lights the cute bartender and just oh WOW you’re, like, here! Art is reflective of a person and their experiences. Taylor Swift is white, young, single, hot, rich, self-absorbed and living in NYC. You’re all some combination of white, older, hot, poor, romantically bitter, self-absorbed and living in NYC. Your songs reflect as much. Anyway, I don’t know why I feel I need to defend Taylor. Clearly, without my help, she’s got this. Maybe it’s because I take it personally when you insult my daughters’ taste? Sorry, but I never felt the need to dress my kids in Ramones t-shirts, assholes. Like I’ve said before: knock it off with the condescending remarks about girls and their musical taste. I’ve played my daughters your songs and they don’t like them. I played them Cloud Nothings and they hated that as well. Most of the music we love sucks, actually. Alright, I’m done.

Brad Luen: I cut the 1989 deluxe down to a ten-track playlist, then, unprecedentedly, started adding songs again. She’s so good at capitalism that all we can do is hope she’s not interested in running for higher office.

On Our Poll Winner:

Tom Snow: Annie Clark gets extra credit for pulling off all that shit live, while singing and wearing a cocktail dress and doing tightly choreographed sexy android dances. I could do without the spoken-word interludes, though.

Ben Krieger: Annie Clark is the musician who everyone is rightfully mentioning in the Best Guitar Playing category. Jeiche Ould Chighaly’s work on Tzenni is astounding, however. Or maybe this is just how everyone plays electric guitar in Mauritania? (https://soundcloud.com/glitterbeat/tzenni)

On Big Brother Bono:

Mitch Manzella: Still feel bad about Bono’s bike accident, but seriously nobody thought it was “punk rock” to have Apple drop their album on everyone’s iPhone.

George Pasles: Most ominous trend: U2 having two consecutive albums without a single good song. I’d always found one at least halfway decent track before. Also its PKD-like instant dissemination (more PKD than Orwell, by my estimation).  So they are the hoary old bastards for 2014.

Brian Block: Minor, but welcome surprise: Waking up one morning to learn that there was a new U2 album and I already owned it. It’s not a particularly remarkable U2 album, but it’s pleasant and mildly experimental, and Bono still has a great voice, and for all that people kvetch about his supposed self-importance, he makes fun of himself while earnestly using his fame and influence to master subjects like 3rd-world debt and banking policy at a level that wins praise from actual policy experts. Plus he gives away entire free albums to fans. And to non-fans, too, which I gather was some sort of issue — here in the 1st-world, anyway.

Marisol Fuentes: I still find it fascinating that people think that a U2 album is the worst thing Apple has ever put on their phone.

On Home, Like Noplace Is There:

Ben Krieger: My favorite record of the year was an amazing rock and roll record: great lyrics, inventive guitar work, hooks, choruses, good use of time changes, and a stellar vocalist. It was also a very painful record to listen to, one that I barely talked about, and never played unless I was myself. In fact, after listening to it about 40 or 50 times in a row during a few weeks over the summer, I put it away and barely returned to it because it was just too much. Of all the 2014 releases I’ve heard definitely ends the strongest: nearly every week, on the way home from work at 3am as I walk down Putnam Ave, I play the closing song on the latest Hotelier record. There are a lot of bloggers who have written about how this record affected them. You can go read what they’ve written. I don’t have much to say. I deal with depression, but it’s not that bad; I joke that sometimes, on the way to work, I imagine jumping in front of the train, but in order to do it right I’d need to move down to the opposite end of the platform from where I need to be when I get off at 1st Ave. My mom has it worse. I have a older cousin who we lost before I was born. He had it worse. No one in my dad’s family talks about him. The Hotelier made a record for all of us.

Dan Purcell: Song Of The Year: “Housebroken.” It starts great: quiet, spare, Christian Holden with a highly singable campfire melody. But before very long you’re sucked in by the lyric, which is the sort of artful and determined total commitment to a metaphor that’s rare in modern songwriting, more Cole Porter than Lana del Rey. The singer is singing to an old friend, or old lover, or sibling or cousin, somebody with whom he used to be real close but now isn’t, and he’s trying to talk her away from a bad situation into what he believes will be freedom and sunlight. To get his point across he’s using the metaphor of a confined and neglected dog mistreated by a misogynist, central-casting alpha-male master. The narrator pleads and pleads but the dog cuts off the sales pitch cold:

Well your offer is nice

But here should suffice

Yes my younger years were something,

But that isn’t my life.

Master’s all that I’ve got

Keeps me having a purpose

Gives me bed, keeps me fed,

And I’m just slightly nervous

Of what I might do

If I were let loose

If I caught that mail car

Or ate garbage for food

So as I bare all my teeth

I will ask of you, please

To just leave.

Then you get the big guitar noise part, for release of all the built-up frustration. But things die down again and the narrator comes back with a third verse. Now the focus is different. He turns the lens on himself and gives you the other perspective: he’s a dog too, a dog alone and battered and without any real comfort or connection either because he views attachments of any kind as a leash. Following this lyrical reversal of field the song feints a third chorus before ending abruptly with a guitar slash, no resolution. You make the call.

On Posteriors, Genitals, And Cultural Appropriation:

George Pasles: Mostly what I’ll remember about 2014 music: butt songs with far more memorable videos than melodies.

Jim Testa: Paul Simon Award for appropriating minority culture — Iggy Azalea.

Tom Snow: Google Trends tells us that, in late 2008, the word “ass” overtook the word “tits” in terms of keyword search popularity. The gap between the two has only been spreading (so to speak) ever since, and one might postulate that the inevitable outcome of this trend would be the pop music career of Iggy Azalea. However, this would of course overlook the fact the most distinctive feature of Iggy Azalea, at least on the radio, is not in fact her ass, but her rapping style, which, shall we say, borrows heavily from an urban African-American aesthetic (see also Meghan Trainor). White entertainers have of course been finding fame and fortune by singing like Black entertainers for at least 70 years, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Maybe what’s surprising to me is my own negative reaction every time I hear one of the verses from “Black Widow.” Eminem never really bothered me, so why should I take issue with Iggy?

Dan Purcell: The “Turn Down for What” video makes a persuasive case against turning down.

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2024

Brian Block: At this point, is there good reason to bet against the almost-interchangeable parts machine that is Yes? There is: Chris Squire, their one constant and most exceptional player/ harmony singer, might die. But he hasn’t so far, so hey.

On The Waffle King

Ben Krieger: I think it is truly amazing that 30 years on, at basically the same age I was, my daughters can also have their favorite pop songs parodied by Weird Al. It’s such a treat to experience them getting the joke, and I’m so happy that he’s still got the knack.

Brian Block: Best lyrical transformation of a song from an appalling exemplar of rape culture to a merely obnoxious exemplar of people being pedantic on Facebook: Weird Al Yankovic, “Word Crimes”.

Matt Houser: Tacky” and “Foil” are the best videos of 2014 for sure. .

On Various Listed Albums:

Brad Luen: (Number Ten, Mindtroll EP #4): Did you ever wish for a band that could capture the self-pity you feel after you fall into a well? The desperation when you lose your hat on a cold day? Maternal rage one’s slutty baby? The nonchalance of a cat sleeping in the middle of the road? All in nine minutes? Me neither, but it sure feels good now that we have one.

Justin Vellucci: (Number One, Slint, Spiderland Remastered Boxed Set). The rosetta stone of post-rock gets the reissue treatment and Touch-and-Go Records does itself proud: faithful but fresh remaster by studio guru Bob Weston, extensive outtakes and demos disc, lengthy photo book with foreword by Will Oldham, even a thorough Bangs doc unraveling some of the mystique. Required purchase for anyone who posits themselves a math-rock aficionado.

Brian Block: (Number One, Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus): I wish I had some fascinating rationale for picking Ian Anderson at #1, but the fact is I’ve always loved his voice, his sense of rhythm, and his flute-playing, so any time he comes up with a strong set of hooks — which happens sometimes — he’s going to be high on my list. ‘Aqualung’ in 1971 and ‘Homo Erraticus’ in 2014 are the only two that happened to emerge on top of the list, but I’m taking it as a promissory every-43-years schedule, and am now setting aside my Best of 2057 list in preparation.

George Pasles: (Number One, Black Messiah): The first song I heard from it sounded like Ween and Prince covering Wild Honey Pie, and that was a-okay with me.

Bradley Skaught (Vocalist Of The Year, Morrissey): (World Peace is) the most shockingly artless, blunt, tuneless and awkward record in his catalog. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but it’s sort of stunning how ugly and mean and without charm it is. And yet, through sheer personality, force of will and some really, really brilliant singing the great Moz pulls the whole thing up out of the mire and makes it a statement. There’s too much baggage (and not enough commercial success) for him to ever be fully embraced in “the conversation”, but he’s one of the 4 or 5 greatest artists in rock and roll history. Sometimes, the weird, freak-ish peripheral records are the ones where that case gets made.

Adam N. Copeland: (Number Six,. Sun Kil Moon, Benji, Number Five, The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream.) I thought I’d put Sun Kil Moon and War on Drugs next to each other so War on Drugs can suck Mark Kozelek’s cock just like he asked. Both records were equally good at what they were trying to do. I don’t care if Kozelek is crabby that some of us happen to like his work and also Steely Dan, Dire Straits, handkerchief-in-butt-pocket-era Boss, and beer. Sometimes I want to cry on my way to work, so I pop on Benji, and some days I want to feel a warm hand on my shoulder, so I listen to Lost in the Dream.

Chris Amann: (On Metamodern Sounds In Country Music): Sturgill Simpson should be awarded album of the year which sounds least like an album of that year – more like the 1976 – nam’sayin?

Dan Purcell (Number Two, The Voyager): I spent months deriding it as yet another below-par effort from a brilliant but erratic artist who hadn’t put out a really good record since either Under the Blacklight or Rabbit Fur Coat, depending on how much you like Under the Blacklight. Acid Tongue was pretty lazy, and I think we can all agree that record she made with her boyfriend was terrible. But The Voyager is nearly perfect. Beautifully arranged and produced (by Ryan Adams!) in the best LA session tradition, and with Lewis’s best songs since More Adventurous. On some days you might get me to argue it’s even better thanMore Adventurous.  I’m not sure I believe that, but the four song run from “She’s Not Me” to “Late Bloomer” makes a strong case. Really this is the killer produced-out-the-ass pop record she wanted to make with Under the Blacklight, but the songs weren’t there and Blake Sennett wasn’t on board and they included this song called “Dejalo” which sent the whole LP into a flat spin. The Voyager is five stars all day long and I expect to listen to it regularly for years.

Ben Krieger: (Number Eleven, American Middle Class): With American Middle Class, Angaleena Presley had a flawless set about a demographic group that got a bit neglected this year in discussions of privilege and oppression. Yes, in theory, the characters in these songs wouldn’t have trouble hailing a cab at 2am (and they probably wouldn’t be frisked or shot), but they’re also little too hopelessly caught up in debt, addiction, abuse, diaper-changing, and grocery-bagging to swing an NYC vacation and find out. This is as good as any point to mention the lack of empathy in the internet conversations I experienced this year, and how people with solid ideas, the best of intentions, and a lot of common ground, couldn’t manage strip their voices of violence. There is a lot of pain out there, a lot of struggle, and, unfortunately, a lot of people who feel that they don’t have to really listen to each other. But I think that we really do. Many of us simply haven’t been taught how to listen. It’s a skill that helps strengthen the bonds between us, one that can only be helpful as more and more people find themselves on the wrong end of a heavily armed police force.

Sue Trowbridge: The most bittersweet musical event of 2014: the Game Theory reissues. I’m glad they exist, but I still haven’t been able to listen to them. [Me neither, Sue. — TMC]

Brian Block: (Album I Feel Cheapest About Liking): Nothing that bothers me, but either Charli XCX’s Sucker or Amaranthe’s Massive Addictive, both of which are trivial collections of fun 3-minute songs in a popular style that rack up millions of YouTube hits. Sucker finished a respectable 34th in the Pazz & Jop poll while Amaranthe didn’t get a single mention, because liking dance music makes critics feel proudly populist, while liking heavy pop-metal — which has at least as many fans — would remind them at once that The People have cooties.

Adam N. Copeland (Number One, LOSE): I never understood Cymbals Eat Guitars until this record, but here it seems like everything came into focus. I have a sweet tooth for long instrumental passages and Jersey mythology. Lyrics from this record jump out not because they’re particularly inventive, but because I felt like I lived them already. Lose is the record that I’d always hope I would make someday, and it gives me inspiration to keep trying.

Bradley Skaught: (Number One, They Want My Soul): I’m always intrigued when a favorite band has a “go for it” moment — hire the big name producer(s), the major label licensing deal, etc. Maybe it’s a bit too dogmatic to suggest it’s a moment that separates the real greats from the almost-greats, but it doesn’t surprise me that Spoon shine in the context. An excellent pop Spoon record and Britt Daniel is brilliant in every conceivable facet.

Adam N. Copeland: (They Want My Soul): The Spoon record was “good”, in that it sounded good and the changes and arrangement were all very sharp, though I feel like Britt Daniel is lurching into parody and their records can now be measured by a Spoon-ness rating, on a scale where Transference is the lowest and Girls Can Tell is the highest. When I can’t remember the title of a record by a band that used to be one of my favorites, that is probably a red flag.

Tom Snow: Album that got taste, yeah it got taste, what a waste that it’s all that it’s got: Spoon, They Want My Soul.

Trends

George Pasles: Album cover trend: homages to past album cover trends.

Jim Testa: Best viral Youtube trend: ALS Waterbucket Challenge. Worst viral Youtube trend:  Talentless Viners becoming pop stars (Shawn Mendes, Cameron Dallas, et. al.)

Steven Matrick: Trend for 2015 — White female rappers.

Adam N. Copeland: The Mark Ronson album will be popular enough that studio musicians will start getting work again. People will realize that Death Grips were never good at anything but publicity. People will realize that Ariel Pink isn’t all that interesting in hi-fidelity. Sleater-Kinney have an album coming out, but find it difficult to accept Carrie Brownstein’s punk creds because they keep picturing her as her characters from Portlandia. Modest Mouse defy expectations and bring back some of that old magic. The Viet Cong debut full-length will be a surprise indie hit. The Wrens album will not meet anybody’s expectations but will still be tremendous in its own way.

Brad Luen: Artist Of The Year: Young Thug. This is what rap is going to sound like for a few years, whether we Nas fans like it or not. If it’s too strong to say Thugga is queering rap, his Instagram notwithstanding, he’s at least confusing received ideas of masculinity so prevalent in his (and other) genres — not least by reminding us that rapping can be fun.

Brian Block:  The simultaneous surge of hipster interest in old-fashioned country music and woozy, bleary doom-metal will cause the genres to start to merge. Musically, that is, since Johnny Cash already wrote the first stages of the lyrical merger.

Anna Howe: I didn’t have the time to gather the evidence, but there were a number of albums by men who make reference to loving their women in casual clothing.

Chris Amann: Something should be said of all the streaming services and that nothing needs to be purchased, nothing is hard to find, and anyone with decent taste and a Bluetooth speaker can host an excellent listening party. I hope teenagers are making their sweethearts mix-tapes, albeit in the format of a spotify playlist.

Ben Krieger: You know what I’m proud of? This year, I bought every single one of the 2014 records I listened to.

Brad Krumholz: Trend for 2015 — Hip-hop with Latin influence.

Hilary Jane Englert: Trend for 2015 — civil liberties rock.

Ronni Reich: Final thought on the year: Girl. Power.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Okay, that wasn’t so bad after all. Time for me to get going on my own ballot — I have a feeling I’m going to have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Here is a singles essay that sums up my 2014 state of mind. But exactly:

Here’s the album poll results.

Critics Poll XXV — Results

St_Vincent_artwork
Back on the throne: St. Vincent.

The New Pornographers have never done it.  Neither has Spoon, Okkervil River, or the Decemberists. Belle and Sebastian is a repeat winner, but had to tear up the mission statement and re-imagine the band between victory number one and number two. (If You’re Feeling Sinister took the top spot in 1997, and The Life Pursuit claimed the prize in ’06.) It’s hard to finish at the top of this annual list.  It’s virtually impossible to do it twice.

St. Vincent has done it twice.  Twice in a row, if you don’t count Annie Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne, and most of you didn’t. Three years ago, Strange Mercy narrowly beat Destroyer’s Kaputt and Okkervil’s I Am Very Far to take Poll 22; the contest came down to the final ballot, submitted ten minutes before the deadline. This year, there was no drama. St. Vincent crushed the runner-up — Run The Jewels 2 — by more than a hundred points.  Our winner was named on twice as many ballots as the New Pornographers’ Brill Bruisers, the second-most cited album.  Forty-four per cent of Poll voters listed St. Vincent somewhere. I’m not sure if that’s a record, but if it isn’t, it’s got to be close.

In 2011, St. Vincent’s supporters were more likely to be female than male, more likely to be from out of state than from here in the Jerz, and more likely to be new voters than regulars. This time around, no such distinctions applied. Enthusiasm for Annie Clark was general: young and old, boys and girls, Garden Staters and heathens, big people, small people, matter of fact all people. For the first time ever, our Poll winner did not get a single citation in a negative category. Usually, some contrarian will argue that a consensus pick is overrated, or annoying, or just plain bad. In 2014, that guy went to the spa and chillaxed. No rain landed on Annie Clark’s parade. We’ve had bigger landslides — Twin Cinema in 2005, for instance, or the Wrens two years before that. But in many ways, St. Vincent’s second win was the most impressive performance in the 25 year history of this Poll.

How did she do it? Pointed songwriting, certainly — many voters heard “Digital Witness” as a critique of reality television and the culture of Internet attention-hogging, and were eager to co-sign. More Poll respondents had had the opportunity to see Clark in concert, where her act is outrageously entertaining: proggy, aggressive, and adorable, which is a triad that hasn’t been struck since the Bears. A few voters (although not as many as in 2011) got it on the record that Annie Clark is beautiful. That helps, too: they call this show business for a reason.

Most of all, she won because of the tool in her hands. Those who loved her playing on Strange Mercy came back for more, and were happy to find the neurotic-robotic squeal and scrawl had returned. You love Annie Clark as a singer and a lyricist; but you love her best as a 21st-century guitar hero. And guitar heroes aren’t going away.

Here’s my favorite St. Vincent story of 2014. She was one of several female singers who fronted Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. (She played “Lithium,” which was the highlight of the night for me.) Before the show, she did a Q&A session in the Barclays Center press room. A gang of journalists, many of whom were there from supermainstream publications and didn’t know Annie Clark from a vacuum cleaner, found themselves interrogating a very impressive looking but somewhat alien young woman with a scatterplot of curly white hair. One brave soul stood up and asked her if she believed that if she (whoever she was) worked really hard and kept doing what she was doing (whatever that was), she would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame someday? Without skipping a beat, or hemming and hawing, or pausing to register the absurdity of the moment, Annie Clark looked straight at the journalist and said yes.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Critics Poll winner.

  • 1. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (364)
  • 2. Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels 2 (253)
  • 3. The Hotelier — Home, Like Noplace Is There (227)
  • 4. Jenny Lewis — The Voyager (215)
  • 5. The New Pornographers — Brill Bruisers (211)

Six years ago, Jay Braun told me something that sent my usual logical positivism into careening reverse. Members of the youth soccer team which he was coaching had found out he was a guitarist, and were teasing him about it. It was okay, he learned, to play imitation guitar in a rhythmic video game. But according to the kids, people who played “real guitar” were hippies/druggies and hopeless anachronisms. There was a sense at the time that electronic dance music was the coming thing: bands were taking the stage with laptops and rappers were incorporating canned Euro club beats in their productions. Were we really witnessing the decline and fall of the acoustic musical instrument? Would all the amplifiers at Main Drag forever go unsold?

Apparently not. 2014 was loaded with guitar; real guitar, played proudly by the kinds of musicians who take and give lessons and spend day after day in their rooms, running scales and shredding and chugging along to Tony Iommi and the Blue Album. Despite a few more high-profile, highly publicized defections to electropop, this was a great year for strummers — and voters came back to the shack and the Strat with the lightning strap. Of the forty albums on this list, at least thirty of them foreground the guitar, and nary a laptop in sight. There’s your true winner of Poll 25: that jangly, swampy, screechy, frequently-maligned six-stringed thing hanging low between the legs of your favorite musicians. Eric Clapton ought to be pleased, if he’d invite any of these characters to his periodic guitar festivals, which he certainly won’t. But that’s a sad tale about generational differences, and the ineradicable entitlement of Baby Boomers.

  • 6. Spoon — They Want My Soul (200)
  • 7. Cymbals Eat Guitars — LOSE (189)
  • 8. The War On Drugs — Lost In The Dream (184)
  • 9. D’Angelo & The Vanguard — Black Messiah (182)
  • 10. Neneh Cherry — Blank Project (179)

And here’s all the supporting evidence you need for the return of the cult of the six-string: nearly everybody else’s year-end poll was won by a guy who takes Mark Knopfler as a model without any irony whatsoever. The War On Drugs did not do quite as well on our Poll, and that’s likely because our respondents are wordy individuals who would gleefully vote for Will Sheff reading from a thesaurus. Adam Granduciel isn’t a lousy lyricist, but he does often prefer to lean on generalities and let his Fender do the talking. Joe D’Agostino of Cymbals Eat Guitars is shaping up to be one of the boldest soloists in contemporary college rock (the lead on “Jackson” is worthy of the Wrens); perennial Poll favorite Britt Daniel plays it too cool to call attention to his chops, but he certainly knows his way around the fretboard. And what had the guy at number nine been doing all these years? Refining his guitar heroism, it seems.

Right behind D’Angelo comes another former R&B favorite who’d been dormant for far too long. Blank Project didn’t get the ecstatic reviews that Black Messiah did, but there are some notable similarities between the two albums: they’re both astringent and raw, and implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) political. Both are demands for dignity. Black Messiah is essentially an experimental funk-rock record; Blank Project is decorated with synthesizer in brutal, broad strokes, but it doesn’t play like electropop. It plays like punk.

  • 11. Sturgill Simpson — Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (178)
  • 12. Modern Baseball — You’re Gonna Miss It All (177)
  • 13. Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence (175)
  • 14. Wussy — Attica (173)
  • 15. Miranda Lambert — Platinum (172)

After enthusiasm for Kacey Musgraves wafted in from a northeasternly direction, I’d predicted a big crossover/mainstreaming year for Miranda Lambert. Platinum delivered, to a point, although her audience is still disproportionately confined to the country ghetto. Which is a gigantic ghetto, true, but it’s a ghetto nonetheless, and there are still music fans who run like hell from anybody whistling Dixie. I ought to know, since I used to be one of them. Moreover, it has come to my attention that some vinegary northerners must act allergic when confronted with an ideology that does not dovetail perfectly with theirs, and Platinum doesn’t exactly disguise its conservatism. The way I saw it, the Republican Party was always going to clean up in the mid-term elections, and it was better to get the bad news from a first-rate singer-songwriter and bandleader rather than, say, Reince Priebus. Or from her former Pistol Annies collaborator Angaleena Presley, who is considerably less genial and less diplomatic about the counterrevolution.

Lambert was narrowly pipped in her own genre category by Sturgill Simpson, who turned out to be this year’s Musgraves — a country singer who won points among squeamish Yankees by making it clear that he was no Christian. Metamodern Sounds played like Waylon Jennings after a lengthy stay at an ashram, and if that sounds interesting, believe me, it is. I’m also pleased to see that Lana Del Rey has now been fully rehabilitated, which didn’t seem possible in the wake of the Saturday Night Live bullying scandal. If she can come back from that, there’s hope for all of us. Her singing has improved, but that was never her true talent. Her true talent is for keeping a straight face.

  • 16. Bob Mould — Beauty & Ruin (170)
  • 17. Alvvays — Alvvays (162)
  • 18. Real Estate — Atlas (158)
  • 19. Jack White — Lazaretto (153)
  • 20. Against Me — Transgender Dysphoria Blues (141)
  • 20. Cloud Nothings — Here And Nowhere Else (141)

We had 79 voters this year. That’s the second-lowest total since the millennium turned, and our lowest in thirteen years. Participation in the Poll had been sliding over the past few winters; this year, it fell off a cliff. This was also a year dominated by regulars. I don’t think I got a single ballot by a voter who hadn’t played this game before. The obvious reason for this is that you people don’t like me anymore. But I can think of three other possible reasons, too:

– I didn’t post the form to the website this year,

– I had an antisocial 2014 and called no attention to my activities,

– List fatigue.

Forms are fun and make this game feel all official-like, even though we all know it’s anything but. Sending a list by e-mail doesn’t carry the same charge. My website is under construction and will be back at full strength in a few months; Tris McCall old-timers can take this switch to white on black as a good faith sign that I remember what made this website work back when it was worth a visit. As for my social skills, well, they’re still somewhat below those shown by this guy. But even if I spend 2015 in a cave in Alma-Ata and seal the opening with a rock, I couldn’t have a less sociable year than I just did. Thus, problem number two is likely to be addressed, too.

Problem number three is a bigger challenge. If  you aren’t tired of lists by mid-December, you probably lack a working Internet connection. The social-media optimizers have discovered that people are inclined to share articles that list the ten best this and that; this means that the web is cluttered with rankings of pizzerias and refrigerator brands and contestants on America’s Best Top Ebola Doctor. Lists are clickbait and hierarchies are fascist, and it’s a beautiful day outside so let’s turn off the computer and play croquet. Believe me, I get it. But this isn’t clickbait (I promise), and we’re not writing about pizzerias or home appliances or reality show contestants. Most of us do this annually because we’re passionate about popular music, and while we all know that rating albums is a purely subjective exercise, that doesn’t mean that subjective assessments can’t be well-considered, and passionately-held, and occasionally amusing, too. I’m a pop exceptionalist — I really do believe that music is the best thing that humans do, and that engagement with records and shows is its own reward. In a way, I’m amazed that we’ve kept this project going for 25 years, and in another, of course I’m not: this is just too much fun to stop doing. I promise I won’t. I hope you won’t, either.

  • 22. Weezer — Everything Will Be Alright In The End (136)
  • 23. TV On The Radio — Seeds (134)
  • 23. Angaleena Presley — American Middle Class (134)
  • 25. Taylor Swift — 1989 (132)
  • 26. Death From Above 1979 — The Physical World (130)
  • 27. Tune-Yards — Nikki Nack (128)
  • 28. Owen Pallett — In Conflict (125)
  • 29. Damon Albarn — Everyday Robots (124)
  • 30. Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste (121)

Here’s another difference between our Poll and all of the other Polls out there: the Taylor Swift media blitz that won the hearts of aficionados nationwide and legitimated the brand among non-Nashville tastemakers did not entirely work on us. Red finished at number thirteen in 2012; 1989 slid all the way to twenty-five, and much of her support came from a handful of voters who are batshit nuts about Taylor Swift.

I, too, am batshit nuts about Taylor Swift. I do question her decision to yoke her star to the faceless likes of Ryan Tedder. In a year of outstanding guitar music, Swift jettisoned the guitar with the teardrop on it in favor of production more or less interchangeable with Katy Perry synthpop. She takes her role as industry standard-bearer seriously, and I do thank her for that: the record business is probably the only industry that I care about, so it’s meaningful to me that she does, too. If she thinks this is the way to keep the whole shebang healthy and rolling, I am grateful that she’s willing to take one for the team. Intuiting the stakes, those of us involved in showbiz treated 1989 as the album that was too big to fail; busy with more reasonable occupations, other Critics Poll voters could maintain a little more objective distance. Fail it most certainly did not: 1989 sold many more copies than anybody expected that a current album could sell, and its excellent singles enlivened playlists that were otherwise saddled with movie ballads and DJ Mustard ripoffs. Tally another W for the one figure in popular entertainment who nobody wants to see with an L on her record. Because of this, it almost needs to be evaluated differently from a record made in a garage by rock dudes who couldn’t care less whether the temple crumbles as long as there’s gas in the van.

There’ll be more to say about Taylor Swift in coming days; right now, I want to take a moment to SMDH at the many miscreants who wanted to argue that her decision to pull her music from Spotify was a tactical error. You’d better wake up early in the morning if you want to give business advice to Taylor Swift, pal. Sometimes I really do think the future health of global capitalism is contingent on her elevation to the Federal Reserve chairmanship.

  • 31. Homeboy Sandman — Hallways (118)
  • 32. Ex Hex — Rips (116)
  • 33. Sharon Van Etten — Are We There (111)
  • 34. Ought — More Than Any Other Day (108)
  • 35. Shellac — Dude Incredible (107)
  • 36. Sun Kil Moon — Benji (105)
  • 37. Sinead O’Connor — I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss (104)
  • 37. Angel Olson — Burn Your Fire For No Witness (104)
  • 39. Jamie T — Carry On The Grudge (101)
  • 40. Camper Van Beethoven — El Camino Real (99)

We do have a geographic bias, and long may it run. Nevertheless, our Poll has not always been kind to Jersey rockers. Alleged Garden State hero Bruce Springsteen, for instance, has gotten trashed by voters for his last few sets; High Hopes didn’t get a single vote. Get Hurt, the latest by Gaslight Anthem, was completely ignored, too. Neither one of those albums is good, but if we were truly shameless homers, we’d vote for them anyway. Some notable locals did get points: Those Mockingbirds (63), Owel (44), Val Emmich (40), I Can Make A Mess (31), Nicole Atkins (31).

The Jersey outfit with the biggest bellyful of helium is Real Estate, the Ridgewood combo with a sound midway between Good Earth-era Feelies and the Grateful Dead.  The band’s first two records finished 33rd and 34th in the Poll; with Atlas, they leap to 18th place. Other risers (besides Dierks Bentley): Bob Mould goes from 39th place in 2012 to 16th place this year, the New Pornographers and Spoon, bouncing back from sub-par finishes in 2010 to place at 5 and 6 respectively, and Jenny Lewis, whose Voyager banished memories of the desultory I’m Having Fun NowOther slippers (besides Uggs): Sharon Van Etten, who slid from number 5 to number 33 on our Poll despite vaulting on everybody else’s, Jack White, who tumbled from a Blunderbuss 6 to a Lazaretto 16, and Cloud Nothings, who followed up a tenth-place finish in 2012 with a twentieth-place tie this year. Sinead O’Connor and Owen Pallett held steady, but the Hold Steady did not — Teeth Dreams didn’t receive a single vote. It was a rocker’s year, but maybe not the best time to sound like the Boss, even if you were the Boss himself.

Friends, thanks for playing. The Poll always makes early February fun. It’s just like the Super Bowl, only with fewer fistfights and no deflated balls. No Katy Perry this year, either.

 

Other albums getting #1 votes:

  • A Great Big World — Is There Anybody Out There
  • Aphex Twin — Syro
  • Barr Brothers — Sleeping Operator
  • Fear Of Men — Loom
  • Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Pinata
  • Future Islands — Singles
  • Hundred Waters — The Moon Rang Like A Bell
  • Ian Anderson — Homo Erraticus
  • Joyce Manor — Never Hungover Again
  • Jute Gyte — Vast Chains
  • Kaiser Chiefs — Education, Education, Education And War
  • Linda Sharrock — No Is No: Don’t Fuck Around With Your Women
  • Lost In The Trees — Past Life
  • Lucero — Live From Atlanta
  • Marissa Nadler — July
  • Morrissey — World Peace Is None Of Your Business
  • Perfume Genius — Too Bright
  • Roxanne Cash — The River And The Thread
  • Slint — Spiderland Remastered Boxed Set
  • The #1s — The Number Ones
  • Tweedy — Sukirae
  • Young Fathers — Dead
  • Young Thug & Bloody Jay — Black Portland

 Critics Poll winners through time and space:

  • 2013: Okkervil River — The Silver Gymnasium
  • 2012: Tame Impala — Lonerism
  • 2011: St. Vincent — Strange Mercy
  • 2010: LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening
  • 2009: Phoenix — Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit — The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2007: Of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
  • 2006: Belle & Sebastian — The Life Pursuit
  • 2005: The New Pornographers — Twin Cinema
  • 2004: The Arcade Fire — Funeral
  • 2003: The Wrens — The Meadowlands
  • 2002: Spoon — Kill The Moonlight
  • 2001: Spiritualized — Let It Come Down
  • 2000: OutKast — Stankonia
  • 1999: The Magnetic Fields — 69 Love Songs
  • 1998: The Loud Family — Days For Days
  • 1997: Belle & Sebastian — If You’re Feeling Sinister
  • 1996: De La Soul — Stakes Is High
  • 1995: Oasis — What’s The Story (Morning Glory)?
  • 1994: Elvis Costello — Brutal Youth
  • 1993: Liz Phair — Exile In Guyville
  • 1992: Dr. Dre — The Chronic
  • 1991: De La Soul — De La Soul Is Dead
  • 1990: Robyn Hitchcock — Eye
  • 1989: De La Soul — Three Feet High And Rising
  • 1988: Pixies — Surfer Rosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 XXIV: Albums

Does each face outside collide against your heart?

I think back about a quarter-century. If I’d been asked then if there were any other people writing unsolicited Top Ten lists anywhere on earth, I probably would have answered no. I knew about the Pazz & Jop poll — I started this Poll because of my teenage frustrations with Pazz & Jop consensus — but I figured that those characters were out there hitting deadlines. The writer at Newsday couldn’t possibly be motivated by the same pathological desire to adjudicate between the merits of pop albums, could he? That would suggest he was driven by the same furies I was. And if he was, there’s no way he’d ever be able to hold a desk at a city newspaper.

Once the world achieved mass connectivity, I learned that people all over the globe had the same impulse. Listeners liked to make lists. Or maybe what they really liked was the act of commemorating the year they’d just lived by honoring the records that moved them. Now that we’ve been doing this for 24 years, we’ve created an archaeological record of opinion and experience — and music is a powerful preservative. When I go back into the filing cabinet and re-read the forms from, say, 1993, I’m taken right back to my first astonished listen of Exile In Guyville and arguments we had about The Chronic eerily similar to ones we’re currently having about Yeezus. I’m taken back to an Ultra Vivid Scene show at Maxwell’s where Kurt Ralske insisted in keeping all of the house lights up. I’m taken back to Maxwell’s, period, and the motivation it always gave me to make music.

Maxwell’s won’t be doing shows anymore. We’re still doing the Poll. For the first time since 1995, I seriously considered retiring this project. I saw the end of Todd Abramson’s long tenure at Maxwell’s much like those breaks in the geological charts from science class: That all belonged the Cambrian period, marked in purple, and now it was the Ordovician period, and all organisms had to evolve or choose extinction. Many of the best musicians on that scene during my early adulthood had in fact hung up the ole guitars and made the decision to reconstruct their lives according to saner models. Ask one for a list of modern albums and he’d laugh at you and maybe say something about how it’s all been downhill since Pavement.

Which is a lie, of course, and one of the oldest and sorriest in the book. If you’re alive and you live in the city, you’re aware of pop music. You can attempt to plug your ears when you’re in the deli or the public swimming pool, but at some point you’re going to bump into “Royals.” If you had an opinion about Portishead or Primitive Radio Gods in the ’90s, you’ve got something to think about Lorde now, and repressing that won’t do you one bit of good.

Like a lot of music listeners in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I assumed that the trajectory of my own tastes were going to take me straight underground, and the ongoing fragmentation and decay of the record industry would destroy the mainstream (for me, at least) once and for all. I looked forward to a lengthy future of productive, principled, tight-assed alienation. The opposite happened: The Internet has broadened the mainstream to the point where it’s now virtually impossible for an oppositional artist to hide. It’s also no longer possible to submit the kind of Poll ballots we used to make when we believed that nobody was looking and this was all just a crazed frolic of our own. I often had to wait until the end of the year and Pazz & Jop to learn what critics thought of a particular album. Now, conventional wisdom coalesces online before the release date, and you’ve got to apply yourself seriously to the difficult act of disconnection to dodge an early judgment.

So while it was always tough to disentangle a personal reaction to an album from the reaction happening all around you, it’s become harder than ever to say: Never mind what site X or pundit Y or source Z thinks of this record; what does it mean to me? I have noticed that many present critics strain to get the right answer on their ballots — as if one even exists; as if the album you listened to while you were cramming for your year-end essay could ever be as important as the one you played while you were falling in love. (I believe the sages One Direction addressed this on their latest album.) I’ve also noticed a surprising number of critics grumbling about the whole exercise. It’s turned into a big homework assignment, it’s stressful and overwhelming, I have a thousand other deadlines, I am going to lose credibility by listing Bruno Mars, etcetera.

Well, if this isn’t fun, it isn’t anything. Making a Top Ten list of anything subjective should never feel like an obligation, and that’s because it’s an intrinsically perverse thing to do, and we do it to satisfy a real human need to chronicle and commemorate the passage of time. We all made it through 2013; can you believe it? There have been days in 2014 when I can’t, and if your year had any intersection with mine (and if you’re reading this, it probably did), I’ll bet you feel the same way. You might not want to back in the filing cabinet and unearth anything about the year we just struggled through. I say surviving is achievement enough. As my man Brad Paisley so persuasively put it, congratulations — you’re officially alive.

And since you’re alive, and since your indissoluble human subjectivity carries on — possible even after death, if you believe in certain religious systems — you may as well get down your opinion on Miley Cyrus. Probably it’s going to be dumb. Mine is. I had half the state of New Jersey after my scalp after I put it in the newspaper. But the magnificent thing about pop fandom is that nobody can mark you wrong, and those who try to are being jerks. I began my big adventure at the Ledger four years ago with the conviction that if a reader had fallen in love with an album, the worst thing I could do as a critic was manhandle the object of that affection. With the finish line in sight, I hope my desire to spread the joy of pop music has outpaced my puerile need to put down the music that doesn’t move me. Because every album is somebody’s number one, even if it’s just the people who made that album.

I decided to bring this Critics Poll cruise back for its 24th trip because of you. I’d lost faith; you hadn’t. Many of you asked for it in November, and I’m glad you did, and not just because I’d otherwise be wasting time with video games right now. There’s a particular personality to this Poll that distinguishes it and keeps people coming back, and that’s all the evidence I need to conclude that it isn’t my personality, it’s yours. I’m just the goof who types it up — you’re the ones who give it character. While many of the acts that did well on this year’s Poll were the usual accepted customers, I believe our winner was only named on five Pazz & Jop ballots. Nevertheless, it’s a group we’ve been supporting for a decade, and if you’ve been following the Critics Poll, you won’t be surprised by the results.  It’s got all of the hallmarks of a Poll winner: It’s a concept set, it’s wordy, it’s passionately sung, and it is obsessed, as our last two top albums have been, with anxiety, memory, and the passage of time. In the newspaper and elsewhere, I’ve been flying the flag for this band for years, which makes it ironic that…., well, we’ll get to that soon enough. Here’s the final score:

  • 1. Okkervil River — The Silver Gymnasium (338)
  • 2. Kanye West — Yeezus (319)
  • 3. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires Of The City (306)
  • 4. David Bowie — The Next Day (256)
  • 5. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories (243)

We had 124 voters in the Poll 24, which matches our 21st C. average. That’s a tick more than we managed last year, and it reverses a slight downward trend. Often when our two top albums have finished within twenty points of each other, it’s the sign of a split down the middle of the electorate; in 2004, for instance, the older voters supported Smile and the younger ones backed Arcade Fire, and there was little overlap between the groups. This year, there was considerable correspondence between the Okkervil voters and the Yeezus voters. The difference: while the polarizing Kanye cleaned up in the negative categories, Will Sheff has no detractors. Nobody punished Okkervil River, for instance, for defecting to the Dave Matthews Band’s label and producing The Silver Gymnasium in a style palatable to bearded Bob Seger listeners. Hey, don’t look at me; I love Bob Seger. Also I lack sufficient testosterone to grow a beard. Modern Vampires Of The City was named on 29 of the 124 ballots, which outpaced both Yeezus and Silver Gymnasium, but only topped 3 lists (Silver Gymnasium led the field with 8 number one votes.)

  • 6. Tegan & Sara — Heartthrob (238)
  • 7. Paramore — Paramore (223)
  • 8. Danny Brown — Old (203)
  • 9. Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Try… (203)
  • 10. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle (194)

About a week ago, I though Tegan & Sara had won this Poll. Without giving away too much of my own ballot, I would have loved that. It would have been our first pure pop winner since who knows when, and further evidence that the long, cold era of obscurantism and misdirection in music was over. Alas, all of the T&S voters got in early. The last week belonged to Okkervil River. Yet 238 points and 20 votes is not nothing — especially for an act that has never gotten much love on our Poll. The alignment between album number six and album number seven was stronger than any two sets in our Top 40. If you had Heartthrob, odds are, you had Paramore, too. If you only listed one, maybe you should consider picking up the other. I associate the albums, too, although I’m not sure I could tell you why. Maybe because “Closer” and “Still Into You” were two new wave throwback singles crushed by the disco landslide of summer 2013. Usually it pays to sound ’80s. This year you had to make like Kool and the Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire. A good half of that Daft Punk album sitting at number five is unashamed mirror-ball revivalism. Why did you think it won that Grammy Award last week? It’s not because industry insiders like dance music, or robots, or freedom fries. To paraphrase Kate Miller-Heidke: the ’70s were forty years ago. It’s time we started making some memories of our own — randomly accessed or otherwise.

  • 11. Of Montreal — Lousy With Sylvianbriar (193)
  • 11. Kacey Musgraves — Same Trailer, Different Park (193)
  • 13. Janelle Monae — The Electric Lady (191)
  • 14. Queens Of The Stone Age — …Like Clockwork (190)
  • 15. Chance The Rapper — Acid Rap (182)

One of the more hotly debated subjects in the Garden State is whether Red is a country album or if Taylor Swift is a fiendish Pennsylvanian carpetbagger who got what she needed out of Nashville and has subsequently retired her twang. We debate this because Taylor Swift owns New Jersey; if you’ve never seen a Taylor Swift concert in Newark or the Meadowlands, it’s sort of like the last scene in Return Of The Jedi only with little girls and moms instead of Ewoks. (Also, Jersey is Dixie now.) Given what she’s done to popularize the genre, it’s my opinion that any country insider who doesn’t embrace Taylor Swift is an ingrate. I realize I’m a newcomer to the party, and many fans probably don’t care very much if city slickers ever get with the program. But despite all of the think pieces about a potential emo revival to follow the critical recuperation of Southern hip-hop, it’s pretty clear to me that the most likely candidate for assimilation into the “cool guy” playlist is Nashville country. First of all, it’s pretty great, and it’s unjustifiably ignored by critical listeners who’d otherwise appreciate its virtues — lyricism, storytelling, personality, chops, a terrifying degree of quality control in the studio. It’s also as star-driven as hip-hop is, and as search engine and social media optimization continue to influence what gets written about, getting celebrated names in ledes and headlines is only going to become more important. That’s good news for Kacey Musgraves, who probably ensured stardom with her turn under the neon cacti at the Grammy Awards, but was heading there anyway. Musgraves is as blue-state-friendly as a country singer can get: she rips on small towns, she’s got no time for organized religion, and she’s cool with kissing girls and smoking marijuana. She was the highest scoring Nashville artist in this year’s Poll, but there were others: Brandy Clark came in at #22, Ashley Monroe at #32, and the Pistol Annies scored 59 points and made the top 50. Given that we’ve had many years when no Music City artist has ever gotten any traction on the Poll, I make two predictions for 2014. 1.) This is not a flash in the pan; we’re paying attention to Nashville now, and more to the point, they’re paying attention to us and figuring out how to supply us with artists who, like Musgraves, speak our language. 2.) The upcoming set by Miranda Lambert is going to make a lot of noise.

Chano didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but this was a pretty good year for hip-hop, too. Our voters didn’t quite know what to make of Danny Brown in 2011; now we’re all used to that tongue and that broken tooth and that haywire delivery. Janelle Monae is a great singer, but when she emcees, she’s Lauryn Hill rejuvenated. Earl Sweatshirt (#27) Run The Jewels (#31), Pusha T (#34), A$AP Rocky (#64) and others all drew support on a Poll that has not always been kind to rap music. (There’s a name I’m deliberately leaving out here, and we’ll get to him soon.) The loss leader, here as it is elsewhere, is rock, but Queens of the Stone Age are still howling away in the desert to justifiable acclaim, and 2007 Poll winner Of Montreal is back in the voters’ good graces after a turn back toward guitars and live instrumentation.

  • 16. Eleanor Friedberger — Personal Record (177)
  • 17. The Front Bottoms — Talon Of The Hawk (172)
  • 17. Haim — Days Are Gone (172)
  • 19. CHVRCHES — The Bones Of What You Believe (168)
  • 20. Sky Ferreira — Night Time, My Time (167)
  • 20. Lorde — Pure Heroine (167)

Jim Testa’s (and New Jersey’s) favorites pull into a seventeenth-place tie with Jim Testa’s bane. To be fair to Haim, who faced a ferocious backlash before their career even got started — a happenstance with 2013 written all over it — the group never claimed to be anything other than a major label guitar-pop act. I’m not certain why Haim was held to a different standard than, say, Vampire Weekend, another group of appropriators with no qualms about chasing a big audience or a mainstream-friendly sound. Haim and Vampire Weekend — and, for that matter, #20 finisher Night Time, My Time — were produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, who applied many of the same strategies and tricks to all three albums. Rechtshaid was the man behind the boards for Valencia’s We All Need A Reason To Believe, a fantastic-spastic album you don’t know because that emo revival is still mostly confined to think pieces. Since then, he’s learned to use the fashionable reverb, or maybe it’s better to say he’s learned to control reverb so it doesn’t splash out of its sonic confines and swamp the entire song. This earned him many votes in the Best Producer category on this Poll, and, less impressively, a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year. Yet given that all three of these albums were basically pop records, it is fair to ask how popular they actually were. The answer: Not popular enough. For an album with “The Wire” and “Forever” on it, Days Are Gone hasn’t done so well. Neither song has been the smash that it could have been, and while it’s not fair to blame Haim or Rechtshaid for the lack of imagination or courage of American radio programmers, the sound they created did not force ears open. Rechtshaid also produced Sky Ferreira’s “I Blame Myself,” a melody and lyric that had “can’t miss” written all over it until it did. Ferreira’s label didn’t even see fit to release “I Blame Myself” as a single, and then they refused to put out physical copies of Night Time, My Time, which from this distance looks less like an example of the Beyonce-future we inhabit than old-fashioned industry shenanigans. Part of the pop producer’s responsibility is to make the record so good — and so undeniable — that the artist is sprung free from the demands of her handlers. For all its acclaim, Modern Vampires Of The City didn’t exactly tear up the charts, either.

Somebody named Lordy came in at number twenty. Don’t know a thing about her. Nosiree bob, you won’t be reading about her later.

  • 22. Brandy Clark — 12 Stories (158)
  • 23. Frightened Rabbit — Pedestrian Verse (153)
  • 24. Drake — Nothing Was The Same (147)
  • 25. Beyoncé — Beyoncé (134)
  • 26. Kurt Vile — Wakin On A Pretty Daze (133)
  • 27. Earl Sweatshirt — Doris (129)
  • 28. Disclosure — Settle (114)
  • 29. The Wonder Years — The Greatest Generation (112)
  • 29. Bill Callahan — Dream River (112)

Question for the floor: what the hell happened with Drake this year? Nothing Was The Same was hyped, it was reviewed well, he worked so hard on the album he missed the whole summer, he can’t even drive with the top off, and now this. You didn’t vote for him in positive categories. You didn’t vote for him in negative categories, either. You just ignored your poor cousin Drake who came all the way down from Toronto for your bar mitzvah. I don’t get it. The deejay at the Jay Z concert at Prudential Center last week dropped “Worst Behavior” and the whole floor went berzerk. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” came on and every high school dance in America became that much more intriguing. He started from the bottom, now his whole team’s here. Why don’t you people care?

  • 31. Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels (109)
  • 32. Ashley Monroe — Like A Rose (106)
  • 33. Foxygen — We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic (105)
  • 34. Pusha T — My Name Is My Name (103)
  • 35. Jason Isbell — Southeastern (95)
  • 36. Yo La Tengo — Fade (94)
  • 36. Arcade Fire — Reflektor (94)
  • 37. Cut Copy — Free Your Mind (83)
  • 38. Iceage — You’re Nothing (81)
  • 39. Empire Of The Sun — Ice On The Dune (80)
  • 39. Black Sabbath — 13 (80)
  • 39. My Bloody Valentine — m b v (80)

Robyn Hitchcock (#42) and Richard Thompson (#46) both narrowly missed the Top 40. Bubbling under: guitar mastery.

Since winning in 2004, Arcade Fire has never done terribly well on this poll. Still, a #36 finish is going to raise some eyebrows, I am aware. What can I say?, I just count the numbers. Also, I don’t vote for Arcade Fire, so I’ll concede that I’ve contributed to the condemnation with faint praise. We can read that as a slight repudiation for Poll 21 winner James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, who was to Reflektor as Rick Rubin was to Yeezus.   Poll 19 winner Frightened Rabbit nearly crashed off the list in 2010, but rebounded to #23 this year; Phoenix drew only two votes for Bankrupt, the follow-up to Poll 20 winner Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

Before you ask: M.I.A. is at #44 with 71 points. Other interesting near-misses: British new wave revivalist Charli XCX, brutal-voiced King Krule, Australian art-pop act Alpine. We’ll be seeing some of those names again over the next few days. Tomorrow: singles.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

  • Amos Lee — Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song
  • Azar Swan — Dance Before The War
  • Benga — Chapter Two
  • Big K.R.I.T. — King Remembered In Time
  • Bilal — A Love Surreal
  • Buke & Gase — General Dome
  • Camera Obscura — Desire Lines
  • Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
  • Childish Gambino — Because The Internet
  • Giorgio Moroder — Schlagermoroder Vol. 1
  • Jenny Hval — Innocence Is Kinky
  • Jimi Hendrix — Miami Pop 1969
  • Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City
  • Magnolia Electric Co. — Songs: Ohia
  • Marnie Stern — The Chronicles Of Marnia
  • Monster Magnet — Last Patrol
  • Moon Motel — The Lonely Romantic
  • Nathan Moore — Hippy Fiasco Rides Again
  • Paul McCartney — New
  • Paul Messis — Case Closed
  • Phosphorescent — Muchacho
  • Sara Bareilles — The Blessed Unrest
  • Shinyribs — Gulf Coast Museum
  • Sing Me The Songs: Celebrating The Work Of Kate McGarrigle
  • Steven Wilson — The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
  • Streetlight Manifesto — The Hands That Thieve
  • The Close Readers — New Spirit
  • The 1975 — The 1975
  • The Orange Peels — Sun Moon
  • Touche Amore — Is Survived By
  • Uncluded — Hokey Fright
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs — Mosquito

Here’s the singles results.

Here’s the miscellaneous categories section.

Here’s the first part of my ballot.

Since I am a long-winded fellow, there is a second part of my ballot, too.