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.