Critics Poll XXVI — My ballot, part II

Single of the Year

  • 1. Ezra Furman — “Lousy Connection”
  • 2. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue”
  • 3. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy”
  • 4. Tame Impala — “Cause I’m A Man”
  • 5. The Decemberists — “Make You Better”
  • 6. Drake — “Hotline Bling”
  • 7. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta”
  • 8. Natalia Lafourcade — “Hasta La Raiz”
  • 9. Vince Staples — “Norf Norf”
  • 10. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach”
  • 11. Laura Stevenson — “Jellyfish”
  • 12. Carly Rae Jepsen — “I Really Like You”
  • 13. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright”
  • 14. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey”
  • 15. The Wonder Years — “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then”
  • 16. Pusha T — “Untouchable”
  • 17. Dutch Uncles — “Decided Knowledge”
  • 18. Nate Ruess — “Great Big Storm”
  • 19. Fashawn — “Out The Trunk”
  • 20. Freddie Gibbs — “Fuckin’ Up The Count”

Best Singing

Erykah Badu

Best Rapping

Lupe Fiasco, especially on “Mural,” a nine minute water walk.

Best Vocal Harmonies

All over the Social Experiment album.

Best Bass Playing

Thundercat. Did you know he put out a solo album? He did — and he sings on it, too. (He’s not half bad.) It’s called The Beyond, and if you dug his playing on To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington’s Epic, you ought to check it out. At 20 minutes, it’s definitely the most manageable leg of the journey.

Best Live Drumming

Marco Minneman is the foundation that makes the prog-out that is Hand. Cannot. Erase. possible. If you call yourself a prog-rock fan — somebody with even passing interest in the history of progressive rock from Magical Mystery Tour to Marillion to Strange Mercy — and you told me you didn’t like Steven Wilson’s latest album, I wouldn’t believe you. It would be as hard to swallow as an indiepop fan who claimed to be able to resist Let’s Get Out Of This Country. While we’re on the subject of live drumming, Roisin Murphy gets an absolutely mesmerizing performance out of a percussionist named Eddie Stevens on “Exploitation.” It’s probably computer assisted, but hey, so am I.

Best Drum And Instrument Programming 

Timbaland for the umpteenth time. This year it was his creepy, abandoned funhouse beats on the Pusha T album that did it. Virginia is a weirder place than you think it is.

Best Synthesizer Playing Or Programming

Dutch Uncles, a British band that recalls (in no particular order): ABC, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Tears For Fears, A-Ha, Frankie, Talk Talk, Scritti Politti, David Sylvian, Naked Eyes. All of the sleek, jazzy feel and sleek, jazzy flourishes, none of the sleek, jazzy hooks. But the music is never less than interesting, and the words, which concern a young man alternately adopting and mocking the ritual masks he has to wear in order to assimilate to successful adulthood, are even better. This year’s Metronomy/High Llamas/’80s-throwback sophistipop album. Now I hafta go hear their other three.

Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing

Adam Holzman of the Steven Wilson band.

Best Guitar Playing

Laura “Just A Girl Who Can Play Guitar” Marling. She says so herself; who are you to cross her, knave? Now we know she can do Chrissie Hynde as well as she can do Sandy Denny. I hope I live long enough to see what else she has to show us, because I have a feeling we’re not even at the midpoint of this story. Short Movie kicks fanny, but to truly understand where Lord Marling’s butter-colored head is at right now, your best bet is YouTube. Here she is, blowing the lid off of “I Feel Your Love.” On the album, she’s meditative and maybe even sorrowful; in performance, she swings the song around like a cleaver. One she just got sharpened, mind you, and that she’s eager to try out on a side of beef, or somebody quite like one. How about this electrifying version of “How Can I?”, shorn of the string section that she recorded without letting them practice beforehand. Here, it’s just you, her acoustic guitar, and her voice, and that smoke you smell right now is coming from your eyelashes. I’m a musician, sort of, and I do occasionally ask people to come hear me play. My studio performances are doctored, amplified, Auto-Tuned, comped; whatever we have to do to get them presentable. I never want to hang it up more than I do when I see Laura Marling knock out flawless one-take versions of her songs that are even better than the stunning ones on her album. It sure does hurt. But yup, I keep right on playing them, and re-playing, and re-playing.

Best Guitar Playing, Stealth Division

We know about Richard Thompson and the guy on Hand. Cannot. Erase. who sounds more like Steve Howe than Steve Howe has in years. Brad Paisley didn’t put out anything new this year, but the trailing singles from Moonshine In The Trunk bounced away on country radio all summer. All of that was plenty flashy. But sometimes virtuosity isn’t what you need from a six-string player — sometimes it’s more important to get a few notes in the right place and hit them with absolute conviction. Meet Kerry Alexander and Chris Hoge from a Minnesota outfit called Bad Bad Hats. They’re an indiepop band, and we all know I have a weakness for the style; if you don’t like indiepop, you might think that they’re a couple of no-distortion wimps. But if you do like indiepop, you might agree with me that the guitar licks on “Say Nothing” and “Psychic Reader” are ruthlessly effective. They might even prompt a heart-flutter, which is the goal here. Alexander has a severe case of generic girl voice, but she knows how to use it: on music a little too pro to be cupcake pop, but which attains its charm via its acknowledgment of its own attainable ambitions.

Best Instrumental Solo

The ludicrous, over-the-top synth-guitar ride that decorates “Shameless,” a cheeseball power ballad that Max Martin gifted The Weeknd. The liner notes tell me that it was played by a man named Klas Ahlund, a hired gun from a Swedish band called the Teddybears. No kidding. Abel Tesfaye and a teddybear — a sickeningly appropriate combination. Runners up: the yakety-yak sax honk that puts the exclamation mark on the end of Ezra Furman’s “Wobbly,” Holzman’s Moog widdle on Steven Wilson’s “Regret #9,” Ben Gibbard’s wasp-sting in the middle of “Black Sun,” and Stevie Jackson’s runaway go-cart lead during the closing jam of “Book Of You.”

Best Instrumentalist

Kevin Parker

Best Songwriting

Straight outta Coatapec in Veracruz, it’s Natalia Lafourcade. Long have I dreamt of an artist who can do the indiepop thing and the Latin pop thing simultaneously. Ximena Sarinana almost had it in her hands, but it slipped through and sizzled away on the desert floor. (No Todo Lo Puedes Dar, though — that was pretty fucking cool.) Julieta Venegas nearly made it happen, too, but she was never quite delicate enough to turn the trick. But Lafourcade is the alchemist with the proper solvent for any obstruction, chemical or otherwise — she takes her inspiration equally from Nick Drake and Agustin Lara, and on the first four tracks of Hasta La Raiz, she puts the jigsaw puzzle together with such efficacy and confidence that you won’t even notice the grooves between the pieces. The rest of the album isn’t quite as good, but she’s got such a tasty cupcake of a singing voice that it all demands to be gobbled up until you’re scraping the wrapper for crumbs. More, please.

Best Arrangements

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

Best Production

No I.D., whose dreamy, chilly, deeply musical productions gave Vince Staples the exact backdrop his storytelling needed. Remember how I said that Kendrick was corny? Well, Summertime ’06 wasn’t corny at all, and much of that had to do with No I.D.’s oversight. My favorite production on a single track was “Terrence Loves You”; I really dig what they did with the reverb on Lana Del Rey’s voice. Give LDR this, at least: few artists have ever matched a personal brand of bullshit with a sonic aesthetic that suits it so well. In retrospect, the link between Portishead and Sinatra’s depressed Capitol albums was always pretty apparent. Leave it to Ms. Grant and her producers to make that clear to slowballs like me.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

“Sunday Candy”

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of An Album

Kendrick Lamar

Band Of The Year

The Social Experiment. Also, I, like you, wasn’t too impressed by this year’s Decemberists album, but give them this: they’ve all gotten mighty good at their instruments.

Best Show I Saw In 2015

Brian Dewan @ Pianos. Some hymns, some originals, autoharp, zither, and accordion, mock authoritarianism expressed through a straightforward version of “Do Not Mortgage The Farm” from the 1891 Grange Songbook, Edward Lear’s “Akond Of Swat” recited from memory while banging a marching-band bass drum, some ancient anti-tobacco polemics, etcetera. The Dewan concert experience still feels like falling into the best sort of schoolbook, filled with jokes, admonitions, bizarre asides and attitudes that were cashiered for no other reason besides the demands of fashion. (He still looks like a John Tenniel illustration, too.) Dewan needs to swoop down to the city from his Hudson Valley aerie more often.

Best Bill

Gospelfest, as usual.

Live Show You’re Kicking Yourself For Missing

Steven Wilson did Hand. Cannot. Erase. at NJPAC. We must have been out of town. I expect I’ll regret missing that until the end of my life, or the end of the synthesizer solo; whichever comes first.

Best Music Video

Gotta be “Hotline Bling,” right?, but you already know that one. How about one that you might not have seen? Natalie Prass’s clip for “Bird Of Prey” is as customized for small-screen viewing as Drake’s — all the action is right there in the center of the screen — but it was clearly done for pennies, proving again that a music video doesn’t need a big budget to be effective. The special effects here? A woman, a wardrobe, a brolly, and Roy G. Biv.

Best Choreography In A Video

Apologies to Aubrey, whose dancing really is astonishing (not to mention gutsy), but I’ve got to go with Cecilia Suarez and friends in Julieta Venegas’s clip for “Suavecito.” Don’t look for the song on Algo Sucede; it’s not there. Wish it was.

Videos That Best Captured The Themes Of The Albums They Were Shot To Promote

Vince Staples’ “Senorita” and “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. These are superficially similar — they’re both protest clips shot by artists who know what it means to be poor and black and at constant risk of harassment by authorities. But when you look a little closer, the differences in the rappers’ worldviews become apparent. Kendrick is the superhero who flies through the air and pits his empathy and openness against the cold, impassive policeman; his vision is Romantic with a capital R, his struggle is noble and even beautiful, and since he believes the one in front of the gun lives forever, he accepts his bullet with a smile. He’s a Christian, and the heavens are his friend: the streets may be murky, but the sky above him is open. Staples, who walks the streets of his neighborhood desensitized to violence, is much more pessimistic. The officer in the “Senorita” clip is scared shitless, and for good reason — he’s trapped on the inside of a bubble made transparent for a viewing audience with an appetite for exploitation and carnage. Death is arbitrary and senseless, and is no triumph over anything; instead, it’s just entertainment. Also, if I haven’t persuaded you yet to check out Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, now might be the time. There aren’t many things in life better than being in the school play.

Most Romantic Song

Laura Marling, “How Can I”

Funniest Song

Lana Del Rey’s “Salvatore,” la da da di da, soft ice cream. I’ve said it before — her greatest talent is for keeping a straight face. Doesn’t mean you have to.

Most Frightening Song

Joanna Newsom’s “A Pin-Light Bent,” which is about a stewardess falling out of an airplane. The imagery was vivid enough to give me some pre-January vacation nightmares about spacerocks and bird-strikes and nosedives into the freezing Atlantic Ocean, so thanks for that, Newsom. Seriously, though, she continues to be a polarizing figure in this Poll, with many voters thinking that she’s brilliant, and many others thinking that the voters who think she’s brilliant are maybe not so brilliant. I hope we can all agree that she’s an extraordinary, singular talent, even if you know what you’re getting from her these days. Joanna Newsom has become a pro, and I do mean that in ways both good and bad. In 2015, we know her songs are going to be wordy and worldly and “well done,” but she’s not really interested in expanding the lane. Divers turned out to be a smooth ride, which, given the pilot’s taste for turbulence, came as something of a shock. The incessant vocal tremolo remains an issue, but her singing has gotten stronger since Have One On Me; her lyrics can be digressive and hippy-dippy, but they’re never less than smart, and for every overstuffed mouthful of syllables, she’ll turns a phrase poetically and succinctly. Then there’s the harp, which sounds just as nice in ’15 as it did on The Milk-Eyed Mender. In a strange way, she’s become one of the most consistent entertainers in America, which is not what I would have thought would happen when I first heard Yarn & Glue. Call her good old reliable Newsom Newsom Newsom Detroit.  

Most Moving Song

Wait, did you watch that “Sunday Candy” video? Go on and click that link above. Also, there’s Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston,” a small-scale tearjerker about house-shopping in the charmless exurbs that is likely to tickle your urban planning bone. Sometimes I Sit And Think: good songwriting, good lyrics, good singer, good band, nothing not to like here. It’s the kind of project that makes it seem easier than it really is. It’s not this easy.

Sexiest Song

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That,” plus, once I got a good translation of it, Natalia Lafourcade’s “Antes De Huir.” Sigue atrapandome en este rincon indeed.

Most Inspiring Song

“Mortal Man”

Meanest Song

Emile Haynie’s We Fall is an interesting album from a peculiar fellow with a regular-guy motivation. Haynie, as you might remember from the hours you’ve spent poring over Kanye West tracklist credits, co-produced “Runaway,” which gives him bragging rights for life and the sort of ironclad credibility that L.A. industry-types don’t often enjoy. Anyway, his many cool points did not stop him from getting dumped by a starlet, which is an occupational hazard in Southern California no matter what business you’re in. He retaliated by getting some legendary jerks, including Brian Wilson, Colin Blunstone of The Zombies, Nate Ruess, Father John Misty, and Randy Newman (!) to sing absolutely vicious songs about his ex. A toast to the douchebags indeed. (In fairness, Lana Del Rey contributes a song that’s meant to represent the other side of the argument.) Haynie is spared the trophy in this category by Kevin Barnes, who is now on his forty-fifth breakup album in a row. His is a record of sustained lyrical savagery unequaled in modern pop, and for his own sake if not his cardiologist’s, I hope he now takes up gardening or something. “Empyrean Abbatoir” isn’t even directed at his usual target — his ex-wife. Instead, it’s a broadside against a former bandmate, and if you’ve followed Of Montreal over the past four years or so, you can’t mistake who he’s slandering. Obviously some shit hit the fan, and I’m still a fan. But did you ever get the feeling that it would be hard to be Kevin Barnes’s friend?

Saddest Song

“Happy Returns” from Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation

But You Cain’t Use My Phone. All of it.

Rookie Of The Year

Julien Baker goes for distraught and guitar-stark and Nebraska-ey, which is always a nifty way to set a wrist-slitting mood. What distinguishes Sprained Ankle from the forty thousand other albums that employ the same calculus (see Torres, Sharon Van Etten, various Oberst projects) is the rolling boil it reaches about… hmm… three times over nine tracks. If that sounds like a batting average that’d get you dropped from the team, well, maybe you don’t enjoy a rolling boil as much as I do.

Best Guest Appearance

Bun B on “Wavybone”. He always feels like the adult in the conversation.

2015 Album You Listened To The Most


2015 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Jay Rock’s 90059. Just because I defend rappers against charges of misogynistic worthlessness doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be really fucking nice if they’d stop rapping about how women did them wrong. Here I give you Jay Rock, Top Dawg Entertainment featured performer, talented rapper, Kendrick collaborator, and a theoretical hardcore act who wastes bar after bar on whiny-ass complaints about girls. “Hanging with Laquita brought the ho up out you.” What’s your excuse, pal?

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

No kidding: Home Blitz really does sound like Game Theory. That’s not a sentence I ever expected to write about any band, ever.

Most Convincing Historical Fakeout

The Tallest Man On Earth. Dark Bird Is Home is the kind of project that used to get called Dylanesque. It’s very American plains/folkie stark — the acoustic guitar is mixed so that there aren’t a lot of overtones, like a high pass filter has been applied to the whole shebang, and the drums, when they come in, play in that Midwestern death march style popularized by Levon Helm. The lyrics, too, are homespun in a crocheted How To Make An American Quilt sort of way. Which is why it’s no surprise that Tallest Man On Earth is from North Dakota. Right? Isn’t he? No? Wait, he’s from Sweden?!? Honest Injun? I swear these Scandinavians are pod people. Get your own culture, Swedes. You can start with the lingonberries and build from there. Quit putting our singing cowboys out of work. You’re making Donald Trump’s case for him.

Best Sequenced Album

To Pimp A Butterfly

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

Sounds like I’d like the Sleaford Mods. King Krule, too. Maybe I ought to turn my attention back to the United Kingdom. Oh, and I have to check out Carla Morrison. Gonna do that right now; hold on, I’ll be right back. (Some time elapses.) Yeah, wow, that’s dynamite. Kind of like a cross between Ximena Sarinana and Lana Del Rey. That’s going to be part of my 2016 for sure.

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

The Most Lamentable Tragedy. I guess we have to take this seriously. No, really, we do. It’s about ninety years long and it comes from a magnum opus specialist, so to quote Phife, it gets the E for effort and T for nice try. A couple of these numbers are goodenuff punk rock tunes, and the band always goes for “it”, where “it” can be defined as a ceaseless spastic fartout signifying protest against the galaxy. Unfortunately, Patrick Stickles insists on barking out all of his lyrics like an autistic gunnery sergeant. It’s wearisome on song number one; by song one thousand and one, you’re ready to give up your CBGB badge and enlist in the Celine Dion army. And while I don’t necessarily think that recording an epic triple album about your specific and personal mental problems is per se self-indulgent (I do love In Defense Of The Genre) humorlessly ramming it all into the ears of listeners does not exactly strike me as a humanitarian gesture. Though I guess his fans do. They’re welcome to him.

Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

What A Time To Be Alive

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make


Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Pagans In Vegas

Most Inconsistent Album AND Most Predictable Commercial Compromise

Beauty Behind The Madness. What with mainstream America obsessed with the ins and outs of the S&M lifestyle, I guess we all could have seen this coming. Sex researchers suggest that there are more ems out there than esses, so the task was to match the (mainly female) M audience with the rare pop singer shameless enough to be an S. So here comes Abel Tesfaye, with those cartoonishly evil fantasies, that voice of his and, natch, a song called Shameless. Next thing you know he’s number one not with a bullet but a whip. But after the velvety reverb fades, does this music have any lingering charms for those few of us left who’d like to keep the b.s. capitalist power dynamics out of our bedrooms? Tune in tomorrow on Yet Another Fifty Shades.

Most Consistent Album

The Blade by Ashley Monroe. High quality throughout; nothing that would have knocked a song off of the first Pistol Annies set.

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Natalie Prass. Five very good songs, a reprise, some Stax-Volt wannabe iffiness, and total Tinkerbell nonsense like “Christy” and “It Is You”. Her voice ain’t the most powerful instrument in pop, but she knows how to write ’em, so she’s got the hard part covered. She could make a really good album if she determined to cut the crap.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Going Down. Still more mellow marijuana music to mellowly smoke marijuana to. This probably sounds good if you’re high as fuck, but so does a busy signal. If you’re stoned enough to boogie down to a sixty cycle hum, save yourself ten bucks (or the hard drive space) and short-circuit a toaster.

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

Aureate Gloom

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Paper Wheels by Trey Anastasio. The knock on this guy is that he can’t sing. I’ve always resisted this, because you don’t go to a Phish show to hear Hayley Williams, or Pavarotti.  Jam band music requires a subordinated lead vocalist. But after listening to Paper Wheels a bunch more than I usually listen to Anastasio’s solo albums, or even recent Phish albums, I begin to see what the detractors mean. This is a good record — much more Dan (Steely, not Rather) than Dead (Grateful, not Night Of The Living) — and it would be even better if Trey could seize any of his stories by the horns, hop in the saddle, and ride them around. But he can’t. Instead, he sings his pseudophilosophical observations in that friendly, knowing, winking, emotionally detached voice of his. He’s got an awful knack for making the stakes of his lyrics feel far lower than they actually are. It does not help when he is shouting such things as: Skinny little legs!/heads removed! But that’s Trey. That which inspires him is not what inspires other humans, and we should be grateful (Dead, not Hezekiah Walker gospel choir). Anyway, if you, like me, agree that the Kamakiriad has aged well, you might want to give this a shot.

Album You Like More Than You Respect

San Cisco, Gracetown. Further goofballin’ from the Land Down Under. Though they’re basically an indiepop band, San Cisco devotes a large amount of time to inexpert funkouts. Time and again they are saved by their lightfootedness; their sensayuma too. Much of this album suggests the band Supergrass could have been had they ever gotten serious about scoring toothpaste commercials. Regardless, your shrimp on the barbie party could do worse.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

After getting banned from NXNE, Action Bronson called himself the white Luther Campbell. That’s a massive exaggeration, because no policeman was waiting at Yonge and Dundas with handcuffs. The Canadians are allowed to run their dopey festival the way they want, and if that means no grotesque Albanian-Americans allowed, that’s their mean-spirited prerogative. But it’s dispiriting to me how many of the arguments used against Action Bronson were exactly the same ones — practically verbatim — that the PMRC trotted out thirty years ago to warn impressionable yoof away from the Mentors records. I would have hoped that we’d grown in sophistication, or simply in understanding of how artistic representation works, since then, but the Internet keeps showing me that we haven’t. We’re still fighting the same old battles, and even though I’d like to blame Canada and say it can’t happen here, we all know damn well it can. Telling it is that the concerned citizens who went after Action Bronson had no problem with leaving two other rappers on the bill who aren’t exactly gentlemanly — and of course they did, because those rappers are black and photogenic, and Bronsolino is an obese, filthy, ugly white guy. He is an easy target to assail from the so-called left, and I wish these people would start calling a spade a spade, or in this case, a non-spade a non-spade. Now I realize that I am and have always been easy to caricature as First Amendment Absolutist Man, or Artistic Expression Man, or just Hip-Hop Apologist Man, and I’m okay with that, because goddammit, you’ve got to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Words do hurt, and rap lyrics can be awfully nasty, and we can all afford to be less careless, but pulling lyrics and images out of context and hanging storytellers on the basis of those lyrics and images is really best left to the Spanish Inquisition. Because when you put the stuff in the context of works such as Mr. Wonderful, you see Action Bronson for what he is: a total fucking clown about as threatening to the public welfare as his hero “Mediterranean” Mario. Bronson is a mean rhymer, and he does indeed sound like Ghostface. But he’s also a thematic lightweight who sticks bad Broadway crooning interludes in the middle of his records and takes lyrical inspiration from Billy Joel. He is not somebody the moralists really need to worry about, and hey, here’s an idea: the next time an artist comes to Toronto whose music loudly celebrates alcohol, why don’t the citizens get together and raise a fuss about that?  The next assault in Canada won’t be inspired by Action Bronson’s music. But I’ll bet you dollars to Tim Horton doughnuts that booze will be involved.

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

Frank Turner’s Positive Songs For Negative People. Funny that he used to get Billy Bragg comparisons. Not only is he increasingly allergic to Bragg-style lyrical subtlety, it’s also become clear that he’s not much of a social democrat. When he first confronted arena crowds with his acoustic guitar and no backing band, he won plaudits for his courage. He still deserves them. But the weight of his strident one-man-on-the-barricades fantasy of himself has now crushed every ounce of nuance out of his music. These days, he may as well be Shepard Fairey: all of his tactics are borrowed from the reds, but he’s got no cause to apply them to other than his own capitalist-individualist mythmaking.  Not something B. Bragg would have appreciated. Incidentally, Butch Walker produced this. Butch… did not have a banner year.

Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album

The Blur comeback. Former United Kingdom spazmos get melancholy and ruminative in old age. Reports that Graham Coxon played on The Magic Whip remain unconfirmed. As for Damon Albarn, who, naturally, dominates this album?, his latest quasi-ironic position statement on our modern technodystopia is that There Are Too Many Of Us. And people wonder why I have always sided with the Gallaghers.

Most Sympathetic Perspective Over And Album

Ezra Furman

Album You’re Most Ambivalent About Evaluating

The Alabama Shakes. Everything about Sound & Color is an almost. As in: the band rocks almost as hard as it should to justify its Southern rock ambitions, and the singer is almost as rowdy as she wants to be, and the contempo-R&B experimentation is almost audacious enough to turn the heads of people who like contempo-R&B, and the legit-smart words are almost enough to make you think. How many times can you miss the bullseye but still get credit for the prettiness of the target or the elegant dart-chucking form?  I understand the enthusiasm for it, and I might be dead wrong about this. But it still hasn’t grown on me yet, and too much of its tentative revisionism feels like straight-up Grammy bait.

Artist(s) You Respect But Don’t Like

Tobias Jesso, Villagers, and Father John Misty.  Jesso is pretty good at bouncy piano pop, Conor O’Brien of Villagers does the sensitive male thing fairly well, and Father John Misty is a very good singer. But none of these artists has any idea how to turn his assets into a good song, let alone a good album. Jesso aims for cute and ends up cutesy, O’Brien shoots for impressionism and drowns in his own abstraction, and Father John tries to be an asshole and, predictably, achieves his aim. I Love You, Honeybear plays like weird sociopolitical cabaret, and that only works (and even then, rarely) when the sociopolitical points being made aren’t thumpingly obvious.

Biggest Head-Shaker

Zac Brown. I am not sure anybody in the country is wasting his talent as spectacularly as this guy is, and yes, that includes Yasiel Puig and the President. Consider his assets: when he sings, he actually sounds like James Taylor, which is an endeavor that just about every other male American has failed at. He’s got a kickass band that can play in a variety of modes, and he’s a sure hand with an anthemic chorus. So what does he apply himself to? Why, bro-country/bro-electronica crossover, of course. Perhaps that we can be thankful that he is concentrating all the bro styles in one place where they can be crushed with a mop like a bunch of cockroaches. On my generous days I tip my cap to his energetic grab for the lowest common denominator. Those generous days come infrequently, though. Most of the time I see Brown as just another casualty of runaway populism.

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Rattle That Lock. Remember how I said how I wished there were some Gilmour vox to break up the monotony on Distant Stream Of Urine, or whatever that last Pink Floyd album was called?  Be careful what you ask for.

Album You Learned The Words To Most Quickly


Album Or Artist You Re-Evaluated In 2015

I spent most of February and March discovering Jackson Browne’s back catalog. Not every Jackson Browne album is great, or even good, but if you’re a fan of ’70s soft rock, you should make Late For The Sky part of your life.

Album You’re Probably Underrating

Y Dydd Olaf. Gwenno, former lead singer of the Pipettes, kicks nine synthpop songs in Welsh and one in Cornish, which makes this a good rebuttal piece the next time I’m going on and on about how music needs to be intelligible to be good. I have no idea what she’s singing about, but I keep replaying this anyway. Then again, I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that this came out in the year of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP insurgency, and rumblings from Plaid Cymru, too. When was the last time a Welsh-language album was released in the USA anyway? Gwenno’s dad turns out to be a poet in Cornwall and an outspoken advocate for local self-determination. Chances are good that he’s got the same opinion of the Tory Like The Cat With The Cream as Stuart Murdoch does. Chances are good that his daughter does, too. The United Kingdom: enjoy it while you can.

Worst Song Of The Year

Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye”. Marvin didn’t die for your sins so you could use him as a verb, pal.

Worst Song On A Good Album

Natalie Prass, “Christy”

Worst Video

Taylor Swift & Kendrick Lamar, “Bad Blood”. I mean, I guess it’s funny? Sort of? But how much money did they spend on the execution of each joke? After awhile, it starts to feel a little like the Jeb Bush campaign: three thousand dollars for each vote he got in Iowa, and plenty left to blow. We’ve got enough evidence now to declare Taylor Swift a poor video performer, which is fine!, she can’t be good at everything. Like Colin Meloy, she was meant for the stage.

Worst Singing

Action Bronson

Worst Rapping

Kanye West on “Jukebox Joints”.

Worst Lyrics

“Cha Cha”. “I like to cha cha in a Latin bar with a Dominican that resembles Taina?” “I am not of Spanish descent but I’m fucked up so that’s the way I talk?” Really? No matter how sweet he croons it, it’s still dumb as heck. Fairly offensive, too. Come back, Phil Collins, all is forgiven for “Illegal Alien”.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should’ve Known Better

Colin Meloy. I don’t think he exactly phoned it in this year, but it did feel like he turned a few of these songs over to the Decemberists lyric generator, which is how everything became misbegotten and ill-begotten and cannonball in the bosom of your belly-ish.

Most Overrated

Dan Bejar. You know, I have always put up with this guy because he is a member of a really good band, even though he is at best an adjunct member of that band, even though he won’t tour with that band, even though his contributions to that band tend to be the least repeatable songs on any given album, even though the originals of those songs are dullburgers that are polished for presentation by bandmembers he won’t even tour with or harmonize with, even though his vocals suggest what Robyn Hitchcock would sound if he was indifferent to pitch, rhythm, or timbre, even though he has never, ever, with the possible exception of “Myriad Harbor”, written a single lyric that bears up under scrutiny, even though his attitude toward pop is condescending at best, which reflects badly on his bandmates, who, with all their faults, do love a good melodic hook. What I cannot tolerate is his new belief that he is some sort of Chet Baker style crooner. He cannot hold a tune when he is doing garage rock, and he thinks he can get away with noir B.S.?  I would think he was baiting us, if I had any faith that he cared a jot about the rest of the human race, which I certainly, certainly, certainly do not.

Also Way Overrated

In Colour by Jamie xx. Great music for shopping for high-end perfume. Eau de bullshit.

Not Overrated, But Widely Misrepresented In The Music Press

Young Thug. “We already knew he was rap’s most wildly creative stylist: a rogue alchemist of undiscovered melodies, an electrostatic bonding agent for new metaphors.” PFFTFTFTHHHTHF. Pitchfork: prompting spit-takes since…. when did they start paying attention to hip-hop, anyway? I feel like it was pretty damn far into their run, and it still shows. Back in the day, there were no brothers on the wall. Now, they’re ready to hyperventilate over every “zany” negro on the mixtape circuit. It’s really two sides of the same coin, and the coin just got spent on their stupid festival and now there’s no money to hire writers. I personally like Young Thug, but I will not pretend that he, or Future or Fetty or Ty Dolla $ign, sings about anything other than (1) cooking/selling/doing drugs (2) joyless, machine-like sex (3) how he is superior to his enemies and will personally murder them or have them shot by his goons. That’s it; that’s all he’s got for you. There’s nothing visionary about any of that, and these people are going to force grandma over here write a letter to the editor. C’mon, don’t make me write a letter to the editor asking why you people can’t recognize a southern dirty-blues singer when you hear one. Young Thug does indeed have a terrific ear from melody — not the undiscovered or electrostatic kind, but the timeworn pentatonic stuff that’s been washing up on the banks of the Mississippi since the days of Robert Johnson. Ty Dolla $ign is basically a blues singer, too, but he’s got a slightly wider range; that said, his album peters out like crazy at the end and the same cannot be said for the mixtapes of Future and Thugger, all of which maintain a remarkable level of consistency given their ostentatious offhandedness.

Somewhat Underrated, All Things Considered

twentyonepilots. The new Panic! At The Disco, and I say that not just because they record for Fueled By Ramen. Like Panic!, twentyonepilots has built a mass audience by peddling an aggrotheatrical version of yoof music to malajusted male semi-adults too busy getting tatted up and/or putting on makeup to smash the state. Fifteen years ago that meant mall emo, but in 2015, Tyler Joseph is required to rap. As an emcee he is marginally better than the guy from the 1-877-KARS4KIDS commercial, but his choruses do tend to be memorable, and the records have personality and “guts,” which in pop is usually better than guts, if you can put aside any cravings for authenticity. And if you can’t, there’s no way you’re listening to twentyonepilots in the first place. As was the case with Panic!, no tastemaker will admit that he likes twentyonepilots until ten years have passed, and by then they’ll have broken up. It’ll be okay to write a revisionist thinkpiece. The coast will be clear. Nobody’s pass to the Fader Fort will be revoked.

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

No Closer To Heaven by The Wonder Years. That’s just way too murky and aggressive, guys.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Ahha” by Nate Ruess.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

“I Didn’t See It Coming”

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Cee-Lo. Do I vote for him every year? Very well, then, I’ll make a more painful call….

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Just Produce Records For Others

Dr. Dre. “And don’t forget that I came from the ghetto.” Gee, Andre, I totally forgot; I spaced on the last twenty five years of popular music and mistook you for a Short Hills native. The problem with this guy is always the same: his craven need to self-mythologize always gets in the way of his putative social statements. Is Compton a hellhole where the black American Dream goes to die, or is it a romantic-survivalist proving ground that produces wonderful battle-hardened specimens like (the character) Dr. Dre? He would like to have it both ways, of course, but he’s never been a good enough rapper to resolve the internal contradictions of his screwed-up worldview. Notably he farms out the I Can’t Breathe moment to Kendrick, who is really cornering the market on afropsychodrama. Dre could never have pulled that off himself. Snoop also throws him a couple of much-needed lifelines. He’s a good man in a pinch.

Lovable Old Bastard Who Is Losing Altitude

Craig Finn has now sustained diminishing returns longer than anybody since Cesar Cedeno. I guess that testifies to how great he was when he was great. He had a long way to slide.

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

FKA Twigs. I am still waiting for my lightbulb moment with FKA, who I am assured is really artful and really socially-conscious, though nobody can point to the song where she demonstrates any of that. She’s got a weak voice, her songs are indifferently constructed, and her lyrics are about as feminist as Roosh V the pickup artist. I don’t get the appeal. Maybe it’s the diastema.

Also Cut From The Team

Halsey. Jersey kid, blue hair, anthemic voice-of-a-generational lyrics over regurgitated Swedebeats, allegedly bisexual, grotesquely tattooed. Representative chorus: “We are the new Americana/high on legal marijuana/raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” Speak for yourself, Halsey; no need to drag your innocent peers into this. Badlands is selling, but I think it’s mostly because of the Bieber co-sign. Move along, nothing to see here.

Right On The Bubble

Little Simz. For a British rapper, not half bad. Not half good, either: too often she slips into that bakalakarakalaka flow that, I guess, denotes seriousness of intent to U.K. audiences. They don’t call it hard, I’m told they say “grimey.” They’re cute, them and their crumpets. Give them a break — Nicola Sturgeon and Gwenno’s dad are tearing their nation apart.

That Breakout Is Probably Never Gonna Happen

This might not be true straight across the country, but in the blast radius of Philadelphia that includes Jersey, there is no man who causes more rambunction in a live setting than Meek Mill. He comes out and does his holler my way out of poverty routine, and the crowd goes apeshit nuts. This has never been translated to wax for the same reason that Bim Skala Bim and Plate O’ Shrimp couldn’t capture their live act in the studio either: there is a variety of rambunction that only works onstage, and this is it. If Mephiskapheles could not make the necessary adjustment, why would we have any higher hopes for Meek?

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some New Ideas

Brandi Carlile. She says she has a drawerful of pop-country songs stashed under her bed. I think she needs to raid that drawer.

Should Have Been Better

Secret Someones. In theory this outfit ought to be fantastic: Bess Rogers on lead guitar and Lelia Broussard on bass, a fine songwriter named Hannah Winkler fronting the act, and a decent drummer, too. Theory must be verified in the lab, though, and this test tube of chemicals seems oddly inert. The baking powder volcano is fizzling out and now the second grade class is getting fidgety. In the press material I got, they called themselves Weezer with boobs, and regardless of how the boy drummer feels about that, it’s a horrible image, and now I have to brush and floss my brain. (Sorry to pass it on).

If I Could Be In Any Band Or Musical Project, I’d Pick This One

Belle & Sebastian, of course.

Lifetime Achievement Award

You could make the case that Tracy Bonham has had as much career value as Joanna Newsom. And you’d lose that case badly, but you could sustain your argument for a few sentences before you crashed and burned. Bonham has made five good to very good albums, each of which has its own distinctive personality and sound. That puts her around where Kate Miller-Heidke is. Maybe the songwriting hasn’t been as consistent, but  she’s such a good singer that she makes up for it there. I’m almost out of gas here, people, the finish line is in sight, and I’m popping off. Funny that “Mother Mother” was lumped in with the rebellious “angry woman” stuff when it came out. Even at the level of the plot, the mother and the narrator have a good relationship; she ends “I miss you, I love you.” She just yowls louder than Alanis can. And Alanis can yowl.

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From


Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2025

Chancellor Bennett

Will Be A 1-Hit Wonder

Rachel Platten

Biggest Musical Trend Of 2016

Neo-masculine backlash (ugh.)

Best Album Of 2016

Metronomy 5.


Although his killing made the news and was officially acknowledged by the President, I’d wager most Americans don’t know who Ahmad al-Awlaki was. Members of our government sure did, though: before al-Awlaki’s death by drone strike and maybe even after, he was counted among the most dangerous people in the world. The San Bernardino mass murderers, the Fort Hood shooters, the Tzarnaev brothers, the so-called “underwear bomber,” and, depending on which account you’re reading, the 9/11 pilots were all said to have been inspired by al-Awlaki’s rhetoric. Google pulled his speeches from YouTube; even in Yemen, which was his last port in the international storm, he was wanted, dead or alive but preferably dead, by the police. In 2011, the Yemeni government and the CIA got the scalp they were after, proving once again that assassination is always the worst thing a regime can do if it is trying to keep dissent from resonating with a mass audience.

Al-Awlaki’s worldview, as it turns out, wasn’t too complex. While he was a cleric of sorts and did write and speak about religious subjects, he was mainly interested in geopolitics. Al-Awlaki believed that western authorities were privately determined to eradicate Muslims, and, therefore, Muslims had a moral obligation to fight back, by any means necessary and as violently as possible. It goes without saying, I hope, that this is repellent. It is not, however, unreasoned. Al-Awlaki was not into mayhem for its own sake; he wasn’t a cartoon villain. After reading Qutb and thinking long and hard about the world, he convinced himself that American authorities and the Israeli government and the societies they represented were fonts of evil, and wrongdoers had joined hands across the globe to smash the pious and downtrodden. In short, regardless of his stated affinity for world Islam, al-Awlaki was, at heart, a Western-style conspiracy theorist. Those who found his speeches online and were drawn to his messages — including those willing to become martyrs in the name of resistance — shared his conviction that the international order is illegitimate, pernicious, decadent, and kept afloat by lies. They were conspiracy theorists, too, and they either died or headed off to supermax with the belief that their cause was a righteous one.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post ran a story that claimed that conspiracy theory was on the wane. The Post can seem a little detached from time to time; this, though, had to have been a missive from outer space. Conspiracy theory has never been more prevalent than it is right now. It has moved from the margins — the province of John Birchers and moon-landing doubters and such — to the very center of public discourse. In 2015, most political action is motivated by one conspiracy theory or another. Candidates running for President of the United States now draw their biggest applause by vocalizing their suspicions: about Muslims, about Planned Parenthood, about global warming, about rogue police departments, about banks and the predatory one per cent. Even Hillary Clinton, who might be the most boring Presidential candidate of my lifetime, is famous for her belief in a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit her family. Everybody wants to be the lone man (or woman) speaking truth to power and exposing the lies of the cabal in Washington, or on Wall Street, or the United Nations, or your municipal machine. Conspiracy is the bread and butter of modern political campaigns, and lest you think I think I’m an enlightened observer sneering at all the paranoia, let me assure you that I’m guilty of it, too. I, too, am desperate to see the mask torn off and the curtain pulled away and the spotlight shone on the seamy underside of whatever official story I’m being asked to swallow. And since it’s the modern condition, it is virtually certain that you, too, believe in some kind of conspiracy. You don’t need to be a bomb-chucker, or even a blogger. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been jeopardized by the misrepresentations of those in power over you — and of course you have — you’re doing conspiracy theory. You’re sinking in an epistemological tar pit, but at least we’re going down together.

There are a few reasons why conspiracy theory has devoured public discourse since the millennium turned. Only one is incontrovertible, though (it is the prerogative of the conspiracy theorist to insist that such-and-such is beyond argument) and since I want you to keep reading, I’m going to discuss it last. I’ll start with something that’s tough to dispute: more people have greater access to partial information than ever before. Chances are, if you’re an American with an internet connection and an ounce of curiosity, you’ve bumped into alternative accounts of world events, and unless you’ve got no imagination at all, you’ve tried some of these on for size. They’re much more fun than sawdusty old mainstream accounts, and it’s always a thrill to feel like you’re privy to knowledge that’s been withheld from those who aren’t as enlightened as you are. Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out. Human beings prefer to listen to arguments that validate what they already know, or what they think they know, so one conspiracy theory blog post reinforces the next, and one radio-transmitted broadside against the powers that be, once entertained, makes it that much easier to accept the next one.

Alas, each step along the path of conspiracy theory renders us more inscrutable to those who aren’t fellow travelers. The more I convince myself that my alternate story is the correct one, the more committed I become to speaking in a tongue that can’t be translated to the rest of the world. The result is the strange public biome we’ve got right now: political actors who believe that their arguments are airtight, but who look to outsiders like madmen.

Mainstream journalism does bear part of the blame. Because of shrinking budgets, big news outfits have closed down overseas bureaus; accordingly, their programs are choking on second-hand smoke. It is possible to watch a program on CNN, or MSNBC, or FOX, or a local TV affiliate, and see nothing but talking heads, sitting at a table and mouthing off. Punditry is a poor substitute for actual reporting, and viewers are right to get suspicious and seek the real story elsewhere. But real reporters are, increasingly, screwed by the pace at which partial information now travels. If a correspondent has any journalistic ethics at all, she’s not going to tell your tale until she knows enough to get it right. This means she’s always going to be beaten to the punch by both the sensationalist press and the people on the ground with Twitter accounts. From the outside, it’s going to look like she’s holding back — like she knows something she’s unwilling to share, or, worse, that her corporate overseers have deemed unsharable. Actually, it’s far more likely that her bosses are pressuring her to tell an incomplete story as fast as possible, and to forego the kind of verification that would have been standard in the 20th century. So she makes mistakes — and those mistakes are, for conspiracy theorists, evidence of a cover-up.

All that is small beer, though, compared to the major driver of conspiracy theory. The expansion of the security state has driven a wedge between Western governments and the people they represent. Over the past two decades (and certainly since 9/11), authorities have become far more secretive, and the nebulous official explanations we’ve gotten about many major happenings have been delivered grudgingly at best. At the same time that our leaders have grown parsimonious about details, they’ve abridged our privacy rights in the name of national security. Constant surveillance is now a preoccupation of the authorities, and the federal government circumvents our elected representatives and operates through executive orders. Congressman Paul the Elder — a popular conspiracy theorist if there ever was one — suggested that we were headed toward an event horizon where the government knows everything about us, but we don’t know anything about the government. That’s a politician’s hyperbole, but anybody who has ever run up against the forcewall of government press agencies will assure you that nobody in power is talking anymore. They may believe that their silence contributes to national security. They may just be jerks. Regardless of their intentions, it always looks like they’re hiding something. And it’s not just the feds — from the schools, to the courts to the corporations, all American institutions have grown more authoritarian and inflexible, more suspicious of outsiders, and more determined to snoop on customers, associates, and employees. Paranoia is a reasonable, inevitable response to conditions like ours.

Conspiracy theory contradicts everything I’ve learned about the way people operate. For starters, human beings don’t conspire very well. Groups are fissiparous, everybody wants to be the top dog, and the bigger the secret, the harder it is for blabbermouths to keep. Yet I am drawn to conspiracy theory nevertheless. The rate at which conspiracy theories are proven true, or partially true, has accelerated since the 1980s, and it’s likely that this trend will continue. Edward Snowden exonerated those of us who believed that the domestic spying apparatus was larger and more insidious than anybody was willing to say, and his revelations were a shot of oxygen for dissidents everywhere. (Yes, I know that some conspiracy theorists consider him a “limited hangout,” but he was brave enough to blow a whistle, and he sure doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself over there in Russia.) Black operations and extraordinary renditions sound un-American, but did become downright common practices during the worst days of the Iraq War — and since they occurred by fiat and were sustained without legislative oversight, there’s no reason to believe they’ve ceased. Those of us who’ve dipped a toe into the muddy waters of Jersey politics are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theory; from Bid Rig to Bridgegate to McGreevey’s resignation, there’s always another story behind the story, and then a story behind the story behind the story, and so on until we go home, lock the door, and play video games.

Since we are all justifiably paranoid now, and there’s no escape from the fearsphere, and, as we’ve established, we’ve all gotten comfortable playing with fire, I thought it might be prudent to establish some ground rules for navigating the modern world:

Rule #1: Own it. It no longer makes any sense for anybody to dismiss ideological opponents as cranks or tinfoil hat-wearers. Remember always that you’re a conspiracy theorist, too. The stuff you believe in is as inscrutable to them as the stuff they believe is to you. You believe it’s different in your case, because you’re right and they’re wrong. Unfortunately, that’s the exact thing they believe, and they’re just as passionate about it as you are. If you knew only Swahili, and they knew only semaphore, you wouldn’t have any harder time communicating. There is no way you’re ever going to be able to have a conversation, which means that civility now depends on extradiscursive stuff like mutual respect and acceptance of our common humanity. Ergo,

Rule #2: Watch with all the dehumanization, buddy. It’s okay to believe that you’re on to something that few other people are, because if nobody had the courage to take that kind of leap into the unknown, there wouldn’t be any investigative journalism. It isn’t a problem to hold beliefs that are wildly at variance with the people around you; it isn’t even a problem to try to convince those people, loudly and obnoxiously if you care to, that you’re right and they’re wrong. But when you begin to disparage others for their reluctance to adopt your conspiracy theory — when you call them unenlightened, or idiotic, or mindless sheeple — you’re taking the first step on a dark and terrible path. Down that road is pain and alienation and maybe some violence, too. When you divide humanity into the enlightened few (which you’re part of) and the great unwashed, it becomes very easy to place yourself above your neighbor, and deny him the basic dignity that is the oxygen of civil society. Here’s a good way to know if you’re drifting in a dangerous direction: you compare yourself to any of the characters in The Matrix. You laugh, but I’m sure you’ve noticed otherwise intelligent people going on about the red pill and the glitches in the system and the rest of it. Because if you’re Neo, then the rest of the planet is either willfully or congenitally unaware — and you’re free to treat everybody else as a cowardly slumberer. Life is not a Hollywood cartoon, arrogance is never a pleasing trait, and, as a wise man once said, if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow. Our best bet is to proceed like we’re all in it together, and that “it” can be defined as a state of society where everybody is under suspicion and official stories keep flying apart like dandelions under the stiff wind of investigation. This is our best chance for peaceful coexistence. As for consensus, forget about it. No chance of that until the emergency state is dismantled.

Rule #3: Don’t disengage completely from the mainstream media. That includes the corporate-owned news channels. The real problem with them isn’t that their coverage is compromised by the ideology of its overseers, it’s that it’s driven (as it always has been) by public interest. It is no simple thing to manufacture a trending topic; try though news editors may, it will always be more economical to borrow one from the Internet. Yet journalistic integrity remains a real thing, and the practical skills and ethical standards of trained reporters have never been needed any more than they are now. People do not get into journalism for money, power and glory. They do it because they’re born storytellers, or because they’re dangerously curious about something, or because they’re compelled by the prospect of a life of travel and adventure and relative penury. Some reporters are gullible, but few of them are corruptible — if they were, they’d have been drawn to a more profitable line. Real reporting is a pain in the tush: an editor worth anything is going to insist on verification before running with a story, and those assurances can be awfully hard to get, especially if the correspondent is working on a sensitive story in a country with a disinclination to guarantee the safety of reporters. How many times have you, conspiracy theorist, sat in frustration in front of a CNN report and wondered aloud why the woman with the microphone won’t connect the dots? Chances are, she’d like to do that as badly as you would, but since what she knows doesn’t meet the standards of verification, she’s muzzled. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: news outlets get in far more trouble when they act in haste than they do when they play it cool.

Your corner blogger, by contrast, is free to speculate wildly, and his flamethrower prose has its own cleansing appeal. But no matter how trenchant it is, an analytical piece from a man sitting on his ass half a world away is going to be less valuable than a report from the ground — and that includes stories by correspondents whose paychecks are signed by companies that have a vested interest in the status quo. There is simply no substitute for eyewitness accounts — especially since physical presence has a funny way of turning ideological commitments upside-down.

Before a mainstream network or newspaper reporter is an agent of an imperialist interest, she’s a human being and a storyteller. Regardless of your beliefs, you should listen to her; you’re armed with enough skepticism to appreciate her position and to adjust your expectations accordingly. You don’t want to be one of those people who demand purity and consistency from your news correspondents anyway. A good reporter will be confused most of the time. That’s how you know she’s doing her job. The world is a mess, and that incoherence and destabilization ought to be inscribed in her stories.

Rule #4: Interrogate your motives. Ask yourself this question: If the conspiracies you entertain were ever proven, incontrovertibly and publicly, to be true, who benefits? Who profits by the embarrassment and ridicule of the orchestrators, and who loses popular esteem, and maybe even liberty? If it turns out that the answer is, in all cases, that you and your people are exonerated and/or exalted and your enemies are jailed, then there’s a good chance that revenge fantasies have stained your worldview. Now, it could always be true that the universe is arranged in a manner that holds you down, and if that’s the case, I feel for you. But even if you’re forever cursed, it still might be a healthy thing for you to try on a conspiracy theory in which your affinity group is among the bad guys. Trust me — somebody has beaten you to it.

Rule #5: Remember that you are (probably) not as persecuted as you think you are. There are Yazidis in the world, and they’re under the gun. You aren’t one of them. Hegemony is never as total as we might think it is during our darkest nights, and every American does have some latitude to act — however limited it may be by circumstance. We forget that. I know that I do, and as a white guy in this society without any outward signs of disfigurement, I should be able to make my influence felt. Of course, the alleged persecution of white guys by a conspiracy of “politically correct” elites, minorities, and opportunistic politicians has been a major driver of several notable presidential campaigns. There are men who feel victimized by a conspiracy feminists and their beta-male slaves who impinge on their rights to self-expression and self-determination; poke around the Internet, they’re pretty loud about it. You may shake your heads at these people, and I’m not going to stop you — but I do ask you to note the structural similarities of their arguments to those who shake their fists at the one per cent, or those who believe there is an international conspiracy to hold the Muslims down. It’s been a brutal year for the peacemakers, and we can all afford to step back, take a deep breath, and let a few of our grievances go. Should we do this, I think it’ll help our conspiracy theories, too. The more disinterested the reporter, the harder it is for his opponents to dismiss him as a crank with an axe to grind. Proceed as a truth-seeker, and not a self-appointed crusader for justice. As an American, you have no claim whatsoever to the moral high ground. You’ve spent your life enjoying the fruits of the two greatest (proven) conspiratorial arrangements on the globe — the dollar as reserve currency and the U.S. military control of the commons. You can afford to conduct your claims from street level, rather than a high horse.

Friends, we need no crystal ball to see that there is trouble ahead. In the history of the world, there has never been a better time to be a ragemonger than right now. Many of the communications systems we’ve set up are well calibrated to be carriers of vicious messages. Broadcast media rewards outrageous behavior, and gives people an incentive to play to captive crowds, throw punches against straw men, and film the reaction. In an atmosphere like ours, it is virtually certain that somebody, or somebodies, will ride a conspiracy theory to a position of great authority. Given how irresponsibly this could be done, we’ve all got to be doubly circumspect. My best hope is that the paranoia we’ve been forced to cultivate by 15 years of emergency authority will serve as a check against violent extremism of all kinds. May our uncertainty and destabilization be a reminder that the scariest man is the one who believes he’s got it all figured out.

No, Mr. Trump — thousands of Muslims did not celebrate in the Jersey City streets on 9/11

ISIS wants to create enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims.  That’s their game. Donald Trump’s game turns out to be pretty damned similar. While it pains me to draw a comparison between the frontrunner of a major American party and a bunch of homicidal thugs, it is Mr. Trump himself who keeps forcing the issue.  It is not enough that he proposes surveillance of mosques; now, he’s determined to resurrect a vicious Islamophobic urban legend that I though we’d put to bed fourteen years ago. He’d like you to believe that he saw thousands of Muslims dancing and cheering in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11.  Again, this baseless, unsupported accusation comes from the putative leader of a major American political party.

If you were actually in Hudson County on 9/11, there is almost no chance you heard Mr. Trump’s story as anything other than the divisive, exploitative bullshit that it is.  I’ll bet your memory of that day is painfully clear. But Jersey City has seen a spike in new residents since September 11, 2001. Some of them might have taken the word of a politician who is, for some inexplicable reason, treated by the mainstream press as an amusing comedian-provocateur rather than a blowhard who is constantly talking out of his ass.

Cheering was the very last thing you were likely to encounter in Jersey City on 9/11.  Everybody in town was frightened and confused.  Nobody was pointing fingers or thinking too hard about geopolitics — instead we were all trying to find out if our friends were alive.  If they were alive, we were preoccupied with the sticky task of getting them home across the Hudson. We were worried that more attacks were coming, and we wondered in horror whether there was any fissile material in the explosives.  Even the official timeline presented to us by the news didn’t seem to correspond to what we were witnessing.  We couldn’t make heads or tails of anything.  I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Jersey City residents — including our many Muslim residents — first heard of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden from George W. Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress.

The dust soon settled. Once it did, the finger-pointing and scapegoating and enemy-finding began in earnest. One of the nastiest rumors that began to circulate was the one about the wicked Arabs dancing in the street. I have a cousin who has a friend who was driving by a mosque overflowing with joyous Arabs. My son in law is a policeman and his off-duty partner saw evil Muslims popping champagne bottles on 1 and 9. Etcetera.  In retrospect, it was natural for survivors to visualize a boogeyman behind every bush. It was also possible to imagine that disaffected jerks who felt they’d been given a raw deal by American society might welcome a firm blow against the empire.

But in order for Trump’s cheering Muslims story to be true, the following would also have to be true:

  1. Thousands of Muslim Americans would have had to have extensive prior knowledge of the coming strike — extensive enough to be able to recognize, through the smoke and confusion and contradictory reports of the day, the attacks for exactly what they were,
  2. Everybody in these groups of Muslim Americans would have had to have been comfortable enough with carnage to keep their lips sealed,
  3. They would have had to have accepted al-Qaeda’s ridiculous perversion of Islam — one in which it is somehow spiritually permissible to be a mass-murderous bastard,
  4. They would have had to have gathered together on the day of the attacks as if they were going to watch the Super Bowl,
  5. They would have had to have been willing to make horse’s asses of themselves in public, right in front of a grieving city.

Do you know anybody like this? Of course you don’t. People like this exist in bad television programs and in the daydreams of demagogues.

Should you need further persuasion, consider that September 2001 wasn’t quite as far back in the Stone Age as we sometimes think it was. Nobody had an iPhone then, but amateur digital photographers and videographers were general throughout the city. If thousands of Muslims had been partying in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11, don’t you think some shocked bystander would have taken a shot of it? Wouldn’t you have? Since no footage of partying 9/11 Arabs exists anywhere, we must conclude that the story of the thousands of cheering Muslims is akin to Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness monster, or your date with Jennifer Lopez. To revive a meme that’s almost as old as the urban legend: pix or it didn’t happen.

As for Governor Christie’s mealy-mouthed reply to Trump’s calumny, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from this phony tough guy.  Apparently his present constituents are Islamophobic caucusgoers in Iowa, not the defamed residents of the state he’s supposed to be representing.  When Mr. Trump makes believe that thousands of Jersey Muslims were celebrating 9/11 — that a lethal fifth column was operating out of Ibby’s Falafel — he insults all of us. I wish we had a governor proud enough of New Jersey to respond, forcefully, to those insults.

Nobody knows for sure what Donald Trump’s damage is. He may actually be a delusional person. His headspace could be haunted by specters from the dark side of the American collective consciousness — crazed blacks on the loose and bomb-throwing Arabs and angry feminists out to Bobbitize him. We’ve all met people like this, although usually they’re drunks in a bar, not billionaires. Conversely, this may all be some form of street theatre — a exercise in public credulity orchestrated by a confirmed huckster who may be seeing how far he can push his abject nonsense.

In either case it’s worth our while to sort this out before he starts winning primaries. In the meantime, I expect everybody in town who has a pulpit or a platform to say something.  If you’ve got a congregation that listens to you, you have a responsibility to take this personally, and to do what you can to repudiate this smear campaign against other Jersey City worship communities.  It is incumbent on you to demonstrate that we won’t be divided by an out-of-town oligarch determined to use our town as a backdrop for his Islamophobic fantasies.  The holidays are coming; what we ought to be organizing is an interfaith celebration in which we can pray together for the peace, humility, and reconciliation that all genuinely religious people seek. Wouldn’t that be a nice counterpoint to the scaremongering of the past two weeks? Churches, synagogues, mosques: I call on you.







Critics Poll XXII — Singles

Let’s get the foregone conclusion over with first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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