Critics Poll 27 — Miscellaneous Stuff

Your favorite singer, by a landslide

There’s a damned good case to be made that I shouldn’t be doing this at all. In a time of national crisis, squawking about the wonders of the Knowles sisters and various college rock bands is at best uncouth and at worst a conciliatory distraction. I ought to be devoting my attention and my talents, such as they are, to the emerging resistance movement. I’m not being sarcastic here — I get it. This isn’t a drill: things really are as bad as your paranoid uncle always feared they’d get. (I’m your paranoid uncle.) But I also felt that to *not* do the Poll and write it up as I have for the past 26 years, well, that’d be letting the terrorists win. Moreover, to quote my hero Rodney in Back To School — just imagine me now with the same look of dawning horror on my face as he had in the Sam Kinison scene — I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.

So I figured the Poll and its writeup could be a much-needed break in the parade of bad news that has likely been your life for the past few months at least. Then I read your responses. Turns out you had a few things to say. And since you couldn’t help but write about politics, and I am a graduate of a bossy political science program, allow me to join the party here. I’ve got a longer essay that I’ll post sometime after the Poll is over; for today, I’ll limit myself to a few reflections and then turn the floor over to you. I doubt you’re going to agree, but what the heck; it’s my website, and I’m free to express myself however I’d like. For now.

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This spring, I read something serious in an otherwise blithe book about Amsterdam — something that stayed with me. The author made a claim about the Holocaust that I’d never encountered before. He reported that the death rate among Jews living in metropolitan Holland was higher than anywhere else in Western Europe — higher, even, than in Germany. The reason for this was not that the Dutch were particularly cruel, or even particularly fascist. On the contrary — they’d long maintained one of the most open societies on the globe. One of the characteristic byproducts of this open society, however, was a meticulous system of records on the country’s residents. These were kept to help the government better understand the people living under their authority, and the Dutch, being scrupulous chroniclers and attempt-to-understanders, put this paper database together for many reasons, some of which were undoubtably virtuous. They meant well. Yet when the Nazis took over the country, all of that information fell into their hands. They knew exactly where all the Jews were. They had an authoritarian’s most valuable tool — one more valuable even than a gun. They had a map.

In 2017, the entire social world is mapped. Chances are, you participated in the mapping. You’ve turned over lists of your friends and associates, your employment history, your political views, your health status and sexual preferences and, sometimes, your exact position on the globe to corporate social-networking sites. You may have done that for good reasons: you might have wanted to reconnect with old buddies, or share pictures of your newborn baby with your family, or spread the word about your band. We now know for certain that those services are all too ready to hand over their databases to the intelligence services and the police. Domestic surveillance has accelerated under every administration since World War II, including the one that just left office. Federal officers now have unprecedented powers to prosecute people who are deemed enemies of the state. We don’t know quite yet exactly what sort of Justice Department the new administration is going to put together under Jeff Sessions, but c’mon, the last few days ought to have given you a pretty good indication of their aims, and their scruples. They’re not going to hesitate to use the map they’ve inherited.

In an environment like the one we’re entering, it becomes incumbent upon all of us to attempt to scramble the lines on that map a little and make it harder for authoritarians to pin us down. Employ phony names, lie on surveys, refuse to sign things and hesitate before giving personal information to companies, confound the algorithm and make stuff up; do what you have to do to confuse the compiler of the dossier. Mostly, if you haven’t already, I urge you to severely curtail or discontinue your use of those corporate social-media sites. For most of us, the damage is already done — we’ve already created an easily-searchable online double of ourselves and the lives we lead, and we’re now completely open to inspection and exploitation, and, possibly, repression and punishment for who we are and what we believe. But there are millions of younger Americans who haven’t been absorbed into the system, and we need to stop tagging them, and classifying them, and entangling them in a network of associations that could, in some perhaps-not-so-distant fascist future, get them chucked in jail or worse.

You’re looking for something to do; you want to kick back against a government that’s repulsive to you? One that’s already shown pronounced sadistic tendencies? By all means, march, and shout, and organize, and above all, stick together. But the most powerful thing you can do right now to resist the drift toward authoritarianism is: leave Facebook and never come back. Get lost. Remember always that this regime wouldn’t be in place were it not for the specific targeting and voter modeling that could only have been accomplished through use of the personal data we’ve made available on the corporate social networks. The Trump campaign flooded Facebook users in the Midwest with Pizzagate horror stories and the like; you probably laugh when you hear this stuff, but campaign managers were able to take the measure of the susceptibility of voters and tailor their propaganda to suit what they’d discovered. A network designed to facilitate the frenzied sharing of incendiary clickbait headlines led, inevitably, to the triumph of a human piece of clickbait.

There are many among you who felt, strongly, that all the Democrats would have had to have done to beat Trump was nominate Bernie Sanders. I was a Sanders voter, too — I wrote the pieces and played the benefits and spread the good news (I didn’t wear the hat, though; I left that to Brad.) But if you think for a moment that Bernie wouldn’t have been vulnerable to the same sort of devastating social-network-driven assault that convinced thousands of Republicans that Hillary Clinton was sacrificing Haitian babies to Moloch in the basement of Roberta’s or wherever, you don’t understand how precisely we’ve all been psychographically pigeonholed and how thoroughly complicit we’ve been in weaving our own puppet-strings.

Nas wasn’t the first to say it, but say it he did, from a small stage at the iHeartRadio studio right after the release of “Life Is Good”. Social media, he told us, over and over, is the Devil. Not a plaything of the Devil meant for idle hans, or a tool of the Devil, or a means by which the Devil can drag you under by the sharp lapels of your checkered coat; no, the Devil himself. I didn’t really get it that night, although I should have, because it at base was similar to an argument made by my other favorite writer. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warns us that the Devil will convince us to do neither what we want nor what we ought — that his aim for human beings is to drive us into the trough of dullness where we repeat, with mounting joylessness, the same dreary, self-destructive activities every day. How many people do you know who were first enticed on to the corporate social-networks by the low-wattage ego strokes that they provide, and now must check in regularly, all day, and with increasing desperation, to learn if they’re still liked? How many hours have we thrown down that computer-blue sinkhole? How have you been compensated for your long labor on the map we’ve made? How do you suppose that map is going to be used?

Life is too precious to be spent in a spiderweb. As a cold February begins, I ask you again to turn your backs on these evil services. Discredit them by walking away. Admit to yourself what I know you already know: President Donald Trump could never have happened without them. That ought to be all the motivation you’d ever need to say goodbye.

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Okay, all you Tommy Shaws and Dennis DeYoungs out there: it’s music time.

Best singing: Big win for Frank Ocean this year. Even some folks who didn’t like Blonde very much voted for him in this category.

Best rapping: Chancellor Bennett takes this by a small plurality over Kanye. I was happy to see a few votes for Noname.

Best lyrics: Paul Simon. He sure did see things — and say things — that others were unwilling to say they saw. Forget Nate Silver; this year Rhymin’ Simon was the man with the long view.

Best album cover: Lots of votes for Lemonade. I get it: you people like it when Beyonce hides in her coat.

Best album title: Nothing close to a majority, but scattered votes for A Seat At The Table.

Biggest disappointment: This was one of the many negative categories won, or lost, by Kanye West. I’m pretty sure you weren’t talking about The Life Of Pablo, which, as far as I can tell, you all liked — even the passionate Taylor Swift fans among you. Sometimes I wonder how Kanye feels now in the wake of the recent executive orders and reports of Iranian babies who can’t get to the United States for surgery. Mostly I’ve just stopped wondering.

Best production: See, Kanye took this, too. It’s not The Life Of Pablo that’s bugging you.

2016 album that wore out most quickly: Some of you felt that Tegan and Sara’s latest was pretty thin. This wasn’t my vote — I like it, even as I admit it’s… well, it’s pretty thin. Steven thought I was dissing the Quins when I told him they’d made their Big Generator. I had to remind him that Big Generator is pretty darn good. “Love Will Find A Way” = mmmmm. But Big Generator marked the moment when the retooled, chart-friendly version of Yes went from “we will use the rudiments of modern production to fashion a subversive and incisive commentary on contemporary culture cleverly disguised as synthpop” to “hits hits hits yum we need more hits in our mouf.” To be fair, Sara, if not Tegan, would probably say that she’s getting some seriously homofriendly content into heavy rotation, which would be politically justifiable if she really was in heavy rotation, which she most certainly is not. She can commiserate with Carly Rae Jepsen, who continues to adhere to formula on behalf of, who?, male rock critics in their late twenties? As tasty as these confections are, the kids aren’t gobbling them up. Shoot high, aim low, people.

Most overrated: Three-way tie between Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, and Blackstar. Mind you, nobody said David Bowie was himself overrated. They picked on the album, not the legend.

Album that felt most like an obligation to get through and enjoy: Some longtime Okkervil River fans confessed that they found Away a chore. I don’t agree in the slightest, but I do understand if “Call Yourself Renee” stopped you cold. Van Morrison he ain’t. Nobody is.

Thing you feel cheapest about liking: A few parting votes for Barack Obama here. He gets some every year. Oh!, music, right. Young Thug took this one, which surprised me. Given all the critical fawning, I thought he’d made it safely beyond reproach. Was it “get behind her/put it in her butt”? Because that seems altogether consistent with pop as we’ve come to know and love it.

Most alienating perspective: Kanye West in a landslide. Again, you weren’t talking about “Famous”. Not to defend the indefensible — although I do always seem to be doing that on his behalf, don’t I? — but it does seem in retrospect that the stupid Trump stuff had more to do with his rivalry with Jay-Z, who was a vocal Clinton supporter, than it did with anything political. Also I am sure the misogyny really appealed to him.

Worst song of the year: Any of the three hit Chainsmokers tracks. They really did make themselves supervillains in record time. Normally I’d admire that, but we’re facing no shortage of supervillains at the moment.

Young upstart who should be sent down to the minors for more seasoning:Car Seat Headrest. Teens Of Denial and Blonde were the year’s two most polarizing albums.

Hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire: It pains me to report that Paul Simon got a few votes here, although not anywhere near as many as Neil Young. Or PJ Harvey, for that matter; guess you didn’t find her DC travelogue worthy of TripAdvisor. Incredibly, people still choose not to vote for me. I just think you’re being polite. You don’t have to be. I’m from Jersey and I write for newspapers and such; I can’t be insulted.

Good artist most in need of fresh ideas: Frightened Rabbit. Ten years ago, they won this poll. Painting Of A Panic Attack barely scraped together 20 points.

Will still be making good records in 2016: You’re betting on Chance The Rapper. I feel like I have to play the Bob Gibson role here. In 1985, Gibson watched Dwight Gooden and said “he will never again be as good as he is right now.” That Chicago crew was the brightest spot of a dark year, and they’ve absolutely positively got it going on. It feels like there’s nothing they can’t do. Enjoy it, because it’s not going to last forever.

Floor’s yours now. It ain’t pretty. Friends, I feel your pain.

Coming trend for 2017:

Shairi Turner: The muthafuckin’ struggle.

George Pasles: It’s going to be hard to pay attention to music in 2017.

Zachary Lipez: Biggest trend of 2016 — Using “these dark times” to push your music. Super great. Biggest trend of 2017 — The actual dark times.

Marisol Fuentes: Difficulty sleeping.

Stephen Mejias:Doom pop? Can that exist? Is that what the Weeknd is?

Brad Krumholz: Online album development, a la The Life Of Pablo.

Brian Block:Facebook directly taking over our computers and playing the songs it has calculated we want to hear at all times.

Steven Matrick: Political screeds (lord help us.)

Andrea Weiss: Everyone continues to get political and write lots of protest songs, most of them wonderful.

Hilary Jane Englert: Protest music.

Jim Testa: Protest songs will make a big comeback.

Jer Fairall: Protest and pants-shitting.

Adam Copeland: Braindead people still saying that Trump as president is good for art. A lot of misguided white people suddenly trying to make ineffective protest music, even though people of color have been doing it constantly since, well, since they’ve been in this country.

Steve Carlson: Endless paranoia – music about how we’re all trying not to die at any moment.

Oliver Lyons: Trap music. And by that I mean, “we are trapped in this government camp”, music.

Tom Snow: Global thermonuclear war.

Miscellaneous commentary:

Steve Carlson: Prevailing theme or trend of 2016 –Death. Just, death. Everywhere. And who knew the worst was yet to come.

Jer Fairall: The best art of 2016 was the video for Shura’s “What’s It Gonna Be?” An uplifting mix of pop-culture reverence, high school comedy and winsome queer romance, my endless refreshings of it on YouTube were the only thing that made me feel consistently good about popular culture in this most miserable of years.

Adam Copeland: Most alienating perspective –Kanye West thinking he should run for president.

Oliver Lyons: Most alienating perspective –At this point, Kanye. I know we shouldn’t expect musicians to be role models since 99% of them are grade school dropouts with crippling drug dependencies, but to keep praising every action this clownshoes does as an act of genius has become tiresome and just wrong. He’s a doofus who makes great music. I can live with that.

Brian Block: Best live show I saw this year —I’m tempted to say Le Vent du Nord at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro in October. Sociopolitical Quebecois folk songs, in French, are not an easy thing to make a North Carolinian general audience enjoy, understand, and sing along (in a foreign tongue) with, and Le Vent have some seriously impressive tricks to make it happen.But I’m gonna pick Shearwater, the Cat’s Cradle, December 14. Their singer’s public presentation is like mine — a somewhat sheepish but agreeable storytelling voice, explaining cryptic lyrics, telling little jokes that sometimes go somewhere, and willing to make carefully-worded exploratory leaps. For example, I didn’t know “Backchannels” was about “This little voice I sometimes get in the back of my head — hopefully it’s just me — that says ‘Hey, Jonathan, you’ve had a really nice run, and maybe now you should kill yourself”. But it takes a lot of grace to tell that in a friendly, non-worrisome way and make it about “the last taboo, something we’re not allowed to talk about in polite society, and maybe we should be. I suspect it’s gotten pretty common since November, like I could bring it up and strangers would say ‘Yeah! Me too!’. Like we should bring it into the open and reveal for the tiny, impotent thing it really is”.

No, I never feel that way. But what a useful speech, and what a tremendously fond, chatty concert it all was. The covers of David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ era — and of “the national anthem”, by which Meiburg mean “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” — were odd and utterly inspired as well.

Jonathan Andrew: 2016 was the year I finally got into Warren Zevon. Those first two albums are phenomenal. I continue to listen to more catalog releases than new works. Increasingly, music is used to soothe and to activate the pure pleasure centers of my brain/soul. Am I disappointed that I am no longer actively seeking out challenging contemporary sounds as much as I once did? Yes. Do the Prine, Petty, and Floyd back catalogs and myriad Grateful Dead live recordings bring me much needed joy? Absolutely. Also, seeing music live be it at larger concert venues or the local bar where my friends are jamming has become even more of an essential way of life. Stand in a room and listen to people create. Not sure how else I’m going to get through the next year, never mind the subsequent three. Never mind next week. Music is what we have.

Oliver Lyons: Best live show — My wife dancing to “Return of the Mack” at our wedding despite having torn her ACL earlier. “Dancing” involved being spun around in an office chair. She’s a trooper.

Tom Snow — Many winning guest appearances this year, notably Busta on the Tribe album, and 2 Chainz on the De La album. For some reason, I like Chance as a guest rapper better than on his own album. He may be following the Ludacris career trajectory for me. Ah, wait, there he is on television, hawking Kit Kats and proving my point.

Bradley Skaught: I can’t believe that anyone truly thought the Tribe Called Quest comeback would be as brilliant as it is. Even the most die hard fan.

Brian Block: A Tribe Called Quest were a surprise for me, as I don’t recall liking their original albums (granting I only a college kid back then), and unlike a lot of my favorite hip-hop, they cant in any sensible way be re-interpreted as an offshoot of rock. The bit where they’re an offshoot of Gene Wilder’s turn as Willy Wonka is damn hard to resist, though. Aesop Rock’s excellence is the opposite of a surprise, except that it’s nice to learn he doesn’t lose any of his poetic power by scaling back the density of his references.I have no idea why Saul Williams keeps getting overlooked in critic polls, though: powerful deep voice, inventively urgent rhythms, cogent political lyrics that leave room for him to emerge as a character (I love his own casual drag-wear in the lyrics of the pro-transgender anthem Think Like They Book Say). Is it a problem that he’s worked so much with Nine Inch Nails? Aesop and Kanye haven’t been hurt by sampling Emerson-Lake-Palmer or King Crimson. I don’t get it.

Oliver Lyons: Best song of the year — It’s obviously Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots.” But in a better world, one where we didn’t elect a bright orange fascist who values money over people’s lives, song of the year is Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles.” The best thing to ever have “Beatles” attached to it.

Anna Howe: Least believable perspective over an album — Young Thug, because nobody could be that retarded. Also, there’s something suspiciously insincere about Maren Morris.

Bobby Olivier: Prevailing trend of 2016 — The return of the choker necklace! And the pop-drop. Damn Chainsmokers…

Adam Copeland: Biggest disappointment — Bruno Mars miscalculating that New Jack Swing would be back in style.

Shairi Turner: Nicki and Kim get their shit together and drop a secret album produced by Missy featuring Foxy, Salt and Pepa, Monica, Brandy, and the original Destiny’s Child some fresh bars Tupac made from his private island.

Brian Block:As for David Bowie, well, in 2014, my mom died of cancer. She’d moved into a grandmother apartment attached to our house, and it devastated me watching her decline: first losing the ability to garden, then to take her several-mile walks in the morning, then to concentrate on any book that wasn’t a light romance novel, finally to even utter sentences related to reality instead of hallucination. My mom was one of the smartest, funniest, kindest people I ever knew: I trust the nurses when they tell me she handled her decline with unusual grace and panache. David Bowie handled his by releasing the most daring, inventive, sui-generis, BEST album of his career. I do not understand, and I’m sad he died, but holy crap what a way to go.

George Pasles: I was listening to WMFU late last January when they announced Bowie’s death. I was never really a big fan – Sure, I admired the guy, but who didn’t? – though when I’d watched the video for Lazarus a week or two before, I thought: Geez, this guy is still operating at the highest level. I listened to WFMU’s all night on-the-fly retrospective, and was amazed. Maybe it takes someone’s career being over for me to really assess it. Whatever it is that so many of us are trying to do for even one moment, he did it for almost fifty years, and far, far better than we can comprehend.

We construct narratives to frame events, so we can say now that his death was some kind of sign, however you define it, about the year ahead. I mean, Prince? There were losses beyond comprehension. Losses of all kinds. I was wondering in the fall: even when Hillary wins, many of the delusions that we share about this country are irrevocably compromised. I was not optimistic about President Clinton’s ability to get anything done.

But you’re asking about music. To find what I listened to last year, I looked through the youtube links in my browser history. It was mostly movie clips after celebrities died over the year, though a detective would note that there was a series of self-defense videos I watched on Nov 10th. As usual, I almost exclusively listened to old stuff. Mostly, it was the baroque pop and blue eyed soul of the early Bee Gees. I’m completely burned out on the brothers Gibb now. Those songs are depressing as hell, and I’m very suggestible. Other old stuff revisited or discovered in 2016: Monkees, Black Sabbath, T Rex, B-52s, REM’s Green, Hidden Cameras, Wings, Led Zeppelin, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2 (really), The Equals “Police On My Back, Forever by Pete Drake, Her Mothers Daughter by Dory Previn, and most recently The Go-Betweens’ Tallulah. Beautiful stuff. I was sad to find that my old stand-bys New Pornographers, early Giorgio Moroder, and TMF didn’t work for me anymore. It was disappointing, as they’d brought me such reassurance in the past. About what, I’m not sure. Maybe they will work again sometime. I hope.

I remember protesting W’s inauguration in DC in January 2001 shouting about what a disaster his presidency was going to be. Oh, we had no idea. Comparing then to now, I’m re-shadowed by an apocalyptic dread from my childhood that had vanished with the Cold War. I’d made and accepted certain conclusions about my own life over the last few decades, but I expected humanity at large and America in particular to continue with at least a barely net positive first derivative after I left the scene. Now, I’m reminded of an afternoon two and half years ago, watching coverage of post-Ferguson protests along with commentators’ despicable reactions. I thought for the first time what many others concluded long before: maybe this country just can’t go on. Maybe it cannot overcome its history. It needs a real reset, a civil war level reset, to survive, if it was to survive at all. But the thought passed. Surely, the economic and power structures were too firmly entrenched for such change to ever be possible or even desirable for enough people. Now it seems not only possible and desirable, but probable. Terrifyingly, I cannot see a way for the side I’d prefer to emerge victorious to do so. And the bloodshed. And what comes after. The wheels have come off. We (that is, you and I and likely anyone who will ever read this) have lived in a time of almost unequalled prosperity and safety in the long history of the planet. Our time has been the aberration.

A madman is in power and that power is near absolute. I am concerned for the future of the world.

Zachary Lipez: As with last year, since I’ve become entirely sucked into the music industry my EOY poll has suffered. I am both so angry and entirely compromised. I just want to say something positive and with total certainty… Bargou 08, from Tunisia, are putting out the best heavy album of 2017. Get into them early. Also, the 2017 Uniform album. See? I like music. Just not Porches and Frankie Cosmos and whatever. Jeez.

Tom Snow: MBA Corner: the freemium go-to-market strategy seems to have worked out quite nicely for Abel Tesfaye.

Tom Snow:Speaking of go-to-market strategies, I started subscribing to Apple Music this year, which gave me the opportunity to listen to a lot more new music that I had in years past, and to see how I felt about unfamiliar acts before plunking down $9.99-$12.99 for their album based only on faith or a suspiciously high Metacritic score. I did end up actually buying a few of my favorite albums of the year, mainly because I spend a lot of time on airplanes and I wanted to be able to listen to them while offline. But for most of the music I listened to this year (old and new), I used the service as it was designed, streaming the songs via an Internet connection. While like I said I got exposed to more new acts that I typically would have, I’m not sure how comfortable I feel about this whole thing. Does renting rather than owning music change my relationship to it? Don’t get me wrong: I’m a proud holder of the Biblioteque Municipale de Genve library card, for instance, but there’s still something significant about the books that you buy and put on your bookshelf, no? To what extent do I want to define myself by my record collection? And what happens when my record collection begins to dissolve into various server farms in God-knows-where, only accessible to me for as long as I keep sending money every month to Cupertino, CA? To what extent does a third-party mediator influence my relationship with music, and the artist responsible for it? Maybe I’m making something out of nothing here: after all, all the recorded music I’ve listened to my entire life has been delivered via some kind of mediator, whether its a record label or a radio station or Jack’s Music Shop in Red Bank. Still, when the artist/listener relationship starts to drift towards the transient / transactional / conditional, I’m not sure that takes us in a good direction. But I suppose at this moment we all have bigger fish to fry, don’t we?

Brad Krumholz: Biggest disappointment — Kanye’s alignment with evil politics.

Zachary Lipez: Biggest disappointment — That young men still confuse being Angel Olsen fans for depth.

Brad Krumholz: Worst lyrics by a good lyricist who should have known better –“Muslims and gays/boy we hate your ways” is simultaneously great and really bad.

Brian Block:Regina Spektor emerged this year as one of our great protest songwriters. The protest is surprising. Great shouldn’t be, yet I think she gets overlooked, because her whimsy and quirkiness are an easy excuse to dismiss her as childish, as Tori Amos likely would be if she hadn’t gotten “You can make me cum, that don’t make you Jesus” on record first.

Spektor’s Trapper and the Furrier, Small Bills, and Sellers of Flowers, each with varying doses of playfulness or myth, correctly diagnose our country as under internal attack from the forces of wealth addiction. Unlike how we regard too much cocaine or too much alcohol, or even too much sex (whatever that might mean), we shower those with a bottomless craving for personal wealth with respect, power, and the keys to our electoral system.

For thousands and thousands of years, we’ve treated animals as pinatas that we whack and food/ fur/ blubber comes out; trees as something we demolish so that houses and heat leap out for us; the earth as something we slice into and coal or diamonds emerge. Our overlords, sharing the same convenience-loving DNA we have but with an extra heaping of power, instinctively treat the rest of us humans the same way. Democracy was an experiment in collective resistance, in saying No, thats not acceptable; the 1980s and beyond have been an experiment in Never mind, we are in fact Human Resources, and gosh we are kind of expensive and whiny compared to those other kinds.

The Republican elite opposes spending on the hoi polloi’s health care, education, and food because its spending: it costs them money, it reduces their score in the game, and there’s nothing more important than the next score. Their voting public opposes it, as best I can tell, from the wounded pride of no longer being treated as the *best* exploitable resources, and from the eagerness to grasp promises that soon, the foreign barbarians will be sent away, and they can resume their pride-of-utility again. All the while, those who got, get given more, more, more, more.

Jens Carstensen: Looking back on it, the Democrats flopped for the same reason the new Ghostbusters movie did: not because of females in starring roles, but because of terrible scripts.

2016 proved the power of a clear, concise message. The message doesn’t even have to be, you know, true. Among many other things, Election 2016 was a referendum on corporate-speak/political-speak (same thing). The candidate with the clear, concise message got elected. The one without one didn’t. Now, let’s drill down a little bit. 2016 proved the power of clear, impactful word choices, largely by counterexample. My takeaway: instead of allowing ourselves to be constantly handcuffed by insisting on watered-down, anodyne terminology for the sake of 100% accuracy and inclusiveness, let’s start regaining respect by daring to speak directly. Tell it like it is. Some examples.

“Rhetoric.” What the fuck is rhetoric? Every time I heard some ostensible “guy/gal on the street” in an NPR interview referring to Trump’s “rhetoric,” it sounded like they were reading a script. Have you ever used the word “rhetoric” in conversation? No? That’s because it’s a weak, vague word, never used outside of the context of trying to politely (for some reason) describe why you don’t like a racist. So, let’s use the term “beliefs.” Instead of saying “I don’t like Trump’s racist rhetoric” say “I don’t like Trump’s racist beliefs.” Because that’s what they are… and if they’re not, let Trump prove otherwise.

Here’s another: “demagogue.” Not to be a snot, but you’ve lost a lot of people once you reach that third syllable. (See also: “rhetoric.”) Besides, the media and Trump detractors took a lot of pains to tie him to historical precedent. Mussolini, Hitler, et al. But no one ever called those cats “demagogues.” “Hitler: history’s most notorious demagogue”… you’re laughing right now, right? That’s because “demagogue” a weak, vague word. It also sounds like something you’d encounter in a cave during a Advanced D&D campaign. Like, “oh shit, a level 12 demagogue! With armor class 2!” Instead, tell it like it is: Trump is a “tyrant.” I like this one because it sounds like “tirade.” It’s evocative and get-able, immediately conjuring the pounding of fists and the reddening of face, while avoiding the overuse and perception of hyperbole that comes with terms like “fascist” or “Nazi.” Tyrant it is. And if that’s not what Trump is, let him prove otherwise.

Speaking of which, “racist.” (Or all of the well-known parallel terms to describe looking down on people unlike yourself.) You know those guys that say, “I’m an asshole, but at least I know I’m an asshole.” I hate those people. But it’s an important distinction. Because, you know when you have a friend who is *being* an asshole? You don’t have to be an actual asshole to act like one from time to time. In its temporary form, it is a condition than can be reversed, because most people, deep down, don’t want to be assholes. They just don’t always realize when they’re coming across like one. Now, replace all the “assholes” above with the term “racist.” So, when it’s time for a little tough love, tell it like it is. That dude that’s proud to call himself a “white nationalist?” He’s a racist. The guy that occasionally shares some uninformed beliefs about the black community, or the transgender community, or any community that ain’t themselves, give them a chance to reverse course. Call them “misguided.” You know which word you’d rather say to your uncle to his face.

Last and least, “alt-right.” Hey, here’s a terrific idea: legitimize a bunch of (actual) racist assholes, by labeling them… with their own preferred terminology. Especially something as weak-sounding as “alt-right.” The clanging sound you may have heard whenClinton dropped “alt-right” was me hitting myself in the head with a frying pan. That’s seriously one of the least threatening terms I’ve ever heard, like something we accidentally would’ve used to describe Archers of Loaf 20 years ago. “Alt-right,” come on, people. Let’s tell it like it is: call them “neo-Nazis.” This is not hyperbole, because that’s exactly what they are… and if they’re not, let them prove otherwise. They sure haven’t so far.

It’s also worth nothing that the two most memorable things Hillary Clinton offered during her campaign were the terms “alt-right” and “deplorables.” Thanks to Election 2016, the term “unforced errors” has become synonymous with Democratic politics, rather than tennis, where it belongs.

This is an aside, but with pot legalization gaining traction, it’s worth mentioning that progress will continue to be slow as long as people / the media refer to it as a “drug.” It’s not. Once those two terms are disassociated, we’ll finally have some sanity on that topic. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even smoke the stuff.
Steve Carlson: (voting The Impossible Kid #1) I didn’t want to do this, honest. I know my history with Aesop Rock. I know my putting an album of his up top my ballot is about as surprising as the sun rising and setting. And I didn’t think I was going to do this after the first couple listens. It seemed rambling, unfocused, with production that was fine but uninspired. But somewhere along the way, the album got its hooks into me and I really heard what was going on here. It’s the logical continuation of “Skelethon” — where there he admits he has a problem, here he starts working on that problem. It’s the sound of an artist trying not just to play the hand he’s dealt but finally, after years and years of rage and spit and self-harm, try to understand why his hand looks as it does, why he’s bluffing an inside straight while everyone else looks to be holding full houses. There were probably better albums this year, and if that’s what you’re interested in, more power to you. But I realized recently, after having immersed myself in the bottom end of cinema for longer than is healthy, that I no longer care about such niceties as “better” — I’m looking for whatever makes the most emotional sense to me. “Atrocity Exhibition” is weirder and more fascinating; “Gore” is louder and prettier; “Skeleton Tree” and “Blackstar” and “You Want It Darker” are more heartbreaking. But no album better captured my mood through the year, in all its pain and dashed hope and despair and defiance, than “The Impossible Kid.” We can only be honest.
Jay Braun: Biggest disappointment –Democratic National Committee and their primary contest.
Jens Carstensen: Okay, fine, music. I vote for Blackstar.

Zachary Lipez: Good artist most in need of some fresh ideas — I wouldn’t presume to tell a good artist shit.

Jim Testa: I am used to inanity masquerading as pop music, but every time I see DNCE, I feel like my intelligence is being personally insulted.

Tatiana Reyes: Bring trip-hop back!

Tom Snow: Theme of 2016 — Creative renaissances through crowdfunding (see De La, Future of the Left)

Andrea Weiss: (listing Lolita Nation and Big Shot Chronicles reissues in her Top 10) — The Game Theory songs and albums are in the main lists as they stack up favorably now, just they did when they were originally out in the 80s.

Paula Marie Carino: Theme of 2016 –I think I said this last year, too: old people rocking out credibly and unembarrassingly.

Jonathan Andrew: Best lyrics –Paul Simon does what only about 5 people on earth are capable of. Still.

Stephen Mejias: More times this year than in any other I can recall, new music completely startled and confounded me. I love that and I’m looking forward to more strange, powerful, inspiring music in 2017.

Jason Paul: Just as Alt-media is eating the lunch of the corporate media, so it will be for music. Real Alt-Music is coming… if the fans wake up.

Sarah Andrew: I’m plumb out of wiseguy questions these days, but thank you for keeping the Critics Poll going.

* * * * * *

You’re welcome. My ballot’ll be up soon.

Finally, Poll cornerstone Ben Krieger has a message for everybody reading; honestly, it’s more of a challenge. I’m going to try to answer him as best as I can, but I need a day to meditate upon it. Take it away, Ben:

Somewhere out there on the internet is a video of Prince talking to Arsenio Hall about how, as a teenager, he went through the classifieds looking for work, realized that there was no job out there that he loved as much as music, and so that is what he decided to do. For someone with his mind-boggling talent and focus, that decision was a no-brainer. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have more artists like Prince in our lives, or that people should stop aiming their careers at Madison Square Garden, but…for many of us artists who reside in a thicker section of the talent bell curve, whose talent is spread across several areas, or who *haven’t* always felt that art was the *only* thing we could do, there have always been questions, big and small that, seem even more relevant now in the wake of the 2016 election:

Why do family and friends always instinctively frame our talent’s potential within the confines of a capitalist model?

Has the allure of success and exposure that a capitalist hub like New York City promises pulled artists away from vital local scenes?

What role has journalism played in the reinforcing certain models of artistic success over others?

Why haven’t scenes like the one Michael Azerrad documented sprung up again?

Or have they? What’s going on outside of New York, anyway?

What’s going on *inside* New York, for that matter?

What exactly are the criteria that Pitchfork uses when rating those records and can we discuss them?

There are a million different questions along this line that have been asked and answered. Prince actually possessed a lot of anti-establishment qualities that star artists can emulate. He as always fought against dignity-robbing aspects of the music industry; he remained in and championed his hometown scene; he aggressively employed a wide variety of talented artists regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation.

But Prince was a star. He belonged in the stars. And for those of us who can’t or simply don’t want to be stars, and/or who want to give ourselves more completely to an organized, underground political movement, the worn-out conversations, revenue streams, concert models, touring networks, business plans and journalism formats that neoliberal capitalism champions have strangled out viable, counterculture alternatives that allow us to successfully create art *and* do meaningful work as citizens. I don’t have the answers, but by this time in 2018, I’d really like to have some, because we need a genuine underground political movement where arts and social justice effectively complement and propel each other. We need to develop and rekindle the conversations and institutions to support this. WHO’S WITH ME?