Critics Poll 27 — My ballot, part 1

Rosa was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight: you, me, Jamila, everybody.

The news has been so awful lately, and the task of reporting it so joyless (not to mention thankless), that I have hesitated to add my voice to the chorus that has been singing such a sad song. Surely even in a time of crisis there are more rewarding things to discuss. But there is a difference between writing about politics, which you’re no doubt sick of hearing about, and writing about American popular culture and society, which will be around as long as America persists.

Four months ago I was assuming, much as the rest of the country was, that we were going to avert the worst and merely be saddled with the very bad. It was then I decided that I’d take the time to do the Poll again — not really to twist anyone’s arm, but just to get my preferences down, and park them here on a personal page that I’ve tried not to connect to any of the big networks. I understand why you might have cultivated a principled aversion to ranking artifacts, which, fun as it is, does feel like an exercise in self-absorption, and about electoral democracy in general, which always promises more than it delivers. If you didn’t feel like voting in the Poll this year, I can’t blame you: it’s been awhile since voting has been a rewarding thing to do.

Now that we know that our very modest wishes for the immediate political future won’t be coming true — and that the reins of power have been turned over to a gang of ghouls — the sanest course for critics might be to hold our breaths until the winds change.Not the most responsible, mind you, or the most courageous, but the one best designed to avoid reinforcing a regime that feeds on obsessive discussion and controversy. It seemed inevitable that any essay I’d write about music would drift into political territory, and soon enough I’d be rehashing all of the leftish talking points that did nothing to stave off disaster. I considered canceling the Poll, or doing it in private and not calling any attention to it.

Yet in a society as wobbly as this one currently is, I know politics will, sooner or later, come knocking on my door. It might be the tax collector, or the border-control agent, or the swastika spray-painter, or the public official here to tell us that the river has risen to a threatening level, or something even scarier. The things I’d like may be the same things you would: I’d like to see our criminal justice and penal systems reformed, and greater local autonomy, and an investment made in parks and mass transit, and a serious commitment made to preventing ecological catastrophe, real engagement with the heavy residue of centuries of racial inequality, and many other things that fall under the broad umbrella of egalitarian republicanism as I understand it. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that I want all of that pretty desperately– and that everything I’ve written, even the goofy stuff, contains within it an attempt to address the problems we’ve identified. If I’m attempting to raise consciousness through my purple prose, I’m not doing it very well. But I suppose I’m never going to stop trying.

So in the spirit of optimism and puerile divertisement, and in a limited sort of faith that sunny days will return to these shores, I offer you my list for 2016 and the usual rude capsule essays that accompany my picks. I’ve come to see comedy as a destructive cul-de-sac, but I find I lack the wisdom to stop cracking wise. It’s the writer’s disease — the conviction that the right 140 characters delivered to the right audience will make the world spin backward through the sheer force of cleverness. Gallows humor is a pretty cheap commodity these days, and pithy remarks are mainly good for tombstones. No SNL joke is going to bring the administration down, and no Beyonce video proclamation will prompt a new Enlightenment. Never once in my life has the pen proved more powerful than the sword. I’m not much of a fencer. The pen is what I’ve got, so I might as well swing it around and look as formidable as I can manage.

You’ll notice that many of the artists I loved in 2016 felt the same way. Albums number three and nine contain legit, uncut protest music; most of the rest of this stuff points in that direction. Yet my album of the year is nothing but a landslide of first-rate musical craftsmanship. I have no idea who its principal voted for, although I certainly have my suspicions. She’s shrewdly mum about that kind of thing, which proves there are still a few artists out there who haven’t been drawn into the cold civil war we’re currently waging. I can’t walk a tightrope like that. My terrible disappointment with the results of the election and what it reveals about the disposition of the country is bound to creep into the words — and assessments — that follow. Amidst the usual rude remarks and poop jokes, there’ll be observations about the emergency state, gerontocracy, and the cratering of American moral authority. I know: you wish it was just the poop jokes. Me too, pal. Me, too.

Album Of The Year

  • 1. Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
  • 2. Beyonce — Lemonade
  • 3. Jamila Woods — HEAVN
  • 4. Francis AndThe Lights — Farewell, Starlite!
  • 5. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  • 6. Drake — Views
  • 7. Noname — Telefone
  • 8. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
  • 9. YG — Still Brazy
  • 10. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
  • 11. Look Park — Look Park
  • 12. J. Cole — 4 Your Eyez Only
  • 13. Say Anything — I Don’t Think It Is
  • 14. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial
  • 15. Vanishing Twin — Choose Your Own Adventure
  • 16. Jimmy Eat World — Integrity Blues
  • 17. Saba — Bucket List Project
  • 18. De La Soul — And The Anonymous Nobody…
  • 19. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
  • 20. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger

Best Album Title

Coloring Book. At this rate he’s going to close the churches right the hell down. Because who needs to sit in a pew and listen to a homily when you can catch the same spirit from a rap record? And this is a rap record, even if Chance makes you sit through the choir sections, and Francis Farewell Starlight’s vocal-diffusing dial-twisting thingamabob, and the Biebs, too. It’s just one with its drum and instrument sounds lifted from gospel, and messages inspired by the gospels. Poor Hezekiah Walker never stood a chance.

Best Album Cover

Freetown Sound. Devonte Hynes’ music continues to sound like it’s 1985, and you’re listening to it through a transistor radio somewhere down the hall, or through a partially closed door to an older sibling’s room. Maybe she’s crying in there. Maybe she’s under the covers with a porno. Hynes still cannot sing worth shit but as he grows in juice and cash flow, he can afford to maintain some expensive contacts among the theatre people, including Nelly Furtado, who appearson a song that is named after the Hadron Collider for no discernible reason. (I am sure there’s a connection, and no, I don’t want to hear the tortured explanation.) 90% chance of scoring some off-Broadway semi-ballet nonsense. But that’s no reason to hate on it. It’s a free country, sort of. Nobody is making you go to that ballet.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Lemonade, including the videos.Part III of a remarkable trilogy of albums concerning, respectively, 1.) the thrills of monogamous dedication in a world that insists on impermanence, 2.) the dangers of monogamous dedication in a world that values entropy, and now 3.) what to do when the partner with whom you are sharing monogamous dedication turns out to be something of a slutdog. Unless it’s the third leg of a four-sided table, in which case 4.) might be about shopping for a split-level in Morristown. (Leave Sasha Fierce out of this.) The frontwoman is one Beyonce Knowles, an artist of some repute. In her playing prime she has become a specialist in realist pop — her songs are not about teenage fornication or the lack thereof, but about grown-ass lovers trying to keep the flame burning through the windstorm of adulthood. An old journalist I, I am pleased to report that the star remains as careful to ground her storytelling in sociohistory as any other op-ed writer. Her Texas address means she has as much right to sing a country shoot-em-up as any of the hacks in Nashville — or the North Carolinian Tori Amos, whose own righteous album-length tirades Lemonade reminds me of. I can understand if a skeptic finds Beyonce’s need to meticulously cover each style of Southern American music tedious, or overdetermined, especially on an album that is supposed to conjure and communicate bizzerk rage and jealousy. But when the Spodeeodeedopalicious horns come in on “All Night”, I dare you to call it anything less than a fucking triumph. Because it is. And on those moments of bizzerk rage and jealousy?, I’d say she acquits herself rather well.

Most Welcome Surprise

New albums from De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Also, Anderson.Paak’s very good Malibu. I’ve seen him likened him to Frank Ocean. But the breakout star of Dr. Dre’s last album is not really an auteur — he’s more of a post-Kendrick version of Maxwell, complete with social consciousness and a big boner (there’s a track here subtitled “Interluuube”, which is, like a lot of his pillow talk, more clumsy than effective.) Though Malibu is overlong and chock full o nuts, Paak does not prefer to poke along the meandering back roads that Frank likes; “I never wanna waste your time”, no matter how deep into the music store he goes, that’s his mission statement. He loves his fam (naturally), communicates poorly with women, raps iffily, and skirts Cee-Lo territory with soul throwback “Celebrate”. And he sure has some talented friends: Pino Palladino, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Talib Kweli, etc. Someone spent a lot of money to make this sprawling, polyglot music sound like the hit it certainly won’t be. I hope nobody threatens to cut off his funding, because that’ll force him to “focus”, and that will be the end of that.

Biggest Disappointment

Metronomy’s surprisingly easygoing Summer 08. That album didn’t annoy me at all, and thatwas the problem. Summer makes me think of Tina Weymouth a bunch; not just Tina Weymouth but also the myth of Tina Weymouth, because a myth I think it is. Out of necessity, Chris Frantz hands his girlfriend a bass guitar and puts her in the band before she knows what she is doing; she learns to play on the job and the rest is history. So what if her boyfriend had been a sculptor? Would one of the greatest instrumentalists in the history of rock music have gone to her grave unaware of her talents? What if Frantz already had a bass player? Are we to believe she would have tagged along and sold merch or something? I recognize that people sometimes have latent abilities that only emerge because the stars align, and I also know that women in this nasty man’s world often need a push. But I refuse to believe that Weymouth didn’t have an inkling that she could kick ass, or that, prompted by ambition, she didn’t angle like fuck to get in the game. Because the alternative gives all the agency to the boys around her, when anybody who has ever heard Talking Heads knows that without its bass player that band would have had no agency at all. Without Weymouth, Talking Heads would have just been David Byrne and his whimsical and counterintuitive reflections. This also is why Talking Heads is deceptively difficult to imitate, and why bands who try to mimic Remain In Light or Speaking In Tongues always sound like they’re engaged in some airless, C-plus art project. To electrofunk out, it is important to have a monster on the bottom, and to have that beast’s power feel like an inevitability. A Tina Weymouth bass part is a rude fact, like the number of electrons in a hydrogen atom, or the sewer system that keeps the city livable, or your momma. Oh, right, the Metronomy album. Joe Mount loves Talking Heads. He handles the bass himself. Maybe he doesn’t love them enough.

Album That Opens Most Strongly

No Burden. The first three songs are just soooo good that you may think you’re listening to a stone classic. After that, Lucy Dacus spends the rest of the set repeating herself, recycling jokes, and dithering on the cusp of rock without actually rocking. She never stops being witty though, she knows how to tell a story, and the aching wanderlust she sings about on “Map On The Wall” animates all of her songs. The last young artist who showed up so complete and ready to roll was Laura Marling, and you know I don’t bandy that comparison around.

Album That Closes Most Strongly

Still Brazy.I’m going to try to discipline myself here, but I have a lot to say about this state-of-the-art West Coast g-rap album. I will always be grateful to YG for “FDT”, which is, as far as I am concerned, the only thing that ever needed to be said about this alleged election. Not a well argued thinkpiece that treats Donald Trump’s “ideas” as worthy of careful, point-by-point engagement and rebuttal, and, in the process, dignifies him as something other than a subhuman scumbag, but fuck Donald Trump/fuck Donald Trump, over and over, just in case you missed the main thread. Which you didn’t. Because if you really need an detailed explanation for why Donald Trump can fuck off, well, I don’t know about you, buddy. We’re not going to be friends. I also think it’s telling that it was this album, and not the superartistic and supertheorized struggle-musik by Kendrick and Lupe and Jamila Woods, that caught the earsofthe censors. See, intellectuals like us don’t scare the establishment, sad to say. But gangsters, as Ice Cube understood, sure do — especially when YG and Sad Boy Loko suggest a team-up between Black and Mexican sets. What makes the criticism sting is that YG is naturally conservative — not just in the musical choices he makes, all of which were given the Southern Cali seal of approval in 1993, but in his core ideology, too. “Gimmie Got Shot”, for instance, is practically Reaganite in its disdain for handouts, and “She Wish She Was” is a Phyllis Schafly speech reverse-translated via RapGenius. The storytelling climaxes when YG attempts to convince awhite judge that he, too, has a fundamental and overriding obligation to protect his family. He’s not tripped up by questions of positionality: he believes that they’re united by their masculine prerogatives, that it’s only the judge’s prejudice that gets in the way of his sympathy for his compadre in manly, by-all-means-necessary action. Still Brazy opens with a question — who shot me? — and closes with YG hollering through a filter about real-life black men, killed by the police, who share his name and his burf day. We never get an answer: just thickening paranoia as the circumstantial details pile up. Should I ever take a bullet in my daily travels, I hope my revenge on a society that had no use for me is as wickedly sweet as this.

Crummy Album I Listened To A Lot Anyway

untitled unmastered. Don’t let the plain dark green cover fool you. This is no austerity effort. It is corny Kendrick in full effect, including a widescreen rendering of his interpretation of Revelations, the Bible’s cheesiest book. Also, the one where the Asian man wants peace and balance and the white man wants $$$$ and the black man wants a piece of poosay is the most racist thing I heard all year, and I paid attention to the presidential campaign. The rapping is aces, of course, and it’s always great to hear Thundercat.

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

Goodness, which felt like a tiptoe back from the brink. In emo music this is not generally a good thing. Case in point: in 2014, there were long stretches when I thought of nothing but Home, Like Noplace Is There. Who are these characters, what are these scenarios, what can I, a humble tunesmith, do to ease their pain? But this year’s Hotelier album?, for some reason I keep having to remind myself it exists. I think there’s a part of me that wants to deny the existence of Goodness— as if I believe the band that made Home ought to have burned itself out like a charred filament from its own intensity, and anything else dishonors its fatalism. This is crazy unfair of me, especially since I suspect Goodness is a pretty worthy sequel, albeit one with music that’s emo pro forma.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Hero. Craig Manning, a rock critic I always enjoy reading, called this one of the year’s best pop albums, and he wasn’t alone. Funny, coz this pile of would-be platinum hooks is at least nominally country. That’s about where we are in this big ol rootsy nation, though it remains to be seen whether Morrisconnects with alienated Northerners who may just have lost their appetites for Dixie cooking for the next 8 years. Whether this damn Yankee agrees with Craig remains to be determined, as I am still ruminating on my cud over here in the critical cowshed. But I do think this is probably the year’s purest pop-rock set: 1-4-5 progressions leading, with ruthless economy to shoutalong choruses, millenial whoahs and wordless uh huh and la la refrains, lyrics about cars and sexual frustration, cheap thrills in the midrange, drums and vox way on top. No trace of generic-girl-voice here — just taste notes of Rihanna and Tracy Bonham alongside the expected Hillary Scott/Carrie Underwood references. It’s a big voice and she can whip up a storm with it. I do get the strong sense she’s the type who’d blow out that flame her friend and supporter M. Lambert has been keeping and not even apologize about it.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Rehab Reunion. Even Justin Vernon sounds like he’s having a good time. More new music from Bruce Hornsby; exactly what you didn’t ask for. But scout’s honor, this is a good, zany, well-appointed project, right down to the Hornsby-specific crossword puzzle he’s included in the liner notes andthe unauthorized Franz Kafka lit-bio. (“In the day he worked for an insurance firm/by night his prose made his audience squirrrrm!”) This year’s look-ma-no-hands trick: Hornsby limits himself to the dulcimer, which feels a little like those authors who try to write entire novels without using the letter e. The restriction forces him to bluegrass it up, and a bluegrassy Bruce is a happy Bruce. My favorite song is the one where he admits he’s a skinflint who stiffs waiters. As if we didn’t know.

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Farro. Ancient grain; similar to bulgur wheat and an excellent source of magnesium and iron. J/k, it’s the former guitar player from Paramore, out of the witness protection program at last. As the co-author of some seriously enduring spazz-out pop-rock, Josh Farro absolutely deserves your attention. Alas, he is not quite the hellion that he was when he was ascribing to the Christian God powersthat would have been more properly attributedto his frontwoman. Without Hayley Williams’s performances, even his best Paramore songs would have sounded like… Thrice, I guess? Anyway, this is no way to run the numbers that hypothetical, because Farro has aged, and Walkways, his solo album sounds like a bunch of rejected Adam Young demos — stuff Young wouldn’t bother to pitch to Nabisco for Oreo commercials, let alone use for Owl City or Sky Sailing. I wanted to believe that Josh’s brother Zac, bringer of thunder and breaker of a trillion snare heads, could have had nothing to do with a project this tepid. But there he is, right in the liner notes. The Uday and Qusay of mallpunk, back together, but no longer storming around the desert.

Most Consistent Album

Views. Awful line immortal: “Got so many chains/they call me Chaining Tatum.” To me, this is Jewish humor straight up. It’s a kind of misdirection that goes over the heads, or through the legs, of more goyische critics — like when Max Bemis sings “Did it hurt when you feel from heaven babe?” on “Crush’d.” It’s a little piece of knowing dumbness meant to offset the well-wrought wiseassery –a poop brown streak in the tapestries red. Bob Dylan used to get away with it all the time. And on an album that extends its somber tone over twenty not-short tracks, Drake and his kemosabe Noah Shebib do need to pull out all the stops to avoid monotony. But inasmuch as a consensus has developed thatViewsis a slog, I must say that I cannot remember a twenty song album that feels quite as effortless an experience as this one. True, a ten song album would have been more effortless. But what’s wrong with a little effort?

* * * * * * * *

Okay, that’s enough for today — individual awards and singles and the rest tomorrow. Those intro paragraphs got me down. I actually have another political essay for you, but I’m saving it for the very end. Just one more, I swear; after that I’ll quit!, he said, hands shaking and pupils dilated. I’m in control of my commentary — I can stop whenever I want to. At least I’m not as bad as that Wolf Blitzer character. Now there’s a junkie if I’ve ever seen one.