Long overdue: A tribute (and individual achievements)

I’ve been waiting to write this essay all my life. Hold on.

I’m a simple person with simple peeves. Nothing makes me angrier than those lists of the greatest drummers in the history of rock. Oh, I have no issue with the consensus favorites: I love John Bonham, too, and Keith Moon, and Charlie Watts, and Mitch Mitchell, and I’d love it if Ringo would get listed, but he never does, and that’s a whole ‘nother article right there. (See, I’m getting heated up already.)

But when my index finger slides down the list, there’s only one name I’m looking for. That’s Phil, the incisive, impeccable Phil Collins, who is usually tucked away around #50, maybe next to the guy from Journey, and some master of arcane Swiss percussion who we’ve never heard of.  That’s when he’s on there at all. When Phil is dissed like this, enough steam comes out of my ears to power an Industrial Revolution. And if you’ve got a moment for me, I’d like to explain exactly why.

A musician could not be in a progressive rock band unless he had chops: those Huts of Baba Yaga didn’t move without a complicated and well calibrated motor. But of all the prog-rock drummers, Phil Collins had the hardest job. The great Nick Mason had to exercise plenty of tricky bits without losing the R&B feel, but in Pink Floyd songs, there were always long stretches where he could set the controls for the heart of the sun, and slip into a groove while Gilmour handled liftoff and ignition. Phil never had that luxury.  He had to fuse together Tony Banks’s multi-part storytelling epics while keeping the tale comprehensible, and he had to navigate through an Epping Forest crammed to the treetops with Peter Gabriel’s thick verbiage. 

Other progressive rock bands indulged in stretches of pure sound. Genesis was always shoehorning in extra ideas and extra phrases, keeping it theatrical and West End-dramatic, skipping around from section to section in order to serve the through-narrative. Even their instrumentals were frenzied. It was Phil who made sure that when supper was ready, it was piping hot; Phil who turned the crank on the musical box, Phil who somehow got us dancing, and skipping around, on the surface of that volcano that spewed its magma in the strangest of time signatures. Could other progressive rock drummers have turned the trick?  Well, maybe, but it’s worth noting that Bill Bruford, fantastic as he is, could never get comfortable in the driver’s seat when he was briefly handed the keys.

And if that’s all there was to Phil Collins, he’d still deserve a position alongside Bruford and Neil Peart atop those drummers’ lists. It wasn’t — not by a long shot. Uniquely among prog-rockers, the classic era isn’t where the Phil Collins story ends. It’s where the Phil story begins. Once fashions changed and multi-part dramas about the Giant Hogweed were out of vogue, Phil was the man who adapted best to the new reality. Arguably, he did his most ambitious and far-reaching work during the heyday of ’80s soft rock, which is not considered a playground for fantastic drummers. When other timekeepers of the classic period fell back on naturalism and turned a skeptical eye toward new wave innovations, Phil Collins was getting down with early drum machines, figuring out a way that he might use mechanical beat generators to enhance his own vigorous pulse. 

Even nonbelievers who mock Phil know in their bones that he changed music forever with his fill on “In The Air Tonight.” Right there, at 3:41, the world turned upside down; he stood sonic expectations on end and invented a true sound of the future. But the first three and a half minutes of Roland CR-78 was just as radical. It’s the contrast between the slow-dripping, ominous drum box and the thumping, adrenalized, man-made tom roll that puts the primal terror in “In The Air Tonight”, and created a paradigm for ambitious pop producers to follow. Noah “40” Shebib and Francis Farewell Starlite sure were listening, as was Genesis fan Jeff Bhasker, and The Weeknd, and what was “Love Lockdown” if it wasn’t Kanye assuring us that if we were drowning/he would not lend a hand?  When I wrote that Phil invented trip-hop on Face Value, I was only half joking. He showed us all the power of a sudden irruption in a slow, mesmerizing groove, like the head of the alien bursting through the sternum of pop that was, and streaking onward toward pop to come. 

There’s plenty in the Genesis prog catalog that foreshadows “In The Air Tonight;” check out, just to give you a for instance, the stupendous fills that carry home “Eleventh Earl Of Mar.” But it’s unlikely that Phil would have reoriented the sound of ’80s pop if he’d only played in one sandbox. Yes, that’s Phil Collins hammering away on every single Genesis progsterpiece (and there were oh so many of them). Phil also hit the skins on a series of albums that, while not progressive rock per se, split the difference between ’70s bombast and ’80s sophistipop sleekness. Drum aficionados know that Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham came up with the “In The Air Tonight” drum sound while monkeying around with the talkback microphones during sessions for Peter Gabriel’s third album. Yet for some reason, few people realize that Phil Collins played the drums — quite brilliantly, too — on the visionary Brian Eno solo sets that continue to cast a long shadow over adventurous pop music. Robert Fripp is associated with Eno for very good reasons, but Phil was every bit as valuable to the team of lunatics that made Another Green World.  Only Phil Collins could have provided the tailwind for John Martyn’s Grace + Danger, and only Phil could have played those parts, and sung those backing vocals, in a manner that calls no attention whatsoever to the guy doing them, but, once concentrated on, couldn’t have been done by anybody else. When Robert Plant needed an accomplice for his artier, more auteur-like solo albums, it was Phil he called; when Bruce Hornsby needed someone to shake a tambourine, unobtrusively but expertly, on Harbor Lights, he did the same. A long history of subordinating his own star to that of his flower-wearing frontman, and putting his creativity to the service of his cranky piano player’s fantastic stories, made him an ideal side-person for an ambitious songwriter. 

So it’s particularly galling to me when Phil gets knocked for his turn as a pop star.  It’s not just that he earned it via substantial dues-paying and self-effacement. It’s that he’s the only one among his peers who could have managed it in the first place — and that demands respect. Could you imagine Ginger Baker singing “One More Night”? Would Barriemore Barlow have come out from behind the kit to do a spot-on early-’80s soul duet with Phillip Bailey?  Phil Collins wasn’t just a drummer turned singer: he was a drummer who stepped into the shoes of progressive rock’s most charismatic vocalist and stage performer and barely missed a trick. Wind & Wuthering is just as progressive and ambitious as the Gabriel albums, and when the group pared back and charged into the new decade with Abacab, it was Phil who led the way. There is no story in the annals of pop and rock that’s remotely like his, and it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be one again.

Why, then, is it so hard for people to give Phil his props? No doubt the pop career is at least partially to blame: those driven to distraction by “Sussudio”, “Just Another Day In Paradise”, and other Collins numbers played to death on Top 40 radio are still pissed off about it. There’s an entire generation of listeners who associate Phil Collins with ’80s lite radio and couldn’t tell you the first thing about Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid, and the scary thing is that the members of that generation are now fairly long in the tooth. Phil is the first to admit he was overexposed during the Reagan-Thatcher years, so omnipresent, in fact, that some seem to have mixed him up with Reagan and Thatcher themselves.  For awhile he was everywhere, guest performing, acting in movies, hopping the Atlantic to play both halves of Live Aid.  It was hyperactive go-getter stuff, delivered with a gremlin’s grin, compatible with Phil’s inexhaustible creativity, but easy to conflate with the worst of the era of the Coffee Achievers.

The irony is that Phil Collins wrote some of the most pained, vulnerable, candid music of the era — excoriating songs that sting plenty once you peek behind the pop veneer.  Unlike Peter Gabriel, who sang his songs of paranoia and destabilization from the perspective of fantastical, outlandish characters, Phil played an everyman: short, scruffy beard, working-class cap on his largely bald head.  He did not look the part of a rock god. That underscored the power of his best performances, all of which demonstrated that ordinary joes had the ability to feel immense anguish. Among the roles inhabited by Phil on Duke, the saddest album in progressive rock history, are a delusional television addict, a shmoe stood up by a two-timing girlfriend, and a divorcee crying to his inaccessible ex-wife about how much he misses his children. (Tony and Mike contributed a few doozies to that set, too; they all must have felt like the prog-rock jig was up.)  Being a little pathetic became part of Phil’s public image, and helped endear him to a mass audience.

Rage, frustration, and rejection were motivating forces for his solo writing, too, including many songs that became huge hits: the shitfit of “I Missed Again,” the searing dismissal of “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the rubber room balladry of “Take Me Home.” On the outro of “Against All Odds,” Phil has a microphone meltdown intense enough to make Chris Conley blush. Emo fans should recognize and respect the technique: freight the arrangement far past its carrying capacity, and make the contrast between the poised music and the bananas vocal performance as stark as possible.  It’s supposed to sound a little wrong, too much, a berserk transmission from a man who has snapped, and who is determined to call your attention to a major meltdown.

Phil Collins learned to be a frontman by modeling himself after Peter Gabriel, and Peter Gabriel got his wigged-out compositions and concept albums to move by leaning, hard, on his imaginative drummer. So I don’t like to participate in those Peter vs. Phil debates that have roiled Genesis fandom since 1977. I prefer to recognize them as two seeds that grew symbiotically but blew apart (but never all that far apart) in the stiff breeze of rock history. Neither one is my very favorite member of Genesis, anyway: I’ve been attempting to emulate Tony Banks for decades, and the only reason you might not have noticed is because I’m a damned klutz.

If I was forced to choose, I’d have to agree with the consensus that Genesis with Peter was a better group than Genesis fronted by Phil — with the caveat that Peter had Phil in the band, while Phil did not have the benefit of Peter’s legendary imagination. But all sledgehammers lain aside, there ought to be no doubt about which of the two is closer to the main thread of the story of popular music. Phil Collins was a world-class progressive rock drummer in one of the best bands ever banded, he was a sympathetic sideman on some tremendously influential albums, he rewrote the rules for arena rock and new wave drumming, and he was, in his way, a pioneering electronic musician whose use of early drum machines was both audacious and effective.  We associate the TR-808 with early hip-hop and Detroit techno, but it was a balding gremlin from London who first brought it mainstream and took it to the top of the charts.

Even his covers were audacious.* As a singer, Phil had passion, which made up for his technical imperfections, and his version of blue-eyed soul was substantially less appropriative than that of most of his peers. (His fake Mexican accent on “Illegal Alien” is another matter altogether, but I still say the time is right for somebody pleasantly problematic to bring that song back.) His true mark of distinction was his way with a tune: at his peak, he was, like Kanye or Taylor Swift, practically inerrant at the art of finding just the right note in the chord to advance the melody and move the composition from introduction to conclusion with the proper balance of inevitability and surprise.  

Why am I writing this now?  Well, folks, I’ll tell you why. It bothered me that I let Neil Peart die before I registered my appreciation. I did it with an essay that corrected some of the popular misapprehensions about his writing, but posthumous honors bug me. Genesis is presently touring, sort of; Phil can’t play the drums at all anymore, and has to front the group from a chair. Clips from the tour are moving — but only in the way that reminiscences of past glories and showers of affections directed at elder statesmen sometimes are.  So I felt that I’d stick up for Phil while he was in the living years: give a little love to a master who has never quite gotten the recognition that his talent and achievement warrants. Phil Collins belongs in the pantheon of pop game-changers, inimitable, visionary artists with unrepeatable career trajectories, and if that seemed unwarranted to you a few paragraphs ago, it’s probably because you didn’t know the whole story.

Now you do.  

*While I’m at it, let me register another hot take. In my considered opinion, Phil’s version of “You Can’t Hurry Love” is better and more affecting than the Supremes original.  Phil’s take is a stealth grimdark reimagining of a strand of spun sugar from Holland-Dozier-Holland. In the Supremes version, the narrator is a teen girl with her whole life ahead of her: momma is right there, giving her solid advice. The listener sympathizes with her frustration, but there’s every reason to believe she’ll find love. The song turns on her urgency: she’s worried about never getting something she’s obviously going to get. She doesn’t know that, but you do, and the result is charming.

In Phil’s version, the narrator is a thirtysomething man.  He may never have experienced true love or anything like it. Momma is probably dead.  Waiting, for him, is much more consequential, because he’s running out of time and staring at a future of emptiness. When he sings “I can’t bear to live my life alone,” the listener is confronted by the very real possibility that the narrator is sentenced to a life of solitude. 

When Phil Collins cut that cover, he’d just come off of a brutal divorce. If you take the songs on Duke and Face Value at… um… face value, it’s pretty clear that Phil was worried that he was a deeply unloveable person. That’s the perspective from which he does that cover. He sure made me feel it. 

Okay, on to the annual individual achievement section:

Best singing

Mon Laferte

Best rapping

Megan Thee Stallion

Best vocal harmonies

Parcels. I strongly undersold these guys in the Abstract. Protracted exposure to Day/Night has convinced me that they’re more than just a Daft Punk copy act. There’s lots of early ’70s Beach Boys in what they do, and ELO, and a little Floyd, and more than a little Steely Dan, and yes, they do rip off Daft Punk shamelessly. But they’re buddies; Bangalter and De Homem-Christo produced their first album. If you’re going to stay up all night to get lucky, you’re going to want some friends around in case you don’t.

Best bass playing

Nick Movshon on Aaron Frazer’s Introducing… Nick had a tough job: he couldn’t just deliver an ace James Jamerson impersonation. He had to evoke classic soul as it might be understood by a millennial who mostly knows about it through hip-hop samples. Any old bass virtuoso can mimic Stax or discipline himself enough to suggest that there’s a loop going. But a musician who can sound like Philly International and Wu-Tang at the same time has got to be some kind of visionary. I don’t know how he did it, but do it he did.

Best percussionist

Otoniel Nicolas on Tanda. Well before Graceland, Paul Simon hired the great bossa nova percussionist Airto Moreira (check him out on Jobim’s Stone Flower, particularly their rendition of “Brazil”) to liven up his singer-songwriter material. Alex Ferreira isn’t an ethnopirate, but he sure is an appropriator, and his gentle, gorgeous Latin Alternative pop songs are quite a bit closer to Simon than they are to reggaeton. Otoniel Nicolas takes to the Airto Moreira role with relish, and he makes Ferreira’s songs shimmy and shake in the Dominican sunshine. Every year, there’s one album I associate with clear skies and perfect weather. In 2021, this was it.

Best rock drumming, best synthesizer playing, best band

Steven Buttery/Katie Dvorak/The World Is A Beautiful Place. I don’t know exactly what happened to these guys after Always Foreign, but I’ve got to think it involved a great deal of woodshedding.

Best piano playing

Craig Potter of Elbow

Best guitar playing

Bad Bad Hats, my indiepop guitar heroes.

Best instrumental solo

Annie Clark, “Living In The Dream”. I thought Daddy’s Home was a nice try, and a more interesting set than Masseduction, but I do understand how some of Annie’s choices put off longtime fans. I hope we can all agree that it’s a good thing that she’s playing more guitar these days.

Best instrumentalist

Hayley Williams handled everything on Flowers For Vases/Descansos, including the drums. It’s all beautifully rendered, of course. If I’m ever on a plane with Hayley, and the pilot passes out and she’s forced to take the yoke, my heart wouldn’t even race. I’d expect a perfect touchdown with minimal turbulence. Bet I’d get just that.

Best drum programming

Pahua. It’s a testament to Paulina Sotomayor’s ingenuity that I can never tell what she’s programmed and what she’s banged out with her hands. Not that it matters around the rim of the digital Caribbean, where synthetic tradewinds blow just as warm as organic ones do. Is that the whisper of an ocean breeze through the palm fronds, or is it pink noise plus a low-frequency oscillator?

Best production

Noah “40” Shebib. I hear you groan. You’ve had enough of it, haven’t you?, the muffled kick drum and the distant synthesizer, the downtempo rhythms and mid-song beat switches, the smoke curls of sound, the late-nite rumination, the pulse-quickening rush of string pads, the long, drawn out sections where next to nothing happens, followed by sudden irruptions and moments of emotional acceleration. It’s been over a decade of this, and it’s everywhere, bleeding out from 40 headquarters like an ink spill, saturating the entire pop landscape. I now recognize 40’s influence on genres that have nothing to do with hip-hop or even trip-hop; I hear bluegrass that’s Drake-aware, big band jazz with Drake tricks in the background. We’re long overdue for a course correction. But. The producer’s task is so fashion a sonic environment for the storytelling to inhabit — that’s it; that’s the whole job. Drake made meaningful adjustments to his approach on Certified Lover Boy and 40 was right there to shadow every step and enhance every phrase. Their symbiosis is such a part of the tapestry of modern pop that it’s practically taken for granted, but when 40 is nowhere to be found, Drake has a tendency to drift: see, for instance, Dark Lane Demo Tapes. They both showed up for the Certified Lover Boy sessions with new stories to tell, and a new mood to generate, and they did what they’ve been doing since the beginning of October’s Very Own. They made each other make sense.

Production gambit that, against the odds, worked out pretty damned well

Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross + Halsey. And so what if it sounds more like the Social Network soundtrack with pop vox than Nine Inch Nails? It was a throw of the dice for everybody involved, and they came up with something cohesive and even, may we say, brave, because the label couldn’t have been thrilled that their hitmaker opted against the delivery of a red-hot single. What could she say? She’s from Jersey. It’s artistry over commerce forever, here on these benighted Turnpike exits.

Best arrangements


Best songwriting

Jeremy Gaudet of Kiwi Jr.

Rookie of the Year

Much as I appreciated Black Country, New Road’s klezmer-meets-Crimson amalgam, this trophy belongs to Olivia Rodrigo.

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

Daniel Quien

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Dave Grohl

Most Overrated

Jazmine Sullivan

Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like

Spirit Of The Beehive

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

J. Cole

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2031

Hayley Williams

Forecasted best record of 2022

Whatever Julia Jacklin puts out.