Almanac Page One

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you already know most of what I’m about to write. But on this big Internet there is still a chance that a stranger will darken the digital doorway, and if that’s you, I’m happy to have you here. My name is Tris, and I am a word-writer who spends an unjustifiable amount of time making music. In my life, I have written hundreds and hundreds of songs, many of which are, to be frank, downright awful. Songs come to me while I’m riding my bike, while I’m eating breakfast, while I’m in the swimming pool, even when I’m dreaming — and since everything feels like a winner to me when it’s fresh, I’ll always take the time to bring those ideas to some kind of tentative completion. (Later — sometimes much later — I’ll realize that some of these songs weren’t worth finishing, but I never learn my lesson.) For years, songwriting was like a tap that I could turn on as I pleased, which is not at all the same as saying that the water was pure or drinkable. I wasn’t always proud of my musicianship, and I didn’t have any claim to quality control, but I sure did like that the pilot light of inspiration never gutted out.

Around the beginning of this decade, I took a word-writing job that absorbed all of my energy. During the time I did that job — more than four years! — I didn’t write a single song. I didn’t mention this to my friends; I tried not to mention it to myself. But on a semi-conscious level, this bugged me. Soon, I reasoned, that job would come to its natural end, and the water would start rushing through the pipe again. Maybe the spigot would be rusty and there’d be pellets of lead clanging around in the bucket at first, but the plumbing was still intact. I hoped. It also occurred to me that nothing is forever, and just because I had no problem writing when I was a kid didn’t necessarily mean that I could switch it back on now that I’m an ancient red dragon. I started to wonder whether the batch of songs I’d written in 2009 might be the last I’d ever come up with. If so, was that really the way I wanted this story to end?

As it turned out, I couldn’t get the tap to work. Not even a trickle. The part of my brain responsible for music composition seemed to have burned out. I still loved music as much as I ever had, and listened as much as I ever had — I just had no ideas of my own, and I wondered whether I had anything left I wanted to express. Nothing came to me in the shower, or when I was reading the newspaper (that always used to do the trick), or when I was asleep.  I attempted to console myself with the knowledge that I’d made four albums that were each, in its own way, pretty good, and that there were millions of people in this world who’d never heard them. Maybe instead of generating new material, I could turn my attention to my back catalog and move some digital copies. Then again, Hayden once sang “Write a song/all your old ones don’t mean a thing/If you don’t sing any new ones,” and I know exactly what he means. Besides, I’m not a marketer, I’m a mess-maker.

Then one day it changed. Like the flu, or a sleazy dude at a bar, it came on pretty quick. In Richmond I saw a guy leave a hardware store and stick a flag on a drape. On the same Carytown block, a couple of aggro kids with red, white and blue pins on their lapels hawked historic tours to gullible Yankees. Everything felt symbolic and ritualized. And I thought to myself “Saturday morning, shopkeeper yawning, hangs on the awning an American flag.” This is a very Randy Newman-ish stanza, and I heard it in Randy’s voice, and I put it to a Randy melody. Which I realized wouldn’t do at all. It’s one thing to be influenced by an artist you respect, and quite another to engage in mimicry. When I got back to Jersey, I turned the tune around, added a few more verses and a chorus, and called it a new number. The next day I wrote another. And then another.

I wrote 29 songs in 2015. Today I consider them the best I’ve ever done, but deep down I fear I’m dead wrong about that, and a year or two will give some perspective and throw some cold water on my delusions. So I decided not to give myself that year or two: while I’m enthusiastic about the material, I want to cut it all, while it’s fresh, and find a good way to put it out. Lucky I am that the people who are closest to me are entirely (and maybe unaccountably?) supportive of my renewed musical ambitions – they seem to want this happen as much as I do. They believe that I can pick up where I left off in 2009, and they want to help me get there.

I wish I shared their confidence. It occurs to me that many things may have happened over the years that might make it difficult for me to regain my footing as a performing musician. As a young person, I was usually able to draw and hold a crowd. I don’t know if I can do that anymore. My singing has always been an iffy proposition even when I was in practice, and vocal muscles do deteriorate over time. When I’m not playing with a band, my skills atrophy at an alarming rate. It’s depressing, not to mention time-consuming, to work every day just to get back to the level of functional competence that I believed I’d attained a few decades ago. There’s no guarantee that I can get in step with contemporary trends in recording, and writing, and presentation.

But what the hell, I was never in step with any of that stuff. If you liked my music, chances are you never did because it was au courant in any way, or because I had any relationship with the zeitgeist beyond total estrangement. Come to think of it, my awkwardness was probably part of the charm for the people who’d call themselves Tris McCall fans. As there was never any sex sell involved in my project, my advanced age and physical decrepitude shouldn’t be much of a hurdle to clear (at least for you.) As for the other stuff – playing and singing in tune and in rhythm – I’ve heard there have been further computerized advancements in this area since the turn of the decade. I intend to avail myself of all of them. You think I have shame? I have no shame.

So there you have it: I’m getting back into the music game. I expect this to be a long and agonizing process – a climb up a high and rocky hill – and I’m going to chronicle it here for the ill amusement of Whom It May Concern. If you came looking for the Critics Poll, well, that’s a February thing, and February is over. The calendar flips by quick; it’ll be poll time again before we know it. Until then, I hope you’ll join with me on my gurney, as Nordom the rogue modron from Planescape: Torment once said. The very worst that can happen is that I fall on my face and you get to indulge in some authorized schadenfreude. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. It might just be the early spring sun, but today I think this may just be, in spite of everything, a story with a happy ending.

i had to say this

Think of your favorite movie, or your favorite book, or your favorite painting, or pop song. Think of an argument that reached you through print, or a scene that moved you through the power of celluloid. It is a dead cinch that not so long ago, that scene, or that speech, or that argument or that lyric would have been considered way out of bounds. Somebody would have deemed it indecent and suppressed it in the name of the common good. The only reason you are humming that song, or watching that film, or hearing that voice, or reading that passage today is because an artist was brave enough to risk ostracism, and condemnation, and career-threatening obscurity, and, in some cases, jail time to say something that was dangerous to say. Things we now experience as pleasantly explosive had to be fought for. Things we view as tame had to be fought for, too. Every foot of ground had to be taken from the forces aligned against free expression, and it was artists and writers who had to do the hard fighting.

So the next time you are prompted to sign a declamatory petition or join an online shame campaign directed at an artist or a writer who said or did something you consider pernicious, I want you to remember this. Remember that we are only having this discussion in an open forum today because artists were willing to do and say the transgressive things necessary to broaden the field of human expression. Remember, too, that whatever is thrilling you today would have earned you an official censure, or worse, if you’d expressed enthusiasm for it at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Because those forces aligned against expression are never held in abeyance for very long. Give them an opening, an opportunity to shake a finger, and they will stifle, and muzzle, and ban, and shut down, and turn out the lights on anything they don’t like. And if you don’t think that they will get around — sooner than you can say PMRC — to things that you, personally, deem kosher, you’re fooling yourself, and you’re underestimating them.

Critics Poll XXVI — Results

“I’ll tell you how much a dollar cost — the price of having a spot in heaven. I am God.”

Consensus worries me. When I was seven, a strong consensus developed at summer day camp that I was funny-looking. Nobody wanted to sit with me. This consensus opinion may well have been accurate; current conditions around the orbit of my face suggest to me that it was. But you can see how I might be drawn to dissenters and their alternate theories.

By the time I was a college-aged record collector and amateur critic, I was enchanted by the aesthetic of opposition, and I wasn’t the only one. There were the many, who listened uncritically to whatever played on the radio and played beach volleyball in the beautiful sunshine as they did, and then there were those like me for whom the music was crucial to our lives and required dedication, and who would spend hours ferreting around in dusty shops for discs unsung. Only a few recognized our favorites, and this was okay — as pluralist culture fragmented, it made sense to celebrate the infinite permutations of taste. By the time 2015 happened, there’d be no overlap between the records I would love and anybody else’s collection. We’d each have our own personal artist to call ours. The popular music we tolerate would, in due time, be replaced by unpopular music we adored.

Boy howdy has this not happened. There is no shortage of unpopular music to explore or subcultures to experience, but with a few exceptions, modern critics do not tend to make the case for the rare, unloved, and weirdly personal. Instead, we’ve turned our attention from the art to the culture, which in practice means engaging with the records that reach the largest audiences and broadcast universal or sociopolitical messages. I am not sure we really trust ourselves to write about taste anymore, which is messy and subjective; instead, modern reviewers too often use records as a pretext to engage with various movements and -isms, and opinion tends to coalesce around a handful of widely distributed artifacts that provide for the listener some readily accessible talking points. For instance, there were an estimated million zillion albums released in 2015, every one of which was a potential favorite. But nearly everybody with a podium agreed that the very best one was made by a Christian rapper from the culturally significant town of Compton, California. The press said so, the polls said so, even the President of the United States said so — and unless they want a meltdown on their hands that’ll make the protests over the whiteout at the Oscars look like a game of patty-cake by comparison, the Grammy Awards will soon say so, too.

Don’t look here for an alternate pick. The 71 voters of Critics Poll 26 also chose To Pimp A Butterfly by a comfortable margin over Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Kendrick Lamar’s third album was named more frequently than any other, and topped more ballots, too. It was a solid win for a confrontational, uncompromising rapper on a poll that has not always embraced hip-hop.

I, too, loved To Pimp A Butterfly. I didn’t have it at the top of my list, but there was no album I thought about more frequently. I further admit that when I did think about it, it wasn’t always the outstanding musicianship or the virtuoso rapping that was on my mind: more often, I thought about the relationship between Kendrick’s poetry and the Baltimore riots, or the Cleveland police department, or the Cosby case, or the centrality of the black church in the civil rights movement. Just like you, I was impressed by Kendrick’s challenge — he set out to make a nation-sized record that elicited a thoughtful response from everybody who heard it, and he got what he wanted. To Pimp A Butterfly entered the culture, and insofar as it was judged as a cultural artifact, we deemed it laudable. The Black Lives Matters protesters who integrated the chorus to “Alright” into their chants understood that the power of pop was worth harnessing. Those of us who love popular music had to be heartened by this demonstration of its capacity to inspire.

Yet inspiration is only a small piece of what pop music is about, and although Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles might tell you differently, it’s not the desire for self-affirmation that compels most listeners to play and play and replay a tune. I do sometimes wonder whether any of us who make criticism our business were ever really able to hear To Pimp A Butterfly through the noise, or if we were too swept up in the narrative concerning the album’s cultural importance to judge it fairly. No anarchist collective recorded and distributed this record. Its ascendance was engineered by Kendrick, Top Dawg Entertainment, and their many friends and supporters in the same mainstream music industry that gave us Meghan Trainor and “Cake By The Beach”. Patrick Stickles’ dismissal of Kendrick as a “shoe salesman” was crass, but not entirely inaccurate — marketing is one of the rapper’s many talents, and one of the things he successfully sells (in addition to shoes) is Significance. Or to put it another way: To Pimp A Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. By April Fool’s Day, it had already been anointed the year’s best, and you knew and I knew that it was going to win this poll and every other poll under the sun. Instant unanimity ought to make you queasy, regardless of the album’s quality.

“Impact,” a horrible term that’s been ported over from military applications and weapons demonstrations, is used all too often when discussing works of art. In 2015, an album was quite frequently judged by the size of its impact, as if the listening public was a placid lake, and the record was a boulder-like projectile slung into it by a catapult or other violent siege-breaking implement, and the task of the critic was the measurement of the splash. No album caused a bigger wave than To Pimp A Butterfly did. But the height of the crest is really only relevant in those Internet dick-slinging contests decided by numbers of followers or retweets or blog posts or dittos. As I type this, the embodiment of arithmetic thinking stands before the electorate in Iowa, where he has made the case, over and over, that he is worthy because of his poll numbers and his opponents are losers because people don’t like them as much. The critic needs to stand against that kind of thing, and make the harder, trickier case that 1.) merit is ultimately subjective, and not contingent on the ratification of the crowd, and 2.) works of art should, nonetheless, be put in context with other works and evaluated on the basis of how well they deliver the experiences they promise.

All records are examinations of the times and places in which they’re made, and it’s possible to argue that the political situation in America has deteriorated so badly that it’s irresponsible to write a review that does not also double as cultural commentary. I get that. Then again, our world is already lousy with punditry, and I would like something better for you, music critic, than that. The reason that cultural commentary is always so uninviting is because the culture itself is pretty dull: it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be given the advanced state of capitalism we’re living through. (That’s also what makes it easy to do.) Music criticism has been, at its best, an escape from all of that, but as the standardization of taste continues, it may turn into simple balls-and-strikes umpiring: Album of the Year and Song of the Summer determined somewhere else, possibly by strategy and generally by algorithm, and the critic left to pick up the pieces, report about the size and velocity of the associated trending topic, and invited to rhapsodize about What it All Means.

This year, we were, in a way, lucky. To Pimp A Butterfly really is a great album, and it deserves the accolades it’s gotten. If a rapper really does feel the need to deliver a State of the Union address (and, honestly, I hope they’re not going to start making a practice of it), this is how to do one. But nobody could deny that there was real pressure — some of it accompanied by a moral charge — on music listeners to appreciate and celebrate the Kendrick Lamar album. Much as we critics love to believe we stand up for the underdog, nobody was impervious to the centrifuge of 2015 conventional wisdom. Unpopular music never stood a chance.

Here goes:

  • 1. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly (347)
  • 2. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (269)
  • 3. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (250)
  • 4. Tame Impala — Currents (205)
  • 5. Laura Marling — Short Movie (203)

Kendrick is such a talented rapper and writer that nobody ever seems to notice what a total cornball he is. The seductress named “Lucy” who is secretly Lucifer? Television-movie corn. How about the song the President likes — the one where the homeless man he disrespects turns out to be God in disguise? That’s the sort of corny plot twist you’d expect to get on a Kenny Chesney album. What about the Al TV-style interview beyond the grave with Tupac, the spoken-word “Dick Ain’t Free” interlude that feels lifted from Spike Lee’s freewheeling, imaginary jazz clubs, the fight that breaks out in the audience during “i” that the rapper pacifies with powerful words of unity and inspiration? All of this works, of course, but what it demonstrates (at least to me) is that Kendrick is far more of a showbiz kid than a revolutionary, steeped in the tropes of the entertainment industry and well aware of the tasty applications of American cheese. Nothing new there: Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was loaded with melodrama, some of it as emotionally manipulative as anything you’d find on the Lifetime Channel. I don’t fault him for a minute, mind you. Like prior conceptualist crowd-pleasers — Michael Jackson, Roger Waters, Barack Obama — Kendrick Lamar realized early that it isn’t enough to demonstrate excellence in craft and make a strong, smart argument: for the mass audience to eat it up, some hefty helpings of corn and cheese need to be ladled on top. Strip To Pimp A Butterfly of its cheesy elements and you’re left with something like Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 (number 11 on this poll)another masterpiece of Southern Californian hip-hop, albeit one that didn’t score anybody’s social movement, and one that sold a mere fraction of Kendrick’s total.

For another example of the power of cheese, consider Currents, the third full-length by Tame Impala. On Lonerism, Kevin Parker added a little modern pop sparkle to his ’60s-psych swirly-eyed throwback sound, and won the 2012 poll. Nobody was beating Kendrick in 2015, but Currents, the follow-up, got plenty of love from critics while charting a new direction for the act: Parker dove into the vat of Velveeta headfirst. Parker traded the guitar workouts tailored to hit the sweet spot of the psych subculture for an overload of Wang Chung synthesizer and rubbery basslines reminiscent of ’80s cheese-R&B. “Maybe fake’s what I like,” he sang on the last song, and has been rewarded for his faith in the artificial with a Rihanna cover and a seat in the canoe riding the rapids of the pop mainstream.

  • 6. Carly Rae Jepsen — E-mo-tion (188)
  • 7. Joanna Newsom — Divers (174)
  • 8. Hop Along — Painted Shut (159)
  • 9. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (152)
  • 9. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear (152)

See, we critics like Rihanna now — or, rather, we won’t be caught dead suggesting that Rihanna’s approval might be indicative of an ideological problem. (Leave that to Max Bemis.) Once upon a time it would have been scandalous in certain circles for, say, D. Boon to be caught hanging with Jody Watley, but since there’s no real underground anymore and no standard of value but popularity, it’s assumed that everybody with a guitar simply wants as much exposure as he can get. These days everybody is under the same umbrella ella, and even weirdos who really ought to be interested in nonconformity applaud loudly when “perfect pop songs” are correctly identified as such by the great unwashed, and are spun at bars and become “songs of the summer” and what have you. This is why critics tore their hair out over the conundrum of Carly Rae Jepsen: E-mo-tion checked all the boxes of solid formula art, so why oh why wasn’t it selling? For awhile, everybody with a platform and a will to compose thinkpieces became Jepsen’s business councilor, alternately chastising the marketplace, Scooter Brown, the star’s producers, and the star herself for failing to achieve the financial returns commensurate with such a thrilling capitulation to formula. I know I did. I dedicated a scandalous amount of thought to Jepsen’s portfolio — it monopolized my thinking on several long bike rides — and I still couldn’t figure out her problem. What did she do wrong, America? Was it the sweater? Because I think the sweater is sensational. E-mo-tion is designed to fit right in the sweet spot between Heartthrob and 1989, which means that digital cash registers filled with Bitcoin ought to be spewing whatever cryptocurrency you crazy kids are spending these days. Granted, Jepsen does not have the microphone presence or airtight authority of Taylor Swift, but in all other ways her disc measures up well to its models.

My great fear is that Jepsen has been damaged by her reluctance to sing bland self-actualization anthems, preferring instead to concentrate on songs about how horny she is. Back in the good old days, this is exactly what we asked of pop stars — shut up about your interiority and, instead, point at your genitals and howl animalistically. Basically, that was pop music in the ’80s, which suited me fine. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. But end they did, and at the end, we got Rachel Platten singing inspirationally about taking back her life from whatever it is that’s dogging it. And this, not that pretty business over there, is what rides high on the charts. My hypothesis is that all the Adderall and legal doobage has withered the private parts of a generation, and people are no longer sensitive to Carly Rae Jepsen singing tell me that you want me that I’m all that/I will be there I will be your friend. In 1985, that would have worked. If you were at those bar mitzvahs too, you know it.

Further proof that pop ’15 was inundated by a wave of cheese: even Joanna Newsom was susceptible. Last we heard from her, she complained about “dulling and dumbing in the service of the heart”; now, she is peddling a bunch of winsome hooey about the time-transcendent power of love. Hey, I’m a hippie, too. I hope she’s right.

  • 11. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06 (151)
  • 12. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (149)
  • 13. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon (141)
  • 14. Grimes — Art Angels (131)
  • 15. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People (130)
  • 15. Chvrches — Every Open Eye (130)

To Pimp A Butterfly was the year’s landmark album, but to really understand 2015, you have to listen to the celebrated Art Angels. Grimes, in case you don’t know her, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved notoriety and critical acclaim in 2012 with a mildly experimental electropop album called Visions. While it was clear even then that she had mainstream aspirations, she hadn’t quite misplaced her youthful ambivalence about all things mersh; for instance, rather than the requisite big ole butt, there’s a cartoon skull on the album cover. At some point between Visions and the release of Art Angels, the artist shook off her hesitancy, and decided that if Lady Gaga was going to run off and join the cast of Planet of the Apes, or whatever the hell she’s gone and done with herself, Grimes would just go ahead and become Lady Gaga. Art Angels, which Grimes produced herself, is 100% cheap-seats pop in the Gaga freaks-but-not-too-freaky style, complete with streamlined dancefloor numbers, periodic stabs at cartoonish aggression, and occasional independent-woman sloganeering. In other words, it’s the exact album Gaga should have made after The Fame Monster, or, at any rate, the album her accountants would have liked her to have made. Unfortunately, on her very best day, Grimes, whose vocal resemblance to Alvin the Chipmunk has been noted, cannot begin to approximate Lady Gaga’s singing. The result is an album that treads the line between ingratiating and irritating: a set of critically approved “perfect pop songs” made by a pseudoalternative artist who really has no business singing pop. Mind you, I am not bothered at all by the flood of hyperbole that this album rode in on, and I’m even happy to contribute to it. Every era has its figures who are hailed by the press as supergeniuses for no discernible reason. Grimes just happens to be one of ours. In ’93, it would have been a grueling, goatee-having dude who sang YAHHAHAUUUGHAR about his Oedipal rage. In ’93, a trip to munchkinland such as Art Angels would have been a fucking delight.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in twee little Glasgow, a not-dissimilar act made a not-dissimilar move. Apparently Chvrches is a stadium rock band now. Not what I expected from Lauren “Bro” Mayberry, but hey, she and her bros have identified an opportunity and they’re going after it while they’re fetching. “Empty Threat” is practically a Paramore song, which makes me wonder why they didn’t cave and employ a real drummer who could have made the song what it wants to be. The self-affirmation anthems range from summer festival-blithe (“bury it and rise above”) to downright meatheaded (“we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold,” eww.) By the way, I hope Vince Clarke is getting some residuals for the massive “Just Can’t Get Enough” bite in the middle of the best song on Every Open Eye. He’d probably settle for a hug.

In 2015, there’s really no such thing as a sellout: for there to be, there’d have to be a counterculture with elements that could be raided and packaged for sale on the mass market. In the absence of one, it’s natural for these guys to shoot for the top — if the only place they’re ever going to experience any kind of artist’s community is by dancing with Taylor Swift at the awards shows, they might as well crank up the EDM, hold their noses, and take the dough. As for all the cheese and corn and crowd-pleasing gestures, well, you might have noticed the big blue “like” button appended to your songs and statements. When everything you do is immediately evaluated — in a public setting by your peers, no less — that’s a lot of pressure to conform to popular demand. It takes an asshole with the stature of Kanye West to say “as soon as they like you, make them unlike you.” From what I can see, he’s been test-marketing Waves out the wazoo, so maybe even he’s become a slave to the approval rating. We are playthings for historical forces. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s so.

  • 17. FFS — FFS (129)
  • 18. Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material (128)
  • 19. The Decemberists — What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (124)
  • 20. Speedy Ortiz — Foil Deer (122)

Let’s check in with some poll veterans to see how they’re weathering the hurricanes of time. If you’re a newcomer to this game, you might have been surprised to see the latest Belle & Sebastian set at #3. Don’t be: they’re the house favorites. B&S is one of only two acts to win this poll twice — If You’re Feeling Sinister in ’97, and The Life Pursuit in ’06 — and any time they put a record out, they’re a threat to take a third title. I’ve never made a secret of my affection for them, and several bands I’ve played with (including my own) have profitably ripped them off, I must have bumped into ten regular poll voters at their Radio City show this summer, and I’m the goon who counts this up and writes it up. Sufjan Stevens, regular high scorer, didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but Carrie & Lowell did place in the top 30; Destroyer, a frequent top ten finisher, crashed to #32. Drake, on the other hand, made a return to the upper reaches of the poll after an album cycle spent missing in action. For reasons I still can’t figure out, nobody voted for Nothing Was The Same. This year, you all remembered your awkward cousin Drake on your holiday list. Must have been “Hotline Bling” that did it. After a strong 2013 finish for Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the more complicated and darker Of Montreal album Aureate Gloom finishes at 30 — a relatively unimpressive landing place for a perennial contender that took the ’07 poll. Metric squeezed into the top 40 with the widely-maligned Pagans In Vegas, while the Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ hardly got any support at all. Guess you folks don’t love professional wrestling like John Darnielle does. Richard Thompson didn’t get much love on the poll for the iffy Dream Attic or its superior followup Electric, but Still put him back in the top 30, where he was a regular finisher in the ’80s and ’90s. I believe he’s got a future in showbiz. Lana Del Rey continues her grim-faced march up this list; she remains a pretty good bet to win one of these contests someday now that she’s been exonerated for her capital crimes.

The Decemberists deserve their own paragraph. Since Her Majesty, the group has always placed on the poll, but enthusiasm is waning. This I know because you told me so: many of you who put What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful world on your ballot expressed your disappointment with it. I, too, was partial to the version of Colin Meloy who sang goofily about chimbley sweeps and bombazine dolls and who stuffed unsingable words into his lyrics like a Victorian infantryman with a musket and a ram. In his old age, he’s become a singer that even your momma would recognize as good — although I think he was more fun when he was sloppier. But Meloy in ’15 is like a guy who used to be a polymath and a mischief-maker, and who grew up and took a position at a respectable NGO. On some level you admire it, but the constriction marks are visible all over his personality.

  • 21. Lupe Fiasco — Tetsuo & Youth (119)
  • 22. The Front Bottoms — Back On Top (114)
  • 23. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (110)
  • 23. Miguel — Wildheart (110)
  • 25. Ashley Monroe — The Blade (106)
  • 26. Oneohtrix Point Never — Garden Of Delete (100)
  • 27. Richard Thompson — Still (98)
  • 27. The Chills — Silver Bullets (98)
  • 29. Beach Slang — The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (96)
  • 30. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom (93)

Jersey alert: the Front Bottoms continued to run strong in this poll, placing 22nd and gathering plenty of votes and mentions from the lands beyond the Delaware. All that touring pays off, kids. Meanwhile, the Roadside Graves picked up where they left off four years ago with Acne/Ears, the band’s first disc for Don Giovanni. The Graves slightly outpolled their labelmates the Screaming Females, who finished in 43rd place. Deliverance, which turned out to be a swan song for River City Extension, came in right behind that at 45th. Once again, Titus Andronicus barely got a handshake on this poll. What do they have to do to impress you folks, I ask? — if a five-act rock opera doesn’t get your attention, maybe nothing ever will.

  • 31. Jeffrey Lewis — Manhattan (92)
  • 32. Destroyer — Poison Season (91)
  • 33. Bjork — Vulnicura (89)
  • 33. The Roadside Graves — Acne/Ears (89)
  • 35. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf (87)
  • 35. Dawes — All Your Favorite Bands (87)
  • 37. Hot Chip — Why Make Sense? (86)
  • 38. Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free (84)
  • 38. Metric — Pagans In Vegas (84)
  • 38. Blur — The Magic Whip (84)

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ll check in tomorrow with the singles, and another long and cranky essay about a certain media company that bugged the heck out of me in 2015.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

  • Alberta Cross — Alberta Cross
  • Algiers — Algiers
  • Bob Dylan — Shadows In The Night
  • Bruce Springsteen — The Ties That Bind
  • Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up
  • Dornik — Dornik
  • Enter Shikari — The Mindsweep
  • FIDLAR — Too
  • FKA Twigs — M3LL155X
  • Future — DS2
  • Haitus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon
  • Jamie xx — In Colour  (narrowly missed the top 40)
  • Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede
  • Kamasi Washington — The Epic
  • Mac McCaughan — Non-Believers
  • Palehound — Dry Food
  • Pollyester — City Of O
  • Quarterbacks — Quarterbacks
  • Rachel Grimes — The Clearing
  • Snacks For Y’All Qaeda — Snacks For Y’All Qaeda (note: probably imaginary)
  • The Apartments — No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal
  • The Unthanks — Mount The Air
  • Wilco — Star Wars
  • Young Thug — Barter 6
  • Young Thug — Slime Season


Critics Poll XXVI — Singles

I got a bone to pick.
I got a bone to pick.

I used to think of Pitchfork as the critical equivalent of the Outback Steakhouse — not a destination in itself, but a place you might wind up at for reasons beyond your control. There you’d be served up something thick and oily, overseasoned yet somehow bland, and you’d consume it joylessly. At the end of your visit, you’d wonder why you bothered. During the long Outback period, I barely mentioned Pitchfork in any context. There wasn’t much to say. It was sort of bad and sort of boring, and it wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well let it carry on with its brand development effort.

But during the past decade, Pitchfork has gradually been deteriorating, and in 2015, it fell off a cliff. Just as the 2008 Merrill Lynch meltdown had to worry you even if you don’t own stock, Pitchfork’s abominable year ought to ring the alarm for all critics, regardless of where you direct your web browser. Somebody in power seems to have decided to turn the the most visited review website in the world into People Magazine plus bad cultural studies jargon. Pitchfork’s new interest in consumer feminism clashes with its apparent mandate to cover — and praise — every crappy, two-bit mixtape released by a coterie of misogynist rappers, and like many institutions on the wishy-washy left, it is currently groaning under the obvious contradictions of its own worldview. These people are absolutely, embarrassingly determined to show the reader that they’re down with various liberation movements and worldwide underclass struggles, which is odd, considering most people still go to the site in order to find out how the new Modest Mouse compares to the old one.

The turd pimento atop the crap sandwich that was Pitchfork ’15 was the Year in Rap piece. It’s worth checking out, because without meaning to, the author does illuminate much of what’s wrong with contemporary writing about music — particularly writing about hip-hop. The Pitchfork piece attempts to summarize the year in rap by fixating on the one and only thing in hip-hop that’s not particularly interesting: beefs. The main reason why beefs are uninteresting is because they are 99% bullshit. They tend to start as childish tiffs that would dissipate on their own were they not seized upon by managers and marketing people and gullible journalists. Mainstream writers love beefs because they’re a prime source of clickbait; also, whether or not they’re willing to admit it, they love to watch black people fight. They’ve got click quotas to meet and they can’t help themselves. Music writers should know better. All the crappy, half-assed diss tracks on mixtapes and internet-only releases ought to tell critics everything they need to know about the true importance of beefs to artists. Not quite zero, but pretty damn close.

The beefs examined in the year end summary both involve Drake — an artist not exactly known for battle rapping. To make matters worse, one of them is, I kid you not, imaginary. The front half of the article addresses Drake’s dreary, engineered exchange with Meek Mill, which dominated garbage-press headlines in July, and the back half attempts to trump up, on the scantiest of evidence, a “cold war” with Kendrick Lamar. Who knows?, Drake and Kendrick might indeed not like each other. Chances are, they’re too busy making music to give it much thought. It’s justifiable, if more than a little reductive, to cast Drake as the protagonist of hip-hop 2015: he put out an album and a half, sold more than a million records, and continued to exert influence over his peers. But after years spent fellating him in posts, reviews, features, and what have you, it’s now clear that Pitchfork doesn’t understand Drake at all.

Drake’s beef with Meek — which will continue as long as they’ve got upcoming releases to promote — was an old-school hip-hop authenticity feud the likes of which we’ve seen a hundred thousand times since De La Soul wrote “Potholes In My Lawn”. Meek Mill, rambunctious Philly emcee, accused Drake of buying his rhymes, which is technically true: Quentin Miller, an Atlanta rapper, contributed verses to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. A dis track was cut, Drake responded with a couple of dis tracks of his own, and when the digital dust settled, the blogs agreed that Meek had gotten the worst of it. (Some of them said he was “murked” or “bodied” in, I suppose, an effort to sound like idiots.) That was Round 1, mind you; round 2 is going on right now. Having seen a few Rocky movies and knowing how this goes, I suspect that Meek will now land some effective counterpunches only to be decisively rebuffed right before Drake decides to release Views From The 6.

Pitchfork pointed out that Drake’s battle verses were not particularly adept or scathing. This is true. But instead of concluding the obvious — that Drake wasn’t really motivated to damage Meek Mill’s career but was instead beefing for the headlines — the year-end piece decried the verdict and shat all over Drake in the process. According to Pitchfork, the inauthentic Drake “won” over the authentic Meek because he understood Instagram and Twitter better than his opponent. A Year in Rap summary piece in a major publication claimed that Drake had attained an unearned win by, essentially, Internet-bullying his peer.

This is a conclusion that could only have been reached by a critic so caught up in the social media spin cycle that he cannot see the world beyond his computer. There was never any possibility that Drake could lose a feud with Meek Mill. Meek is a talented emcee who has yet to figure out how to translate the energy of his live show to the studio; his records sell well, but so does Campbell’s soup. Drake, on the other hand, has been making popular musical history since the release of So Far Gone. He hatched out of his egg with a sound all his own, and that sound is one of the indelible cultural artifacts of the second decade of the 21st century. Real music listeners know this, and would never accept a version of events where Drake was humbled by a mere genre practitioner. Drake “beat” Meek Mill for the same reason that 50 Cent beat Ja Rule, or, for that matter, a diminished 50 was unable to lay a glove on Rick Ross: the battle is an illusion. It’s nothing more than a ratification of the facts in the air.

It is also preposterous for Pitchfork — still allegedly a music publication, at least for the moment — to imply that Drake simply hopped into Kanye West’s lane. Like everybody else in contemporary pop, Drake owes plenty to Kanye and his successful experiments in sound and storytelling. But Drake and his producers have a peculiar and flexible sense of melody derived from Southern soul and blues records, and which does not overlap all that much with Kanye’s own harmonic vocabulary. From the very beginning, Drake has been toeing a narrow line between the arty midwestern style of Kanye West’s records and the swampy blues-rap favored in his beloved Houstatlantavegas. Drake recognize both the pop audience’s appetite for blues melody and the growing blues strain in his songs released by his principal competition (Young Thug, Future, Boosie, et. al.) — and he’s been able to anticipate and co-opt their moves. It’s no coincidence that he went shopping for verses in Atlanta, or that he pinched the groove for “Hotline Bling” from a Virginia artist: instinctively, he realizes that an American pop audience that’s been force-fed soulless Eurodance for the better part of a decade is desperate for a little Dixie dirt. Unlike many other celebrated storytelling vocalists, he does not cut corners by lifting his musical backdrops from filmed entertainment. The emotional effect of a Drake song is generated by sonic phenomena alone: muffled kick drum, distant synthesizer and guitar, and the rapper’s own introspective vocal performances. One of the reasons I find If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a more compelling album than To Pimp A Butterfly: while Kendrick’s producers work in a sophisticated jazz and soul idiom that’s been covered to fuck and back and therefore capitalize on the resonances produced by familiarity, Drake continues to push his own sound into uncharted territory while paring it back to its unsettling essence. He now owes very little to anybody he’s not crediting in the liner notes, and it’s not hard to argue that the paranoia and detachment that he communicates through his music is every bit as trenchant a reflection of the current American predicament as Kendrick’s poetry is.

Since they’re both late-twentysomething rappers making essential music, it’s inevitable that Drake and Kendrick will be compared. Yet to imply that they’re currently locked in a rap war is sheer bloodthirsty wishcasting. The evidence Pitchfork gathers is circumstantial and scanty at best: a few Kendrick lines from Compton: A Soundtrack that allude to Drake lyrics, and the umpteenth airing of the “Control” verse that felt to me like a simple challenge made among colleagues to shoot for excellence. The core of Pitchfork’s case is “King Kunta,” on which Kendrick famously complains about “a rapper with a ghostwriter.” But the emcee doesn’t specify the target of what is a pretty standard hip-hop putdown — he could be rhyming about anybody. For what it’s worth, Quentin Miller isn’t a ghostwriter; just as Kanye did after he bought the first verse to “Jesus Walks” from Rhymefest, Drake credited his collaborator in the liner notes to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Moreover, “King Kunta” was released months before Meek Mill accused Drake of inauthenticity, and was presumably composed long before that. Kendrick Lamar is a writer of uncommon depth and perspective; he has, as I am sure you’ve noticed, a lot to say about race, power, the police, surveillance, yams, what have you. To suggest that the first single released from his third-album megastatement was written about Drake is unbelievably insulting.

But Pitchfork is oh so eager to register that insult. They really, really want Drake and Kendrick locked in mortal combat, trading subliminal insults and sucking up the attention that would otherwise go to real reporting. They want blood on the floor and all the filthy clicks that go along with it. They’re willing to simplify and reduce Drake’s artistry to do it, and if that requires making Kendrick look like a battling idiot, too, they’re willing to accept that collateral damage. They’re even willing to map Drake vs. Kendrick on top of Jay-Z vs. Nas, and never mind that Kendrick shares little with Nas and Drake shares even less with Jay, and never mind that 2015 is not 2001, and also never mind that there isn’t even any Drake vs. Kendrick in the first place. This would be unfathomably irresponsible if it wasn’t so consistent with the voyeuristic trash heap that the Internet has become.

The irony, of course, is that Pitchfork is in the best position possible to know better: their writers deal with artists all day, and must realize on some level that this is not how musicians operate. Musicians tend to be collaborative people; they’re magpies, they like to borrow ideas and lose themselves to dance. They’re not boxers or gladiators, and they do not, in general, care about the authenticity of their peers or wipeout supremacy unless their feelings get hurt. The best way to hurt their feelings is to provoke them in a public forum, and as far as I can tell, many so-called journalists do nothing all day but attempt that provocation. Let it be known: in 2015, this is what the biggest and best-known music site on the Internet decided it’s going to use that pitchfork for.

  • 1. Drake — “Hotline Bling” (162)
  • 2. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (140)
  • 3. The Weeknd — “I Can’t Feel My Face” (118)
  • 3. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug and Popcaan — “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” (118)
  • 5. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta” (114)
  • 6. Courtney Barnett — “Pedestrian At Best” (112)
  • 7. Belle & Sebastian — “Nobody’s Empire” (112)
  • 8. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue” (111)
  • 9. Adele — “Hello” (108)
  • 9. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey” (108)
  • 9. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away With Me (108)
  • 12. Fetty Wap — “Trap Queen” (103)
  • 13. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach” (102)
  • 14. Drake — “Energy” (100)
  • 15. Grimes — “Flesh Without Blood” (94)
  • 16. Kendrick Lamar — “The Blacker The Berry” (93)
  • 16. The Decemberists — “Make You Better” (93)
  • 18. Kanye West, Rihanna & Paul McCartney — “FourFiveSeconds” (90)
  • 19. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams — “WTF (Where They From)” (88)
  • 20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy” (84)
  • 21. Tame Impala — “Let It Happen” (81)
  • 22. David Bowie — “Blackstar” (80)
  • 22. Courtney Barnett — “Depreston” (80)
  • 22. Miguel — “Coffee” (88)
  • 25. Hot Chip — “Huarache Lights” (77)
  • 26. Hop Along — “Waitress” (74)
  • 27. Unknown Mortal Orchestra — “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” (71)
  • 28. Sleater-Kinney — “A New Wave” (69)
  • 28. The Front Bottoms — “HELP” (69)
  • 30. Speedy Ortiz — “Raising The Skate” (68)


Critics Poll XXVI — Miscellaneous Categories

We must begin here and now -- a new continent of earth and fire.
Tear down the wall.

At the time of David Bowie’s death, the poll ballot had been up on the site for a couple of weeks. Many of you had already voted; a few people even used the miscellaneous section to register disappointment with Blackstar. Once Bowie was with us no longer, that stopped — although I did get a couple of expressions of bewilderment from younger voters about the ensuing wall-to-wall coverage. I was a latecomer to the cult of Bowie: I first encountered him while he was singing “China Girl” into a thin white microphone. This was not my favorite song or my favorite video; even at the time, I found it kinda exploitative. Later I would learn how many of the songs that were my favorites were total Bowie rehashes, and this knowledge sent me to the record store to grab the back catalog. I discovered that David Bowie was an absolute master of the architecture of pop songwriting — one of the best to ever do it — and an excellent singer, too. But my emotional relationship with Bowie never went much beyond that. I did not develop the powerful feelings of identification and fellow-outsider recognition that many of you wrote so eloquently about elsewhere. He made music that I admired, and danced to, but, with the exception of “Life On Mars,” nothing I took into my heart.

A little more than two weeks after the death of Bowie, we lost another rock star. This one shared with David Bowie both an interest in science-fiction and a dim, dystopic worldview. But while Bowie was fascinated and inspired by the questions sci-fi asked about the mutable nature of identity, Paul Kantner was drawn instead to its sociopolitical implications. I haven’t seen too many panegyrics for Kantner online, so if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take a moment to explain to you what Jefferson Airplane meant to me:

There was a social history course offered to sophomores in my high school. It was spring 1987; I didn’t take it. I had no interest whatsoever in the 1960s — I’d never heard of Haight-Ashbury or the Monterey Pop Festival, or the Summer of Love. I didn’t watch the news, I watched MTV, and MTV meant Debbie Gibson and Glass Tiger and “Livin’ On A Prayer.” If I was very lucky, I might catch a Suzanne Vega video. Randee of the Redwoods was my idea of what a hippie was like. Woodstock was something for grownups to reminisce about, only none of the grownups in the staid automobile suburb where I lived would have ever admitted to attending.

Then somebody sent a copy of Jefferson Airplane’s 2400 Fulton Street collection to the shopping mall record store where I worked.  And I did something that I never did before or after, and, to this day, I still don’t know where I got the nerve: I stuck the two cassettes in my bookbag and dashed out.

Would Grace Slick have approved of my petty theft? Probably not. By then, she was trying to hammer out a living on mainstream radio, singing with Starship in a connection I wouldn’t make until months after my initial introduction to the Airplane. The entertainment industry runs on property rights; nobody gets any money without them. But 2400 Fulton Street told me that all my private property was target for my enemies. It seemed a reasonable outlook. It still does.

I could trace the beginning of my musical education to the moment I pressed play on my cassette player in ’87 and heard the Airplane for the first time. That would be accurate, but I’m afraid that it would shortchange the band’s power. Midway through my first listen to that collection, the walls of the high school and the shopping mall and my suburban bedroom started shaking. All my life I’d been taught that black was black, white was white, sky was blue, and that was that. Paul Kantner suggested that if I was a cloud, my sky would be green. I got the point.

Remember that I knew nothing of the Airplane’s history: the first tentative flights through the San Francisco underground, the unlikely chart successes in 1966, the controversies, the collaborations, the counterculture reputation, the riots, the exhaustion, the psychedelics. The only drug I was doing at the time was Cap’n Crunch. With no context whatsoever, Jefferson Airplane spoke directly to me, trapped in the 1980s, just as they once spoke to thousands liberated in the ’60s and the ’70s. Open your mind, they said, use your imagination, do things that don’t have a name yet. The proper response to abusive authority is laughter, because that’s the one thing they can’t take, or take away from you. And if all of that makes you an outlaw in the eyes of America, well, there’s plenty of harmony on the other side of that line.

They became my favorite band. Though I considered myself surrounded by people whose ideas and values opposed mine, the Airplane was my proof that there once existed people who felt the way I did — and my promise that it could happen again. When Kantner and his bandmates raised their voices together, it sounded to me like an entire nation was singing. That nation certainly wasn’t the one I was living in. But it didn’t sound undiscoverable, either. It sounded like it was right there beyond a thin barrier; a wild world, a playful world, a world where people of all kinds could be together without losing their individual personalities. Paul Kantner’s music was, essentially, an entreaty to go out and find it — and if you couldn’t find it, go ahead and make it. Because he was generous, he even gave us a cryptic recipe, right there on his best-ever song, an anarchist’s pamphlet set to glorious music. “We must begin here and now,” he sings with his mates, “a new continent of earth and fire.” No matter what’s happened since 1967, I still believe it’s possible. 


Okay, I’m gonna hit you with some plurality favorites in the miscellaneous categories, and then I’ll turn the floor over to You the Voter:

  • Best singing: Laura Marling. Erykah Badu and Father John Misty got some love, too.
  • Best rapping: Kendrick Lamar by a landslide.
  • Best lyrics: Joanna Newsom. Bet you guys like Thomas Pynchon, too, huh?
  • Best album title: Earl Sweatshirt‘s antisocial I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
  • Best album cover: No plurality at all.
  • Biggest disappointment: The Decemberists and Panda Bear.
  • Nicest surprise: New Order minus Peter Hook is still pretty damn good. Carly Rae Jepsen, too. I’m listening to her right now.
  • Thing you don’t know, but you know you should: A few votes here for Vince Staples.
  • Hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire: Some more votes for the Boss, but I’m sorry to say Damon Albarn takes the category.
  • Young upstart who should be send down to the minors for more seasoning: Ed Sheeran. A nice handful of votes for Tobias Jesso, too. Ben Krieger voted for Chelsea Clinton, and… yeah, that’s a really good answer.
  • Most overrated: Grimes and Drake. Only one vote for Kendrick, by the way, and my location app suggests that the call might be coming from somewhere inside this very house. Poll runner-up Courtney Barnett got more blowback than I expected her to.
  • Album that felt most like an obligation to get through: Titus Andronicus. 
  • Thing that wore out the quickest: Chvrches by a nose over Metric.
  • Artist you respect, but don’t like: Bjork.
  • Worst song of the year: “BB Talk,” Miley Cyrus. Some scattered loathing for David Guetta songs, too.
  • Album that turned out to be a hell of a lot better than you initially thought it was: Four votes here for Drake‘s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and four more for Honeymoon by Lana Del Rey. Nothing decisive, but that’s good enough for me.

Trends for 2016

Zach Lipez: Filling out Conde Nast paperwork.

Jay Braun: Recording music and playing it back again.

Brad Krumholz: A return to ragamuffin in mainstream hip-hop.

Hilary Jane Englert: Songs sung from the perspective of animals.

Katherine Furman: The robots are coming!

Mike Cimicata: Bieberification.

Brian Block: Computers overthrowing the producers and making their own soundscape records. Oddly, most of their albums will be full of vocals, but most of the vocals will sound like either Miss Krabappel from the Simpsons, the elementary school teacher from Charlie Brown, or the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Different theories will be advanced on what this indicates, but none of them will be flattering.

Thomas J. Snow: Hyperanxiety masquerading as nonchalance.

Jason Paul: Dance music producers Diplo and Skrillex went pop and proved to be really good at it, keeping eccentricity. Trap is mainstream and proved it could make hits in Fetty Wap.

Jim Testa: A reawakening of politically-aware pop, rock, and rap.

Andrea Weiss: Musicians finally smashing rock’s sexism and homophobia.

Ben Krieger: Sorry, I’m all out of clever. It’s an election year, so I’m sure some artist will annoy me.

Steven Matrick: Pink Floyd.

Matt Houser: Overlord. [We’ll see, Matt.]

George Pasles: Finishing albums.

Best shows you saw in 2015

Steven Matrick: Laura Marling at a church during South By Southwest.

Stephen Mejias: Thurston Moore Band at Monty Hall, JC.

Terrance Pryor: Between The Buried and Me @ Irving Plaza.

Allison Tuzo: Jason Isbell @ Prospect Park.

Dillon D.: Jason Isbell.

Steven Slagg: Tenement.

George Pasles: Jupiter Boys, anywhere.

Pat Pierson: Marjorie Fair (Evan Slamka) solo acoustic @ Mexicali Live, Teaneck, NJ, Hamell On Trial at Sarah Street Grill, Stroudsburg PA (Dec).

Brad Krumholz: Eleanor Friedberger @ Pianos.

Jason Paul: Shilpa Ray album release @ Rough Trade guest James Chance.
Morrissey @ Madison Square Garden.

Brian Block: Rasputina, with Daniel Knox opening, at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Rasputina because Melora Creager is a delightfully droll frontwoman, improvising some of her jokes in direct response to crowd suggestions while never losing her pseudo-upper-class-Brit cool. A new album she’d made all by herself for cd-only release was worked smoothly into the trio format, and old band songs had been overhauled to accommodate keyboards and beat-boxing along with the electric cellos. Knox, meanwhile, has the cranky self-effacing drunk-tavern-piano thing going on; nothing novel, but fun.

Jim Testa: I spent 90% of my weekends in 2015 working at Aviv, so I didn’t see a lot of other shows and I don’t think I attended one “concert” per se at a large venue. But… best live bands I saw at Aviv: Ronnie Hunt,
Deerpeople, PWR BTTM, Donovan Wolfington, Kal Marks.

David Nagler: FKA twigs presents Congregata @ The Hangar, Neneh Cherry @ The Highline Ballroom, Stevie Wonder @ Barclays Center, Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.

Mike Cimicata: Brian Wilson at The State Theater, Future Islands at Terminal 5, Stevie Wonder at Prudential Center, My Morning Jacket at Beacon Theatre, The Original Pinettes Brass Band at Bullet’s Sports Bar, New Orleans.

Bob Makin: Experiment 34.

Zach Lipez: The Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.

Paula Carino: Even Twice & Fireking @ Freddy’s 1/17/15.

Matt Houser: Weird Al @ Mann Music Center, FFS @ Terminal 5, Death by Unga Bunga @ Cakeshop.

Andrea Weiss: R. Ring @ Jonny Brednda’s Philadelphia PA, Dar Williams/Jill Sobule @ World Cafe Philadelphia, PA.

Katherine Furman: The stage show of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore was amazeballs!

Jonathan Andrew: Nada Surf @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 11/14/15, Hum @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 8/13/15 Ben Nichols & Rick Steff (from Lucero) @ The Shop, Brooklyn, 6/12/15.

Anna Howe: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.

Hilary Jane Englert: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.

Oliver Lyons: Mark Burgess (Chameleons Vox) @ The Middle East, Cambridge, MA.

Ben Krieger: Rush’s farewell tour @ MSG. [snif.]

Random comments and various wiseguy category answers

George Pasles: Best video — Peaches, “Rub”. It’s porn, in the way ’50s rock started. It’s the last gasp of Big Mama Thonrton left in music.

Jer Fairall: Kendrick Lamar was not at all overrated in 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly is one for the ages. My #1 choice [FIDLAR’s Too], I suppose, hints at both my contrarian streak (rank an album at #1 that everyone else in the world is touting? What?!) and my self-consciousness about loving something I am unqualified to understand. Granted, a white 37-year-old doctoral candidate claiming to identify with a band of booze-‘n-drug-addled twenty-something punks is probably no less laughable than identifying with the current voice of Black America, but it is less offensive.

Ben Krieger: Kendrick Lamar is King Of The World this year. And that’s outside of the fact that it was a ho-hum music year for me; in terms of quality, I could fit at least 5 of my favorite records since 2012 between To Pimp A Butterfly and everything else I enjoyed in 2015. I don’t think there’s been as deserved a consensus on a #1 record since Elephant, and To Pimp A Butterfly is much better.

Steven Slagg: We expect our black laureates to save the world as troubled, brilliant, tireless crusaders/saints (Kendrick, Chance, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brittany Howard), but we only really ask our white laureates to be clever, self-aware, and charming (Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, Destroyer). Seems like the arrangement’s unfair to everybody.

Ben Krieger: Whitest album – The Sleeping Tapes by Jeff Bridges. But hey, I got into it, go figure.

Thomas J. Snow: Drum-geeks among us have to appreciate the fact that the hi-hat patterns on the Drake album could have been lifted straight from George Lawrence Stone’s “Stick Control for the Snare Drummer” (see page 14, “Short Rolls and Triplets.”). Rudiments: they’ll never let you down.

Jonathan Andrew: Adele sold 15 million copies worldwide in 10 weeks on the strength of her songcraft, her extremely down-to-earth (and thus likable) persona, and that effing voice. She’s not an Aretha- or Whitney-level virtuoso, but there is something incredibly relatable about the way she puts her songs across. It is a joy to hear.

Thomas J. Snow: Not that I was camping out in front of Sam Goody waiting for 25 to come out, but I kind of expected a little better from Adele. “Rolling in the Deep” had a winning vocal performance and some thoughtful production; “The Other Side” is not just bad; it’s uninteresting and bad.

Brian Block: Tunde Olaniran doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet; that’s serious oversight territory, because his Transgressor could easily have been the massive hit it deserves to be. Olaniran is an excellent singer and good rapper (reputedly a fine choreographer as well), and his album’s seeming influences are multiracial mega-sellers: Kanye’s Yeezus and U2’s Achtung Baby, Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Art Pop and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. He puts interesting new spins on their ideas and seems like a thoroughly decent, pleasant person. He’s young; perhaps the world will catch up soon.

George Pasles: Will still be making good albums in 2025 — United Pressing.

Brian Block: Best lyrics — Joanna Newsom, obviously. Or I say obviously; according to my best of 2012 ballot, where I discussed Ian (Aesop Rock) Bavitz, I was still hesitant about brilliant lyrics best approached using Wikipedia and the collective annotations at Now it feels entirely normal to me to learn new things about birds, 19th century politicians, and 26th century interplanetary wars in the cause of approaching an album. Maybe now I’m ready to enjoy Shakespeare? I’ve had a bit of leftover sympathy for Couch Flambeau’s lyric (“I hate Shakespeare! He’s boring and he’s too hard to read! I wish he was dead!… He is? Good”), but of course he’s dead. That’s what happens to folks. Newsom almost summarized one of her key themes in Divers’s last song title, but — distracted by another interesting idea — she misspelled “Time, as a Merciless Bastard”.

Thomas J. Snow: Allow me a moment of blasphemy, but I found it almost impossible to listen to Divers from start to finish. As thematically and technically impressive as she is, Joanna Newsom seems to have mislaid her groove. The fussy arrangements, with every little penny whistle and bassoon and tasteful tambourine shake in the mix like tchotchkes in your grandmother’s china cabinet, are simply hard to live with for a full long-player. I wish I could blame Van Dyke Parks or Dick van Dyke or Andy van Slyke or whoever that guy was who produced Ys, but, looking at the liner notes, it looks like Joanna took the reins on Divers herself, so…ah wait! Steve Albini was involved in this project! Let’s blame him.

Zach Lipez: I still love pop-punk. Feels great.

Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year — The Apartments – No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. The first proper album from The Apartments (who were always just Peter Milton Walsh anyway) in almost 20 years. Of course it was crowdfunded. In The Apartments long history of would have beens, should have beens, a stable label is the least of its problems. Regardless, with 20 years to prepare, Peter Milton Walsh has had plenty of time to pick the best of what he’s written over the past two decades and it shows. The songs on No Song… can compete with anything going today. You think the guy who wrote “Mr. Somewhere” is here for the play play? No. Singing about the death of a relationship or the death of his son, PMW can sew heartache to melody like almost no one else. No Song…combined with “hip” “”Brooklyn”” label Captured Tracks reissuing The Apartments first album, I’m sure The Apartments won’t stay secret much longer.

Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year Runner-up: The Unlovables / Dirt Bike Annie – Reunion Show – A Split LP from two of NY’s best early 2000’s pop-punk bands and they don’t miss a beat. Besides my hair and these bands, there’s not much else I miss about that time.

Matt Houser: My Kids (age 4 + 6) liked: Caspar Babypants, Plastic Bertrand “Ça plane pour moi”, The B-52s “Rock Lobster”, Basement Jaxx “Take Me Back to Your House”, Chipmunk Punk album.

Terrence Pryor: 2016 needs more obscure bands reuniting than well known acts. Also, someone needs to do a concept album about sloths because those cute creatures deserve some love.

Zach Lipez: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Loving the abhorrent, the racist, the dishonest, until, say, three other people call them out…then everybody jumps on. If it took you till 2016 to realize Tao Lin or Kil Sun Moon were fucked as humans, i don’t know what to tell you.

Steven Slagg: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Female country artists fighting tooth and nail for success, brilliantly walking the cultural tightrope. Male country artists coasting on bland tastefulness.

Andrea Weiss: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — More musicians coming out — more power to them.

Hilary Jane Englert: Prevailing theme(s) or trend(s) of 2015 — Use of the beach as a figure for a less difficult, troubled life, ruminations on the relationship between the mind and the body, abbreviated song titles.

Oliver Lyons: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Bands still hate vowels.

Mike Cimicata: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Blinded by science.

George Pasles: 2015 was an ominous year for too many friends and for the world in general. Hard to watch. My year was largely nondescript, spent listening to podcasts or WFMU. I spent my nights with rats in the basement of Saltlands. I started and completed ZERO songs for the first year since 1990. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Steven Slagg: Six queer artists I paid close attention to — Courtney Barnett is casually out and tremendously popular and her gayness doesn’t factor much into the narrative around her; Shamir is also very popular, identifies as genderqueer, SOUNDS fashionably queer, while Le1f, Ezra Furman, and Angel Haze deal directly with all the troubled, knotty parts of queer experience in a way that strikes me as more interesting and in-your-face but less palatable (though I like Shamir too); and then Sam Gleaves, a traditional country/bluegrass singer who writes about gay coal miners and country boys, and who splits the difference between some really fascinating storytelling and sort of patronizing pride exercises that feel about 15 years behind their time.

Jonathan Andrew: I really shouldn’t weigh in since I haven’t given her a fair shake, but I can’t believe the enjoyment many seem to get from listening to Courtney Barnett. I find it far more charming when my pop singers can sing.

Brian Block: I’m torn between being happy for Courtney Barnett, because she’s smart and amusing and I enjoyed her songs “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” in 2014; and being puzzled because I don’t think putting 11 of her songs in a row, with almost one combined melody and a musical style centered around “the part of a Bonnie Raitt song where they’re just trying to pad everything out to radio length”, does her any favors at all. Apparently I’m outnumbered.

Brian Block: I hope your poll is much more loyal to Belle & Sebastian than the Pazz/ Jop poll was [no worries there, ever, Brian], because Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is, for me personally, their breakthrough album. I’m not saying it’s objectively better than your poll-winner If You’re Feeling Sinister — they’ve always written well — but I’ve rarely liked my music wispy or pastel, and my liking for B&S has generally risen during the moments when they’ve asserted pop and dance smarts. For me Girls in Peacetime was like an entire album imagined outward from “I’m a Cuckoo”, “Stay Loose”, and “the Blues are Still Blue”, sometimes even converted into ‘80s synth-pop…. which, by being straightforwardly fun for me to listen to, also helped me attend to and enjoy their lyrics more than ever. Obviously, the rest of the world is entitled to dislike polish, jauntiness, and synth-pop; but with Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes near the top of the polls, I don’t think that’s the issue. It feels more as if the smart kids will be loved if they know their place, but aren’t welcome at the dance. I like to dance, and I like to bloviate smart-kid style, so I’m not super-delighted if those are the rules.

Ben Krieger: Most sympathetic perspective — Fenton Lawless on the song ‘Chicago, Chicago.’ Like many local artists who spew their dregs all over Facebook, Lawless is best when he’s sitting behind his guitar. ‘Chicago, Chicago’s “what about black on black crime” perspective is not one that I agree with, but I get that—in what I feel is a misdirected way—he means well. For a full albums worth of songs about what drives many of Trump’s supporters, you need to go back to Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class record. All I’ll say here is that the Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame for the cultivation of frustrated white Middle America; liberals fucked up big time. Randy Newman was trying to warn us about this all the way back in 1974 with Good Old Boys: there is no cause righteous enough to be excused from the necessity of respectful dialogue with people who don’t seem to agree with you. I don’t blame oppressed and underprivileged groups for this. I blame what I can only describe as the New Yorker crowd, who have the responsibility of creating a dialogue bridge between the disenfranchised and the more-privileged groups who don’t quite understand what all the anger is about. If you’re the type of white, middle class liberal who is fond of using the term “flyover country;” if you think that anyone who votes Republican must be an idiot; if you memed something condescending over that fucking asinine image of Kermit sipping tea; if you snickered and jabbed at mainstream country music, then you failed. I don’t think that the internet is necessarily set up to communicate peacefully with others; lord knows I’ve left enough Facebook threads foaming at the mouth. But when I finally got around to listening to “Chicago, Chicago,” I was reminded that behind many a person with whom you don’t agree with is someone who, in their own way, wants the world to be a better place, and is worth having a sit-down conversation with. (

Jim Testa: Pop music really let me down in 2015. Where was the “Shake It Off,” the “Call Me Maybe,” the “Best Song Ever?” Everything sounded safe, tired, boring. I am tried of Nickelodeon child actors being groomed into pop stars – Ariana, Demi, Selena, Miley, go home. I am tired of Taylor Swift surrounding herself with female pop stars and supermodels and branding it as “feminism.” I am tired of a hip-hop community that’s still more consumed with bling than Black Lives Matter. I am sick of an alternative rock community that doesn’t seem to realize there’s a crucial presidential election on the horizon.

Katherine Furman: Worst song of the year — All the manufactured indie songs with big choruses. I don’t belong to you, you are not my sweetheart. Stop trying to play me!

Stephen Mejias: I’m somewhat troubled by how similar my list is to Pitchfork’s. Ah well. Whatever.

Jonathan Andrew: Most alienating perspective — “Only by returning to vinyl (which has doubled in price since the early 2000s when one could purchase Oh, Inverted World! for $7.99 at Vintage Vinyl) can we combat the irresistible, instant-gratification, ADD-addled experience of listening via streaming services!” I was raised in the Church of Townshend, Springsteeen, and Waters. Whatever medium I am using, I listen to albums in sequence, all the way through, and evaluate them according to classic rock and pop orthodoxy: the album is the unit of measure by which we judge artistic greatness. It is still possible, denizens of 2016. You just need to exercise impulse control. Now, to Spotify to stream The Division Bell yet again (which is way better than its critical reputation would suggest).

Jer Fairall: Most welcome surprise — how much I’ve come to love and depend on Spotify now that I live in an area that offers high speed internet.

Ben Krieger: I made a pact with the Devil this year and signed up for an Apple Music subscription. I don’t know what else to do; I’ll gladly buy anything that appeals to me, but I couldn’t figure out another way to afford listening to a lot of music that, after a spin or two, I realized I had no desire to ever hear again. I figured at least this way the artist got royalties of some sort, as opposed to if I’d streamed the songs off of YouTube.

Oliver Lyons: Everyone who slept on the Mini-Disc is in for a rude awakening.

Matthew Sirinides: You’re doing the Lorde’s work.


Critics Poll XXVI — My Ballot

I don't want you to be me. You should just be you.
I don’t want you to be me. You should just be you.

KRS-ONE once said that he didn’t understand how a person who didn’t know hip-hop could call himself an American. This is the sort of inflammatory (not to mention self-serving) rhetoric we all expect from the Teacher, but I expect you know what he means, and you might even agree. Hip-hop is American culture. If we didn’t have hip-hop, what the hell would we have?; X-Man movies? Buffy the Vampire Slayer slash fiction? Company softball? If you believe that capitalism had deleterious influence on culture — that our mode of productions has, as a collateral effect, a tendency to reduce all social and artistic movements to mass-market commodities — you have to admire how hip-hop, alone among modern forms of art, has risen to its challenge. Hip-hop simultaneously reflects American capitalism and turns it inside out. It’s why we can have Kendrick Lamar, revolutionary and shoe salesman, Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton, coke dealer and philosopher, Janelle Monae, free spirit and cosmetics pitchwoman, and Beyonce Knowles, part-time feminist and Black Panther admirer and full-time possessor of a highly salable derriere. Hip-hop is the only force with enough muscle to wrestle with American life as it is lived by most citizens, and it has the right and authority to do so because it speaks the symbolic language of the American dream. (This is also why it doesn’t export very well, and why rap music made in other countries, no matter the skills of the emcees, always feels kinda counterfeit.)

Thus it doesn’t make all that much sense to call 2015 a hip-hop year. In America, all years are hip-hop years. Current events just made the intersection between rap music and our national obsessions and conundrums impossible to miss. Much has been written about the appropriateness of To Pimp A Butterfly to the year of Freddie Gray, the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment (not to mention Hamilton), and he deserves credit for forcing statements as polemical as “The Blacker The Berry” and “King Kunta” into the mainstream conversation. But his was hardly the only rapping State of the Nation address. Some were overt, like Lupe Fiasco’s demanding Tetsuo & Youth, CyHi’s second installment of his Black Hystori Project, and Fashawn’s high-minded Ecology. Others took some decoding. Drake is the farthest thing from a perfect political rapper (like everyone he knows), but nobody has ever nailed the pathos and paranoia of the wealthy man any firmer than he has. With America adrift in an impoverished and irritable world, its people rich, besotted, and contemplating the efficiency of border walls, this crooning Canadian might have caught the alienated national mood even better than Kendrick did. Vince Staples’s grim g-rap confronts poverty porn and the exploitation of urban conflict by the news media and entertainment industry, and we certainly didn’t see any of that in 2015. The wisest head of all belonged to Erykah Badu, whose sly, sharp, and painfully sad interpretations of pop songs played as a corrective to the many, many recent albums decrying technodystopia. The fault, Badu implies, is not in our phones but in ourselves.

The very best album, though, felt less like a polemic than it did a parliament. The Social Experiment brought in a quorum: local Chicago roughnecks (King Louie, Joey Purp), nerds (Saba, KYLE), pop-rappers (B.o.B., and, delivering the best verse of his life, Big Sean), spoken-word types (Noname Gypsy, J. Cole in his introspective mode), legends (Busta, Badu, who shows up here, too), giddy avant-soul singers (Jesse Boykins, Monae, their neighbor Jamila Woods) and a bit of A-town stunting by Quavo of Migos. The moderator here is Chance The Rapper, and he keeps the discussion running smoothly, which, given the varied styles and microphone approaches of the guests, feels like something of a miracle; and in fact there is a song here called “Miracle,” which is less a statement of intent than a prayer. Chance is a funny guy, but directs conversational traffic toward serious topics that aren’t usually covered with this degree of emotional specificity and richness: first heartbreak, divorce, the death of a family member, the threat of incarceration, the responsibility a boy has to an ex-girl after the failure of a relationship. When Chance raps that his grandmother smells like “light, gas, water, electricity, rent,” your neighborhood nihilist might call it corny. But in hip-hop tradition, he’s getting at a much deeper reality — in this case, a child’s tentative but deeply-felt understanding of the foundations of his world — than popular music is generally willing to confront.

The whole thing is suffused with the guarded optimism Chance is rightly becoming famous for, and his presence was probably the flypaper that caught so many big names; he’s the ringleader, and everybody else is 100% down with the program, which, given the egos involved, is a testament to the centrifugal force of his vision. But this isn’t a Chance the Rapper album, and his rhymes, magnetic as they are, aren’t even the best thing about it. The Social Experiment, as Chance takes pains to point out in interviews, is a band in the old-fashioned sense — five guys who have joined their talents together and who are pushing toward a collective musical vision informed by everything they’ve heard and loved. Which in this case means high school band jazz, the Soulquarians, Chicago drill and g-rap, MJ, lots and lots of church music, Native Tongues albums, Kanye and Drake but especially Kanye, the part of the new wave that Prince was directly responsible for, cheesy love ballads of the ’70s, cheesy love ballads of the brief but wonderful period on the cusp between the ’80s and ’90s, and whatever hissing cassettes their grandmothers were playing during their formative moments.

Hip-hop is often considered brash and shoutable, even by its biggest fans and most ardent practitioners, and very often it has had to be just to be heard above our national clamor. You know how it is out there; to be an American is to be bombarded with everything. But the most beautiful music I’ve heard in my life has been hip-hop. That includes “They Reminisce Over You” and “I Am I Be” and DJ Premiere’s work with Gangstarr, J Dilla and Lauren Hill and everything PM Dawn ever did, “Umi Says” and “Kick Push,” “Lil Ghetto Boy,” Traxamillion’s glittering hyphy productions and Swishahouse’s slowed-down deliciousness, Take Care and Graduation, Aquemini and the Roots’ undun. Think of the crunkest, most spastic, most assaultive hip-hop album you can, and I guarantee that there’ll be moments of jaw-dropping beauty on it: this year, some of the prettiest music I heard was buried on Future and Young Thug mixtapes. The sign by which you know a inessential hip-hop act is not by its corniness — because all of the big boys and girls are corny from time to time — but by its inability to generate the effortless beauty that has always been a secret cornerstone of the form. Surf starts out winsome, ends winsome, and in between, reaches peaks of musical gorgeousness (especially “Windows” and its heart-stopping backing vocals) that match those of any of the records I mentioned above. At first, Donnie Trumpet’s effect-drenched brass instrumentals felt like artifacts from a Spike Lee soundtrack in search of a movie, but by my third time through, they seemed as essential to the experience of the album as Nick Drake’s orchestral tracks on Bryter Layter, or the outro of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to Wish You Were Here.  For an old aesthete like me, there can be no other judgment besides:

Album of the Year

  • 1. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf
  • 2. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
  • 3. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
  • 4. Steven Wilson — Hand. Cannot. Erase.
  • 5. Tame Impala — Currents
  • 6. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06
  • 7. Joanna Newsom — Divers
  • 8. Erykah Badu — But You Cain’t Use My Phone
  • 9. Laura Marling — Short Movie
  • 10. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom
  • 11. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
  • 12. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon
  • 13. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People
  • 14. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
  • 15. Hop Along — Painted Shut
  • 16. Laura Stevenson — Cocksure
  • 17. Young Thug — Barter 6
  • 18. Home Blitz — Foremost & Fair
  • 19. Pusha T — King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
  • 20. New Order — Music Complete

Best Album Title

The Night Took Us In Like Family by Jeremiah Jae and L’Orange. When I go out, I always hope that’ll happen to me.

Best Album Cover

Metric’s boarded-up facade and seedy-looking marquee on the cover of Pagans In Vegas. This is how Emily Haines has come to see showbiz: a hollowed-out industrial dead end in a part of town nobody would ever want to visit, even for voyeuristic purposes. A lot of Metric fans didn’t like Pagans, and I think I understand why — of all the synthpop crossover albums released in the wake of Heartthrob, this one is, by far, the grimmest and most disenchanted. It’s strange that they’re still making arena-pop even as they’ve given up on reaching an arena-pop audience, but they’re ironists at heart, so Emily Haines is probably never going to stop lashing out at capitalism from the belly of the beast. It’s part of the art, as I understand it.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Ezra Furman’s Perpetual Motion People. In his frank liner notes essay, he explains that he often feels feminine and will dress and act accordingly. I can dig it. He has some funny things to say about his bandmates, too. But what I really like about the packaging is the little map of Chicago on which he’s plotted each of the songs. I’ve been a sucker for that since Sammy’s Tales Of Great Neck Glory. Big plus: it’s hand-drawn.

Most Welcome Surprise

Lil B and Chance The Rapper — Free (Based Freestyles). Straight from the Should Not Work But Somehow Does Department, this is Chance and Lil B freestyling over six very long tracks. Before you conspiracy theorists say that it was probably written out, or at least planned out, rest assured that it really does sound like they’re winging it. By definition this cannot be authenticated by Lil B, who, in his relaxed style, has always sounded like he’s making it up as he’s going along. Chance is a different story, though. When he grasps for words or pauses a millisecond before the beat, he gives the impression of a slightly intoxicated line-walker at a DUI check. And if you like him — and of course you do — you never want to see his ass in the squad car. This becomes part of the fun. All that said, these nice-guy rappers really didn’t need to drag Noname Gypsy into the experiment as a foil for their ingenuity. (She’s a girl, so according to hip-hop typology, she doesn’t know how to extemporize — instead, she just dissolves into giggles.) The production is tight, as it has to be. Also, while we’re still in this category, I was pleasantly surprised by how decent Peter Hook’s replacement sounded, and how consequential Gillian Gilbert’s return to the fold turned out to be. Usually when bands hit that inevitable stage in litigation with former members, the music they put out turns out terrible, out of guilt as much as anything else. Not only is Music Complete a much better record than Momentary Lapse Of Reason, it’s become one of my favorite New Order albums.

Biggest Disappointment

Kacey Musgraves is a born panderer. This you can tell from all the songs she writes about how one ought not to care about what the neighbors think. In her timid C&W voice, she makes it clear that she does care, very much, and these little pep talks she gives herself aren’t exactly sticking. Right now, the principal target of her pandering is me, and you, and everybody else who lives in the blue states and who’d really rather not hear another country song about a truck, or a gun, or brewskis with the bros. It’s working: as we entered the Trump Era, Northern critics fell over themselves to thank Musgraves for the small favor. Pitchfork, which never reviews Nashville-machine records (and that’s what Pageant Material is — check the credits), called Musgraves the Kendrick Lamar of country, which was the stupidest thing printed on the site all year, even stupider than the piece that called Stuart Murdoch an accidental racist because he didn’t stick any brothers in his goofy movie. If you can get past all of that — and on many days I can’t — you will notice that the writing has improved, as has the production, as has the singing. Hey, nobody said she wasn’t a talent. But her reliance on cliche, her familiarity with the machinery of emotional manipulation, and, above all, the listlessness of her performances do not augur well. I forecast a lucrative future as a Tennessee hack.

Nicest Try

It’s the rare artist who’d chase Englebert Humperdinck schmaltz in 2015, but Nate Ruess and his talented producers did so, and by God, they attained it. About two-thirds of Grand Romantic is treacle so thick it could melt your molars into calcium carbonate slush; the other third is a bizarre, assaultive Off-Broadway greasepaint screech. I believe every bit of it plays exactly as it was intended. God bless them.

Album That Opens The Strongest

Perpetual Motion People

Album That Closes The Strongest (and culminates in Song Of The Year)

To Pimp A Butterfly. The Tupac “interview” sounds like a bad idea on paper, but in the context of the two poems that frame it, it does feel like an expression of a rapper searching for in his place in history. And when he mentions Nat Turner, I admit a shiver of anticipatory horror. As for “Mortal Man” itself, I take the challenge seriously. I searched my conscience, and I can say with confidence that I’m still a fan, and I will be, no matter what defecatory material hits the oscillating cooling device. Hope you can say the same, fellow rider.


Okay, that’s the albums. We’ll get to the singles and the individual categories tomorrow, I promise!  Thanks for hanging with me for the past few days — I was cooking up something I believe you’re going to like, and which won’t be top secret for long.












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.







Trembling Blue Stars — Alive To Every Smile

41FBDZK28ALAct: Trembling Blue Stars

Title: Alive To Every Smile

Year: 2001

Format: Ten song LP.

From: London. That’s rainy suburban London, mind you — the London where the architecture is monotonously pretty, and a double-decker bus splashes muddy water all over your trousers.

Genre/style: There’s good reason to call Trembling Blue Stars a tweepop band, and foremost among them is the reverence in which the band is held by the twee and heartbroken. If you yourself are an indiepop fan who has been dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend and now suffer from the pains of unrequited love (not to mention being pure at heart), it’s a good chance you already have several TBS albums in your collection. If you aren’t, you probably have no idea who I’m writing about today. While the band’s tonal resemblance to the Lucksmiths is minimal, Trembling Blue Stars fits in with twee indiepop because it really can’t be placed anywhere else. This stuff could be confused with Air Supply if you weren’t listening closely, and I suspect the same could be said about many of the most melodramatic indiepop records made in the ’90s and ’00s. Yet many of the best-known tweepop bands get by with slapdash declarations of romantic longing, skeletal arrangements, and questionable chopsmanship. That’s not what Trembling Blue Stars does. Even the Field Mice — that’s the band TBS evolved from — were much better at their instruments than their peers were, and their records were meticulously recorded and produced to a sheen that’s liable to make a punk rock fan gag. So: heartbroken enough to spend album after album dwelling on it, but not too distraught not to obsess over the drum and synthesizer sounds. Just like Air Supply.

Key contributors: The main perpetrator here is Robert Wratten, who is kind of a test case: just how lovelorn can a songwriter be? How long can a band sustain the same even, doleful, wrist-slitting tone? Wratten is to mournful heartbreak as Wiz Khalifa is to marijuana. Better yet, Wratten is to heartbreak as the Insane Clown Posse is to Faygo: like a juggalo of sadness, he sprays the stuff all over you. You don’t come to this music to dodge what he’s got. You come to be showered in it. Camera Obscura once called an indiepop album My Maudlin Career, and this would also be a good name for Robert Wratten’s biography. If you’re the type of music listener who is attracted to extremes, you’ll want to check out Trembling Blue Stars just to experience how morose popular music can get. The sage Elton John told you that sad songs say so much; Wratten is the man who proved him indisputably right, and kept on proving him right until everybody cried uncle. He turned on the tap in 1987, and whether he’s called the project Northern Picture Library, The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars, or one of the other names he’s used, it’s always been the same. He’s fixed his stories of romantic desperation to six-string shimmer, sweep synthesizer pads, and occasional techno beats, and sung it all in the stupefied but unsurprised mumble of a chess club president who’d just seen his former girlfriend in the arms of the football captain. Other Trembling Blue Stars albums cut Wratten’s misery with female vocals mixed to emphasize the woman’s unattainability; Aberdeen’s Beth Arzy and Annemari Davies (who we’ll get to shortly) both sweeten Alive To Every Smile a bit, but more than anything else in a pretty big catalog, this one is the bandleader’s show. The other major force on this record is producer Ian Catt, who is probably best known for his work with St. Etienne, an electropop act that has never been properly appreciated in the States. Catt has fitted Wratten with various shades of melancholy since the days of the Field Mice. Occasionally he’s been accused of overproduction, as if the whole purpose of his job wasn’t to get everything to shimmer, swoon, and ache by all means (and by all overdubs) necessary. Lucky for Wratten, Catt is a shimmer, swoon, and ache specialist, and he’s never let his pal down. That means that Trembling Blue Stars albums rise and fall on the strength of Wratten’s writing, and his ability to sustain and focus his peculiar vision.

Who put this out? Sub Pop. By 2001, the label had more or less completed its transition from an outfit that backed the likes of the Screaming Trees to an outfit that backed the likes of the Shins. Still, memories of Kurt Cobain howling from the muddy banks of the Wishkah don’t fade so easily, and TBS’s jump to Sub Pop at the turn of the millennium was accompanied by a mild jolt of cognitive dissonance. (St. Etienne made a similar leap from an indiepop label to Sub Pop around the same time.) Broken By Whispers, the Trembling Blue Stars album that preceded Alive To Every Smile, was the first Wratten project to be released through Sub Pop, and I recall it got a pretty nice push from the imprint. For a shining afternoon, it seemed possible that TBS could gain the same sort of foothold in the States that Belle & Sebastian had. Back home in the U.K., Wratten was still working with Shinkansen, the successor label to Sarah Records, a quasi-legendary operation that put out albums that sounded exactly like what you’d expect to get from a label called Sarah Records. Picture a girl named Sarah with a hair clip and a bicycle with a bell and a basket, and a tear-stained love letter in the front pocket of an argyle sweater. Go on, give her an ice cream cone for good measure. The Field Mice are sometimes described as the quintessential Sarah act, yet Wratten’s understanding of classic pop architecture set the band apart from the very beginning. Those interested in further study might make an investment in Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?, an exhaustive compilation that inspired ten thousand cupcake pop bands, at least fifty of which I played synthesizers for.

What had happened to the act before the release of this set? The Field Mice were followed by the slightly more electronic Northern Picture Library, followed by the slightly less electronic first Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly more electronic second Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly less electronic third Trembling Blue Stars album. To complain that these records all sound the same is to miss the point utterly. It’s monomania that Wratten is chronicling. He required an aesthetic to match his obsession. The early history of Trembling Blue Stars is one run-on journal entry that begins in a blue funk and descends further into despondency from there. The first album is a clutch of fresh breakup songs, and they’re redolent with not-so-secret fresh breakup hope: somehow the tectonic plates will reverse and the dawn will break and the girl will come running back with mascara a little smudged from weeping but no worse for the wear. By the time of Broken By Whispers, Wratten’s faith was shot to pieces, and he’d arrived at the conclusion that even if he managed to land the girl he was fixated on, she’d changed so much since the breakup that the rekindled relationship would be worthless. “The person you were, I know you’re not her, she’s gone away,” he sighs on “She Just Couldn’t Stay.” All is lost, all is shitty, nothing on the horizon but the dreary procession of loveless days. The one-two gutpunch of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes” that concludes Whispers could be the most depressing ten minutes in the history of recorded music. Here Wratten has resigned himself to a life of misery and meaninglessness; the breakup he still can’t make sense of has put a hole in the hull, and the ship is destined to limp around a torpid sea until it finally goes down. In its fatalism, many wounded indiepop kids found this romantic. Some of us, God help us, even found it sexy.

What obstructions to appreciation did this album face? This brings us to the one leading fact that even casual fans know about Trembling Blue Stars: Robert Wratten wrote many, and quite possibly all, of these confessional, excoriating, self-pitying early songs about his bandmate Annemari Davies. TBS was initially designed as a vehicle for Wratten to express his devastation about the breakup. In case there was any ambiguity, he put a picture of Davies on the cover of the second album. What’s remarkable about this is that for the first two albums at least, Davies remained in the band, and continued contributing to Trembling Blue Stars until the very end of the project. (Those must have been some rehearsals.) If this had happened between, say, Beyonce and Jay Z, there’d be an industry devoted to unpacking the nuances and dynamics of the lyrics; since it’s indiepop, we’ve got to satisfy ourselves with occasional weblog posts. Davies does not seem like the sort who kisses and tells, and interest in the vagaries of Wratten’s romantic life has waned, so we’ve got the albums to go on, and that’s about it. In any event, there’s something deeply sadomasochistic about this arrangement — although even at the time it was hard to tell who the masochist was. It is instructive to know that as twee as the handle sounds, “trembling blue stars” is actually a phrase pinched from The Story of O. To indiepop fans nursing their own wounds and resentments, it was something of a relief to realize that no matter how pathetic they felt about their own love lives, Wratten was willing to be even more pathetic, and in public. Here was a man who didn’t even have the stones to throw the girl who’d dumped him out of his band. As good a songwriter and wordsmith as he is — and he is — it is indisputable that Trembling Blue Stars owed much of its prominence within indiepop to the soap opera at the heart of the project. Wratten, a calculating musician, was willing to capitalize on his own emotionally dysfunctional life story. Yet by the time of Alive To Every Smile, this had become something of a problem. Never mind that there was nowhere to go after the desolation of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes;” he was beginning to be known as the guy who couldn’t stop writing about getting dumped. Now, as pop brands go, that’s a pretty good one, but like all pop brands, it’s confining. Since there’s not much sonic differentiation between TBS album, it was easy to assume that Alive To Every Smile was more of the same. Just about every reviewer jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Sad Man Wratten was at it again. Only he wasn’t; not really. Because unless there’s a dimension to the Davies story that he hasn’t chosen to overshare, this time around, he’s writing about somebody else.

What makes the words on this album notable? Right off the bat, Wratten signaled that this was going to be a different trip. “Under Lock And Key”, the kickoff song, opens like this: “You’ve got to stop fucking her up, you’ve got to grow up.” Let’s examine both halves of this uncharacteristically profane (by Trembling Blue Stars standards) note to self. Wratten hadn’t ever been too concerned with growing up before, and that’s because he presented his heartbreak as an apocalypse that had forever halted the hands of the clock. Yet here he was hinting that he knew there was something adolescent about the position he’d taken on the first three Trembling Blue Stars albums — and in Northern Picture Library and the Field Mice, too. I hope you realize that I’m not being pejorative in any way by calling Wratten juvenile. If my girlfriend were to dump me, I’d throw a tantrum so whiny and immature that every DYFS agent in town would be forced to storm my house. Even if I’ve never lived through the unpleasant things Wratten sings about on Her Handwriting, I can sympathize with the extent of his meltdown. Sometimes the only justifiable reaction is a toddler’s reaction, and there’s no sense in dressing it up in sophisticated b.s.; that’s why “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, as laughable as it is, goes straight to our souls. Anyway, that’s not the Robert Wratten we’re getting here. We’re getting a version of Wratten who understands that the meter is running, and that love affairs are pierced through the core by time’s arrow along with everything else. With it comes another realization: the narrator is just as responsible for the turmoil as the object of his affection is. On Alive To Every Smile, Wratten plays the perpetrator, not the victim. He’s no less soft-spoken than he ever was, but now he’s unashamed to admit that he’s as driven by the sexual imperative as any frathouse mook: “I wanted her so bad, you see,” he explains, flat-footedly, on the album’s centerpiece, “I just wouldn’t stop at anything”. Desire, on Alive To Every Smile, is a force that prompts people to behave impetuously and irresponsibly, and the more Wratten’s protagonist tells himself he’s doing wrong, the harder it becomes for him to locate his virtue. The woman he’s after is probably married, certainly off-limits, and tempted to play with fire. The main character begins the story as a would-be tweepop lothario interrogating his own morally compromised position, plunges into the deep end of the pool anyway, and discovers the water is a lot hotter than he expected it to be. By the end of the album, she’s taking the train back to the life she knows, and he’s the disbelieving, heartbroken schmuck on the platform talking to himself. So, yes, the result isn’t so far removed from what you’d get on other Trembling Blue Stars projects. The crucial difference is that this time Wratten knows that he’s been an active participant in his own emotional demolition. This is a grownup’s realization, Alive To Every Smile is a grownup story, and as every grownup knows, but every pop song attempts to mystify, an affair is always a tragedy. In order to make the ultimate album about what it’s like to be in the midst of one — because that’s what we’ve got here — it takes an experienced tragedian, one painfully familiar with the dynamics of self-deception. “I think love should come with madness,” sings Wratten on “Maybe After All,” and this preference stands as an implicit critique of the girl he’s chosen to seduce: she’s not going to go utterly crazy with him and sacrifice everything, and he knows it, but he’s already gathered too much momentum to stop himself from going over the edge of the cliff. “When we see a chance to be loved,” he sings on “With Every Story” in a prompt that sums up all of his work, but especially this album, “who knows what we’re capable of?” Now, Robert Wratten’s lyrics are often called diaristic, and it’s possible that Alive To Every Smile is just as autobiographical as the first three TBS albums. He may have actually picked up and fallen for a married woman, she may have refused to ditch her husband, and this set may be at least as epistolary as Here, My Dear. Those still interested in Wratten’s personal story will no doubt notice that the writer has appended a mysterious set of initials to the lyrics printed in the CD booklet. Me, I think it’s more significant that Wratten chose to include printed lyrics in the first place. This is the only Trembling Blue Stars album that comes with the poetry attached, and I do not believe that this is just the residue of Sub Pop’s art design department. Wratten is particularly proud of this set, and he wants to make sure you notice how succinct and epigrammatic they are, how economically the story is advanced, and how each image has been carefully seared into the lines to reinforce the narrator’s move from ambivalence to rhapsodic abandon to destabilization to stupefaction. “It’s the rest of our lives — that’s all we’re making a difference to!,” he sings on “Ammunition,” in a typically sympathetic but histrionic closing argument. Apparently she’s unmoved. Or, more likely, her idea of the value of the rest of her life differs sharply from his, and she’s calculated that she’s got more to lose than he does. He believes surviving isn’t everything; she doesn’t want to be drowned. Tough luck, Bobby.

What makes the music on this album notable? It was the canny Tim Benton of Baxendale who, on “Music For Girls,” implicitly called for solidarity between fans of lovelorn tweepop, delicate dance music, and every other form of art that the chavs can’t stand. Since we’re all facing the same beatdown from the same fraternity brother on the same cultural playground, a missing link between Belle & Sebastian and the Pet Shop Boys shouldn’t be that difficult to find, right? Benton wanted Baxendale to be that missing link; Ian Catt probably felt the same way about St. Etienne. Trouble is, no matter what Robert Smith and Bernard Sumner were able to accomplish in the ’80s, it is brutally hard to mope and dance at the same time. Brood and dance, maybe, or indulge in glorious self-pity while kicking at the pricks. But true heartrending tweepop has little relationship to the booty. (Please oh please be a pal and don’t bring up “Stillness Is The Move”.) Ironically, Robert Wratten, King Mouse himself, is the practitioner who’s come the closest to a genuine fusion. Some of this is probably accidental; while he’s got his heart in the house music experiments on the Lips That Taste Of Tears album, I think they’re there to evoke the psychic destabilization of the disco and, only distantly after that, to get you to shake it. Since it’s basically a concept set about putting trouble where there wasn’t any, Alive To Every Smile steps back a bit from the dancefloor and privileges mood over motion. There are more achingly slooooooow Christopher Cross ballads here than Wratten usually foists on his listeners, which is not to say that they aren’t really good Christopher Cross ballads. The exception is the slightest song on the set, and the only one that doesn’t really advance the story — “St. Paul’s Cathedral at Night,” a reverie with a comedown-phase techno pulse and a breathy vocal sample. Like “ABBA on the Jukebox,” an earlier song, “St. Paul’s” consists of Wratten flagellating himself with strands of memory; thus, the music needs to simultaneously sting and feel dreamlike. He pulls it off, but the ambience comes at the cost of the album’s forward momentum. Other experiments work better. Album closer “Little Gunshots” is semi-bossa nova, which ought to be a farce but works brilliantly instead by sucking every breath of equatorial breeze from its dessicated version of tropicalia. “Here All Day” extends Wratten’s fascination with fatalistic early-’60s pop ballads; “Under Lock And Key” sets the tone with mildly distorted drums and guitar and a marginally rougher vocal approach than anything TBS had yet attempted. It all serves to anticipate, echo, offset, or frame Wratten’s Fifth Symphony: “The Ghost Of An Unkissed Kiss.” Here is the maestro of lovelorn excess in rosy overdrive, layering guitar track upon guitar track (natch, one is even backward), saturating the frequency spectrum with organ, synth, and backing vox, mixing machine beats with live drums, and letting the whole shebang run for four-and-a-half minutes of indiepop glory. In case one melodic hook wasn’t sufficient, Wratten baits the fly-trap with a second, and then a third, and then a fourth, with each one steady enough to support a song on its own. The composition couldn’t be any more assured, but the motivation is frantic: if Wratten can just make the song catchy enough, irresistible enough, the girl will get tangled up in it like a kitten in a ball of yarn, and he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye again. In years of playing indiepop, I’ve never seen it work out that way, but our best songwriters go right on trying. As romantic fallacies go, it’s one of the most fruitful.

Dealbreakers? Wratten’s voice is something of an office-worker grumble, and it can sound downright comical when paired with the gigantic arrangements of songs like “Unkissed Kiss.” No matter what the band does, or how many glossy six-string and backing vocal tracks he overdubs, he always sounds like a sad sack, and you may occasionally tempted to slap some sense, or some animation, into him. (This said, Leonard Cohen has gotten away with the same thing for decades.) On other albums, Davies and Arzy brighten things up with lead vocals of their own, but this one is his narrative masterpiece, and he holds center stage for nearly an hour, only breaking the soliloquy for long sections of guitar wash. If you haven’t warmed up to him by the fourth song, there’s a good chance this isn’t for you. I am also aware that there are those who still believe male pop singers ought to behave on record like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, and others who are moved to write thinkpieces about the bothersome sociocultural implications of the twee aesthetic, and others with a reasonable distaste for the act of kissing and telling. If you fall into one of these categories, you will certainly pitch Alive To Every Smile out the window. Pop-rock did get rather wimpy and passive-aggressive in the ’00s, and there certainly is a time and a place for Motorhead. But if you want to argue, and some do, that Robert Wratten’s beleaguered, poetic diary entries constitute illegitimate rock practice, I can’t hang with you there. Heartbreak is as essential subject for American popular songwriters as Cadillacs and blue balls. As Fleetwood Mac, or Kanye West, might tell you, if you’re going to indulge yourself, you may as well take it to the limit.

What happened to the act after this? Wratten followed up Alive To Every Smile with the only dud in his discography: The Seven Autumn Flowers, which wasted a great TBS handle and a beautiful cover image on soporific, unmotivated, second-rate material. The exception is the terrific lead single “Helen Reddy,” sung by Arzy, which is probably about the same affair that consumed Wratten on the prior set. Seven Autumn Flowers would be the last Wratten project to get a decent, albeit indie-sized, push in the States (it was released by Hoboken’s own Bar/None); its failure to expand the Trembling Blue Stars audience probably threw the last shovelful of dirt on Smile. In America at least, tweepop moved on to other heroes, and it seemed likely that we wouldn’t be getting any more installments of the Adventures of Robert Wratten. As it turned out, the old fox had one last trick to play. The Last Holy Writer, released in 2007, broadened the arrangements, varied the tempos and the beats, and let a few rays peek through the clouds. A few songs were, in longstanding indiepop tradition, gay-affirmative; “A Statue to Wilde,” the seven-minute closer, manages to be gorgeous and also make a political statement, and if you think that’s easy, try to come up with another song you can say the same thing about. The presence of topical verse demonstrates that Wratten had stepped out of the confessional, at least momentarily — and when he does sing about himself, as on “November Starlings,” he’s provisionally content. He remains willing to put a chorus like this one, from “Idyllwild,” in Arzy’s mouth: “Life was so open then/now it’s closing in/one by one our dreams have disappeared.” Yet for the first time, it seems possible that Wratten is singing about another character, and that means a substantial difference in tone. Trembling Blue Stars retired from live performance after briefly supporting Holy Writer; Fast Trains And Telegraph Wires (is Wratten good at titles or what?) followed, almost as an afterthought, a few years later. It’s a good album and a fine end-note, but it played like a reiteration of past glories. In America, it sunk without a ripple.

Will this album ever receive its propers? Tweepop posterity, lusting after youth in strict conformity with the stereotype, tends to overrate the Field Mice and underrate Trembling Blue Stars. That’s when people are thinking of Robert Wratten at all, which happens all too infrequently. The grand, glossy arrangements that he and Catt favored have gone out of style;  the Pains of Being Pure At Heart — an obvious bunch of Wratten fans — are more inclined to run their mixes through nasty-ass distortion. Consider that the latest Pains album has been slated because Kip Berman has cleaned up the sound and made something not unlike a mid-’90s TBS set, and you begin to realize the problems that the Wratten revival faces. The Field Mice stand to be rediscovered first, and with it the story of Sarah Records and the doomed Wratten-Davies romance. Thus, even if Americans get hip to Robert Wratten in the future — not at all a likely thing — Alive to Every Smile is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Wratten probably won’t be able to call attention to his narrative masterpiece without getting back on the road and playing songs from it — preferably “Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss,” but “Little Gunshots” and “Under Lock and Key” are likely to intrigue pop fans, too. Luckily, Wratten appears to have unretired again: there’s a Facebook page for a new project called Lightning in a Twilight Hour, which I can’t believe wasn’t already the name of a Trembling Blue Stars song. I’ll be the first in line at the record store, if there were still record stores that stocked this stuff, or if there were still record stores, which there hardly are, but you know what I mean.


Tris McCall: