Critics Poll XX: Miscellany, Part Two

Trends For 2010

Matt Sirinides: Don’t make me say a blog buzz word.

Sudeep Dutt: NOISE.

Jason Paul: Hipster music (Ke$ha finally breaks the mainstream.)

Efrain Calderon: New artists delivering over-hyped debuts that will be forgotten before you can clap your hands and say, “Yeah!”.

Sara Hayes: Lots of crappy pop music, and not enough attention paid to music that’s actually worth a listen.

Jim Testa: Disney sitcom stars with hit records.

Christopher Amann: Music in the cloud. Having all your songs or all songs ever recorded on whatever device that is connecting you to the Internet.

Marisol Fuentes: They will try to put all of the music in the cloud. But it will rain! And all the music will instead be in a puddle.

Alan Young: Hi, we’re New Order – oh yeah, I mean Jesus & Mary Chain. I think that trend still has legs. Unfortunately.

Ben Krieger: More reunion tours that suck. The first inklings of an effort to identify the next generation of rock critics online. In time people are going to want follow a few good men and women again.

Ariel Bitran: The end of this passive shit, lets make some real music people! stuff that doesn’t necessarily have anything to say about politics or foreign relations or your mother or vegetarianism or sleeping late, but instead states its message through the music’s intent: to be bold and direct. too many bands are settling for the easy way out and not challenging themselves to really challenge their audience: not in a way which involves complex time signatures but one that makes them think: wow, great MUSIC can still be made without pretension hanging over it. Let’s remove that cloud, and make way for the biggest statements of this generation’s musical lifetime.

David Singer: Guitars.

Paula Carino: Damn synthesizers. No offense. (None taken, Paula.)

Brad Krumholz: Non-traditional stringed instruments.

Jonathan Andrew: I will continue listen to 70s classic rock and outlaw country and fail to listen to much contemporary rock – Kris Kristofferson, get your ass over here!

Sue Trowbridge: ’80s new wave nostalgia.

Mike Cimicata: ’90s nostalgia.

Adam Copeland: What is lower fi than lo-fi? Shit-fi, I guess.

Natasha Marena: More shitty-sounding Wavves-style guitar bands.

Stephen Mejias: More psychedelia, and more genre-crossing, more girls making noise, and more rebellion against digital media. I see lots of cassettes and vinyl LPs in my future.

Zachary Lipez: I hope it’s a D-Beat revival. Realistically? More bad facial hair and AM nonsense from the kids, bitter nostalgia (often involving Jonathan*Fire*Eater) from my peers, and Haiti jokes dominating the message boards by mid-February.

Brian Block: Critically-acclaimed albums entitled ‘I am Afraid of You and You Will Beat My Ass’. Depending on truth-in-labeling law, at least.

Sherri Locker: Trying to sound like Animal Collective.

Forest Turner: Animal Collective influenced hip-hop.

Steven Charles Matrick: Acoustic guitar hip-hop.

Mitchell Manzella: Rock/Rap mashups.

Steve Carlson: Whatever it is, will probably be involved in some way. Since he isn’t going anywhere, and even talented artists are starting to request his services (hi, Murs!), I guess I’m gonna hafta make peace with his continued existence.

George Pasles: Dancing potatos.

Steph Auteri: Lip-sync videos.

Milton: Laptop records.

Oliver Lyons: Books on tape

Joe Coscarelli: Island Music.

Jay Braun: Mayan culture.

Anna Howe: Conservative politics rock.

Jens Thuro Carstensen: More kid-friendly indie-rock shows. And then the kids in question getting into whatever the equivalent of Insane Clown Posse is 12 years down the road. [It’s brokeNCYDE, isn’t it?]

Brad Luen: Bad puns.

Val Emmich: Slightly out of tune vocals. A man can dream.

Your Comments And Questions

Jens Thuro Castensen: JC: Any band the New York Times profiles is dead to me.

Zachary Lipez: Man, Billy Joel must have been rolling in his track suit about what a complete fucking embarrassment his daughter has turned out to be. She took what I take when it’s 9am and I’m too lazy to go get a handful of Tylenol PM’s and called it an attempted suicide. Oh, and to draw attention to the “problem of heartbreak”. Worst thing to happen to piano men since Tom Lehrer’s retirement.

Steve Carlson: There’s really no reason anyone should go nuts for Jeremiah’s “Birthday Sex” – it’s no more than a perfectly serviceable if undistinguished bit of minimalist R&B. So why did I find myself looking forward to it popping up on the radio? I think it’s the ghostly “oooOOOOooo” in the background of the chorus that got me.

Oliver Lyons: People tell me to check out Kid Cudi but these people are also white though which makes me instantly suspect.

Mike Cimicata: How much did Michael Franti get for selling his soul?

Efrain Calderon: I want to just mention that the whole Taylor Swift/Kanye beef was staged. They both share the same agent. (Also the agent for 50 Cent..remember the Kanye/50 cent beef?) The word on the net is that Jay-Z would perform at the VMAs only if they made Beyonce look good. So “controversial” Kanye embarrasses the poor young white girl. Then gracefully Beyonce gives Taylor the spotlight. Kanye looks like a dick (and therefore helps out his image) and apologizes the next day on the Jay Leno Show which happens to be having it’s debut in the earlier time slot. Taylor ends up gaining pity and overcomes the evil Mr. West’s remarks on SNL, plays on the whole “fearless” thing. Re-releases her record, sells a hell of a lot more units. In the end, here I am, a self-admitted hipster talking about the VMAs, they’ve accomplished they’re mission. Leno gets ratings, Kayne gets press, Beyonce gets press, and Taylor gets press, VMAs get talked about, SNL gets ratings. The only one who ends up looking like an idiot is Jay-Z as Lil Mama gets her B-boy pose on during “New York”… the VMA’s only unplanned fuck up.

Adam Copeland: You recommended 808s and Heartbreak as your album of the year of 2008. I guffawed. I scoffed even. Then I listened to it. I was entranced. I started telling people about it, waxing poetically about its merits and then – IMMA LET YOU FINISH. Kanye had to go and be a total jackass this year and produce absolutely nothing of redeeming value. Unless you like his character on The Cleveland Show or his work with 30 Seconds To Mars. Scoff. Guffaw. Even the President called him a jackass. Still, “Coldest Winter” is fucking awesome.

Oliver Lyons: The world is being too kind to a child actor from Canada (Drake) by legitimizing his music career right out of the gate. At least Alanis Morissette paid her dues for awhile.

Dan Purcell: Best video – Pill’s “Trap Goin Ham.” Americans almost never have to suffer the indignity of seeing actual poor people on TV. Certainly images of extreme American poverty are basically verboten. I remember how jarring Juvenile’s “Ha” video was back in ’99. While New York, cradle of hip-hop, was wasting its time with Puff and Ma$e, Juve introduced you to his friends inside the ‘Nolia projects. The “Trap Goin Ham” video consists of actual, improvised footage of folks on the streets of Atlanta’s 4th Ward and is a step beyond “Ha,” since it’s not just poor folks dancing around a camera but poor folks waving in polite society’s face what polite society likes to think of as their pathologies. Maybe you find some of the images problematic, but they’re not half as problematic as fucking poverty.

Efrain Calderon: Best song that simultaneously references T.J. Maxx and getting a blowjob by a girl in special education? Kanye West in Clipse’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal”.

Jens Thuro Carstensen: (on “Empire State Of Mind”) My distaste for self-congratulation is a major reason I can’t get into hip-hop, and an even major-er reason i can’t deal with Jay-Z. Alicia Keys remains every bit as shrill and un-nuanced as ever. The track seemed cynically composed to capitalize tune on yet another boring Yankees post-season run. And after all this, even I liked it.

Bradley Skaught: “Empire State Of Mind” – Kind of loved it, now I don’t. That chorus seemed great the first time, but it’s actually a really lousy lyric.

Oliver Lyons: Biggest Disappointment – Charles Hamilton Twitter’ing and blogging himself out of a career. Actually, make that “rappers who use Twitter” is the biggest disappointment of 2009. I now have to believe the Diplomats were lying when they said that, if you live in Harlem, your only options for survival are getting the rock and shaving that shit or getting the glock and blazing that shit when, clearly, a few paragraphs on from your 125th st loft can accomplish the same.

Adam Copeland: How is J Dilla still producing better shit from the grave than most living producers?

Steve Carlson: (on Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette”): This one amazes me. All the reasons I like it are the same reasons it’s, in all honesty, a pretty terrible lead single – it’s stark and creepy and alienating and for fuck’s sake RIHANNA SHOOTS HERSELF AT THE END OF IT. It makes sense for Cage to make his stalker/serial-killer anthem “I Never Knew You” the lead single for Depart from Me because it’s an ugly, difficult album that isn’t really relying on airplay to sell it anyway, but Rihanna’s suicide fantasies/domestic abuse metaphors are supposed to be confined to the deep-cuts bin while she and her record label push forth some braver-than-thou uplift. This shouldn’t have even charted, and I assumed it didn’t when I saw how quickly the powers that be hustled out the more conventional “Hard” as a followup. Imagine my surprise when a bit of research turns up that the damn thing was a Top Ten Hot 100 charter. I will never understand the American public.

George Pasles: Worst album cover – Chris Brown: Graffiti.

Brad Luen: The only Chris Brown song I listened to was “Changed Man”. I can’t like the guy but I don’t want to hate him. When he repeats “it ain’t over”, I want to hate him. So I’ve stopped listening.

Tom Snow: For me, listening to drummers these days is like watching basketball on television. These kids are so good, and so inventive, and so advanced, that I have a hard time drawing parallels from what they’re doing to what I (used to) do, even though it’s called the same thing.

Jeffrey Norman: Most ridiculously charming video by a local musician even though the song itself isn’t much… Pezzettino “You Never Know”

Ben Krieger: I didn’t hear the new Decemberists record, but I understood what was really behind the critical venom: is Jethro Tull EVER going to get some respect? I mean, why just King Crimson?

Brian Block: I just discovered yesterday that all of Jim-Bob (Carter USM)’s solo albums finally were issued in the U.S.A., including a 2009 one. But I have no idea whether he’s still brilliant. I hope so.

Joseph Mallon: Worst trend of 2009 – Indie bands discover sequencers.

Sue Trowbridge: Most Overrated – Animal Collective. I keep hoping I’ll “get” them eventually.

Jens Thuro Carstensen: Biggest Disappointment — the utter predictability with which Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear occupied top spots of every Best of 2009 list in music. It was practically pre-destined the second downloads became available.

Jer Fairall: Biggest Disappointment – that the Animal Collective hype that gripped everyone this time last year lasted all year, after all.

Marisol Fuentes: The Animal Collective album was good. But the hype about the Animal Collective album ROCKED. I have learned my lesson. From now on I will skip the album and listen to the hype.

Bradley Skaught: Seemed like a strangely over-hyped year in general. Grizzly Bear? Animal Collective? Bill Callahan? Antony? Nothing special, really.

Zachary Lipez: Even the critics didn’t seem that psyched by all their top tens and fifties and whatnot, so I’m just going to assume that 2009 was a year of cashing checks for the Pitchfork staff. I mean, I know they’re not sitting around listening to Dirty Projectors or Bat For Lashes, THEY know they’re not, so, really, why make a thing about it. Honestly, I have never woken up in a room with a Grizzly Bear CD in it. So I begrudge the world nothing.

Christopher Amann: Seeing just how far indie has come, When blockbuster teen vampire movies are using a duet by Bon Iver and St. Vincent and Chrysler is using Phoenix in a car commercial, you know there is no longer an underground. I overheard a kid on the train tell his friend that “Oxford Comma” was his favorite song (I hope he didn’t mean ‘of all time’). The next week, the new Vampire Weekend was #1 on the Billboard 200.

Alan Young: Is the blogosphere ever going to make a real break with the corporate media or just continue to imitate it? How long is it going to take before the mass audience in this country is completely fragmented into little niches like the way it was fifty years ago? How long is gonna take before everybody realizes that 60% of people who tweeted last month got sick of it and moved on?

Jens Thuro Carstensen: The 2009 Snake on a Plane – I’d briefly pondered renaming this Bánh Mì Award, for this is the year I was inundated with something even more inane than blog-rock: “foodie” culture. But, since this accolade is dedicated to soon-to-be-laughable trends and generally aging poorly, I should really keep it the way it is. As for the recipient, that’s been decided for months: Wavves. The assent was too immediate and out-of-nowhere, the prospect of proving to be not even remotely up to the hype was too obvious, the festival circuit flame out and subsequent blog backlash was too predictable. This guy had the career trajectory of a model rocket with its nose cone taped on… even the scuffle with the dude from the Whack Lips felt like an odd afterthought, like the mom from Family Ties finally declaring she’s gay. Congratulations, Wavves. That said, I already forgot Chairlift even existed. [Note: Jens awards the Snake On A Plane to the artist who goes from unknown to absurdly hyped to all but over in a single calendar year.]

Dan Purcell: Worst song of the year – Eminem’s “We Made You.” First, Em, who is already the most consistently annoying emcee of all time, hits you with his most creatively awful style yet — half Rasta, half Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Second, his mighty flow is unleashed in service of a series of cruel and unclever swipes at low-hanging celebrity fruit like Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, and Sarah Palin, all of whom I’m not sure Em realizes he’s got much more in common with than he does any of us. Third, whoever came up with the vocal hook needs to go back to drawing board. It’s sad, it’s mean-spirited; there’s nothing good about it. I also want to say a word to Bon Jovi, for their “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” which at first I thought was a grammatical correction of the old Goffin/King song from The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Sadly, no. Anyway, the song is harmless geezer music; it’s the title that kills me. Guys, you’re not fooling anybody. You were totally born to follow. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. You still sold a lot of records. You had a pistol for action; you went in and out of love; on a steel horse you rode; now you have boats and wine cellars. You don’t need to pretend you were innovators.

Jim Testa: Best Comedy Album – Bob Dylan, Christmas In The Heart.

Jeffrey Norman: Most welcome surprise – Bob Dylan’s Christmas album not as horrific as advance jokes led us to expect.

Ariel Bitran: Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job – Brendan O’Brien’s reissue of Pearl Jam’s Ten – YUCK – such a horrible horrible job of turning a record that sound at best was a high mediocre to just unlistenable.

Matt Sirinides: Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job – Pearl Jam’s Ten reissue. I’d prefer that album to sound like it’s playing out of a broken speaker for the rest of time.

Dillon DeCrescenzo: Boss needs to get a restraining order against Brendan O’Brien. Seriously.

Bradley Skaught: Magic was such a great rock ‘n’ roll record — melodically realized, focused, structurally sound. Working On A Dream is bloated and underwritten — awkward, dolled up.

Dan Purcell: You know those Internet apps that tell you what your name would be if you were in the Wu-Tang Clan or if Sarah Palin was your mom? I know; they’re a lot of fun. If there were a Bruce Springsteen Title Generator app on a website somewhere—who knows, maybe there is one—it couldn’t generate a more perfectly vacuous title than Working on a Dream. I guess it’s nice that Bruce finally rediscovered the importance of pop melodies and radio hits, but this record suggests he thinks the defining characteristic of pop songs is simple-mindedness. I don’t know why he holds this belief; he himself has contributed many counterexamples over his career. Not too long ago, Bruce completed a solid decade without writing a single melody, but as boring as his 90s output might have been at least it was never simple-minded. Most of Working on a Dream—and here I mean the title song, “My Lucky Day,” “This Life,” and other, similar bullshit—is like freeze-dried Bruce, high-fructose corn Bruce, Bruce with all the valuable nutrients removed. And when he tries a little harder, it gets even worse. “Outlaw Pete” was billed as Springsteen’s attempt to recapture the spirit of “Incident on 57th Street” and all those other early, epic romantic compositions, but those songs sidestepped schlock and bathos only because their lyrics situated them in a specific and identifiable place (even if that place was imaginary). Those songs were informed by history and tradition and other songwriters, Dylan for sure, but they were unburdened by cliché. “Outlaw Pete” is like a cliché hoagie—shopworn imagery piled sky-high and slathered in vinegar. You could excuse it by saying the artist is a victim of his own success, that his innovations have become industry standards over time, but come on; the truth is the song doesn’t work on any level. Then there’s the song about the hot checkout girl at the supermarket whom Bruce can’t (or at least shouldn’t) fuck because he’s a world-famous 60-year-old rock superstar and she’s not. The narrator’s riveting yearning is paired with a sub-Spector kitchen sink arrangement that erupts all over your face like a cheese fountain. I sort of like the minimalist blues “Good Eye,” but not that much, and anyway that’s just one song.

Ben Krieger: Springsteen’s 2009 performance was disappointing, but I saw it coming down the pike way back in the fall of 2008. He is certainly capable of leading America through our current mess, but at this point fans should feel rightfully unsatisfied. I have faith in the man yet, but if an upswing is on the horizon we’ll probably have to wait several years for it. Hopefully he’ll still be around at that point. Despite my sheer disillusionment, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather help fill a stadium for. But when it comes to working on a dream, let’s stop talking and start walking, OK?

Ben Krieger: Obama’s 2009 performance was disappointing, but I saw it coming down the pike way back in the fall of 2008. He is certainly capable of leading America through our current mess, but at this point fans should feel rightfully unsatisfied. I have faith in the man yet, but if an upswing is on the horizon we’ll probably have to wait several years for it. Hopefully he’ll still be around at that point. Despite my sheer disillusionment, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather help fill a stadium for. But when it comes to working on a dream, let’s stop talking and start walking, OK?

Brad Luen: Best songwriter – Brad Paisley. The Obama hope expressed in “Welcome to the Future” and the rest of the American Saturday Night album perfectly capture the mood of the country a year ago. That the mood of the country so quickly turned angry and pig-headed only makes Paisley’s optimism more valuable.

Jeff Ciprioni: Best guitar player – Alistair MacLean of the Clientele, because his band is breaking up and he’s underappreciated.

Brian Block: Best guitar player – Mike Keneally (soloist from “Nice When I Want Something”), and it’s my bad that I haven’t voted for him every single year. Admittedly he’s understated and subtle during actual songs — jawdropping only once you de-focus on the words and main tune — but he always includes plenty of instrumentals, so he was hardly hiding. MVG, however, is Beep Beep’s Eric Bemberger: his weird arsenal of chords, tones, and melodic runs make the sole difference between deeply mediocre indie-rock generica and an album I’ve Honorable Mentioned.

Jonathan Andrew: Best bassist – Kathy Foster of The Thermals. Lots of 8th notes, but sometimes that’s what you need to get the room moving, right?

Jim Testa: Most ubiquitous non-traditional rock instrument of 2009 – glockenspiel.

Zachary Lipez: (on Lady Gaga) I like her verses, and I’m grateful for her existence. Madonna comparisons are weak. She takes the only good song Madonna ever did –“Get Into The Groove” — mixes it with the neato sounds of Borderline and comes up with something WAY better.

Dan Purcell: I like all the Lady Gaga singles at least a little. I understand the Madonna comparisons, but Gaga actually has a sense of humor. She seems more like the new Bette Midler.

Adam Copeland: I appreciate what Lady Gaga has done for Pop Culture by making people uncomfortable. I just don’t like her tunes very much. Sorry.

Oliver Lyons: I hate to keep running with the populace but it’s nice to know in these trying times that as we lose our jobs, houses, families, 401k’s, etc…we’re all bumping “The Good Life”, “Slow Jams”, “Sweet Escape”, and “Poker Face.” USA! USA!

Jens Thuro Carstensen: I still don’t know why you don’t have best and worst live show categories, but i’ll answer this non-question anyway. Best: Feelies @ Maxwell’s. Two sets, four encores. Hung on every note. Worst, in a surprisingly crowded field: Sun O))) @ Brooklyn Masonic Temple. Anybody who takes that band even remotely seriously is a complete idiot.

Sara Hayes: Best live show of the year – J. Tillman chapel show at the Unitarian Church. Pretty near musical transcendence.

Dan Purcell: Best live show – I can’t front, it was our old friends Phish at Red Rocks on 7/31/09. It started raining fairly heavily about halfway into the first set, as we’d been warned it might. The band immediately loped into “Water in the Sky.” (Do you get it?) It only got worse from there; by the set-closing “Split Open and Melt,” it was coming down in sheets. The band gets credit for not half-assing the improvisational segment; all around them the crew was sealing the amps and monitors with polyurethane and building small plastic yurts around each of the band members. Eventually they finished up, bowed, and jogged off, leaving all of us to fend for ourselves in the monsoon. It got steadily worse for about twenty minutes; we had to pull up the tarp that our friends had used four hours earlier to save seats in the general-admission craziness, to use for shelter. I was stationed on the front of the tarp, working to hold on when the wind surging up the mountain dipped under it and tried to tear it away into the sky. It wasn’t very much fun. But the rain did slow and then finally stopped about 45 minutes after the band had gone off. The crew came out and dismantled the yurts. The band emerged a few minutes later and were highly motivated. Predictably opening with “Drowned,” the Who song, they speedily downshifted into a funky little polyrhythm that segued as if composed into Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless.” That shot off into a clever and pleasant little jam before spiraling downward into “Joy,” the set’s first Phish original, which Trey Anastasio wrote after his older sister died from cancer. “Joy” has a chorus that by rights should be too cheesy to tolerate but is so fundamental to the band’s appeal to its audience that you have to give them a pass: “We want you to be happy/’Cause this is your song too.” Hate if you must, but hate at your peril. Anyway, the “Joy” breather led into one of the two or three best versions of “Tweezer” that Phish gave us in 2009, not to overstate the significance of that, since 2009 was their first year back from a long time off and obviously they were spending most of their effort finding their footing and working on the fundamentals. As with most ’09 jams, there were only three minutes or so that were really on point, but they were bewitching. The closing sequence was a blizzard of energy: first (a) “Fluffhead,” historically a special treat but all up in the ’09 rotation; into (b) the perpetual-motion machine of “Piper,” into a piano coda that morphed into (c) their cover of “A Day in the Life,” which also had the nostalgia factor for me since I saw the band debut it at the same venue back in 1995. The drenching was no price to pay for 75 minutes of that degree of wall-to-wall heat.

Jonathan Andrew: Best concerts of 2009 – Mountain Goats at TLA in Philly, Frightened Rabbit at Maxwell’s, Lucero at First Unitarian Church in Philly.

Christopher Amann: It’s no news to lament the closing of record stores, but Virgin Megastore in Union Square was one of my favorite venues in the city. The in-store performances were a great place to check out a few tracks from bands usually on the day that their new album came out. What’s better than a 20 minute show at the very easy hour of 7 PM in a decent room that never got too crowd and never had a cover? Plus you could meet ‘n greet or get your boob/cd signed by the artist too. Memorable In-stores: Robyn, St. Vincent, Black Kids, Carl Newman, that red-headed 19 year-old British piano-playing chanteuse who is half-way between Patrick Wolf and Nellie McKay.

Alan Young: Most Welcome Surprise – The new Knitting Factory. No Nazis, trendoids separated by a glass wall from the crowd watching the band.

Tom Snow: Most Overrated – Kasabian. I need to stop buying Q magazine every time I’m in Heathrow terminal 5.

Best lyricist – Rod R. Blagojevich

Sudeep Dutt: How did Tiesto, Basement Jaxx and Crystal Method put out better indie records than Kings of Leon but not get any radio play or cred?? Someone needs to rethink that.

Zachary Lipez: I have zero (ok, very little) interest in becoming some sort of indie contrarian, Armond White-esque cartoon; year after year berating my fellow responders for their insistence on loving the most de-sexualized, namby pamby Orange County Ska by-way-of-all-the-Wilsons-but-Brian blog infused bullshit, but, you know what, Tris? I am as God made me. And he made me to love cocaine, vaginas, and Crimpshrine. And if all these mathematicians think Neko Case is going to let them in her boat when the waters rise, just because they read The Infinite Jest and preferred Pharcyde’s 2nd record,well, they may be right. And the world SHOULD be repopulated by centrist Democrats and Canadians. But my sperm is weak anyhow and while Fall Of Efrafa cd wasn’t REALLY my number one album, given the choice between crustpunks doing three album song cycles about Watership Down and nice hearted and evil hatted faux spaniards playing too many instruments and talking about nothing but the summer and implying by their references how their listeners are smart and clever and wonderful and not at all intentionally grinding their comfortable shoes into the throat of the world, give me the deluded crusties. Every fucking time. At least they smell human.

Matt Sirinides: This year I revisited a lot of albums loved past and I discovered that no act has aged more gracefully for myself than YO LA TENGO!

Jonathan Andrew: Old artists I listened to way too much in 2009, causing me to miss out on much (possibly good) 2009 music: Grateful Dead, John Prine, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Townes Van Zandt, and The Beatles (particularly the remastered versions of Beatles for Sale and Let It Be.)

Tom Snow: Musical equivalent of an ironic mustache – Fits, by White Denim. But I still dig it.

Oliver Lyons: Best album of 2010 – Juelz Santana reads the collected works of Nabokov.

David Reynolds: Amazing comp – Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007.

Ben Krieger: Song/album that shouldn’t have been shorter – 13 Japanese Birds by Merzbow. 13 hours of noise is bound to yield some dull patches, but look at what we got in return: one CD per month with enough variety to keep fans interested, a unifying musical theme and thirteen cool album covers. When was the last time I waited for release dates with baited breath and dashed off to the record store once a month for an entire year in order to pick up a release that rocked my stereo and looked cool lined up with its counterparts on my shelf? A brilliant marketing ploy by an artist who loves the thrill of holding a physical record as much as his fans do.

Stephen Mejias: I bought more records this year than in any other year of my record-buying life. I continue to be amazed by the quality of music being released. Artists are doing a better job of reaching their intended audiences, which is leading to better art, in general. I think something special is going on, and I’m looking forward to more of it.

Joe Evans III: I’m slowly, but gradually getting back into more music that isn’t just dumb punk records. I actually started to get into Beyonce and Lady Gaga, but I don’t actually own either of their records, and I’m fairly certain both came out before 2009 anyway. Hopefully, at this rate I’ll be caught up enough to make “real” contribution to this Poll by 2017?

Jay Braun: I’m hungry.

Christopher Amann [on behalf of everybody]: MJ, RIP.

Critics Poll winners over the years:

* 2008 Frightened Rabbit — The Midnight Organ Fight, MGMT — “Time To Pretend”
* 2007 Of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Rihanna — “Umbrella”
* 2006 Belle & Sebastian — The Life Pursuit, Camera Obscura — “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”
* 2005 The New Pornographers — Twin Cinema, Kelly Clarkson — “Since U Been Gone”
* 2004 The Arcade Fire — Funeral, Kanye West & Twista — “Slow Jamz”
* 2003 The Wrens — Meadowlands, Outkast — “Hey Ya!”
* 2002 Spoon — Kill The Moonlight, Missy Elliott — “Work It”
* 2001 Spiritualized — Let It Come Down, Jay-Z — “Izzo”
* 2000 Outkast — Stankonia, Outkast — “Mrs. Jackson”
* 1999 The Magnetic Fields — 69 Love Songs, Len — “Steal My Sunshine”
* 1998 The Loud Family — Days For Days, Public Enemy — “He Got Game”
* 1997 Belle & Sebastian — If You’re Feeling Sinister, The Verve — “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
* 1996 Sammy — Tales Of Great Neck Glory, Smashing Pumpkins — “1979”
* 1995 Oasis — What’s The Story (Morning Glory), Oasis — “Wonderwall”
* 1994 Pavement — Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Blur — “Girls & Boys”
* 1993 Liz Phair — Exile In Guyville, Dr. Dre — “Nothing But A ‘G’ Thing”
* 1992 Lyle Lovett — Joshua Judges Ruth, Pete Rock & CL Smooth — “They Reminisce Over You”
* 1991 A Tribe Called Quest — The Low-End Theory, Geto Boys — “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”
* 1990 Boogie Down Productions — Edutainment, Public Enemy — “911 Is A Joke”
* 1989 De La Soul — Three Feet High And Rising, Elvis Costello — “Veronica”
* 1988 The Pixies — Surfer Rosa, Public Enemy — “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”

Okay, while you’r patiently waiting for my own list, review your singles and album results. Sorry about the disaster; this is a big document, and it takes a long time to reconstitute once you’ve screwed up and lost it.


I am really sorry about this. I’ve been struggling with this interface, and today, it tripped me up. For reasons I don’t understand, the software reverted to a prior save just as I was about to post the Miscellaneous Categories page. That page is the biggie. It takes me about two days to do. The prior save had just about nothing on it. I couldn’t believe it, but there it is.

I’d like to — I ought to — get right back to it, but I can’t. I have to finish my work and get to practice. I promise I’ll be back to it as soon as I can.


Critics Poll XX: Singles

It's no secret what this symbolizes.
I’m sure the dates have some significance to the band. Many people were born in 1855; logic dictates that some of them were French. And of that generation, more than a few must have died in 1901. 45 is young to kick the bucket, but diphtheria was rampant back then. Now, all we have to do is look through birth and death records in Paris, and cross-check those with history books Thomas Mars might have read during a typical —

Aw, hell, who am I kidding? Guys, this song is totally meaningless. You can tell me that you’ve got a reading of “1901”; I won’t believe you. They might as well be saying papa-oom-mow-mow. At least the Trashmen had the common decency to sing their nonsense words in batshit-nuts voices. Phoenix sounds so smooth and sane. These verses all seem like complete sentences until you bother to riddle them through.

Pop history is littered with nonsense verse. Some of it is downright brilliant; consider Sam The Sham singing about his Ring Dang Doo, or Little Richard’s friend who says Bama Lama Bama Loo when asked for a kiss, or Arlo Guthrie riding around on a pickle. For me, the existence of God is only the second most perplexing existential riddle: “who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong?” will always be number one. Beyond the sheer puerile glee of singing garbage — something I know all about, thank you — nonsense verse allows to allude to stuff that would otherwise be rude to inscribe in a pop-culture artifact. Sometimes Ebeneezer Goode shows up to smuggle a drug reference past the censors; i.e., if you want some fun, Paul tells us in an unguarded moment, take Obla-Di-Bla-Da. More often it’s an expression of sexual frustration: a placeholder for meaning that can’t be analyzed on paper, but sure as hell can be committed to tape. On the page, “Woolly Bully” means nothing; sung by Sam, it means everything.

By no means is this technique a thing of the past. Britney Spears didn’t mind becoming ungrammatical and incoherent on “If U Seek Amy”, because every third-grader in the country got her drift. The operation called for a stealth F-bombing of Middle America, and Sergeant Spears reported ready for combat. (And then there’s Soulja Boy. ‘Nuf said?)

Is that what’s going on here? Does Thomas Mars use code words that ancient spacemonauts like me don’t get, but the little girls understand? It’s a possible explanation. Something sparked this fire. This year, “1901” became the first song since “Hey Ya” to take the Singles category and Most Overplayed; it didn’t make the playlists on Z100, but who (besides me) listens to commercial radio anymore? No restaurantgoer, party person, or web surfer would ever dispute that Phoenix received a healthy slice of exposure pie in ’09. Voters were excited enough to list it on 29 of the 115 ballots submitted (“Lisztomania” made another 17) — again, the best percentage since “Hey Ya” ate Poll XIV. In ’03, I was chock full of theories about why that happened; I think I even pulled in a quote from Henry Louis Gates. This time around, I’m not so sure. Okay, I’m not sure at all. But you know me — I go down swinging.

Allow me to present some theories, or float some hypotheses, or just screw around and help you waste your workday:

Theory #1: “1901” is full of coded messages that, while mystifying to outsiders, made sense to a certain subculture. Or perhaps “1901”, while incoherent on its surface, communicated something between the lines.

Could be, but it seems unlikely. The date is cryptic, and cries out for interpretation, but there are no chronological clues in the lyrics. The chorus — fall in, fall in, fall in (or is it fold it, fold it, fold it?) — is one that can be fitted to all sorts of psychological uses. It might refer to the sensation of falling in love, or destabilization, or dropping through space; coupled with the big portamento synthesizer, it could suggest the rush of freedom or the thrill of danger. This makes “1901” roughly equivalent (I am not joking) to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”. But where Petty backed up his chorus with a convincing character sketch and some worthwhile observations about fin-de-siecle California, there’s nothing in the “1901” verses that reinforces this reading. The bit about the girlfriend is intriguing, but it’s never developed. It doesn’t sound like he’s horny, it sounds like he’s doing a phone survey with a telemarketer.

Moreover, while most “leading” nonsense verse is delivered with a nod and a wink — think of Chuck Berry in “My Ding A Ling”, or Pimp C in “Sippin On Some Syrup”, or Holly Johnson telling you when not to relax — Thomas Mars sings “1901” as if everything out of his mouth ought to be transparent to the listener. He could be reading a stock report. It almost makes me want to smack him. Whatever its charms, this song lacks the sense of humor and play that characterizes most songs written to evade the censors. He’s detached, not conversational; there’s very little emphasis placed on particular words. He doesn’t want to call attention to his lyrics. He wants you to forget that there are lyrics.

Theory #2: It’s just a good piece of music, dummy. The album is called Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix for a reason; treat it like a classical piece performed by insanely-talented instrumentalists. “1901” blew up because the band is terrific and the production is tight. End of story.

None of that is wrong. Phoenix really is an excellent band. The rhythm guitarists, in particular, have developed a highly characteristic style that involves straight strums that ought to be boring, but somehow never are. Don’t try it at home; trust me, you’ll never get away with it. The bass player gets his big-brontosaurus tone in perfect harmony with the six-string shivers. I don’t think the drummer is a permanent member of the band, but he sure seems acquainted with the guys. We already discussed the synths; overdubs are minimal, and Phoenix can and does play the song live with the same sort of mastery they’ve committed to CD. This is a state-of-the-art modern rock production, and one you can cut a rug to.

So why, then, do I find this theory unconvincing? Maybe it’s because there’s so little correspondence between musical excellence and alterna-pop acclaim. They don’t play Yo-yo Ma in the Mini-Mall. There are virtuosos working the college rock circuit, but their rate of popular acceptance doesn’t seem any better than that of the amateurs who’ve just picked up their instruments. Think of the songs that have made the leap from underground party favorite to mass acclaim: do these seem, in general, like dazzling performances or productions to you? Usually they become hits for the same reason that Plies or Kelis reach the urban audience: they put a novel spin on the story of an age-old itch. Karen O might be sadomasochistic about it, and Tracyanne Campbell might be melancholy about it, and Lovefoxxx from CSS might be foreign-freakazoid about it, but the message is the same. Give us a rubbery beat and a charismatic vocalist with rage in the pants, and you stand a good chance of penetrating mass consciousness.

So, yeah, I don’t think it’s satisfactory to say that Phoenix kicks hot jammies and hot jammies will inevitably carry the day. It’s part of the explanation, but it can’t be the whole thing. Why this piece of slick studio-craft, and not the one designed by you and your cousin last weekend? Especially since you and your cousin composed a lyric about child slavery in North Korea and the hole in the ozone, and this French guy is busy singing about nothing. It’s almost as if you’ve missed a cue, and spaced on a current cultural predilection for bosh. Hence,

Theory #3: Might “1901” satisfy a generally-felt desire for a reprieve from meaning and verbiage? Has lucidity become unfashionable?

Look at it this way: you probably spent much of 2008 shouting yourself hoarse on behalf of a man you never met. Why? Because his long, eloquent speeches seemed to promise a break from irresponsibility and bad manners and War with Everybody. You got him elected, and now what? The speeches continued, but nothing changed. The man who would be Messiah turned into a walking example of the limits of language. As it turned out, all the wind in Washington couldn’t budge the weathervane. Yesterday Dan Purcell reminded us that G-side opened their album with the following couplet: “My president is black/but we still in Iraq”. Kinda sums up 2009 in nine words.

Even if the Obama Show had become a viral hit rather than the tired rerun it turned out to be, we’d still expect a cultural backlash against the values that he represents. He’s the chief, the enforcer, the administrator, the top cop. There’s nothing cool about that. Pop music is still made by young folks for young folks, and even though Barack Obama is more identifiable to college kids than Rudy Giuliani would have been, he’s still up there with a suit and a tie, talking like somebody’s daddy. In the mid-’00s, George W. Bush fought a losing battle against the language, right there in public; every time anybody asked him to put his agenda into language, he looked flustered and irritated. Is it a coincidence that rock got so wordy? When the chief is ostentatiously illiterate, speaking in complete sentences becomes a rebellious act. When the chief is an unceasing, well-constructed paragraph, the speech-act loses much of its power to shock. An oppressively articulate state — a state that uses language and rational argument to grind its opponents into submission — ought to engender resistance through incoherence.

The problem: if this was true, you’d expect to see reverberations far beyond the college rock. Hip-hop retreated into fantasy during ’09, but that’s a different chess move altogether. Meanwhile, pop-punk kids — exactly the people you’d expect to be the most disillusioned with Barack Obama — continued with their desperate attempts to communicate through language. I don’t watch movies or television shows, but if either began tipping into gobbledygook, I didn’t notice. My mimeographed SDS newsletter informs me that college campuses are hotbeds of rebellion, and that subversive acts may initially wear strange masks; when I was at school, the counter-cultural thing to do (apparently) was to spray-paint the word “Nugent” on the walls of the campus center. So, yeah, each generation of college kids probably gets the college rock it deserves, and the typical college student is probably more inclined to prank things up than shake things up. This generation seems to want to bury the words behind reverb, talkbox, sheets of noise; when the batteries run out, they’re just going to sing stuff that signifies nothing. Maybe it’s an act of protest, and maybe it’s the residue of well-targeted marketing campaign. Which leads me to a theory that I really don’t want to float, but my conscience insists I try out:

Theory #4: “1901” became a hit because Apple and General Motors wanted it that way.

I couldn’t help but notice that our single of the year also caught the ear of TV licensing people. For me, it is now forever linked with Cadillac’s effort to get me to purchase one of their sleek automobiles. Not just a car, mind you, but a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle; you know, exactly the sort of rolling climate-wrecker that the French are supposed to loathe Americans for driving. If you were privy to any televised sporting events during 2009, you heard Thomas Mars singing while the hot chick drove her SRX through the tunnel. Many times. In this case, the meaning was clear: you were meant to be fallin’, fallin’, fall-in’ down to your auto dealership to drop thirty grand or so.

Hey, I’m a loyal American; I know our automobile industry is on the ropes. If Lafayette wants to land at Yorktown to lend us a hand, that’s okay with me. I’m just glad we all got over the “freedom fries” episode. But I hope hope hope that Critics Poll voters did not put a glorified jingle atop our list. If “1901” took off because of Thomas Mars’s singing, or Laurent Brancowitz’s rhythm guitar, or the strange psychic connotations of the chorus, or because we’ve developed a taste for abstract-expressionist lyrics, that’s great. I can work with that. But if Phoenix became popular because we were all numbed by the repetitive logic of Madison Avenue (not to mention prominent placement in those iPod spots that played on every high-profile music website this summer), then the walls really are caving in. It’s bad enough that we all sat at the monitor and watched those reconstituted Slap Chop commercials for their alleged entertainment value. The hypnotic quality of the television screen was always a myth perpetrated by those who wanted a supernatural excuse for tuning in and staying that way; YouTube has exposed the ugly truth that we really do like to be pitched.

I don’t believe it. I am sure the Cadillac ads (and the iPod ads, and the trailer placements) helped “1901” get traction. But I think it is easy to overstate our susceptibility to marketing suggestion. Advertising people still chase after pop music because of its power, and, it bears repeating, its anti-establishment glamor; if it ever gets tethered to the production wagon for good, it’ll lose its status as rebel art, and the car salesmen will have to go find other things to stick in their commercials. Cadillac chased after Phoenix for a reason, and I doubt that reason is all that different from the reason it topped this chart. I think there’s something to theory number three, and something to theory number two. And as for theory number one, we dirty-minded “Ding-A-Ling” fans can always hold out hope. As Tom Lehrer put it, when correctly viewed/everything is lewd. The apparent sexlessness of Phoenix’s music may put that axiom to the test, but knee-deep in the filth-rock and booty-rhyme era, I appreciate the challenge.

Top thirty singles, 2009:

1. Phoenix — “1901” (193)
2. Jay-Z & Alicia Keys — “Empire State Of Mind” (175)
3. Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance” (174)
4. Phoenix — “Lisztomania” (165)
5. Girls — “Lust For Life” (155)
6. Owl City — “Fireflies” (144)
7. Grizzly Bear — “Two Weeks” (131)
8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Zero” (111)
9. Dirty Projectors — “Stillness Is The Move” (109)
10. Kid Cudi — “Day ‘N’ Nite” (108)
10. Animal Collective — “My Girls” (108)
12. Jamie Foxx & T-Pain — “Blame It” (102)
13. Kanye West & Young Jeezy — “Amazing” (95)
14. Morrissey — “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” (90)
15. God Help The Girl — “Come Monday Night” (87)
15. Metric — “Help, I’m Alive” (87)
17. Lily Allen — “The Fear” (84)
18. Lady Gaga — “Poker Face” (83)
18. Metric — “Sick Muse” (83)
20. Ke$ha — “TiK ToK” (79)
21. Passion Pit — “Little Secrets” (77)
22. Julian Casablancas — “11th Dimension” (75)
22. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — “Young Adult Friction” (75)
22. Girls — “Hellhole Ratrace” (75)
25. Taylor Swift — “Fifteen” (71)
26. Owl City — “Hello Seattle” (69)
27. Big Boi & Gucci Mane — “Shine Blockas” (66)
28. Tori Amos — “Welcome To England” (64)
29. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros — “Home” (62)
30. YACHT — “The Afterlife” (59)
30. Peter, Bjorn & John — “Nothing To Worry About” (59)

Okay, tune in tomorrow for the miscellany. Yesterday we ran down the top albums, Thursday I’ll post the answer key, and Friday’s my closing thoughts. Thanks for reading.