Critics Poll 27 — Singles

Mitski Miyawaki: 100% rock star. And rock stars aren’t going away.

Rock is fine.

That’s not the present consensus. Nostalgic music fans often treat rock as if it’s on the ropes, or imperiled by inattention in the age of 140 characters, or the exclusive possession of an older generation that won’t share it with newer ones that wouldn’t understand its glories anyway. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, that self-appointed bunch of prison guards, behaves like rock is a museum artifact, a relic of the Seventies, and little that happened after the C-86 is worth considering. Each December, articles get written in newspapers and major industry magazines about rock’s tumble from the pinnacle — this year, among other pieces, we had Billboard asking whether rock was still relevant (conclusion: not really.) Bill Flanagan, a critic and interviewer I’ve always respected, asked in the pages of the New York Times if rock was dead. He concluded that it was just geriatric; maybe a little addled, too.

This handwringing has been happening forat least as long ago as the “Heart Of Rock And Roll”, which was a hit in, what, 1984? Don’t make me check. Huey, if you recall, reported that the old boy was barely breathing. All of this concern is testament to rock’s enduring value: if we didn’t like it so much, we wouldn’t be worried that it’s going away.

Luckily, it isn’t; not even a little. The present fears about rock imperiled are largely caused by cultural fissures and nomenclature problems. Some personal prejudices, too, and maybe a collective failure of imagination. But all of that can be corrected, quickly, if we dispense with the arbitrary categories presented to us by industry marketing people, and take a look at music as it actually is.

For instance, the best-selling musician on the planet is a pop-rock artist. Taylor Swift, as anybody who has ever seen her strike a pose and swing her red guitar around in concert can tell you, is 100% rock star. She may not play the sort of rock that Bill Flanagan, or David Fricke, or you, like best, but her connections to the classic writing traditions of the Seventies and early Eighties are impossible to miss. Her first four albums featured four-square pop-rock with folk flourishes; her fifth album was throwback new wave and dances with the white winged dove. In order to argue that Taylor Swift doesn’t rock, you’d also have to say that Fleetwood Mac and Carole King don’t rock, either. And of course they do.

Why don’t we recognize this? Well, Taylor Swift was initially marketed as a country artist. Never mind that some purists in Nashville saw her as a wealthy Pennsylvania carpetbagger — she rose to massive fame on the country circuit first, and then ate the rest of the world for dessert. Rather than an industry classification for salespeople, country is usually discussed as if it’s a distinct musical style. But almost all of the music presently sold by Nashville is rock, plain and simple, and it’s borderline insulting to its antecedents that we ever pretend that it’s anything else. In 2016, the “country” designation has more to do with the American political divide than it does with anything the musicians are doing; a mainstream country show is just a rock concert where you’re liable to see somebody with a Confederate battle flag. Its purported opposite (although they’re actually two sides of the same U.S. mint, but that’s another essay) is not rock but hip-hop — the music of the cities, ethnic and racial minorities, and their sympathizers. The occasional pedal steel and banjo heard on Nashville albums are sonic signifiers meant to align the record with a certain folk tradition rooted in American soil. That drummer, though? — chances are, he’s playing a rock beat.

Lately, artists marketed to the country audience aren’t even bothering to uphold the masquerade. Consider Maren Morris: Texan, alleged country singer, Best New Artist Grammy nominee, and 100% rock star. Hero, her album, consists of cheap-thrills arena rock (and I mean that as a compliment) sung in a bombastic style that sails far closer to Rihanna than Loretta Lynn. Gone are the folk instruments and any pretense to rustic authenticity; instead, the music is burnished to the same reflective, skyscraper-window sheen that coats all the other contemporary chart-busters. Again, this might not be the kind of rock you like. But in order to argue that Maren Morris doesn’t rock, you’d also have to say that Heart and Pat Benatar don’t rock, either. And of course they do.

That rock resonates better in the countryside than it does in the city is something that a student of the style ought to expect. Members of the country audience drive more motor vehicles. Rock was born alongside the mass-marketed automobile and the Eisenhower Interstate system, and it’s still mixed and arranged for the highway. Some hip-hop is made for automobiles — especially the syrupy Southern stuff — but lots of rap records are designed to be heard on headphones and marketed to pedestrians and subway riders. Our feelings about the car have shifted around since 1955, but it remains central to American culture and the American ideal, and rock songwriters have, from the beginning, treated the vehicle and the road as both subject and metaphor. The theoretical building blocks for rock music have always been cars and sexual frustration, with one often substituting for the other — and as ambitious as rock lyricists have gotten, none of the greats have ever forgotten the basics. We’ve seen Chuck Berry fiddling, irate and inflamed, with the seatbelt in “No Particular Place To Go”, “Fire” Springsteen driving in his car with the girl who says no, Joe Strummer groveling before the womanin the brand new Cadillac, repressed Gary Numan and Lennon with the starlet and Prince and a pocket full of used condoms in the little red corvette and etcetera, all rolled up by the dashboard light into a big horny, greasy, automotive mess, and ain’t that America.

Swift and Morris pick right up where their forerunners left off. The key songs on Hero are all about her ride and the men who can’t satisfy her. The central metaphor on 1989 was the car wreck (“hit the breaks too soon/twenty stitches in the hospital room”): the crash as a symbol of desire out of the control of its possessor. Nearly everybody in a Nashville song seems to be on a dirt road in a pick-up truck with a girl or boy who will or won’t; knock the operators of the music machine for predictability if you must be ungrateful, but never claim that they don’t grasp the rudiments.

This extends to the few mainstream country artists who do occasionally generate the kind of honky tonk music that Hank Williams might have found familiar. Foremost among them is Miranda Lambert, who, not unjustifiably, calls herself the Keeper of the Flame. But despite such throwbacks as “To Learn Her”, Miranda Lambert is 100% rock star, an old-fashioned traveling bandleader who opens and closes her highway-crazed double album in her car, and who writes nail-chomping stories of desires unfulfilled. Women in rock express sexual frustration differently from the way the boys do; it’s more “dreaming of the day that you wake up and find/what you’re looking for has been here the whole time” than”get your rocks off get your rocks off”. But the urge is exactly the same, and in order to argue that Miranda Lambert doesn’t rock, you’d also have to say that Creedence and Bonnie Raitt don’t rock, either. And of course they do.

Rock persists because it works: it expresses basic desires for release and personal expression in the urgent, loud sound and direct language that is specific to the American experience. Many other styles have been tried out by pop musicians, but they fall short. The only major form of popular music that is both distinct from rock and aesthetically satisfying is hip-hop — and hip-hop borrows plenty from rock. Hip-hop succeeds on its own merits not merely because it has developed its own sound and its own history. It also has its own symbology, and its own ideological inspirations: telecommunications, connectivity, and social mobility. That said, the hip-hop enterprise has modeled itself on the rock biz, right down to the emphasis on the frontman and his loyal beatmaker, the single as handshake-hello and the classic album as the unit of enduring value, the spectacle concert as the main public interface, and the star’s assumption of godlike powers. Many pop bestsellers draw equally from rock and hip-hop: Lemonade, for instance, is split right down the middle between guitar-n-drums numbers and others that rely on synths and digital beats. That doesn’t make Beyonce one hundred per cent rock star. But in order to argue that she never rocks, you’d also have to say that Tina Turner and Donnie Hathaway (and Tori Amos) never rocked, either. And of course they did.

Billboard’s piece quotes Steven Hyden — another critic I like. He suggests that most people possess an image in their heads of what a rock band is: a bunch of tattooed, bad-attitude dudes in leather jackets who team up and take over the planet. I think he’s right about that, and I do think that we, citizens of a visual culture, tend to concentrate more on what musicians look like than what they actually do. (There are, undoubtedly, others who refuse to grant women the right to sexual frustration, or the steering wheel, but they’re best left to their own private Talibans.)

Here’s what strikes me funny about that stereotype, though: in the long history of rock music, there haven’t been many times when the style was dominated by ruffian white-boy groups. More often, rockers were shooting-star solo artists like Elvis or Little Richard, or large ensemble funkmasters like Prince and Sly Stone, or blatant art school kids on a spree like Talking Heads or Genesis, or machine-tinkerers like Eno or New Order. There will always be a vocal segment among fans of popular music who will not accept that an artist is a rocker unless he — and it is always a he — sounds and behaves like G.G. Allin. But even in the Eighties, G.G. Allin was never much of an attraction beyond his niche. An oppressive world like ours allows for a million and one ways to rebel, and rockers haven’t begun to exhaust the possibilities. This story has many chapters to go, and it’s on us to make sure we’re telling it right — and never to deny club membership to the many who are, plain as day!, carrying on tradition.

Even if they don’t look, or act, like Keith Richards. C’mon, rock writers, admit the club is much bigger than you say it is. You’ll feel better with the gates open. There’s nothing wrong here that a little ventilation can’t fix.

Single tracks, and points:

  • 1. Mitski — “Your Best American Girl” (165)
  • 2. Solange — “Cranes In The Sky” (146)
  • 3. David Bowie — “Lazarus” (145)
  • 4. A Tribe Called Quest — “We The People” (142)
  • 4. Kanye West — “Ultralight Beam” (142)
  • 6. Adele — “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” (122)
  • 7. Beyonce — “Formation” (117)
  • 8. Xenia Rubinos — “Mexican Chef” (111)
  • 9. Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” (100)
  • 10. David Bowie — “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (98)
  • 11. Drake — “One Dance” (97)
  • 12. Shearwater — “Quiet Americans” (92)
  • 13. The Weeknd — “Starboy” (88)
  • 13. Aesop Rock — “Kirby” (78)
  • 15. Chance The Rapper — “No Problem” (76)
  • 16. Drive-By Truckers — “What It Means” (75)
  • 16. Paul Simon — “Wristband” (75)
  • 18. Bon Iver — “22 (Over Soon)” (73)
  • 19. Solange — “Don’t Touch My Hair” (70)
  • 19. Tegan And Sara — “U-Turn” (70)
  • 19. Rae Sremmurd — “Black Beatles” (70)

Critics Poll 27 — Results

Vexed, fuming, had it up to here.

Dateline 1991. Playing in the background: “Can I Kick It?”, the first Tribe song I ever heard. So polite, so laid-back and crowd-participatory, so jazzy and skilled, so confident, so redolent of the new New York we were trying to create. Here was my first encounter with a friendly character we’d all come to know very well over the next few years–Q-Tip, who was, even then, cool and composed, intellectually nimble and completely in charge of the operation. Phife was the junior partner, the little brother, and hadn’t found his feet yet; nevertheless, he came up with one of the song’s most memorable lines. Midway through the second verse, he directs a plaintive request toward a guy who probably wasn’t listening to very much rap music:

Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?

Phife, then just barely free of his teen years, gave voice to a feeling that many New Yorkers of all ages had. We hoped that many of the troubles afflicting the city — racial dissension, economic inequality, gentrification, incivility, disappearing greenspace — might be eased if an African-American were to helm the municipal government. Police might tread lighter; neighbors might be more cooperative; a black face in a position of civic prominence might undercut some of the cruel assumptions about nonwhite leadership that were then (and still) ambient. All of that was present in Phife’s delivery. He had none of the strategic reserve and artful detachment that was already his partner’s hallmark. Phife sounded guileless — so straightforward and wide open to the possibilities of the future that it was hard not to be a little scared for him. What would happen when this wishful kid encountered reality? Would he still think that bureaucratic functionaries would be doing us all a really big favor by assuming authority?

Ten years and hundreds of hip-hop quotables later, A Tribe Called Quest took the stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom for a farewell concert. Q-Tip hadn’t changed very much, but Phife was a different character altogether. He’d become a battle rapper; a lyrical samurai with a bottomless grab bag of clever rhymes and pop-culture references at his disposal. His voice, too, had set and hardened like old wood. He’d grown into the role of the Five Foot Assassin: the Tribe’s lethal counterpuncher and no-nonsense connection to street wisdom. The four-man crew — for Jarobi had come along to be part of the big goodbye– was still promoting The Love Movement, but they did some of the old favorites too. And when Phife came to that second verse of “Can I Kick It?:, I recall he did an edit on the fly:

Mr. Dinkins was a fucked-up mayor.

No further elaboration, nothing specific about what made him change his outlook, no implication that he had a partisan agenda or ax to grind; nothing but cold-eyed disillusionment. Just like Phife, we’d all lived through the Dinkins years, and we’d learned that if it was as easy as electing a black man to an administrative position and waiting while he worked his magic, our problems would have been over long ago. But they weren’t, and Phife, who’d long since lost his patience with bullshit and smoke-blowing, had become constitutionally incapable of rapping to mislead or obscure. If he’d come to the conclusion that David Dinkins was a fucked up mayor, well, that’s what he was going to say, no more and no less.

The Tribe split up. Q-Tip did solo sets, starred in Poetic Justice, produced and arranged and networked, and assumed the role of Secretary of Something-or-Other in Kanye West’s cabinet. Phife got sick. The man who called himself “the funky diabetic” — and famously boasted that he drank so much soda that they called him Dr. Pepper — exacerbated his disease. He did manage to get out one album of his own–its lead single, “Flawless”, attacked Q-Tip’s blatant showbiz moves. The tension between the precise, ambitious, stylish Tip and the earthy, combative, unglamorous Phife made the sporadic Tribe reunions fascinating to watch. It also seemed to guarantee that they’d never be able to hang together in the studio long enough to make another album.

Malik “Phife” Taylor, as you know good and damn well, is no longer with us. 2016 was loaded with music-star death; Phife’s might have been the saddest of all because it felt so avoidable. Hip-hop loved him, his friends loved him, Jarobi loved him enough to move to Atlanta to cook for him, his wife loved him enough to give him one of her kidneys. All of that affection and respect couldn’t save him, and he went to his grave at 45 — even for a reluctant celebrity carrying the heavy mantle of Queens hip-hop and burdened with the expectations that always accompany early success, that’s way too young.

The death of Phife is one of the two major topics on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, the group’s surprise-released sixth full-length and a handy winner of our 27th annual Poll. The other is the pitiful state of American civil society and the not-unrelated question of generational transition in hip-hop: how do elder statesmen get the new kids to carry on their values without appearing schoolmarmish? Q-Tip sprinkles sugar and praises star pupils (Kendrick and J. Cole, natch); he cultivates a performance of understanding and wags an olive branch. Unwilling to get with the program and eager to fall back on his core competency, Phife just wants to battle. These mumble-rap kids are easy pickings; should they show up to the fight, which is unlikely given their assumed cowardice, the Madman Malik stands ready to administer a lyrical beatdown. Diplomacy was never his thing.

Neither was mysticism. On the album’s tear-jerking second half, Tip and his associates reanimate their dead friend through rhyme: sometimes they deliver encomiums and testimonials, sometimes they imagine him at peace with “no more worries”, and sometimes they adopt his character and use his leftover verses and catchphrases and bow bow woof woofs. Realist and materialist that he was, it is hard to imagine Phife having time for any of this. His experience, as he makes manifest in his own rhymes, was one of pain. Show business, for him, was a thin veneer and one liable to rip at the slightest pressure. Behind it was the poet, operating cushion-free, confronting a big world and his own problems with his fists balled up.

As for the deft-as-ever Q-Tip, he fights the suspicion that the slow-motion destruction of his partner is an analog for the slow-motion destruction of the country. On the political songs that start the album, he sounds braced for the worst, frayed, neurotic, occasionally shattered, unwilling to summon the breezy confidence that characterized his delivery in the early 1990s. Most of We Got It was written and recorded in the wake of the Paris attacks, and Tip, who pointedly rhymes about the “woman with the wisdom who is leading the way”, expected Americans to regain their senses. We were dancing close to the brink, yes, but we’d be spared the full cataclysm.

Phife wasn’t so hopeful. He had harder words for those who thought we could joke or entertain our way out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. His snarling verse on “Conrad, Tokyo”:

Trump and the SNL Hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no time for comedy/Blood clot you doing, bullshit you spewing/As if this country ain’t already ruined.

As innocently and optimistically as he delivered the Dinkins line?, that’s how angry and defeated he sounds on “Conrad”. This is how Phife Dawg went out — with no illusions about the mess we’ve made or our capacity to clean it up, convinced of our collective complicity, and realistic about his own self-destructive behavior. Heroes or saviors weren’t coming; if there were any consequential decisions left to be made, we were surely going to choose the wrong option. Because he took the world on its own ugly terms, and because he kept his defenses down, courageously and heroically and in the name of good, concise writing, he was able to get straight to the point with no filigree and no excuses. His story ended in tragedy. Ours hasn’t just yet, but we’re sure as heck heading that way — and if it does and he was around for it, he’d have said so. He’d have rhymed about the rope on the way to the gallows. It’s the only way he knew how to play the game.

Q-Tip is one of the great musicians in hip-hop history. Phife, for all his talents, was no such thing. But the prospect of A Tribe Called Quest without Phife’s participation is absurd — his distinctive sensibility and perspective was always essential to the project. Q-Tip was the leavening, Phife was the astringent; they went together and reinforced each other, and now that the Madman Malik is lost to him, his former partner will never find another collaborator who complements him anywhere near as well. They grew up together and developed interlocking skills; now Tip is a free radical, but he’ll never truly be home again. Word has it he’s got a solo album coming this year. It’ll be good, I’m sure, but it won’t win this Poll or any other. By the timeWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service came out, Phife was already long gone, which made it an elegy, a glance in the rear view mirror in a year of loss where everything worthy seemed to turn to sand in our hands. From the moment of its release, it was a reminder of something, and somebody, gone forever — and a memento of a brutal fight that the good guys lost.

Your albums of 2016, plus points:

  • 1. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (381)
  • 2. David Bowie — Blackstar (304)
  • 3. Mitski — Puberty 2 (252)
  • 4. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial (238)
  • 5. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker (235)

Gosh, that’s a grim Top 5. Guess it suits these sad times. Also, our regular voters are far older now than they were when we started this exercise, and our results reflect this. Since 2016 forced everybody to confront mortality, the high body count is not that much of a surprise. That said, the other two albums here are all about the late-teenage predicament, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten where we came from. I’ve noticed that aging individuals often accompany their principled disengagement from new music with a complementary detachment from the concerns of young people. Even though we’re no longer young people ourselves, that hasn’t happened to us yet. I hope it never will.

  • 6. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo (232)
  • 7. Solange — A Seat At The Table (230)
  • 8. Frank Ocean — Blonde (188)
  • 8. Anderson.Paak — Malibu (188)
  • 8. Drake — Views (188)

There are more black faces on this list than there often are. Not just ours; almost all of the mainstream end-of-year lists are similarly skewed toward megastatement records made by people of color. The average African-American pop star has become an unabashed critical favorite and cultural luminary, and how different this feels from the years of my youth when MTV was Michael Jackson and the seven thousand dwarves. Part of this is due to the stars themselves: the Knowles sisters, meticulous footnoters and chroniclers and students of history that they are, do make sure to engage in contemporary societal debate in a way that Whitney Houston didn’t, or couldn’t. No knock on Whitney; you know I love her. Even if she’d wanted to, the music industry would never have allowed her to make an album like Lemonade or A Seat At The Table. The major-statement records that critics then loved were exercises in cultural mediation, if not outright appropriation: Peter Gabriel’s stuff, and Paul Simon, and Sting. Hip-hop changed all of that. Now when old rock stars like U2, Coldplay or Green Day attempt to protest, or engage with current affairs, or ride the zeitgeist, there’s always a whiff of Broadway schtick about it. We don’t trust it. We don’t feel like they’re entitled to their critique in the same way that Kendrick is.

But before we all pat ourselves on the back for our broad-mindedness, I’d like to point something out that wasn’t always true. After David Bowie — who had been living on Lafayette Street in Soho for years –you’ve got to go all the way down to #23 to find the next non-North American artist on this list. Again, that’s not just us: pop artists from the upper part of the Western Hemisphere are monopolizing critical attention. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to the upheaval that’s currently happening in America. It is now our civic responsibility to concentrate on homegrown debates, and the parlous condition of our inner cities, and babies are dying in Detroit and hey, those European rappers aren’t any good anyway, right? Wait, there are musicians in Mexico?

I, too, love American pop stars best. Of course I do: I’m as ugly an American as you’ll ever see. But I also recall that in the heyday of Blur I used to write a column called British Inversion, and that I once followed musical developments on the Continent. I don’t anymore, not really, and I’m not alone. Consider it another manifestation of the sharp inward turn that we’ve taken together. I fear we’ve exchanged one big blind spot for another.

  • 11. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book (185)
  • 12. Beyonce — Lemonade (181)
  • 13. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger (164)
  • 14. Noname — Telefone (161)
  • 15. Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution (159)

That said, the major developments in 2016 pop were welcome ones. With varying degrees of success — but an extremely high level of commitment and enthusiasm right across the board –nonwhite female artists attempted to seize the means of aesthetic production and tell their personal stories without the usual mediation from the boys. This happened in the industry’s most celebrated quarters, as Beyonce, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys all helmed personal-statement records that, at the very least, attempted to create the illusion of artistic autonomy. It happened in the great American mid-level, where college rock acts (Mitski), upper-middlebrow jazzbo entertainers (Esperanza Spalding), and Downtown rock-chuckers (Xenia Rubinos) sang feminist fightin’ words and made their identity politics explicit. Most importantly, it happened in the trenches. Independent artists like Noname and Jamila Woods (#44 on this Poll; ought to be muuuuuuch higher) dispensed with the intermediaries and uploaded their music straight to Soundcloud. This allowed them to be as gently incendiary as they wanted to be; Woods’s HEAVN was, in its quiet way, the year’s most militant album and its most concentrated application of black girl magic; Telefone is a more personal set but one absolutely grounded in her experiences on the South Side of Chicago.

Of course there were many men, some of whom are melanin-deficient, involved in the making of all of this music; Solange’s for-us-by-us anthem credits Dave Longstreth, for Pete’s sake. That doesn’t invalidate any of the critiques advanced by these projects or make me any less certain that we’ve got something cooking here. Not all of these albums are hip-hop per se, but they use its accumulative logic and confrontational methods to make art that totally rejects the sort of grotesque objecthood that is usually a girl’s lot in show business. Hip-hop has often refused to accommodate female perspectives, but this year, I watched some of that long-frozen resistance begin to thaw — I mean, if you, rap fan, couldn’t respect Lemonade (or HEAVN, or “Diddy Bop”) for what it was, there’s a pretty decent chance you weren’t just sexist but also a little dense. There are no coincidences in American culture — it’s far too garish for that — and in 2016 we all had to watch a woman with a long resume get humiliated by a guy who probably hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Alas it remains a man’s man’s man’s world, and the music industry is very much part of that world. The women with the wisdom rarely get to lead the way: they’ve always had to scramble and compromise and cut corners to find their places in it. So while you’re mourning the disfigurement of your country and plotting your resistance, save a prayer for Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae, and Maplewood’s own Ms. Hill, who died, over and over, in public, for our sins.

  • 16. Shearwater — Jet Plane And Oxbow (149)
  • 17. Pinegrove — Cardinal (141)
  • 18. Nada Surf — You Know Who You Are (140)
  • 19. Okkervil River — Away (137)
  • 20. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat (135)

It’s also encouraging to me that many of these artists — Jamila Woods and Noname and the rest of your World Champion Chicago SoX — released their music for free via streaming services. Local heroes Pinegrove had the  Cardinal  tracks up for grabs on Bandcamp for awhile; I believe they’re asking for seven bucks now, but if you’re a cheapskate, you can always direct your browser to YouTube. Barring some kind of corporate conglomeration disaster that, given the mutability and slipperiness of digital files, probably wouldn’t affect pop music very much anyway, this right here is the wave of the future and the death knell for Apple’s dominance. Because when you can distribute files straight from a streaming site, why bother with iTunes? Rather than muck around with a library/database that has always felt to me like a grey administrative chore, I’ve taken to going to Soundcloud and streaming albums directly. If I’m on my bicycle or walking around town and I want music, there’s really no need to make a playlist: Saba’s album is right there for me, and all I’ve got to do is press start. This would have developed even if Chance the Rapper hadn’t made giving music away seem cool, but Chance’s selfless example has accelerated the process — and also demonstrated that it’d never stop anybody from becoming a mainstream star; I mean, turn on your TV, he’s doing Kit-Kat commercials now. His momma was dead on when she called him culture.

  • 21. Tegan And Sara — Love You To Death (134)
  • 22. Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition (132)
  • 23. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (130)
  • 24. Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost (125)
  • 25. Weezer — White Album (117)
  • 26. Bob Mould — Patch The Sky (114)
  • 26. Drive-By Truckers — American Band (114)
  • 28. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound (111)
  • 28. Moor Mother — Fetish Bones (111)
  • 30. Aesop Rock — The Impossible Kid (109)

You may recall that Okkervil River nosed out  Yeezus to take the 2013 Poll. Three years later, Will Sheff’s outfit didn’t do as well; in fact, this was the first time Okkervil polled lower than their friends in Shearwater. Kanye West lost some ground, too — after nearly winning in 2013 and finishing second in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he slides a bit to sixth place. As we’ll see in a few days, this was the year that Kanye’s antics (if you even want to call them that) went over the line and began to affect your assessment of his music. Frank Ocean, author of the year’s most polarizing album, slid a little too. Tegan And Sara gave back some of the ground they gained with  Heartthrob; Danny Brown continued his incremental descent down Poll mountain; despite my many attempts to stamp out the menace, Radiohead still persists, down a bit but squarely in the Top 30. Damn weed-b-gone never works.

So who, then, is on the way up? Many older artists, strange to say. A Tribe Called Quest did win this poll before, but it was 1991 and we were still doing it on the placemats at Syd’s diner in Millburn. Even people I think of as long-time regulars hadn’t had an opportunity to vote for the Tribe before. You did like Bowie’s Next Day enough to put it in the Top 5, but Blackstar drew an even more enthusiastic response. Interestingly, Stranger To Stranger  is Paul Simon’s best finish on a Critics Poll — had we been doing this in ’86, he might very well have won, but none of his post-Graceland releases have come close. Weezer, Bob Mould, and Aesop Rock continued their steady ascents in the league tables; by the time they’re 90, they’ll probably win one of these things each. Don’t laugh: Chuck Berry has a new album coming out soon. Won’t be surprising at all if I vote for it.

  • 31. Lucy Dacus — No Burden (108)
  • 32. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years (106)
  • 33. Angel Olsen — My Woman (103)
  • 34. Shirley Collins — Lodestar (94)
  • 35. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered (93)
  • 36. Kevin Devine — Instigator (91)
  • 37. Saul Williams — MartyrLoserKing (88)
  • 38. Britta Phillips — Luck Or Magic (87)
  • 39. Rihanna — Anti (86)
  • 40. Trash Can Sinatras — Wild Pendulum (82)

Okay, that’s a wrap for today! Back tomorrow with the singles list, and an essay about a misapprehension that’s screwing with our understanding of contemporary pop. Thanks again for reading and playing, and please stay safe out there.

Other albums getting #1 votes

  • Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die
  • Haley Bonar — Impossible Dream
  • Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.
  • Jeremy Bible — Music For Black Holes
  • Mikey Erg — Boys And Girls And Tentative Decisions
  • Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
  • Nice As Fuck — Nice As Fuck
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
  • Norah Jones — Day Breaks
  • Noura Mint Seymali — Arbina
  • NxWorries — Yes, Lawd
  • Savages — Adore Life
  • School Of Seven Bells — SVIIB
  • St. Lenox — Ten Hymns From My American Gothic
  • Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  • Teleman — Brilliant Sanity
  • The Rolling Stones — Blue & Lonesome
  • Tim Heidecker — In Glendale




ISIS is baiting you. Don’t fall for it.

This was originally written on November 16, 2015. I’m re-posting it here today because… well, you know why. Travel safe, everybody.

Grief, as C.S Lewis explained, can prompt a rational man to do foolish things.  For instance, just last night, I read the comments.  Not just the comments — I read several articles in famous publications that may as well have been comments, and I listened to the words of politicians who seem determined to be YouTube comments made flesh.  When you’re attacked, it’s logical and healthy to want to kick back as hard as you can.  I get that.  But everybody with access to a working modem (or a working political party) needs to take a moment and get serious. Because when we act like ISIS is, in any way, representative of Islam, we’re doing exactly what these jerks want us to do.  We’re stepping directly into their trap.

The entire business model for groups like ISIS depends on widespread Western failure to appreciate the distinction between devout Muslims and crazed nightclub shooters.  ISIS wants you to treat the Muslim on your block as if he’s packing heat in the name of Allah.  That way, you will support nativist politicians who aim to make life uncomfortable for outsiders, and those who practice Islam will become angry and (they hope) susceptible to their hate propaganda.  Life in the West gets harder for Muslims, suspicion builds, politically convenient battle lines develop, and ISIS’s grotesque parody of a caliphate begins, in theory, to look like a valid alternative to Western inhospitality.  They’re begging for us to seal the borders and treat Muslims like prospective criminals.  That’s their aim.  Let’s not take the bait.

Islam is a religion about submission to God’s will.  A real believer walks a path of humility and nonviolence and spends his life in the pursuit of holiness.  The moment he considers blowing up a theater or a cafe, he’s no longer a Muslim — he’s a murderer.  There is no resemblance between true Islam and the idiotic beliefs of ISIS, and anybody who tries to tell you otherwise needs to go read the Koran. Miley Cyrus occasionally raps; you don’t mistake her for a genuine emcee, right? Just because this al-Qaeda spinoff operation calls themselves Islamic State doesn’t mean they know thing #1 about the religion they purport to represent.

Luckily, there is a word for what the members of ISIS are, and it’s a word we don’t use nearly enough.  These people are fascists. Their movement conforms to everything we’ve learned — mostly the hard way — about international fascism: their thirst for purity, their fear of human sexuality, their faith in strength through violence, their intolerance and illiberalism, and their antisemitism, too; all of that stuff is straight from the fascist playbook. Their appeal to disaffected young people with a belligerent streak and a desire to lash out against modernity is the same one used by the Brownshirts — with remarkably little altered in translation.

Fascism needs to be opposed, hard, at all times and in all places.  Sometimes that means physical fighting.  More often, it needs to be dismantled ideologically. We have to make it clear, and convincing, that a culture of Yes is always preferable to a culture of No, and we have to stay true to that idea.  We can’t be hypocritical; we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged toward the fascist murk by people who’d like nothing better than to see an authoritarian clampdown across the Western world. The Syrian refugee crisis was a source of immense embarrassment for ISIS — not because they give a damn about the fate of the people displaced by sectarian violence, but because the millions seeking asylum made it clear, with their own two feet, that they’d sooner wander around Europe than support the imaginary caliphate. ISIS had to watch while the leaders of the Western world — the world they need to demonize in order to keep their campaign going — opened their doors to Muslims in need, and made them welcome.

Sometimes we call ISIS “radical”, or “radicalized;” this, too, is totally unearned.  There’s nothing radical about shooting the poor merch guy at a rock concert; that kind of brutality and mindlessness has, sadly, accompanied the human race for centuries.  What Angela Merkel did was radical in its courage. Openness is radical precisely because people who can’t manage it can never imagine that other people are capable of it; thus, it stands as a challenge to jerks everywhere. Radical compassion jeopardizes their mission, their narrow worldview, their entire reason to be.

I read today that France wants to suspend the Schengen agreement that has, for decades now, insured that national borders within the EU remain open. Several U.S. states have decided to refuse Syrian refugees. Mr. Trump is angling for surveillance of mosques. ISIS could not have scripted this any tighter. Don’t take my word for it; take theirs. Since their emergence as a blot on the world map, they’ve made it theiraim to drive wedges between Western governments and ordinary Muslims. Our prejudice is their best propaganda. When we act like the actions of ISIS somehow follow from the precepts and tenets of Islam, it is a monumental insult to centuries of Islamic scholars, statesmen, scientists, artists, craftspeople, and everyday believers.

Don’t mistake this for a pacifist appeal, or an understatement of a genuine threat.  There are indeed people out there who want to blow you up, not all of whom live in the Middle East. The success of the anti-fascist movement — and if you are a rocker, or a writer, a lover, a real Christian or a real Muslim, you’re part of it — depends on you keeping your head.  Violent provocation can’t go unanswered. This is, however, not a predicament we can bomb our way out of. If it was as easy as leveling Raqqa, the battle would have been over long ago.

Many factual questions remain unanswered: for instance, Mr. Hollande needs to explain to people how it was that eight maniacs on the loose in Paris had access to giant arsenal. Before any sweeping geopolitical conclusions are reached, the exact link between the shooters and the landlocked gunmen in Syria who call themselves the Islamic State has got to be established, and firmly. But all of that is the easy part (or it ought to be if our governments are honest.) The hard part: convincing bewildered and frightened Westerners that Islam isn’t the enemy. No civilizations need to clash. Allow me to lend my hand, small as it is: I, an American Bible-thumper, stand today with millions of my Muslim brothers and sisters in abhorrence of the violence in France and elsewhere. Better than the secular can, we recognize that these were not the acts of God-fearing people. God-fearing people know that judgment will come, in ways sublime and profound — and that that judgment does not begin on some mystic day of reckoning. It begins right now.




Play the game tonight ’16

Remember this number? "Play The Game Tonight"? Kansas from 1982? No? Heck, I liked it.
Remember this number? “Play The Game Tonight”? Kansas from 1982? No? Heck, I liked it.

Croquet is satisfying, and video games are addictive, and political scheming has its time and place. But the older I get, the more fun I require, and the more fiercely I cling to my first love: boardgames. Not just any board games, either, but meticulously designed and beautifully illustrated ones that have been coming at us in waves from across the North Atlantic for the past two decades or so. This has been a golden age for boardgaming fans, and those of us who like to play them have had an embarrassment of options. For instance, a cousin of mine recently told me he has 500 boardgames of recent vintage in his basement. He lives in semi-rural Mercer County, so he’s got the room to indulge his fixation. Our narrow little place in Downtown Jersey City can’t accommodate any more than the 30 or so games we have, but all 30 hit the table pretty regularly, and I’m always angling to appropriate another closet and expand our collection. Who needs shoes anyway?

The games we like over here are called Euros to differentiate them from the faster-paced, more aggressive American style of design. There are hundreds of Euros of various length and complexity representing different themes and tailored to gratify different playing styles, but these games have a few elements in common. Where American-style boardgames are generally representational — they’ll often let you play with tiny replicas of boats and spaceships and army men or whatever the game’s base commodity happens to be — Euros are a little more abstract. They emphasize balanced game mechanics that are so fine-tuned and mathematically precise that it’s tough for experienced players to fall too far behind the leader. Nobody gets knocked out early and relegated to the sofa. Also, the design of Eurostyle games tends to discourage direct conflict: you and your playmate will often be competing for resources in an economy of scarcity, but the game usually won’t give you tools to demolish what she’s already built. You might be tempted to outpace her by taking the stuff she wants or by blocking her moves, but most of the time, you’ll be so absorbed in plotting your own meticulous strategy that you won’t even bother.

Because of this, fans of the American style boardgames accuse the Euro designers of encouraging multiplayer solitaire. They prefer the clash of armies and big battles to farming or castle construction or village building. Me, I’m not a competitive person, so the peaceable vibe of the Euros suits me just fine. Since I really don’t like beating other players into oblivion, wargaming has never exactly been my thing. I play to win because it’s more dramatic that way, but I never mind losing, especially if I’ve managed to overcome obstacles, slip into the designer’s logic, and make something gratifying happen. When I’m in the middle of a great Euro like Terra Mystica, I’m barely even keeping track of the score: each turn is a puzzle with a set of challenges, imposed by the game, to overcome through clever placement. By the end of the game, I expect to have built a city on the board that’s pretty enough to photograph, and I’m more than hoping that my opponents have done the same.

Because I like to keep track of things, I counted every boardgame we played in 2016.  Here’s the Top Ten list, in ascending order.

#10 Tzolk’in.  This is a Mayan-themed civilization-building game, the currency is represented by tiny disks with illustrations of corn on them, and the play area is decorated with pictures of ancient temples.  All of that looks sharp. But the first thing you’ll notice about Tzolk’in is the large interlocking plastic gears on the gameboard. Each turn, the players load the wheels with cylindrical pawns (there are circular grooves on the wheels that allow your little guys to ride around) and twist the whole apparatus to the right. The longer you’re able to keep your pawns on the gears, the bigger the payoff when you remove them. Like many Euros, Tzolk’in is a “worker placement” game; i.e., there are spaces on the board that are activated when you put a pawn on them. The presence of the gears in Tzolk’in means that the value and significance of those placements keeps changing. That probably sounds confusing, and it *can* be: this isn’t a light game, and it can sometimes feel like you’re riding the cogs to nowhere. But it’s not quite as long or as complex as it seems like it’s going to be, and the tactile pleasure of fitting the wooden pegs into the slots and turning the gears is hard for me to resist.

#9 Castles Of Burgundy.  Hilary’s favorite game. Stefan Feld, its designer, frustrates some purist fans of Eurogames because of his love of dice. Many of the best-known Euros — Puerto Rico, Caylus, Power Grid — barely have any random elements at all, which is supposed to make a game a true contest of skill and inventiveness rather than a chance-fest. But eliminate all the luck from a game and you’re left with something like chess, or Hive, or an idealized Eurosocialist state. I don’t like the feeling that there’s a right answer: I want to hold out the possibility that a newcomer, or just a bad player, or an American, could blunder into a win. Anyway, Castles Of Burgundy isn’t like that at all; dice there are, but they’re mostly there to limit the player’s options and force her to improvise. Each round, tiles are laid out in a common area, and the numbers thrown determine which tiles can be taken by the player and added to her little principality. Some tiles allow her to take other tiles, or place down other tiles next to them, and once you get going, those placements often prompt clever chain reactions that are incredibly satisfying to trigger. This game draws some flak because of the flimsiness of its components and the dull-brownness of its art, and I kind of understand where the criticism comes from. But it doesn’t stop us from playing it all the time.

#8 Ora Et Labora.  Though we didn’t play it very much in 2016, one of my absolute favorite games is a medieval farming simulation called Agricola. I use “simulation” loosely; I don’t think anything about Agricola is historically or botanically accurate. But it *does* force the player to feel some of the crazed desperation of the pre-industrial farmer on the heath: is there any time to build improvements to my meager, drafty house? Are my neighbors going to take all of the goods? Do I own enough land to do any of the things I want to do? If I have a baby, will we all starve? How the hell am I supposed to feed my family, anyway? Even by the notoriously tense standard of Eurogames, Agricola is a stressful experience, which is why we frazzled characters over here love it so much. Last Christmas, Hilary went and bought a bunch of other games by Uwe Rosenberg, the designer of Agricola. Ora Et Labora is one of them. Superficially, it’s a lot like Agricola (it’s even more like Le Havre, another Rosenberg game), but the economy is totally different: instead of having very few good paths and many ways to go wrong, the player is presented with a multiplicity of useful options. It’s still medieval-themed, but instead of running a farm, you’re in charge of a monastery. On your turn, you’ll usually be confronted by a choice between adding a building to your diocese or enjoying the benefits of a building you’ve already built. Those buildings produce a wide variety of different goods, and since almost everything you do generates points, the little world you’re creating feels beautifully open-ended and maybe even relaxing. As in just about every other Rosenberg games, you *will* end up feeling that you wanted another few turns to bring  your plan to fruition, but there are so many turns in Ora Et Labora that it’s downright greedy to ask for any more. This is a loooong game; a rainy day game; longer than anything else on this list. Uwe Rosenberg believes you’ve got nothing better to do than to play his games. Maybe he’s right.

#7 Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island.  This one is a co-op, which means that all the players take on different roles and team up to defeat a threat established by the designer. Everybody wins or everybody loses; there’s no in-between. We don’t have any other co-ops — I think Hilary was only compelled to get this one because of the 18c literary theme. That’s her biz. I’m glad she did: even though this isn’t really my style, it’s a heck of a lot of fun in a Kobayashi-Maru no-win scenario kind of way. If I remember my Defoe correctly, though, Crusoe was on the island by himself — in this game, you and your friends are a team of Crusoes, racing against time and fighting the elements to get rescued or save a damsel or achieve the victory conditions of some other shipwreck scenario. Only you won’t, because this game is hell-bent on humiliating you. Thanks to a truly evil deck of event cards and dice that are effectively loaded against the shooter, any step you take on the island is liable to get you injured or killed outright or invite killer bees into your camp or otherwise destroy your survivalist ambitions. Even if you’re inches from your goal, one bad break (and it’ll come) will wash away everything you’ve built on the island. There’s a sick, masochistic sort of satisfaction I take in watching the master plan undermined by cruel fate: the oncoming storm that’ll surely wreck the flimsy shelter, the food resources drying up, the wild animal that comes and eats all your reserves, you name it. We played Robinson Crusoe more than a few times, and I still don’t think I’ve begun to exhaust the many techniques this game uses to screw you utterly. I’m not sure we’ll return to it too often in the future, but it’s a nicely wicked addition to a games collection, especially if you’re a fan of TV Survivor or hard-luck stories.

#6 Settlers Of Catan.  Of all the games on this list, Settlers Of Catan is the one that you’ve probably heard of and perhaps even tried. It’ll be there at any mall board game kiosk during the holidays, right next to Pictionary and Monopoly. Dedicated fans of Euros consider Settlers a gateway game — something designed to introduce newcomers to the style — and tend to talk down on it. It was our first Eurogame, too, but we’ve never outgrown it; on the contrary, we continue to consider it one of the best games on our shelf. Settlers Of Catan gets knocked because the basic mechanic isn’t too sophisticated and the outcome is influenced highly by the constant dice-throws. Here’s another game that is almost entirely dice-dependent: craps. Now, before I had a board game collection, I was a crapshooter, and I recognize the logic of craps beneath the vague theme of colonization. During a game of Settlers, there’ll be lots of talk of laying roads and gathering resources to build cities, but what you’ll really be doing won’t be all that different from what you do at a craps table: you’ll be placing numbers on a board and hoping they hit before the seven comes up. Because all players are in on every roll and trading happens after every turn, there’s not a lot of downtime, and the action is often very tense and exciting, and the game often comes down to a final climactic roll. That’s unusual in Eurogames, many of which end, like a soccer match, with the players standing around and wondering if time’s up. Inevitably the outcome is affected by the fabled perversity of dice. But who among you is above a little perversion?   

#5 Caverna.  This is Uwe Rosenberg’s ruby-mining remix of Agricola: similar mechanics and rules, but with expanded capabilities for the player and a very different theme. No more are you a medieval farmer; now you’re a Tolkeinesque dwarf living in a cave. You can still develop a plot of land, but you can also tunnel into the mountain for ore and gems. And that’s the best way to sum up the difference between Caverna and its older sibling — here, you’re awash in precious stones with amazing game-altering abilities; there, you’re lucky if you’ve got a stick to dig potatoes with. Caverna is different enough (particularly in feel) that it does seem like a separate experience, but I admit I miss the precariousness and sheer high anxiety of Agricola.  Also, I was never drawn to dwarves in Dungeons & Dragons — the elves didn’t really get on with them, and I am always eager to ratify elven choices.

#4 Keyflower.  My favorite game, at least for now. Keyflower contains modified versions of many of the elements that are standard across different Eurogames: there’s an auction phase in which players bid on buildings to add to their New World colony, a worker-placement phase for gathering resources, a tile-laying segment that doubles as an exercise in town construction, and one (or more) hidden objectives revealed only during the home stretch. Any one of these could be — and in many cases, has been — the core of a really good Eurogame. Keyflower manages to stitch it all together seamlessly, which is an impressive feat. Never will you fail to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, or why the designers chose the metaphors they did. But what I really dig about Keyflower is the same thing I love about many of my favorite restaurants: seasonality. The action happens over a single year, and options constrict, quite realistically, I think, as the calendar pages turn. In spring, you haven’t got much but hope and a bunch of enthusiastic colonists, but the field is wide open and it seems like things are ready to grow; in summer, there’s a bounty of options, boats sail in to the harbor, and it’s easy to get lulled into the misapprehension that everything about your little town is ideal. Then the chill wind starts to blow in autumn, and players are forced to make preparation for winter, a time of scarcity when everything can fall apart on you fast if you haven’t planned properly. There’s some pretty pastel art — cartoon style, but not too whimsical — that reinforces the theme, and a vague, thrilling sense of impending doom that undergirds the whole experience. It can be chew-your-hand-off tense. But it’s never less than amazing.

#3 Concordia.  It’s very difficult to explain the appeal of this game. Everything about it seems old hat; dull and Euro-pro-forma: house-shaped tokens go down on a map/board representing the various regions of the Roman Empire and entitle the player to resources which are then used to facilitate the placement of more house-shaped tokens. If a Euro-hater wanted to create a parody of dry Euro conventions, I’ll bet it would look a lot like Concordia. That the map/board is beautiful in a staid, social studies-y kind of way only reinforces the problem. Yet in action, Concordia is fantastic fun; in fact, it might offer the most enjoyable playing experience of any boardgame, in any style, that I’ve ever played.  Not at all is this a history teacher’s classroom aid: anything you might happen to pick up about the Rome during a run-through of Concordia will be purely accidental. That’s because the real action doesn’t take place on the board — it’s driven by a small deck of cards that you’re given at the beginning of the game and which you’ll add to as you go. The cards both affect and exploit the layout of the board, and the sequence in which you play them will determine how well you do. The game requires you to collect sets of cards in various suits (there’s a conceit that each color is dedicated to a different Roman god or goddess, but trust me, in practice, it’s an abstract element of an abstract game) and because play goes so quickly and the cards need to be used fast it can be tough to tell how you’re doing. And that’s part of the beautiful bewilderment of Concordia — nobody has any idea who is winning until the very end.  The final scoring feels like a revelation, and players will be on edge as the points are tallied up. This addresses my own biggest gripe with Euros, and one I alluded to in the Settlers comment: too many of these games end on a flat note. Often there’ll be a final round that’s insufficiently distinguished from prior rounds, and/or one token will be so far ahead on a victory point track that the tally barely seems necessary. I’m math-minded enough to respond well to the accountability and measurability of Eurogaming, but I do require some drama, randomness and surprise, too. That’s the ugly American in me, and it’s not budging.

#2 Bora Bora.  Games about settlement and colonization — or, for that matter, city-building — do not tend to lead with cultural sensitivity. If my old anthropology professors ever caught me playing Bora Bora, I think they’d probably rescind my degree. Half-naked primitives recruit men and women to their tribes, get ritual tattoos for status, collect shells for currency, dedicate fire ceremonies to mysterious totem-gods who intervene in the game restrictions, and… yeah, I can feel that retrospective F coming. I’d repudiate Bora Bora, and Stefan Feld too, if this wasn’t such a hoot. Ironically, the theme of this game is actually stronger than that of many of the more anodyne concepts above: Feld really seems to have gotten into South Pacific life, or his weird conception of it, anyway. Any game that allows me to work my way up a temple hierarchy (Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica have this element, too) will always draw interest from this wannabe vicar over here.

#1 Jaipur.  This straightforward, Indian-themed cards ‘n’ chips game was highly recommended in a column by the baseball writer Keith Law. Like many baseball obsessors, Law also likes boardgames a lot — I think his favorite is Carcassonne, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he described Jaipur as a fast, portable, and extremely enjoyable two-player experience, and he was absolutely correct about all of that. Once we got our copy, we took it on trips with us; we even played it in light turbulence on an airplane and managed to prevent most of the chips from becoming lethal projectiles. It’s easy to keep Jaipur compact because all you’re ever doing is swapping goods, represented by cards in several suits, from a souk of five face-up n the middle of the table. Once you’ve got a set, you trade it in for points in chips — usually the bigger the set, the higher the score, but the player who strikes first can often outscore an opponent who waits. If we’re quick about it, we can usually complete a game in twenty minutes. Setup, too, is a total breeze. So: not the best game of all, but the easiest to make happen, and perfect for short stretches of time that demand to be filled with something engaging, and would otherwise just sit there forlorn, begging to be played with. I can’t handle that — I get too guilty. Come on over here, time. We’ll do something fun.

Yum ’16

I swiped this image from the Little Park website. Looks pretty representative of what those folks do over there. Also, I'm hungry now.
I swiped this image from the Little Park website. Looks pretty representative of what those folks do over there. Also, I’m hungry now.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of record reviewers who don’t play in bands.  How can they properly evaluate an album if they’re unfamiliar with the delicate art of sticking quarter-inch cables in holes and/or screen freezes and “ProTools has unexpectedly quit” errors? Consequently, as I appear to be incapable of making toast without burning my face, I am doubly suspicious of me when I take to the computer to review a restaurant. I don’t want the same things out of a restaurant experience as the average man: I don’t drink, I eat meat once in a blue moon, and I much prefer bumbling, endearing, drop-the-fork waitresses to smooth-ass pro service. I’m also pretty sure I don’t want the same things from a restaurant as a sophisticate diner does, either: for instance, I have tried to do the multi-course omakase tasting thing, and… no thanks. Dinner should never last as long as a Springsteen show. Give me some bread, a light appetizer, a main course (usually pasta), and maybe a scoop of ice cream and send me home grinning.

There’s one other thing that might make me a suspect dining critic, but this one I’ll stand by: unlike Joe Yelp, I don’t care at all if the plate I’m given is small. A tiny bit of something good is always preferable to a whole lot of mediocrity — and that is true at any price. I never need to be inundated with food: if I just wanted to fill my belly, I could stay home with a paw in a box of Cap’n Crunch. The relationship between value and volume is a funny one to pin down. After 40 years of eating out in restaurants, I’ve come to understand that it’s the cheap joints and barangrills that rip you off, not the fancy establishments with pretentions. A plate of pasta cooked at a Michael White restaurant in New York City could cost you twenty-five bucks, and it might not overflow the bowl the way a fifteen-dollar macaroni grill option at a strip highway restaurant does. But the difference in quality between the two dishes is not ten dollars. It isn’t even ten hundred dollars. It actually approaches infinity. One dining experience was conceived and executed by artists, and the other one is just bulk provided to sop up the beer.

If you order like I do, it’s possible to eat at Michelin-starred places without breaking the bank. Of course, if everybody ate like I did — pasta, a little side dish, nothing to drink, sil vous plait — there wouldn’t *be* any Michelin-starred restaurants. They’d never turn a profit. No restaurant likes to deal with a bunch of lushes, but that bar tab does pay for a hell of a lot of good ingredients for the chef to work with. But I don’t feel too guilty about it. Even in the past five years or so, I’ve noticed a big change: the modern-day chef-auteur prefers it if you’re on your toes. He does not care for a customer who is too blotto to appreciate his taste notes of cardamom, hibiscus, and mahogany wood chips or whatever. Just as Joanna Newsom cares that you notice the subtle vibrations of the rebec and the tarhu in her mixes, a really good chef wants you to apprehend the full depth of her craft and culinary erudition. I do. Or at least I try. Let that be her consolation as I send her off to the poorhouse.

My ten favorite restaurants of 2016, in reverse order, starting with:

#10. The Dabney (Washington, DC) We threw the dice on this relatively new restaurant for three reasons. 1.) the name reminded me of Dabney Coleman, whose work alongside Geena Davis in the Buffalo Bill Show I appreciated.  2.) It’s located in Blagden Alley, a post-industrial, historically preserved area of DC that I’d never visited, and 3.) the chef had cooked at McCrady’s in Charleston. Southern-style restaurants in Washington are always a dodgy proposition, since no matter what the locals try to tell you, DC is effectively extra-regional. The Dabney didn’t remind me much of the Low Country. But what we had was mostly delicious and commensurate with the Dixie farmhouse theme, including ricotta and sunflower sprouts on a pumpernickel toast, smoke-saturated vegetables charred in a big wood-burning hearth and served over whey, a skillet of corn bread and sorghum butter, and some sort of farro thing with sweet potatoes that I still think about. Plus they make reezy peezy, which is tough to find north of Cape Fear. We’ll be back.

#9. The Grocery (Charleston, SC) See, a real Charlestonian restaurant is guaranteed to have seafood on the menu that us Yanks have never heard of: triggerfish, barrelfish, wreckfish, zipperfish, etc. I think I made the last one up. But the other three are real and caught somewhere beyond the point where the Ashley meets the Cooper, and then they’re brought directly to the table, or at least it tastes that way. Carolina seafood ruins me for fish caught and cooked elsewhere, and as far as I can tell, the best place to have a seafood dinner — even better than FIG — is The Grocery. I got a triggerfish, or maybe it was a barrelfish (pretty sure it wasn’t a wreckfish, because I would have made ceaseless, unfunny “getting wrecked” jokes, and I would now not have a girlfriend) and it blew away all the other seafood I’d had in ’16, including the outrageously delicious grilled hamachi collar coated in fish sauce I ordered twice at Uncle Boons. My worry is that the Grocery was almost entirely empty when we went. It’s not a small operation. Hope it’s still around when we visit Charleston next.

#8. Staplehouse (Atlanta, GA) I read a bedazzled review in Atlanta Magazine that suggested that Staplehouse was a restaurant worth flying in for. Atlantans are always trying to get you to visit and wagging bait in your face; guess I’m a sucker because I made us a reservation when we were in Georgia, and lucky us, although we had no idea what we were in for. I figured Staplehouse for a comfortable Southern dining plus daring experience akin to the one I’m accustomed to having at Miller Union. Instead I got some of the weirdest and most compelling food I’ve ever put into my mouth. Many of the dishes were as difficult to describe as an acid trip, but I distinctly recall a carrot and edible flower arrangement that looked like a big orange crown, and a great swirl of green farro and peanuts over some kind of transmogrified mushroom that may have been sentient. Honestly, I’m just guessing. Staplehouse is the kind of place that serves you a gigantic plate of scorched alliums, and you’ll be thinking “how am I going to eat an entire plate of onions?”, and then you take a nibble and oh my god that’s amazing. Next thing you know, the ole platter has been wiped clean. A few months after we visited, Bon Appetit named Staplehouse the best new restaurant in the country. Word’s out. Flying in for a reservation isn’t going to be as easy as it was.

#7 Sarma (Somerville, MA) If you, like me, prefer vegetables and grains to meat and fish, Middle Eastern restaurants are always a decent option.  Over the past few years I’ve become aware of some outstanding ones, including the absurdly cheap-n-good Taim falafel shops in New York City, Zaytinya in Washington, the Dizengoff hummus empire that now extends from Philly to the Chelsea Market, and Zahav, a knock-you-dead Israeli place on a hill in the middle of Philly Center City. Sarma, however, beats them all. Since it’s in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville, a Boston tourist may have to take a long trip on the T to get there. Once you’re in, it’s just one fantastic, creatively conceived dish after another, including (when we went) brussels sprouts bravas, red lentil kibbeh made with crab, a stinging-nettle spanikopita, and a ridiculous “seven layer” hummus platter with every grain in the Levant assembled around it. Part of the fun, too, is that the waitstaff bring around dim-sum style plates that aren’t on the menu, and dangle them in front of you like a kitty treat. This kitty finds it difficult to resist, and that sure does run up the bill.

#6. Little Park (Chambers Street, Manhattan) This place is part of a very well known New York City restaurant group, but it doesn’t seem to get the landslide of love that the other NoHo Hospitality establishments do. It’s possible they hired the wrong publicist, or maybe the place’s well-foregrounded resemblance to J-G Vongerichten’s ABC restaurants has damaged its rep. Little Park is no mere knockoff, though, so I’ve got to wonder what gives. Ordinarily, to make it in New York, the city of FOMO, where it’s more important that food look good on Instagram than that it’s edible, a restaurant needs to come up with a signature, photo-friendly dish: the veal chop upside down, or the aluminum siding remoulade or whatever. Little Park’s food is pretty, but I don’t think they’ve got one of those. What they do have is pasta, cooked at an extremely high level, by a chef who understands simplicity and what elements to emphasize.  I didn’t think she could top the green spaghetti with walnuts and ricotta until I tasted her girandole and minced mushrooms. (She calls it a “mushroom bolognese”; she’s a card.) Also, good as Sarma was, none of their vegetable dishes were better than the roast carrots with dukkah I had at Little Park. Again this felt like it was kindasorta borrowed from the carrot salad at ABC Kitchen, but I didn’t mind: a visit to ABC means a good twenty minutes spent on the PATH plus a walk over to Broadway from Sixth Avenue. Close enough, but an odyssey compared to the trip to Little Park, which is five blocks north of the World Trade Center. Depending on tunnel traffic, it might take me longer to get into Hoboken. Also, ABC Kitchen is always booked up. Little Park tends to be wide open.

#5. Vedge (Philadelphia, PA) Food at vegan places used to taste like sawdust, tennis racket strings and moral superiority, but that’s changing, I’m glad to say. The restaurant we went to the most in 2016 was a new vegan place in the East Village that could easily have made this list. What I like best about Avant Garden is that the chefs let the ingredients speak for themselves and don’t attempt to disguise them or apologize for building their dishes around them. You’re there because you like to stick plants in your face, and for no other reason. It annoys me a little that the couple that runs Vedge always casts vegetables and grains in the role of meat — it seems unnecessarily envious. Is meat really that great? I sure don’t think so. But if I was ever craving a big juicy slice of skirt steak, I think I’d be more satisfied with a slice of Vedge’s seitan, which will make you forget all the lousy wheat gluten you’ve ever had to eat. Likewise, Vedge’s grilled rectangle of tofu, glazed with ssamjang and served with mushed-up edamame, knocks the stuffing out of most of the fish dishes you’d get at good Japanese restaurants. You don’t believe me, and that’s exactly why Vedge is so amazing — everybody leaves the house converted, even if it’s just to an understanding that vegetables and grains have expressive powers we never thought they possessed. The carrot with sauerkraut, for instance, doesn’t exactly replace a Hatfield hot dog at Citizens Bank Park, but it may make you look at one differently. (Or it may just remind you of the broccoli dog at Dirt Candy.) The composed desserts, on the other hand, are works of a total culinary visionary; I mean, who would have thought that there was room in the stomach of Philadelphians for a zucchini blondie plus rosemary ice cream and a squash blossom gazpacho? I’m glad she had faith in us. I probably would have chickened out and served a pretzel or something.

#4. Frances (San Francisco, CA) This has become one of my favorite spots on the planet, and if it wasn’t on the far side of the continent, I think I’d probably set up a bed somewhere in the dining room. I’m not sure what it’s local rep is, since it’s small and somewhat cramped, it sure ain’t cheap, and it’s buried pretty deep in the Castro. Nothing about it feels particularly fashionable. But as I have come to realize, my preferred style of cooking is Northern Californian, and dinner at Frances feels to me like tipping the entire state of California into my mouth as if it was a giant golden lavash. We have an unfortunate tendency to order the entire menu here, since everything looks so good and then ends up tasting even better than it looks. At the conclusion of the evening I am like a cartoon character too fat to fit in the cable car. San Francisco: where I behave shamefully. Especially when the Giants win.

#3. L’Artusi (West Tenth St., Manhattan) New York City, bless its soul and its bleached Italian roots, is loaded with pasta palaces. Over the past two years of dedicated testing, I have come to the conclusion that the very best of them — better than my beloved Osteria Morini, better than Locanda Verde and Via Carota, better even than the justifiably heralded Batali-Bastianich places — is this understated, long-running Greenwich Village restaurant. Pasta perfection is difficult to attain anywhere; even the macaroni kings miss most of the time. L’Artusi is the swinger with the highest batting average — we’ve been there enough to recognize patterns, and we have experienced pasta perfection at more than half of our visits. Which is unheard of, and might defy some lesser-known law of physics. It’s almost impossible to go wrong here: the vegetarian classic is the preposterously good garganelli with mushroom ragu, but their jaw-dropping spaghetti aglio e olio with breadcrumbs, simple and straightforward as it is, is pasta in its Platonic form. Seriously, if you ordered a dish of pasta in the realm of ideas, this is what you’d get. Meanwhile, Hilary always chooses the tagliatelle bolognese. Her educated position as a dedicated tagliatelle fan and notable pastasmith: nobody does it better.

#2. Piora (Hudson St., Manhattan) Even if some of its dishes are unusual, a place like L’Artusi is easy to explain. It’s an Italian restaurant, it serves pasta, crudo, bottles of wine, and some main courses that, delicious as they look, nobody in their right mind would ever order. If you’ve been to Manhattan, you know exactly the type of place it is. L’Artusi just happens to be the best one of its kind. (mind you, we haven’t been able to land a table at Lilia yet. We’re working on it.) Piora is a different story. I have never been able to describe this place to anyone in a manner that makes it seem interesting or even palatable. I’m going to try again, and I’m sure I’ll fail. What you’ll get here is American cuisine, whatever the heck that is, cooked by a chef who knows his way around the Italian kitchen and adds Korean accents to what he does. The owner of the restaurant is a Korean-American, and he’s frequently out and around the dining room, leading a team of absurdly friendly waiters and waitresses; nearly every time we go, which, given the steep price tag, is maybe once or twice a year, we’re recognized and assured that our presence in the dining room is a total delight. To a Jersey guy accustomed to rude treatment at pizza places down the shore, this kind of courtesy can be downright disorienting. Piora ran a prix fixe until they switched over to the dreaded tasting menu, and then one day they brought back the a la carte option while preserving some version of the omakase experience for high rollers. It’s all a little confusing and maybe even challenging, and if I’ve accidentally made it sound like a fusion restaurant, allow me to bite my tongue. Because it’s not that; not at all. The chef is scrupulous about the food he cooks — nothing here is a slapdash juxtaposition or cultural experiment or even a playful inside joke. He’s got a peculiar and fascinating aesthetic, and everything he does is a perfect expression of his authorship in the kitchen. Imagine a musician with a sound that he can realize effortlessly; drop the needle and within seconds, you know it’s him. That’s what Piora is like. Nothing in this room could be cooked anywhere else, or by anywhere else, and it’s almost incidental that the style is Italian with Korean influences, or American with Italian underpinnings and Asian highlights. Because anything a marketer might call it is inaccurate — what it really is is Chris Cippolone’s personal cuisine, derived from his own experience and imagination and served in Simon Kim’s beautiful dateworthy dining room. (Even the bathrooms are gorgeous.) Portions can be dauntingly small and fussily tweezed — I’ve never left Piora hungry, but then I’m a small feller who would not be able to handle a healthy Middle American portion anyway. You might find the price unjustifiable for what you get. I’m of the opinion that Cippolone is a pasta wizard, and wizardry is something that can’t be priced. The best you ever can do is guess. I concede they’ve guessed pretty high.

# 1. Cotogna (San Francisco, CA) I ask myself to picture my ideal restaurant — a place that I’d invent if I was in the midst of a SimCity-type game and designing a fantasy habitat-neighborhood that catered directly to my tastes. It would have a healthy selection of pastas in high-profile positions on the menu, but not so many that I felt like there was any chance that the kitchen played favorites. There’d be a pizza possibility that I probably wouldn’t avail myself of, although I might be tempted, and the pies and a whole lot of other stuff — mainly vegetables — would come out of a centrally-located wood burning oven. Even though the flames would be visible from the restaurant’s main area, it wouldn’t feel like a farmhouse; instead, the place would be designed to look a little like the front room of an architecture firm but a little more like somebody’s stylish apartment if the local zoning laws were changed to allow big wood-burning ovens in residential developments. Everything from the art on the art on the walls to the utensils would be chosen to reflect the aesthetic of the neighborhood the restaurant is in, thus allowing me to indulge my Godzilla-like fantasy of actually devouring the city itself. (Daintily, mind you.) The service would be friendly but not slick, and nobody would push alcohol or the seventy-five dollar Porterhouse for fifty and then act hurt/disappointed when I didn’t want it. They’d all understand that I was there for a plate of pasta and a scoop of gelato, and maybe some ricotta, and beans, or ricotta with beans, all piled on a grilled piece of bread straight out of the oven. Well, such a place actually exists, and naturally, it’s in the Bay Area. Cotogna is in the Jackson Square area of San Francisco, which is right in the shadow of the Transamerica tower and a not-long walk from the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. Downtown, in other words; right on the edge of the financial district. It’s the little sister of another place called Quince that’s supposed to be even better, and no, I don’t believe that for a second, because how could it be? Granted, I’ve only ever been to Cotogna during the summer, when there’s a corn pasta on the menu — a triangular ravioli — that is such a perfect expression of summer corn flavor that it’s actually painful to finish. That last bite feels like August turning into September and the ring of the bell and back-to-school supplies at the corner drugstore. Alas there is no more; parting is such sweet sorrow. The only bad thing about Cotogna is that eventually you do have to leave. Come to think of it, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe they can just turn out the lights and stash us in the corner.

Honorable mentions (that haven’t already been mentioned): Houseman (Greenwich St., Manhattan), the retooled Hearth (East 12th Street, Manhattan), Faro (Bushwick), Primo (Rockland, ME), Garrison (Washington, DC), Cakes & Ale (Decatur, GA)

Best Ice Cream: Humphrey Slocombe, San Francisco.  I know many bay Area locals swear by Bi-Rite. I don’t want to fight, people — I just want to finish my cone. Last summer they served me a scoop with salt and McEvoy Olive Oil drizzled on top, and holy cow. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you get it, and then it’s all you want for the remainder of forever.

Best bakery: Tartine, San Francisco. By now you sense a theme. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d weigh ten thousand pounds. Tartine is the gold standard and I won’t hear your counterarguments. That said, we’ve grown a pretty great one over here: the eight or so breads on sale at High Street On Hudson are amazing, eat-the-whole-loaf in a half-hour type experiences, so, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be going there as often as I do. The rest of their menu struck me as strange, but we’re lucky to have the bakery. Thanks, Philadelphia, for this and Dizengoff; we owe you a restaurant to be named later.

Best pizza: Arturo’s in Maplewood?, you’ll always be tops in my heart, but the 2016 title goes to your little cousin. This summer, Razza was selling a pie covered in honey, ricotta and a variety of hazelnut developed by the agriculture department at Rutgers. Everything tastes better to me when it’s framed as a science experiment. Anyway, this was like no pizza I’d ever had, and I demand another one next summer. Don’t make me raid the laboratories in New Brunswick, Razza. In general, Jersey is woefully underrepresented on this list, which wounds my pride. What can I say?; we traveled a bunch. We’ll be looking to remedy this in 2017 — stay closer to home, eat more fried dough and Italian bakery cookies, etc.

Best restaurant decor: Probably ABC Kitchen, since I’m twee like that. Make my restaurant look like fairyland, Vongerichten.

Best meat dish I ate: After going to see the Fischli & Weiss exhibition at the Guggenheim with George The Monkey, we stopped at the Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. We were tired and wet (it was snowing), and I ordered a culatello panini with artichoke cream, thinking it was some kind of cardoon. Seriously, I didn’t know what it was. Well, I found out what it was: totally delicious. I always feel bad about eating a mammal that I could have been friends with, but trust me, that pig died a hero.

Best sandwich, period:  The Noble Eatery in Phoenix sold me eggplant-leek puree plus Anaheim peppers stuffed into a hollowed-out bread that played like an Italian reinterpretation of a pita. This came with a salad of so many various grains I blacked out momentarily from herbivoric joy. Instead of going out for dinner, I ought to just roll around in a vegetable patch. It would probably have the same effect, and I’d get more exercise.

Best beverage: We’ve taken to ordering mocktails at fancy restaurants, which helps undercut some of the guilt I feel about not blowing a hundred stacks on bottle service. I think of it as a challenge to the bartender to come up with something good, and usually she’s game. But my very favorite places have nonalcoholic concoctions at the ready: Avant Garden used to serve hibiscus juice that I would happily swim in. My favorite, though, was a glass of strawberry lemonade I got at Frances. I don’t even think it was carbonated. But it was an expression of California love if I’ve ever tasted one.

Best salad: Frances almost took this one too. They graced us with a panzanella with croutons the size of golf balls. That might not sound like a selling point, but listen, pal, you didn’t taste those croutons. But the winner was a pomegranate, radicchio, and blood orange salad we got at Maialino, which was a total Christmas-season delight. Hilary attempted to replicate it for her own Christmas dinners. I think she did, but she’s critical of herself and might say otherwise; you’ll have to ask her yourself.

and finally, just for the hell of it,

The worst thing I ate all year: It wasn’t the strange, oddly pebbly filling I received in the vegetable tacos at a place called the Mission in Scottsdale, Arizona, although that was probably my most disappointing meal out. It wasn’t the onion tater tots — pungent, festering greaseballs — I ate at a Dunkin’ Donuts en route to Great Adventure, although that was definitely my grossest meal out. No, it was an alleged chocolate ice cream cone we attempted and failed to eat at an innocuous shop on the main street in Providenciales. The ice cream, which may have accidentally fermented?, tasted of greywater and floor cleanser and had the consistency of a wet cotton ball. It’s our own fault: Providenciales is basically a desert climate. We shouldn’t have expected to get good ice cream there anyway.

Okay, if you enjoyed this examination of me in listicle form, tune in tomorrow, and we’ll talk about boardgames. Can’t eat those, but they sure are fun.

A year in music, and counting

hqdefaultThey call me the count because I love to count, and also because of my irritating habit of turning into a bat at night. By day I continue my obsessive-compulsive behavior: list-making, hand-washing, piano practicing, songwriting, etc. Inspired by my role model On Kawara, who seemed like a real g-d head case, I’ve gotten into various forms of record keeping on navel-gazing subjects that couldn’t possibly interest anyone but me: what did I eat today? what did I spend money on? who did I meet socially? what board game did I play? What my obsessive-compulsive behavior has taught me — other than the fact that obsessive-compulsive behavior is serious fun — is that the more I list something, the more I want to do it. Therefore, I skate free of New Year’s Resolutions: if there’s a thing I want or need more of in my life, all I need to do is begin keeping track of how often it happens. Works like a charm. A neurotic type of charm, but why quibble with success?

Since I started keeping track of every album I listened to, the number of albums I’ve listened to has increased each year. At some point, I’m going to run out of hours and completely tax the patience of the people around me. But I haven’t reached it yet, and 2016 was another landslide of music new and old (but mainly new). Since my recent liberation from the trash compactor called 2016 has put me in a magnanimous oversharey mood, I’m going to reveal some of my findings with you. There’s actually very little correspondence between the big list of artists and records I’ve listened to most frequently in a given year and the best-of ballot I put together with my friends at the end of January — some albums and some artists are just easier to listen to than others. Tegan & Sara’s most recent albums play well in most contexts. I don’t think I could make the same claim on behalf of Steven Wilson, or Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts. No knock on those meant, believe me.

I look forward to this particular count all year, and go out of my way not to hazard guesses about what’ll come out tops. Part of the fun of the project is to preserve the surprise: I add it all up and discover that my speculations about what I’ve been spinning have been totally wrong. A year is a long time — looking back, it’s hard to imagine that events that took place in January could have happened during the same swing around the sun as this just-passed holiday season. If you’re self-absorbed enough, and fruitfully forgetful enough, and committed enough to writing everything down, you don’t have to wait for an eon to pass for the archaeology to begin. The filthy facts of your life are shovel-ready.

If you’d asked me in mid-December what artist or album I’d listened to the most in 2016, I think I probably would have said Kamaiyah. That was my short-haul bicycling music this summer, and I found A Good Night In The Ghetto so vivid and so entertaining that it seemed like its primary colors extended to every corner of the canvas. Was I right? Let’s see:

Album artists most frequently played, 1/1/16-12/31/16

  1. Drake
  2. Paul Simon
  3. Laura Marling
  4. Chance The Rapper
  5. Natalia Lafourcade
  6. Kanye West
  7. Beth Orton
  8. Look Park
  9. Pusha T
  10. Lucy Dacus
  11. Young Thug
  12. Tegan & Sara
  13. Okkervil River
  14. Noname
  15. Basia Bulat
  16. Jenny Lewis
  17. Kamaiyah
  18. Jamila Woods
  19. Francis & The Lights
  20. Pet Shop Boys

Drake had a bit of an unfair advantage this year; both If You’re Reading This and What A Time To Be Alive felt fresh at the time of the release of Views. We have a tradition of listening to Drake on the Fourth Of July and when we’re decorating the Christmas tree, too. So while the rest of the world was getting really, really sick of his nonsense, I was playing his records over and over and singing along in my Drake voice. (Maybe doing the Hotline Bling dance, too?) It’s worth noting that Drake was also my second-most played artist last year behind Belle & Sebastian. What can I say?; Drake is like a bag of breadsticks that I can’t stop myself from raiding.

Speaking of raiding: as you’re about to hear firsthand, I may have borrowed a bit from Paul Simon while writing songs this year. Stranger To Stranger was heavy summer listening until it scared me so much that I had to put it away. Turns out he was the only election forecaster who had it right, and for the right reasons, and much as I tried to pretend that wasn’t what he was singing about, in retrospect it’s all horrifyingly clear. May has been a Paul Simon month for me for the last few years; something about the first warm days always makes me want to put on Graceland or Rhythm Of The Saints and go appropriate some poor sucker’s culture.

Other things of interest: I was under the strange impression that I’d broken my shameless dependency on Laura Marling’s music this year, or at least that I was giving it a rest until her new one comes out this spring. That… was an inaccurate assumption. In fact I listened to Laura Marling so much that she dragged Beth Orton into the Top Ten of this list by sheer association; once it became an insane and untenable proposition to play Once I Was An Eagle another time, and I had no choice but to turn to Sugaring Season and Trailer Park and the like for my austere, Bert Jansch-y British trad. fix. A mid-year Audit/reassessment of Critics Poll years 2003-2008 (we really did do this, complete with a listening schedule and a Poll day!) was a boon for Kanye and Okkervil River. Verdict: those guys are pretty good.

For xtra thrills, spills, and chill pills, let’s go month by month.


  1. Natalia Lafourcade
  2. Pusha T
  3. Laura Stevenson
  4. Erykah Badu
  5. Julien Baker
  6. Tame Impala
  7. Joanna Newsom


  1. Joanna Newsom
  2. Natalia Lafourcade
  3. The High Llamas
  4. New Order
  5. Air
  6. Pusha T
  7. Richard Thompson


  1. Laura Marling
  2. Natalia Lafourcade
  3. Joanna Newsom
  4. Eleanor Friedberger
  5. Julieta Venegas
  6. Allan Kingdom
  7. Kendrick Lamar


  1. The High Llamas
  2. Pet Shop Boys
  3. The Shins
  4. Kanye West
  5. Pusha T
  6. Natalia Lafourcade
  7. Kamaiyah


  1. Paul Simon
  2. Lucy Dacus
  3. Kanye West
  4. Kamaiyah
  5. Quilt
  6. Sandy Denny
  7. Frightened Rabbit


  1. Drake
  2. Beyonce
  3. Kanye West
  4. Weezer
  5. Laura Marling
  6. Lucy Dacus
  7. Paul Simon


  1. Chance The Rapper
  2. Drake
  3. Beyonce
  4. YG
  5. Kanye West
  6. Tegan & Sara
  7. Kamaiyah


  1. Xenia Rubinos
  2. Paul Simon
  3. Jamila Woods
  4. Chance The Rapper
  5. Noname
  6. Jenny Lewis
  7. Say Anything


  1. Homeboy Sandman
  2. De La Soul
  3. Beth Orton
  4. Noname
  5. Jamila Woods
  6. Bruce Hornsby
  7. Look Park


  1. Francis & The Lights
  2. Okkervil River
  3. Look Park
  4. Bruce Hornsby
  5. Margaret Glaspy
  6. The Hotelier
  7. Frank Ocean


  1. Jimmy Eat World
  2. Look Park
  3. Car Seat Headrest
  4. Vanishing Twin
  5. Alicia Keys
  6. Butch Walker
  7. Tinashe


  1. Miranda Lambert
  2. A Tribe Called Quest
  3. Vanishing Twin
  4. Martha
  5. Jimmy Eat World
  6. Saba
  7. J. Cole

As a boring individual, I’ve fallen into many familiar annual patterns, and I see I didn’t really deviate from any of them this year: British folk in the early spring, a hip-hop midsummer, a blanket of guitar rock when the weather gets chilly in mid-autumn, and a hodgepodge of styles once the listening schedule starts and the December landslide of recommendations begin. My Laura Marling fixation forced me a little deeper into the fens than I usually go, which partially accounts for the presence of good ol’ Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson on these lists (not that there’s ever a bad reason to listen to those two.) As usual, my year in music started to take shape in June when I turned off the oldies station and began engaging in earnest with what the new stuff. In ’16, the big moment for me was when the Soundcloud broke over the Great Lakes and all that free Chicago music started raining down — but if that hadn’t happened, something similar would have.

Yet there was one major difference between 2016 and prior years. Usually the very last thing I want to listen to after the calendar turns in February is music from the year gone by. I’ve played it out and I’m ready to stop thinking about it. This year that didn’t happen. It’s a testament to the depth of 2015 — possibly my favorite year in music ever — that I continued, habitually, to play last season’s albums even when it was no longer last season. Natalia Lafourcade’s Hasta La Raiz dominated the first three months of ’16, and I went back and picked up her other albums, which weren’t quite as fantastic but still had plenty to offer. Hasta (and a really good video for “Suavecito”) led me to reconsider Julieta Venegas’s Spanish-language Algo Sucede, which I fell in love with in February, and Ximena Sarinana’s No Todo Lo Puedes Dar, an album I never gave a fair shake to since I was intimidated by the language barrier. I kept listening to New Order’s Music Complete and Joanna Newsom’s Divers — albums that got a bit crowded out by the glut of fantastic stuff released in ’15 — well into the new year, and I kinda think they still haven’t stopped growing on me.

Most of all, I couldn’t quit Pusha T. That was my psych-up music during the winter, or my ride-my-bike-through-the-freezing-cold music, or my miffed at power structures music, or just my bunch of betting on a sleeper anthems. Then I spent the rest of 2016 waiting in vain for him to put out the follow-up he promised. I should have worried when he subtitled his album The Prelude. Elzhi gave us The Preface in 2008 and it’s taken him years to get to the rest of the book. Well, what the heck, it’s not like there weren’t dozens of other great albums to listen to in 2016; I’m just greedy. Let’s list some of them:

Albums most frequently played, 1/1/16-12/31/16

  1. Look Park — Look Park
  2. Drake — Views
  3. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
  4. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
  5. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  6. Noname — Telefone
  7. Tegan & Sara — Love You To Death
  8. Jamila Woods — HEAVN
  9. Basia Bulat — Good Advice
  10. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
  11. Mitski — Puberty 2
  12. Francis & The Lights — Farewell, Starlite!
  13. Pusha T — King Push: Darkest Before Dawn — The Prelude
  14. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
  15. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger
  16. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat
  17. YG — Still Brazy
  18. Homeboy Sandman — Kindness For Weakness
  19. Margaret Glaspy — Emotions And Math
  20. Quilt — Plaza

Huh. That’s not what I was expecting. I knew I liked the Look Park album, but I absolutely did not realize I was listening to it more than any other album this year. I’m not entirely sure how to process that, but it seems weirdly anti-social of me. I’m not even sure I know anybody else besides Hilary who has even given it a spin. (Tom Snow, are you out there? I think you’d enjoy the wry perspective.) Most big 2016 albums existed in communal space: even and especially before their release, they were discussed to fuck and back on the Internet. It would be just like me, or my belligerent unconscious, to resist cooperation. Or maybe it was, you know, the melodies.

As for Drake, what can I say?, besides that all of y’all are butt wrong. I dig the production, the performances, the arrangements, the choruses, even the dumb jokes. I know you’re sick of his nonsense, and he’s to blame for his own overexposure, but trust me, this is not the time to press the strip and get off of the Drake bus. If you’re looking for Lemonade, it was at #21. Funny thing: I kept meaning to set aside some time to watch the visual album, but I never did. I oughta do that tonight.

Month by month:


  1. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
  2. Pusha T — King Push: Darkest Before Dawn — The Prelude
  3. Erykah Badu — But You Cain’t Use My Phone
  4. Julien Baker — Sprained Ankle
  5. Joanna Newsom — Divers
  6. Laura Stevenson — Cocksure
  7. Trey Anastasio — Paper Wheels


  1. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
  2. Joanna Newsom — Divers
  3. New Order — Music Complete
  4. Pusha T — King Push: Darkest Before Dawn — The Prelude
  5. Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede
  6. Allan Kingdom — Northern Lights
  7. Trey Anastasio — Paper Wheels


  1. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
  2. Eleanor Friedberger — New View
  3. Allan Kingdom — Northern Lights
  4. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered
  5. Laura Marling — Laura Marling
  6. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
  7. Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede


  1. The High Llamas — Snowbug
  2. Pet Shop Boys — Super
  3. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
  4. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  5. Eleanor Friedberger — New View
  6. Basia Bulat — Good Advice
  7. Weezer — Weezer (White Album)


  1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
  2. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  3. Quilt — Plaza
  4. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
  5. Sandy Denny — The North Star Grassman And The Ravens
  6. Lucius — Good Grief
  7. Frightened Rabbit — Painting Of A Panic Attack


  1. Drake — Views
  2. Beyonce — Lemonade
  3. Weezer — Weezer (White Album)
  4. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
  5. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  6. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
  7. Anderson.Paak — Malibu


  1. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
  2. Drake — Views
  3. Beyonce — Lemonade
  4. YG — Still Brazy
  5. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  6. Tegan & Sara — Love You To Death
  7. Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution


  1. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat
  2. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger
  3. Jamila Woods — HEAVN
  4. Noname — Telefone
  5. Say Anything — I Don’t Think It Is
  6. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
  7. Mitski — Puberty 2


  1. De La Soul — And The Anonymous Nobody…
  2. Noname — Telefone
  3. Jamila Woods — HEAVN
  4. Homeboy Sandman — Kindness For Weakness
  5. Look Park — Look Park
  6. Young Thug — Jeffery
  7. Joey Purp — iiiDrops


  1. Francis & The Lights — Farewell, Starlight!
  2. Okkervil River — Away
  3. Look Park — Look Park
  4. Margaret Glaspy — Emotions And Math
  5. The Hotelier — Goodness
  6. Frank Ocean — Blonde
  7. Solange — A Seat At The Table


  1. Look Park — Look Park
  2. Jimmy Eat World — Integrity Blues
  3. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial
  4. Vanishing Twin — Choose Your Own Adventure
  5. Alicia Keys — Here
  6. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Eyes
  7. Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition


  1. Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
  2. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  3. Vanishing Twin — Choose Your Own Adventure
  4. Martha — Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart
  5. Jimmy Eat World — Integrity Blues
  6. Saba — Bucket List Project
  7. J. Cole — 4 Your Eyez Only

See, wasn’t that fun? For me, I mean. It was fun for me. Thucydides, or somebody who resembled him, said “know thyself”, and what better way to do that than by scrupulously logging irrelevant stuff? Get out of here with that soul searching, pal; this isn’t the 19th century. Internal investigations are messy, and expensive if you hire a shrink. As for you, the reader, well, I’m glad you came along for the ride. I promise to keep up this practice, and I’m going to post some of my year-end lists for your general examination. Because it could always be worse: you could be paying attention to the news. Nothing good for you there, I promise.

Critics Poll 27

Couldn’t exactly call it popular demand. But a few people I like very much have asked whether we’re bringing the Critics Poll back for its twenty-seventh year. Since I worry what you say about me when my back is turned, I’m obliging.  The rules are the same as always: fill out as much or as little as you like. No wrong answers. A certain voter used to stuff his form, annually, with twenty-year-old Rush albums. I always looked forward to that ballot.

I always look forward to yours, too.

The deadline for voting this year is January 26.  I’ll start posting results immediately thereafter.

Listening Schedule 2016

So if you don’t know how we play this game, it goes a little something like this: each day we select two albums released in 2016 and give them an extremely attentive spin. They won’t be the only two albums we listen to that day, but they’ll be the ones we really concentrate on. Because I am a bit of a psycho, I put a lot of thought into the pairings — I try to pick albums that feel complementary to me on some sub-rational level, or, more reasonably, ones that reinforce each others’ strengths. Then, once we finish the whole thing, we think back on the year that was, and choose our favorites.

This exercise has been getting us through the early days of winter for decades now, and even though I didn’t like 2016 any better than you did, I’m not so demoralized that I refuse to carry on tradition. If you approach the listening schedule with the proper spirit, it becomes an advent calendar with music inside — and music is just about the only thing that beats chocolate. In case you’d like to follow along at home, or just check out how a sexy rocking individual like me spends his frosty January, here’s your answer.

Some notable omissions: Angel Olsen is an artist who gets a lot of love from people who are passionate about pop, so I’m sure there’s something major I’m missing. But her music slides off my brain like an egg on a teflon pan. I do understand all the skill that went into Blank Face LP by Schoolboy Q, but I experienced its density as a sonic assault, and I’m not eager to revisit that listening experience. Joanne is an improvement over Artpop, yes; a car alarm at four in the morning would be, too. I don’t think she cleared the very modest bar she set for herself after demolishing our expectations. Finally, there’s Radiohead and, I… I just can’t. Sorry not sorry.  

The rest of the year’s consensus picks are on there somewhere, as are some other records that you might not have heard of, but which tickled our fancy or illuminated something for us or just made a hot summer day pass like an ice cream dream. List-making is, ultimately, an exercise in memory reinforced: for me, and probably for you, these albums are deeply embedded in a specific place and time. Unfortch, for the albums on this particular version of the schedule, that time is 2016. Which isn’t their fault, so let’s not punish them for it. If you made it to the last page of the calendar and you’re still breathing, with a storehouse of recently-minted memories and experiences in tow, friend, that’s something to celebrate right there. Every year is worth enshrining — even the Year of Hard Lessons.

Okay, you ready? Let’s go:


  • A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  • Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution


  • Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered
  • Basia Bulat — Good Advice


  • Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat
  • How To Dress Well — Care


  • Metronomy — Summer 08
  • Haley Bonar — Impossible Dream


  • Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial
  • Joey Purp — iiiDrops


  • Rihanna — Anti
  • Frightened Rabbit — Painting Of A Panic Attack


  • Solange — A Seat At The Table
  • Two Tongues — Two Tongues Two


  • Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition
  • Mitski — Puberty 2


  • Vanishing Twin — Choose Your Own Adventure
  • Tunji Ige — Missed Calls


  • Noname — Telefone
  • Honeyblood — Babes Never Die


  • Margaret Glaspy — Emotions And Math
  • Look Park — Look Park


  • Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
  • Alicia Keys — Here


  • Chairlift — Moth
  • Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide To Earth


  • Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
  • Martha — Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart


  • Lucy Dacus — No Burden
  • Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years


  • Francis And The Lights — Farewell, Starlite!
  • Tinashe — Nightride


  • Drake — Views
  • Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger


  • Jimmy Eat World — Integrity Blues
  • Young Thug — Jeffery


  • Saba — Bucket List Project
  • Quilt — Plaza


  • Weezer — White Album
  • Camp Cope — Camp Cope


  • Jamila Woods — HEAVN
  • Okkervil River — Away


  • Eleanor Friedberger — New View
  • Homeboy Sandman — Kindness For Weakness


  • Anderson.Paak — Malibu
  • Pinegrove — Cardinal


  • Tegan And Sara — Love You To Death
  • Pet Shop Boys — Super


  • Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
  • Nice As Fuck — Nice As Fuck


  • YG — Still Brazy
  • Jeff Rosenstock — Worry.


  • Lucius — Good Grief
  • Beth Orton — Kidsticks


  • Allan Kingdom — Northern Lights
  • Lori McKenna — The Bird And The Rifle


  • The Hotelier — Goodness
  • Overlord — The Well-Tempered Overlord


  • Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
  • Panic! At The Disco — Death Of A Bachelor


  • Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
  • Bon Iver — 22, A Million


  • Beyonce — Lemonade
  • Of Montreal — Innocence Reaches


  • De La Soul — And The Anonymous Nobody…
  • The Rocket Summer — Zoetic


  • Bas — Too High To Riot
  • Weaves — Weaves


  • case/lang/veirs — case/lang/veirs
  • Say Anything — I Don’t Think It Is


  • Shearwater — Jet Plane And Oxbow
  • Elzhi — Lead Poison


  • Butch Walker — Stay Gold
  • Bruno Mars — 24K Magic


  • Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers — Rehab Reunion
  • Maren Morris — Hero


  • Frank Ocean — Blonde
  • Cousin Stizz — Monda


  • The Weeknd — Starboy
  • David Bowie — Blackstar


  • Steven Wilson — 4 1/2
  • You Blew It! — Abendrot


  • CupcakKe — Cum Cake
  • Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost


  • Carly Rae Jepsen — E-mo-tion Side B
  • The Oh Sees — A Weird Exits


  • PJ Harvey — Hope Six Demolition Project
  • Future Of The Left — The Peace And Truce Of Future Of The Left


  • J. Cole — 4 Your Eyez Only
  • The Goon Sax — Up To Anything


Please stop saying that hip-hop is going to have a great four years

Well-meaning people may have assured you that rappers and other practitioners of styles with a tradition of dissent (punk rock, theater, graffiti, etc.) are bound to meet the challenge of this national disaster with an retaliatory outpouring of exemplary art. You may have given voice to this yourself. If you have, I understand: it is natural to try to find silver linings. But I need you to cut it out, right now. It is an insult to rappers, who do not and never have needed any help from ignorant bullies to find their voices, and an insult to the many artists of all kinds who are about to suffer the real material consequences of our terrible decisions.

A bunch of bilge has been dumped into the wellsprings of creativity. Please recognize this and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Editors and publishers: resign

Back to basics, everybody.
Back to basics, everybody.

It’s the morning of November 10, and as far as I can tell, none of the editors and publishers responsible for the clickbait style of Internet reporting have fallen on their swords. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for. It’s possible, I guess, that they’re feeling triumphant today, and that they view the election of a human piece of clickbait as a sick validation of their methods. But that kind of self-aggrandizement would be unlike journalists, even terrible ones. If they’d had any imagination or mental agility or even pride, they wouldn’t have been pumping out clickbait in the first place. I think it’s more likely that they’re still in shock; slow to realize the depth and dimensions of their public humiliation.

So to all you clickbait-site editors and publishers, content aggregators and Facebook share-hunters, let me make this crystal clear: everybody hates you. Everybody. The people who lost this election hate you for sullying journalism and making it impossible for real reporting to flourish. The people who won this election hate you, too — in case you didn’t notice their rhetoric, they think journalists are lowlifes who ought to be abused and/or jailed. People who are apolitical hate you; you’re ruining their Internet experience. The celebrities whose asses you kiss in your attention-grabbing headlines hate you — they see you as toadies and pushovers, and they’re right to. Your own writers toiling away on the content farm especially hate you. They’ve got brains and voices and critical faculties, and you’re wasting all of that in your single-minded pursuit of clicks. You’ve taken journalism to the lowest point it’s ever been in my lifetime. Nobody respects you, nobody trusts you, nobody thinks you’re irreverent or funny or ahead of the curve or even a part of the future. You’ve got to go. Now.

A real journalist doesn’t care about likes. A real journalist doesn’t even care if she is liked. She is chasing the story not because there is audience demand for it, but because nobody has told it yet and it deserves to be told. This is what we depend on her for. Your job — your entire job — is to facilitate that chase. You are there to help her bring what she’s found to the attention of the public. If your new business model won’t allow you to do that, or if it directs you to engage in some other distracting, smoke-blowing b.s. practice, or if, God forbid, it forces you to get in her way, then it is worthless and you are worthless.

It is true that the media biz has always needed to grab the attention of reluctant readers, and has often resorted to gauche methods for doing so. But the sensationalism of the past always had something real at its root: an urgent desire to get the public to pay attention to whatever the journalist had learned. Extra extra read all about something you don’t yet know, not something calibrated to reinforce your own poorly-informed beliefs. What has happened in digital newsrooms, if you even want to call them that, which I certainly do not, is that the old, responsible model has been stood on its head. Instead of the reporter using her judgment to tell you the story she wants to tell, the editor identifies a trending topic that has already been discussed to death and then assigns the reporter to generate still more digital copy on a subject that guarantees pageviews. In the first model, the reporter is the agent; in the second, she has no latitude other than her own flailing (and usually unsuccessful) attempts to avoid redundancy. The first model depends on a reader who is engaged and curious; the second on a reader who is bored and looking to fill his time with prefabricated outrage. If you’ve wondered why every headline on the Internet for the last fifteen months has featured Donald Trump’s name, here’s your answer. It’s no conspiracy. None was necessary. All that was needed was a bunch of nervous editors and publishers with click-quotas to meet and who, therefore, couldn’t stop assigning stories on the hottest trending topic. Unless we want to be governed in perpetuity by depraved celebrities — the Real Housewives of American Politics — the editorial star-chasing has got to end.

We can all acknowledge that “the world has changed”, whatever the heck that means, and that the media business ought to integrate new technologies and new methods of distribution. No reader, no matter how antiquarian, realistically expects the news to be delivered the same way that it was in 1953. But publishers have adapted to the present moment by mimicking all of the worst elements of social media: the rampant conformity, the celebrity-worship, the obsessive need for popularity and “likes”, the tendency to preach to the converted and to reinforce rather than challenge the assumptions of the audience. This, not the mythical decline of attention spans, is the real reason for shrinking readership. Nobody likes a damned suck-up. The hunger for genuine journalism among genuine readers is still there, and it’s always going to be. If you can’t or won’t serve these people, you’ve got to get out of the way and turn the podium over to those who want to figure out how it can be done in a year as as as contentious as 2016 was (and 2017 is sure to be.)

This is not a partisan piece. I would have written the same thing if Hillary Clinton had won the election. But Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the most powerful position on the globe makes it incontrovertible. Editors and publishers, unless you’re still in a punch-drunk haze, I know you know it. You didn’t cause this cataclysm, but you sure greased the gears, and you sure cheered it on. We’ve tried it your way. It was a spectacular failure. You’ve let down your readers, you’ve let down your country, and you’ve let down yourselves. If you’ve got any decency left, you must know there’s only one thing for you to do. Go.