Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pazz & Jop 2008

The Pazz & Jop poll has become a lot more predictable in the last few years due to no fault of its own, owing to the eleventy billion other polls that get published before it*. P&J is still the biggest one though, and I guess it's up to you whether you want to take the extra step and believe that "large sample size" = "most authoritative".

Two of my picks made the top 15, and five made the top 80, which is a level of consensus that I hadn't even come close to sniffing before. This is nicely illustrated in Glenn McDonald's centricity scores, where I'm sitting in the middle of the pack at #320 after three years of lurking in the bottom quartile. If anything, that ranking is a bit misleading because Sigur Ros (#54) ranked barely outside my top ten, plus I think I blew it by not voting for Torche (#31 -- an album that I put in low rotation for months but didn't really "get" until the very end of the year.) But on the flip side, my other five album picks were so far down the list that you need a telescope to see them, so, as it was in past years, when I'm out-there consensus-wise, I'm really out there. And my singles list was pretty much beamed in from another planet, as I voted for less popular singles by popular bands ("Couleurs" instead of "Kim and Jessie", "We Carry On" instead of "Machine Gun") and the rest was pretty much nowheresville (which was hardly surprising considering the stuff I picked, but I was shocked that NOBODY cast a vote for Kardi on singles or albums, except for me. I wouldn't have believed it, anymore than I can believe that I, of all people, am one of the only people (salutes go out to a few K'Naan voters) sticking up for all of Canadian hip-hop (not to mention Canadian black metal as well.) And for the second year running, both Justin Chun and Mark Richardson appeared on my "Most Similar Voters" list. We must be the select few of a breed of voters who like drone/ambient (Fennesz, Stars of the Lid), wacky indie darkhorses (Panda Bear, No Age, M83), and the occasional superstar indie rock act like Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend.

* nevertheless, pre-everything I predicted that either Portishead or TVOTR would win (expected big things from both, but I thought TVOTR was a lock for P&J, and was fairly sure that "Third" would win an Idolator poll, had they held one. All this seemed obvious to me, although many others disagreed.)

Of course, with a poll this large there will always be plenty of surprises. I didn't expect a top five placing for Erykah Badu. Large numbers of people voted for Kanye West (#10) and Bob Dylan (#20), out of habit I suppose, because neither album set the world on fire critically upon release. In a year (over-)stacked with indie rock, Stereolab finished at #230 with their best work in ages. Other big names like Madonna (#251), The Cure (#279), and Oasis (#289) joined them in the 3-5 mentions doldrums (there are an amazing number of notable names between #250 and #350, take a close look there.)

Plenty of people are making noise about the over-representation of indie rock (or whether indie simply had a great year) or the under-representation of hip-hop (or whether the genre is slowly dying), or the lack of country/metal/world music voters on the poll. Nobody is talking about the near complete absence of dance music. There was no token dance pick this year, playing the role that Justice, The Field, or Isolee played in past years. Lindstrom's "Where You Go I Go Too" is the highest ranking dance release at #62 (no, indie dance like Hercules and Love Affair or Gang Gang Dance doesn't count, don't even go there), and it received only a fraction of the attention of past Lindstrom releases (with or without Prins Thomas), even from dance music outlets. The second highest would be The Bug at #111 (reggae/dubstep doesn't always fall under the "dance music" umbrella, but we're desperate so I'm including it), followed by DJ/Rupture at #116. Everyone who crowed about Metacritic being a poor predictor for P&J was proved right (yet again) with The Bug (most of the P&J voters are Americans, The Bug's style of music is nowhere near their collective radar.) And sure, one could claim that house and techno had poor years as well, but when Ricardo Villalobos releases a new album and only one person votes for it (who else but Philip Sherburne?), it's a bit of a shock.

I've only read half of the essays up until now, and Zach Baron's piece about how rappers influenced the US Presidential election (and vice versa) is far and away the best. There was a noticeable uptick in the quality of the comments sections compared to the last couple of years, and I'm not just saying that because they included one of mine (really, I'm flattered). I'll reprint my full comments here:

More comments:

Nobody is talking about what an interesting year it was for Sigur Ros, who unexpectedly morphed into something resembling an honest-to-goodness pop band. If their single "Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur" had been recorded by Spoon, for example (and it could have been -- the similarities are fairly obvious), then surely there would be a crowd of giddy critics lining up to tell you how brilliant it is. Instead, many people likely overlooked it because they're still under the impression that Sigur Ros record nothing but meandering ten-minute whale music marathons. The moments around the 3:20 mark, when the horns seem to sweep in from out of nowhere and carry the song to its cloudbursting conclusion, are more than just the highlight of the song, they're the most jubilant few seconds of music I've heard all year.


If you'd taken a list of my top 20 albums of 2008, and somehow shown them to me in December 2007, I think my first reaction would have been shock and surprise at seeing a new James album on there. This is roughly equivalent to saying that if you'd asked me in 2007 to name, say, 300 bands who might be interesting and/or relevant in 2008 then there's virtually no chance that James would have entered my mind even for a moment. It's not as if I ever disliked them, but until I somehow got around to giving "Hey Ma" a spin, they could not have been any further off my radar.

If you lost track of James after the "Laid" single or had no idea they reformed last year, don't worry, you haven't missed any earth-shattering developments in the band's evolution. Their sound has barely changed in the last 20 years. Any song on "Hey Ma" could inconspicuously appear on any album they've made in the past two decades -- does that sound like an "interesting" or "relevant" band to you, one that's been circling the same drain since forever? Is that the type of endorsement that makes you run out the door to the nearest music shop? The album does take a number of stabs at political commentary, possibly to inform the listener that yes, the band is aware that the 21st century is upon us even though their formulaic music might suggest otherwise. Their hack at contemporary topical relevance starts with the ridiculous cover image that pictures a baby trying to choose between toy blocks and a loaded gun -- yes, the world can be a violent place these days, REAL subtle there guys. And besides, who would honestly look to Tim Booth to be the voice of level-headed reason in uncertain times? Have you ever read his lyrics? For example, take a peek at the title track's not-so-crafty refrain of "hey Ma, boys in body bags coming home in pieces", sung energetically over crowing horns and pounding drums. It's crude and tasteless, but then again, this is the same band that once turned "meconium" into a mid-song cheer, so at least they're consistent with their lack of adherence to the rules of tact.

And yet, I can't dismiss "Hey Ma" as the work of a band that didn't know when to finally give it up because it's such a fantastic indie pop album. Like so many of James' best singles and albums, it's stuffed with addictively hummable tunes, schmaltzy ballads that develop into oddly uplifting tearjerkers, anthems that are ready made for drunken pogo dancing in university pubs, and daft singalongs that were solely created for enabling Tim Booth's onstage freaky dance moves. You have to hand it to the band -- after twenty five years, they know what works for them, and they know what doesn't. With very rare exceptions in their catalogue, such as the Eno-produced semi-improvisational "Wah Wah", they've long since settled on their formula, and they milk it for all that its worth (hey, it works for AC/DC ...). And despite all its flaws, "Hey Ma" is a boatload of fun.


No matter how many tabloids you read or how many VH1 "Behind the Music" marathons you watch, all while trying to convince yourself that celebrities are just like the rest of us (only famous), you know full well that it isn't true. They don't have time for all the stupid and wasteful things that we do regularly, like sit around the house the whole day watching "Behind the Music" marathons and not bothering to change out the unwashed t-shirt that we slept in the night before. They're too busy for that. They're celebrities, and no matter how shitty they feel, their handlers will always whisk them off somewhere, because unlike you and me, being a famous and important person goes hand in hand with the need to always be someplace, doing something meaningful. At least that's what I always thought, until I heard Kanye West's album "808s and Heartbreak". Now, all bets are off and almost anything is possible. I can vividly imagine Kanye West -- arguably the world's biggest music star -- moping around the house for two days, eating a mammoth plate of crackers and peanut butter, spilling crumbs in and around his bed, listening to This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren" over and over and over. Eventually he stops sniffling, lets out his inner goth, and writes "Pinocchio Story" in five minutes while sitting in front of the TV watching "Edward Scissorhands". I can honestly picture this!

No comments: