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!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lou Reed, "Berlin live at St. Ann's Warehouse"

It wasn't much of a surprise that Lou Reed finally decided to stage this album in its entirety -- much like "SMiLE", its eventual revival felt completely inevitable (which is not to say that is was unwelcome). Of course with post-Velvets reunion era Lou Reed, you can never be too sure what you're going to get, whether he'll stay true to his songs' original magic or ruin them with uncreative, perfunctory arrangements and goofy vocal variations.

Sadly, this album tends more toward the latter. Maybe it was impractical to recreate this album live in the 1970's, but rock performances with strings, samples, and extra vocalists are routine these days, perhaps even passe. And Reed's had the cultural cache and a large enough fanbase to justify pulling off something huge and outlandish for well over a decade. After thirty-five years, I was hoping for something completely OTT with thunderous walls of sound and massive choirs, but instead these live arrangements are arguably less maximalist than the original recording. Reed's vocals are always the wild card when he re-creates his old material, and here there's plenty of ruining going around, of which the largest offender is his snarling spoken word rant during nearly all of "The Kids", in lieu of simply SINGING THE DAMN SONG. These kinds of alterations have little to with his vocal limitations, for "The Bed" proves that Reed can still sing sweetly when he wants to, all while making appropriate adjustments for his lessening range. He changes up the vocals because he wants to, perhaps because he's bored with the original arrangements, perhaps because he enjoys improvising, who knows.

Stick to the original album, although curious fans will surely be unable to resist checking this out regardless.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pazz and Jop Comments

I'll say something about the actual poll results at another time ... first, I want to share a few words about some of the comments, and this section in particular that I found sad and upsetting.

There was a lot of sentiment like this throughout 2008, the feeling that music was unimportant or insignificant compared to a veritable laundry list of more pressing and relevant concerns. I cannot in any way sympathize with the feeling of not wanting to obsess over music (and music lists) in light of the crappy state the world is in. I think the notion actually disgusts me. It's a cop-out, especially coming from music critics who are also supposed to be some of the most devoted music fans around.

I write about music because I love it. The fact that I could be doing more constructive things with my time is totally irrelevant. Music is entertainment. There are always better things to do with one's time. This will never change. This is hardly relevant to the need we have for listening to and enjoying music.

People are down on the music industry for a number of (totally valid) reasons: the sorry state of the economy, mega-conglomerates, dwindling opportunities for making a decent salary writing about music, etc. But the overall problem is not that music isn't culturally relevant, it's that people are looking for relevance in all the wrong places. Look at the parade of musical all-stars who performed in one of the many pre and post-inauguration celebrations. Now look at Beyonce getting the opportunity to sing in front of a slow-dancing President and First Lady, and breaking down in an interview afterward while explaining what the moment meant to her (and undoubtedly to the people who watched her performance in person or on TV). You can't tell me that music's importance is running on empty when so many songs and performers are now indelibly linked with one of the most inspired political sagas to come along in generations. But most critics will offer up a different narrative. On one hand, you've got Beyonce getting the chance to soundtrack the first few moments of the second act in the life of the most powerful man in the world, but on the other hand, you've got hundreds of critics ignoring the magnitude of that and claiming, instead, that formidable mediocrities like TV on the Radio are capturing the spirit of the times. It's rockism at its most pitiful.

Music is entertainment, and entertainment is a form of escapism. In the 1930's, people flocked to the movies to escape from their daily encumberances. The comic book industry also developed and flourished during that decade. The entertainment industry has plenty of cultural and political cache in troubled times because people will lean on it for inspiration and support more than they would otherwise. If that means that more people will find solace in Disney movies and stadium rock rather than critically-approved Indie Rock jangle #830, so be it.

My role in all this is to write and talk about the music I enjoy. Same as it ever was.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The 33 1/3 Longlist

They received 597 submissions for 400-odd different albums. Wow. One could probably write an entire book about that list, about which albums are considered book-worthy by critics, and why. For example, one commenter noted that Weezer's "Pinkerton" received seven submissions during the last round (more than any other album) but none of them were picked*, whereas now "that ship has sailed" for it seems that there is no longer any interest in the "Pinkerton = roots of emo" angle these days.

I submitted something, but I'm not going to say anything about it because I'm superstitious and afraid of ridicule and all that, although if anyone guesses right then I will fess up. However, I was the only person to pitch this album, it has been mentioned in the comments section of the 33 1/3 blog, and if you are reading this, I am close to 100% sure that you have heard the album.

Of course the series has gone far beyond the simple model of writing about the making of a great album with an interesting backstory (e.g. Fleetwood Mac albums, "Loveless", and plenty of "VH1: Behind the Music"-ish stuff), so it's virtually impossible to make any judgments about what's on this longlist without knowing the quality of the pitches and the concepts behind them. But I'll thow out a few random comments anyway.

  • Biggest surprise: four, FOUR "Agetis Byrjun" submissions? Personally, I think that any of their other albums would make for a more interesting book, but some crit-love is better than none.
  • Slint's "Spiderland" led the way with seven submissions, and surely one of them will get picked? That album's high standing won't be diminishing any time soon, and a Slint book would be a big seller.
  • Hasn't the "Phil Spector: Back to Mono" story already been told many times? If the focus of the book is a tie-in with the box set revolution that was kicked off around 1990 thanks to sets like this and the Zeppelin one, it could be pretty cool though.
  • Cocteau Twins, "Pink Opaque". Fennesz, "Endless Summer". Explosions in the Sky, "The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place". Mogwai, "Young Team". Ride, "Nowhere". Great records. I have no desire to read a book about any of them. I'm almost clueless as to what the narrative could possibly be (especially for EITS).
  • My selfish picks include Galaxie 500, "Today" (I love the album and would love to hear stories about how quaint Ivy-League kids invented a new form of rock amidst the snarling East Coast indie scene, but this book would probably sell fuck all); Broken Social Scene, "You Forgot It In People" (the proverbial cast of thousands provides storybook gold); J Dilla, "Donuts" (a last will and testament by a legendary producer), Various Artists, "Artificial Intelligence" (bedroom techno is born, the rise and fall of IDM, could be a fantastic book but another one that will unfortunately sell fuck all).
  • Would be nice but do we REALLY need another book about a beloved indie rock record?: Yo La Tengo, "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One"; Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Fever To Tell"; Low, "The Great Destroyer".
  • Books that absolutely must be written at some point (i.e. the story has not been told properly or often enough and it really needs to be): Snoop Doggy Dogg, "Doggystyle"; Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Welcome to the Pleasuredome"; Talk Talk, "Spirit of Eden".
  • It'll probably be chosen this time, we'll just have to learn to live with it: Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (two submissions); Radiohead, "Kid A" (three submissions).
* correction: my bad, Jessica Suarez is writing a "Pinkerton" book. Still, critical fawning over Weezer did seem to catch fire and die out fairly quickly ...

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I always knew that I would eventually buy the same CD twice. It was inevitable, owing to a combination of having much music, no proper documentation for it, and a finite amount of brainpower/long term memory. It's just too bad that the "winning" album had to be such a stinker ("Hard House Unmixed"), which I bought during two bargain hunting sprees a couple of months apart. You see, it can take me months to get through a stack of newly purchased CDs these days -- new stacks start piling up before I finish with the older ones, and I don't always go through them all chronologically, in order of purchase. So I bought this trance-house junk twice before I'd even listened to it once. I has always expected that this would be a fairly devastating moment, but when it finally happened, I brushed it off and didn't really care.

But I absolutely never thought I could forget about a gig. The possibility simply never entered my mind. I'd been listening to Yellow Swans' "At All Ends", thinking about how marvelous it is, realizing that I'd never get to see them play live because they broke up earlier this year ... and for an unrelated reason, I was scanning through some archives on this blog and there it was -- Yellow Swans, opening for Frog Eyes and Xiu Xiu in 2005. That's right, I saw Yellow Swans play live three years ago, and I had to learn about it via my own blog.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavilion"

"Strawberry Jam" was disappointing for two reasons: first, it was a poorly recorded facsimile of their far more powerful live show, and second, it was sonically unfocused, as they were transitioning from a guitar-heavy, jam-it-out sound to a quirky, electronic pop sound (with a lot more emphasis on vocals) (and minus one member) and were throwing the kitchen sink onto tape to see what would stick.

"Merriweather Post Pavilion" does away with these problems completely. They simply didn't bother trying to copy their live show to tape, and instead, decided to craft something entirely different, something complimentary to what they've been playing on stage. It's actually more of a follow-up to "Person Pitch" than "Strawberry Jam" -- heavy on the echo-drenched Beach Boys-y vocals and sunny day psych weirdness, and bursting with wild, sparkling synth leads and bumper car bass lines. It's easily their most head-bopping, danceable album. I have to wonder why Caribou didn't make this album first, because it was certainly within his grasp if he'd, say, ditched some of his music's rock elements after dancing his face off one night in the clubs of Cologne.

Pitchfork are already ordaining it the album of the year (come ON guys, it's the FIRST week of January!), but I'm sure it'll be right up there on a lot of people's lists come this time next year.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Three Movies

On the first weekend with our new satellite connection, one of the movie channels was running two full days of music-related films. So of course I celebrated my newest at-home toy by watching "The Commitments" (my Great White Whale of music movies -- somehow I had never seen it), "Control", and "24 Hour Party People".

After a second viewing, my opinion of "Control" is essentially unchanged. I did, however, take a lot more notice of how much effort the movie puts into drawing (or perhaps it would be best to say "forcing") links between Curtis' epilepsy and his depression. Everyday at work, he saw clients in the employment office that he was essentially powerless to help. Their illnesses prevented them from leading normal day-to-day work and social lives. When Ian took his meds, he couldn't he couldn't do his job properly (because of the side effects), but if he ignored his meds, he of course suffered from increasingly worsening seizures. Either way, he started to see himself as a freak, no different from any of his sad, helpless clients. In seeing himself as a misfit who was incapable of holding down a normal job and marriage, his sense of self-worth became an increasingly self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem with this viewpoint is that it glosses over the huge elephant in the room -- the main thrust of Debbie Curtis' book upon which the movie is supposed to be based -- that being the following: Ian Curtis was depressed for his entire life. His epilepsy was not the root cause of his depression, rather, his depression was the root cause of his depression. The movie tries to partially transfer "blame" for his suicide from one illness to another, in a way that, in my opinion at least, is entirely speculative.

"24 Hour Party People" was a blast the second time around. I didn't stress over inconsistencies in the plot and the timeline and just absorbed the craziness as it was thrown at me -- all the better to marvel at Steve Coogan's sensational performance (which feels all the more poignant and comforting now that the real Tony Wilson is gone).

Remarkably similar themes are central to all three movies. There are no real plots to speak of. They loosely chronicle the stories of bands that formed from modest origins, built up sizable followings, and eventually collapsed due to a complicated web of mismanagement and volatile personalities. The main character in each film is arguably not a person, but the city in which the events take place. The city provides the context for everything -- the inescapable greyness and the perceived trappings of an non-evolving daily working class grind are the key influences that drive these characters toward music in order to escape from their otherwise wretched lives.

The character of Jimmy in "The Commitments" is something of a tragic figure. He's a visionary, practically a prophet amongst his unenlightened peers who knew exactly what Dubliners were looking for. He has his music mag rhetoric down pat, and knows how to sell his vision to anyone who will listen. Despite his many gifts, by the end of the film he is right back where he started -- a failure in the music industry, on the outside looking in. Most of the characters in "The Commitments" could be painted with a similar brush of failure. And yet, who would describe the movie as sad?

"The Commitments" succeeds where "Control" does not because the motivations of its characters are made perfectly clear. They care about what they are doing. Some of them selfishly want to use the band as a springboard to bigger stardom, some badly need the band as a distraction from the horrible stresses at work and at home, and some simply love the music and enjoy being along for the ride. Although they might pretend to be all in the same North Dublin boat, in fact they're all very different people who want drastically different things from the band, so it's hardly a surprise that all sense of a common focus becomes lost and the band falls apart. All this happens despite Jimmy's heroic efforts to steer the ship. His fatal flaw is that he wrongly assumes that everybody will drop whatever grievances they have against each other and will stay loyal to his vision of the band -- all because they want it to succeed just as much as he does. But at the end of the day, the movie shows us that even if you fail, the thrill of being on stage and mattering to people (even if it's for a very short time) is the best compensation that a musician can receive. Basically, it's his or her reward for giving a fuck about the music. This makes "The Commitments" a feel-good movie despite the somewhat tragic ending.

"Control" never implies that anyone gives a fuck. It's far from clear that the band truly matters to any of its members and somewhere in this stew of apathy is a guy who walks around depressed for no obvious reason and we can't understand why he won't just grow a set and deal with his relatively simple problems: tell his wife he's leaving her, take a break from the band, whatever. The brief scene in "24HPP", where Wilson fondly remembers a drunken Joy Division bludgeoning their way through "Louie Louie" during one of their final gigs, displays the band's human side more effectively than any single scene from "Control". In those brief moments, a gang of friends are acting like real human beings instead of robots, and are having a blast on stage in a way that "Control" won't allow us to see.

You could still claim that nobody gives a toss in "24HPP" either, but the giant exception to that rule is Tony Wilson, who obviously gives a giant toss and is the sole element that holds the movie together amongst all the frustration and foolishness. Shawn Ryder looks nothing like a genius and exactly like a selfish crack-addled prick, no matter now many times Wilson tries to convince us to overlook the latter and focus on the former. However, it's Tony Wilson, and hyperbole is the currency that he deals in, which not only provides constant reminders about the significance of everything we're seeing, but proudly displays the svengali aura that kept people believing in him for so long. He all but takes credit for inventing rave and pioneering the superstar DJ -- both viewpoints are contentious to the extreme, e.g. see: Chicago warehouse scene in the 80's among many possible alternate starting points -- but it works in the context of the movie because these are exactly the kind of things that the real Tony Wilson would (and did) say. He claims that he's a minor character in his own story, that the city of Manchester and its music are the real stars, and as far as real life is concerned, that's the truth. Except that in the MOVIE, Tony Wilson is the star and the MOVIE understands that. "Control" never even comes close grasping this concept. It's supposed to be an Ian Curtis biopic, and the "star" doesn't convey any reason for us to believe that his band or his life was important. If he doesn't care, then why should we?