Monday, January 21, 2013

Pazz and Jop 2012

There seems to be a lot less discussion about the results compared to past years, probably due to a number of slowly snowballing factors.  Single-publication and critics' best-of lists start appearing online in late November, making P&J results not much of a surprise in mid-January.  The declining interest in print media in general.  Shifts in music criticism away from generalist and towards specialist publications.  And so on.  List submissions (less than 500, way down from the 600-700 in recent years) and comment submissions are way down too.  They published two of my comments again this year, so you know they must be hard up for submissions.  But seriously, thanks to Brian McManus and the Village Voice, I'll always get a kick out of seeing my name next to Alfred Soto, Phil Dellio, and other P&J commenting regulars. 

I sent three short comment bits this year, and here's the one they didn't publish, a shortened version of my Beach House comment on my Top 10 Albums of 2012 post:

I'm exhausted from reading about other people's best albums of the year, not least because I feel overwhelmed and don't have time to listen to all this great music.  Beach House's "Bloom" was my favourite album of 2012, but if you haven't already heard it then you probably won't get around to it, because just like everybody else (including me), you've got a huge backlog of other albums in the queue that you hope to catch up with one of these years.

So that's why I've picked out the best bits of "Bloom" -- the very best part each of its ten songs -- edited them together, and posted them on Mixcloud ( for your listening convenience.  Now there are no excuses for not hearing "Bloom" because all you need to do is invest a measly one minute and forty five seconds to absorb the very best moments from the year's best album, such as 1:12 - 1:20 of "Myth", which is possibly the best eight second homage to "Heaven or Las Vegas"-era Cocteau Twins ever made, or the spine-tingling bridge from 1:59-2:13 of "Lazuli", or the mid-song break from 1:54-2:05 of "New Year" where guitars wail like crying seals straight out of My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless".  And who knows, maybe you'll like the highlight reel so much that you'll want to hear the entire album.

Glenn McDonald's P&J statistical index is now clearly the highlight of the poll.  Every year I get happily lost among the fascinating statistical tidbits that come out of Glenn's calculations, and this year was no exception.  This year he added new tools for comparing polls and critics' voting habits across different years, including the Breadth Index, which quantifies whether a critic tends to vote for his or her favourite artists year after year.  After years of existing in the background as something of a plaything for hardcore list fans only, Glenn's work is taking center stage at long last.  The final line of his essay sums up the importance of his work perfectly - "arguably, this explorable critical hyperindex is what the poll really exists to build."  The results of P&J might be a foregone conclusion these days, but it's still the largest music poll of its kind and is a golden opportunity for collecting data that will enable us to look at critical and popular music trends in a way that nobody ever had before. 

After several years of collective whining and crying about indie rock and the Pitchfork narrative taking over P&J (lest we forget 2009), Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar took the #1 and #2 album spots, while Miguel and Killer Mike placed in the top ten as well.  Fewer complaints have been heard, even though Pitchfork ranked those same artists high on their list this year.  So in case you were wondering, the indie rock half of the equation was the real problem.  Animal Collective's "Centipede Hz" finished tied for 157th, which is believed to be the largest drop-off in the poll for the follow-up to a P&J #1 album.  Everybody got burned out on AC at around the same time -- probably in the spring of '09 -- and "MPP"'s easy victory in the poll later than year was as fine an example of voter cruise control and hivemind groupthink as you'll find.  In other words, the thinking was "we decided one year ago that MPP is the album of the year, so I guess it still is."  Four years later, and the critical dismantling of AC and the indie rock backlash is all but complete.  I still haven't heard all of "Centipede Hz", but submitted my most indie rock centred list ever, so it was only a partial victory around my house. 

I've heard the usual complaints about not enough musical diversity and participation by voters in specialty genres, and every year I respond by noting how almost none of the diversity complainers stick up for electronic music.  This year, the closest thing to a consensus choice was Andy Stott's "Luxury Problems", at #29 with just 21 mentions (I'm not counting Grimes as "electronic").  That's fairly typical for each year's token electronic album, for instance, last year James Blake finished at #34, the previous year it was Caribou at #25 or MIA at #31 or Four Tet at #35 (depending on your definition of electronic/club music), indie rock blazed a path of destruction over all genres in '09 but in '08 Hercules and Love Affair were at #19, largely on the strength of the crossover appeal of "Blind".  In 2005 it seems like everyone with a passing interest in minimal rallied around Isolee's "We Are Monster" and it finished "only" at #41, but it was nevertheless something of a shock to see that sort of album ranking so high.  Anyway, you get the idea.  Electronic music was mostly ignored again, nobody really cares, let's move on.

Don't blame me if you think there isn't enough variety in P&J.  My centricity score was .201, at #283 out of 485 contributors, putting me in the lower 42nd percentile.  I was in the 46th percentile in 2011 and the 40th in 2010, so this was more or less in line with my average (which has also been calculated!  I'm #633 out of 1067 over the past five years, or the lower 41st percentile of centricity).  Also my Breadth Index is .900, or #89 out of 1083, which means I'm near the top when it comes to voting for different artists each year with very little repetition.

It seems to be the case every year, but once again I voted for two albums that did very well in the poll, and another eight that for the most part did not.  That distribution was less bimodal than in past years, mainly thanks to a fair bit of support for both Spiritualized and GY!BE.  Oddly enough, the biggest extreme occurred in 2009, when my centricity score was skewed by votes for two top five finishers in the poll.  The rest of my choices that year drew a combined total of 23 votes, or about one-sixth of what Animal Collective earned with their #1 album.  My total of seven unique votes is misleading because of the strangeness of my singles ballot, but I did vote for one album with no other mentions and two others with just one other mention.  One of those two was Sigur Ros' "Valtari", which was a huge surprise because they've usually done quite well in P&J going back over a decade. With their four previous albums, they finished at #54 in 2008, #50 in 2005, #25 in 2002, and #33 in 2000 (and #16 in 2001 for "Agaetis Byrjun" yet again).  Spiritualized have been heading in the opposite direction -- #184 in 2003, #80 in 2008, and #34 this year, tied with "Let It Come Down"'s rank from 2001.

Consensus around the top albums seems to be holding steady over the past few years.  62% of all ballots listed at least one of the #2-#10 albums.  That's only two percent lower than 2009, AKA the year of GAPDY.  But my favourite P&J statistic this year is this one, courtesy of Glenn Mcdonald -- of the 7 people who voted for Mastodon's "Curl of the Burl" in 2011, 5 of them voted for "Call Me Maybe" in 2012.   Numbers like that simply defy simple generalizations, you just have to sit back and admire them.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 13

"The mix uses a counterintuitive sequence of light pulses" Running time: 47:00 I submitted this mix for Little White Earbuds' podcast competition. Being pressed for time, it didn't turn out as well as it could have but it was fun to make, I enjoyed the experience of recording and submitting my work, and learned more about recording and mastering a mix properly (which I will put to good use in the future. Of course I didn't win anything -- no complaints there, considering the amazing quality of the winning mix   -- but like I said, it was a fun thing to do. It's not so much of a dance-y mix (especially compared to last year's outstanding winning mix by 2toomanygays, but the second place mix in '11 was also full of creative hops between genres and had a downtempo, somewhat tacked on ending, and this year's winning mix by Stewart Brown also shared some of those qualities.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Sinead O'Connor, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"

I have no idea how many times I played this album in 1990, but either this or the Stone Roses' debut were the albums I listened to the most that year.  It's even possible that I haven't listened to any album more times in any year than I did with these two albums in 1990, which is a likely signature of an earlier era when acquiring music was a lot harder (meaning you had fewer albums to listen to in a given year) and the cassette was still a popular format (meaning that you tended to listen to albums straight through more often because fast forwarding to your favourite tracks was such a hassle).

Like with many overplayed albums, I burned out on "I Do Not Want ..." and left it untouched for quite a while.  By chance, I happened to be watching Saturday Night Live on the night that this happened, and the fallout from that incident essentially ended her career as a commercial force.  One might reasonably argue that her breakthrough into the mainstream was a fluke anyway, and that grunge along with MOR rock and country would have bumped her from the charts regardless.

It wasn't until 1995, when I undertook a fun and crazy project to listen to all my CDs and cassettes in alphabetical order, that I rediscovered this album and remembered how great it is.  I only had about 150 albums back then, so this was a realistic undertaking, but I only made it about 2/3rds of the way through before abandoning it for reasons I can't recall.  But it was thanks to that alphabetical listening project (which forced me to revisit music that I hadn't heard in years) that I rediscovered "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got".  And yet, even though I've remained a fan of it ever since, still play it on occasion, and will tell you how underrated it is if you prompt me, I've never written anything about it and didn't rank it among my favourite albums of the 1990's as recently as 2004.  [it may not have been nominated and therefore not eligible in that particular poll, but I wrote up a complete, non-poll related Top 100 around that I can't find right now ... I'm fairly sure Sinead wasn't ranked very high on it]

In short, I've written about that SNL episode before, albeit not very well (re-read at your own risk), and I've underrated "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" even while telling people that it's underrated.

With over twenty years perspective, it stands out as the first true "90's" album. This has been noted by many others I'm sure.  It signifies the turn from the "me" 80's to the confessional, angst-filled 90's, predating grunge and other alternative artists by at least a year.  You could dismiss the epic album opener "So Different" as O'Connor's stab at making a "Troy Part II", but a sample-heavy pop track like "I Am Stretched On Your Grave" could have only been recorded in the early 90's.  O'Connor clearly knew that change was afoot and "Nothing Compares 2 U" made that even more abundantly clear.  The keyboards/strings and muffled drumming could never have been produced in the 80's, and the simplicity and directness of the video was certainly not something that could have been made in the 80's.  I've also always loved how the lack of a bass line (a la "When Doves Cry") and the decisions to leave "mama" and "baby" in the lyrics came across as very subtle tributes to Prince, even though the recording sounds absolutely nothing like him otherwise.  

It's also got Nellee Hooper producing, and Jah Wobble, and ex-Smiths members playing on it ... what could be more 90's than that?