Tuesday, January 12. 2010
I wasted the last couple of days poking through a hundred or so late-arriving year-end lists, adding count and notes to my meta file before deciding that I'm done with the research for this year. Looking back, I wish I had been more systematic, although I dread that doing so would have entailed even more work -- possibly much more. I especially wish I had kept a list of links to (some of) the lists with (some) notes on them: while most were hideously designed and sloppily conceived, there were exceptions, and a few of the more specialized lists (e.g., on electronica) might bear further scrutiny.
I kept notes on most of the multi-critic publication lists, as well as a few critics of personal interest (including myself), but in most cases I just tallied up counts of references. When lists overran ten I usually kept counting -- some ran on to 100, and some of those I counted. (Jazz critic Bill Milkowski had the longest list, at 130, which I didn't count for no better reason than fatigue at the moment. It's actually a pretty good list.) I picked blogs whenever the name struck my fancy, but didn't hit anywhere near all of them. I did go out of my way to grab as many jazz, country, hip-hop, and electronica lists as possible. I didn't do the same for metal, but didn't avoid it either, winding up with a couple dozen lists. About the only thing that turned me off immediately was Christian Music, although I think I also passed on a Pop Jazz list, and can't recall seeing any New Age. In a couple of cases I dug all the way through individual voter lists (one I recall was Dusted), although sometimes I tried to amalgamate them (one count for any record listed by any voter; examples were Jazz Times and Other Music). Some prolific writers got counted multiple times (a couple I recall are Michaelangelo Matos and Geoffrey Himes). I counted all of my B+(**) ratings and all of Rober Christgau's single-* HMs, but I didn't incorporate his year-end Dean's List. I tried to track down sources that I had used in the past, but sometimes couldn't find them or make any sense out of what I found (Billboard is a prime example of the latter). I picked up a lot of reissues and compilations, hoping that those lists will provide some fodder for future Recycled Goods columns. I avoided EP and singles lists, bootlegs and mixtapes, but some survived anyway. (Indeed, the lines there are not always crystal clear.) Toward the end, I occasionally skipped albums not already on the list, figuring the returns didn't justify the work. I also found I screwed a few things up -- especially cases where an artist had multiple titles (Lady Gaga's The Fame and The Fame Monster is a case in point, all the messier because the latter has more than one configuration, including or excluding the former).
I want to start here by listing the top 50. In brackets at the end of the line I include the total count and my grade -- in most cases based on a quick review from Rhapsody.
I started the file early last year, tracking reviews as they came out in places like Blender and Rolling Stone, adding in AMG's monthly Editor's Choices and several other convenient sources (which exclude webzines like Pitchfork and Pop Matters that aren't convenient at all). So the early leader was Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but as soon as the year-end lists started accumulating, Phoenix pulled out front, followed closely by Animal Collective. For a while Animal Collective even pulled ahead, only to lose the lead in the last week. As it turns out, the top three or four records were joined on most of the same lists, with Animal Collective almost invariably finishing above the others: of the lists I noted, Animal Collective scored 15 first place finishes, Phoenix 3, Grizzly Bear 2, Dirty Projectors 2. Those lists also tended to intersect with Passion Pit, Antlers, Atlas Sound, Horrors, and Wild Beasts. (Possibly others: I don't have the data organized to check, so I'm mostly working from memory. One needs to distinguish here between single author lists and multi-input lists. The latter would show a lot of intersection with Yeah Yeah Yeahs and St Vincent, but often from different sources. On the other hand, hardly anyone who picked Wild Beasts didn't also go for Animal Collective and/or Grizzly Bear.)
In his year end essay, Robert Christgau makes a distinction between "young people's records" (specifically listing Phoenix, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors) and old folks' records (Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Loudon Wainwright III, Marianne Faithfull, and Neil Young were in his top 20; they averaged 9 counts each in my accounting, which is arguably biased in their favor). That's an easy conclusion when you're 67, or 59 in my case -- I made a similar comment when I first tried to write up my sense of Animal Collective.
I certainly haven't listened to Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, or Dirty Projectors enough to register more than my limited amusement with the first and initial distaste for the latter two. I'm inclined to give them credit for being alien, mostly because I don't see how so many conscientious critics can warm to them unless there's something coherent to them that I haven't been able to discern. I know from my own experience that records that defy your expectations take a while longer to sort out. One indication that there might be more here comes from Nate Chinen's 10, where he mixes Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear in with 5 hip jazz picks (Steve Lehman, Henry Threadgill, Vijay Iyer, Fly, and Darcy James Argue) along with 3 more scattered non-jazz, non-rock picks (Brad Paisley, Rihanna, Oumou Sangare). Ben Ratliff, the other New York Times jazz critic, also included Dirty Projectors in his 10 (along with Lehman and Iyer, some more idiosyncratic jazz records, Bill Callahan and Raekwon). Still, my first encounter doesn't seem to promise much, and it doesn't seem cost effective to proceed. About the only musician I forced myself to listen to enough to eventually come around on was Charlie Parker.
There are other records on the list that I can imagine growing on me: XX, Antlers, Fever Ray, Horrors, Flaming Lips. But most of the these work in ways I feel I understand well enough. On the other hand, Phoenix (and Neko Case and Florence and Bat for Lashes and maybe St Vincent) strikes me as just ankle deep, pleasant but uninteresting and inconsequential, with dozens or more antecedents every bit as worthwhile. Putting them so far up the list suggests the idea that the critics are just ignorant and/or lazy.
Certainly, it's a big stretch to expect young critics to bring forth the specific backgrounds to contextualize Cohen or Nelson/Wills or Wainwright/Poole. Christgau represents the first and last generation to span the whole history of rock, starting with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley when they were brand new. Eight years younger, I learned my Berry and Buddy Holly songs from the Beatles and the Stones, and couldn't quite take Presley seriously after his movies and army tour. It wasn't hard for me to recover the history I missed, at least back to King Oliver and Bessie Smith, and doing so gave me a new appreciation of figures I had known from my childhood, like Nat Cole and Presley. Recorded pop music doesn't go back much past 1920, so I've experienced a little more than half of everything in real time. Anyone who grew up listening to Nirvana has a big disadvantage -- all the more so because the world keeps getting more and more complicated.
One measure of how complicated the world has become is that my meta list adds up to 3137 new records plus 626 recycled ones. Critics are notoriously obscurantist, but there's more going on here than the desire to identify with something no one else knows about. I didn't keep a close count, but it looks like I consulted approximately 600 lists, so the top three showed up on 30-35% of the lists, numbers 8-14 around half that. Only 27 records showed up on 10% of the lists; 70 records on 5%. I'm a little surprised that the lists are as concentrated as they are: the top groups are popular, but not very, and once you get into the blogs it gets hard to blame it all on hype. Still, it must start there: why, after all, should so many people think that a group as slight as Phoenix is worth taking seriously? I don't know how writers decide which artists to take seriously and which not, but there must be some parameters here. One thing of interest is that the top 13 are all artists who emerged this decade, with several first albums (XX, Girls, Pains, you can also count Fever Ray). The list breaks at Flaming Lips and Wilco, and there's not much more in the top 50: Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo, U2, the list's four rappers. Most groups do have an active span of less than ten years, but I don't recall past lists being skewed like this.
Four hip-hop records (Raekwon, Mos Def, Jay-Z, Doom) seems light for the top 50. Not much more further down either: Kid Cudi (51), K'Naan (69), POS (86), Brother Ali (94), Tanya Morgan (119), DJ Quik & Kurupt (122), UGK, Wale, J Dilla, Eminem, Slaughterhouse, Ghostface Killah -- the latter would have topped 10 mentions if the album dropped sooner, but Black Eyed Peas didn't do any better with a big headstart. The few hip-hop lists I found reiterated these same names and not much more. The first two or three showed up in most of the magazine lists, but that was about it. All sorts of pop/dance music suffered poorly on the list. The most talked-about artist of the year -- at least she dominated Salon's Breakfast Club -- was Lady Gaga. But even if you added her two records into one tally, she would have wound up tied with M Ward at 64, just behind soul leader Maxwell.
No world music albums came close: Christgau predicted that Amadou & Mariam will finish Pazz & Jop top 40, but I have it down at 150. Unless you count Somali rapper K'Naan, the top world album was Very Best at 82, followed by Tinariwen and Mulatu Astatke (picking up some jazz voters). Oumou Sangare, which I had in my top 10, didn't crack 10 mentions. Ghana Special did fairly well among the reissues, but I can come close to attributing all of Franco's mentions to personal friends. I was on the lookout for world music lists, but I found very few.
Same thing for country. Unless you count the Avett Brothers at 22 (and I can't imagine why), the top country album was Miranda Lambert at 56, followed by Brad Paisley at 79, then Justin Townes Earle, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller, Patty Loveless, and George Strait -- the latter two with just 11 mentions (and, actually, subpar albums), then superb albums by Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel and Loudon Wainwright III. Again, I looked for lists, and did a better job of finding them, but they turned out to be awfully narrow. Good records by John Anderson and Tanya Tucker were all but ignored. Hits were ignored too.
One more list here: new records (excluding 2008 releases and items on my reissue/vault music list) on Christgau's "Dean's List" that tallied less than 15: Loudon Wainwright III, Leonard Cohen (13), Black Eyed Peas (10), Wussy, Serengeti, Oumou Sangare, Nellie McKay, Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel (10), Marianne Faithfull, Ghostface Killah (10), Moby (13), Neil Young, Richard Hell, Coathangers, Hold Steady, Glasvegas (13), Death Cab for Cutie (EP), Modest Mouse (EP), Fruit Bats (10), Patterson Hood (10), Goran Bregorovic, Rhett Miller, Deer Tick (11), God Help the Girl (14), An Horse, New York Dolls, Living Things, Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, Shakira (14), Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, The Lonely Island, Lady Sovereign, Group Bombino, Staff Benda Bilili. I originally thought of drawing the line at 10, but found so many notable 10-14 records. There are more in the 15-19 range: PJ Harvey/John Parish, Tegan and Sara, Tune-Yards, Mulatu Astatke/Heliocentrics, White Denim, Amadou & Mariam. Above that there Jay Reatard (22), Brad Paisley (28), K'Naan (29), Dark Was the Night (33), Miranda Lambert (34), all out of the top 50. (That leaves 14 records in the top 50.) Doesn't look like he has very long coattails, does it?
I can't find offhand any previous analysis comparing my meta lists to Pazz & Jop poll results. As I recall, they matched fairly closely. P&J will poll slightly more voters than I looked at lists, but the ballots are capped at 10 records each, so the final tally tends to run 1600-1800 records. Christgau expects some degree of shift to older, more mainstream artists, even holding out a chance that Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- a young group that's perfectly comprehensible to anyone schooled since 1970 -- might win. If so, you should see Wilco move up from 15 toward 10; Sonic Youth from 31 toward 20; U2 from 49 toward 40; Bob Dylan from 74 toward 50. A second effect you should see would be records with high rankings gaining against records with broad support. Most clearly, that favors Animal Collective, and possibly its followers, over Phoenix. It's hard to say who else benefits down list, but I think Lily Allen will wind up moving from 37 toward 30. The ballot deadline is also later than deadlines for most year-end lists. One record this favors is XX. It could also help Ghostface Killah and Mary J Blige emerge from nowhere, but both are probably too late. Hip-hop records are likely to gain a bit, but not much. Lambert and Paisley are also likely to gain, although cracking the top 40 will be tough. Metal bands like Mastodon, Converge, and Sunn O))) have never done well, so I expect them to slip. The UK polls can be discounted, which will knock Arctic Monkeys way down, and may also hurt Bat for Lashes and Florence, less so Camera Obscura.
The main point of these polls isn't who wins but what you can learn from them. One thing is that they help point out records worth checking out. Another is that they tell you something about the people writing about music. It would be nice to have some better data on who those people are, but the picks themselves tell you something. If only you can puzzle it out.
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