Warning: Brain dump follows. Sorry this is last-minute, unedited, and no doubt largely of very limited interest, but there's a lot rattling around up here.
I'm reminded of a movie called My Favorite Year, which looked back into the author's life to a period when the author was young and the world (or at least Peter O'Toole) was fascinating. At the time I figured out that 1978 was my favorite year: I was living in New York, with a woman I was to marry; we had good jobs, a fabulous apartment towering over the East River, and took an especially memorable vacation; I relished the Yankees' come-from-behind thrashing of the Red Sox; and last, but not least, that was the year punk rock really broke. I was 27-28, the usual peak age for baseball players, and while I bore no resemblance whatsoever to an athlete, it made perfect sense that it would never get much better. And in retrospect, I could point out that this was after the horrors of my youth -- Vietnam, Watergate -- had subsided and before Iran erupted, before the US launched Jihad in Afghanistan, before the madness and corruption of the Reagan/Bush years, and so forth: a relatively brief period of tranquility and civility.
This last year it occurred to me that if 1978 was my favorite year, 2002 was looking like my least-favorite year. Not that it didn't have stiff competition: in 2000 both of my parents died, and I lost a job just as I expected it to take a major turn for the better; in 1966 I was an incarcerated juvenile malcontent, friendless and hopeless; in 1970 I hit bottom, escaping jail or Vietnam only on grounds of insanity. But while public affairs in 2002 have become as grim as they were in 1970, my personal life is immeasurably better. And a big part of that life has been a rediscovery of much of the excitement that music held for me back in 1978. This has been one of the richest years for new music ever.
Having spent a lot of time in record stores this year, one thing that I noticed was how many new artists were being offered for sale at a discount. I had noticed this a couple years ago when Nelly Furtado was easily available in the $10 price range, until she started getting Grammy notice and jumped up to the $17 (discounted to $14) range. But this year the tactic became so commonplace that I'm hard pressed to name a single breakthrough artist who accomplished the feat without heavy discounting. For a while it even occurred to me that a first approximation of artistic merit correlates inversely with price -- the naive rationale being that the best way to sell good records is to get people to listen to them. Not that I trusted this theory enough to plop down $10 for Andrew WK, but then he presumably appeals to some other set of tastes. The complement to this is that surefire hits with high list prices were often discounted comparably -- I bought Eminem at $11, and I've seen Shania Twain at $10 (at WalMart, natch). Put these two trends together and it's clear that (a) the industry has priced themselves out of the market, and (b) they know it.
What's remarkable about this isn't that it's true, but that the industry has gotten away with pushing prices so high. The purpose of the discounting is to trigger an impulse purchase -- make it cheap enough people will take a risk on an unknown artist, or more generally that will overcome their resistance against making an extravagant purchase by perfuming it with the scent of a bargain. But by the industry's calculus, discounting costs them as surely as piracy costs them: it is an ill-tasting medicine, taken only in dire times. And surely this year, with the economy mired and the world wracked by terrorism and worse, qualifies as dire times.
Yet as I thumb through the year-end issue of Billboard, chock full of hard-luck stories about red ink, I am assured that the music industry is normally recession-proof, and that the real problem is piracy. But their pricing history, which for many years has relentlessly probed for the points where pain yields maximum profits, has a lot in common with the airline industry, which likewise had been finely tuned to pick your pockets, and which now finds itself deep in red ink, the victim of a small drop in demand, a surcharge of hassle, and a whole lot of arrogance.
As for "piracy" the industry hopes for stronger laws, stricter enforcement, and the application of clever technology -- pretty much the same knee-jerk reaction that Bush, Ashcroft, et al. have against challenges to American omnipotence: in other words, the stock response of Power to its subversion. The real question with these and other cases is whether such repression can and will work. The prospects for the music industry here seem to be particularly bleak. In particular, once you've reduced music to data it becomes free to reproduct and redistribute, and any attempt to thwart that looks like an attack on the consumer's standard of living. And how long can an industry last once it dedicates itself to undermining its customers?
I might be more sympathetic had I not worked through the example of the software industry. There was a time when smart folks could make a good living writing packaged software, but the software industry made its money by building barriers -- legal and technological -- around those packages, and those barriers not only worked to exclude the people who couldn't or wouldn't afford them, they worked against those who did pay, by saddling them with defective software, built less to meet the customers' needs than to propagate the companies' empires. Some software companies became obscenely wealthy, corrupt, and reviled (e.g. Microsoft). The people's response to this tyranny was to write their own software, and give it away free. No barriers, no business, just better software. The software industry isn't dead yet, but when it finally does expire hardly anyone will notice, because the world will be inundated with free software.
If the music industry dies, will there still be music? Of course. And if doing so just weeds out the people who are only in it for the money, so much the better.
I've done year-end lists almost every years since 1975. Back in the early days of the Pazz & Jop poll, I found that the breakpoints that roughly correspond to the A/A- and A-/B+ grades would tend to break around 4-7 and 15-25 respectively. This year I figure grade A breaks after 16, and grade A- after 72. Partly this is expansion of my own taste and interests, but it also reflects the vast growth of available music.
I've found that most years my list grows by 50% over the next 4-6 months, and another 50% over the following 6-8 months. While this year's expansion might be less (due to greater dilligence in seeking out this list), I have to think that there is a lot more out there. In my own year-end list, I try to keep track not only of what I like, but also what I've heard and downgraded (38 albums; I'm not on lists, so my access to dreck is limited), what I've heard but haven't made my mind up on (15 albums), what I've heard other people recommend (96 albums). This backup list is not only useful for me, I think it helps to provide a context in which to consider the top list.
I've suggested several times that Pazz & Jop attempt to collect similar information from other voters. In particular, to let voters give 3 votes to their #11-20 records, 2 votes to their #21-30 records, and 1 vote to anything else that strikes their fancy. As far as the totals are concerned, such an expanded ballot wouldn't have any real ballot-stuffing effect, but would help smooth out the bumps. For instance, by my reckoning Spoon and Imperial Teen are very comparable albums, yet with the top-10 limit Spoon gets my vote but Imperial Teen doesn't. Youssou N'Dour/Orchestra Baobab are another pair similarly split; Buck 65/The Streets are another. For individual ballots, again the wealth of detail helps flesh out who the voter is and what the ballot means.
Non-recommended lists would add further context, and would allow further breakdowns of the data. For instance, what would the totals be for just those critics who have listened to 20+ rap records? What about 20+ African records? What about 20+ jazz records? What do you get if you throw out all the people who voted for Springsteen and Beck? The more context information you have, the more useful and valuable the data becomes.
Anyhow, here's my ballot again, with the recommendations down to #72, after which we get into B+ territory. This differs from the website version is that I've folded in some things that I normally track separately as reissues (not folded into the counts above, a minor inconsistency). (I didn't fold all of them in, since some strike me as mere repackagings -- e.g., the Randy Travis boxlet.)
The first point I'm inclined to draw from this is that as far as I'm concerned 2002 is the best year for American rock bands since the heyday of the Minutemen/Replacements/Husker Du. Others would set the standard around Nirvana (a pretty good band I've never liked) and its ever-duller grunge progeny, but that's specifically what turned me off whiteboy guitar bands. But over the last 3-4 years a handful of smart, original groups have been bubbling under, emerging in top-15 ranks for Spoon (the best of three good albums), Imperial Teen (likewise), and Transplants (merging the best things about Rancid and Blink-182). I don't know how many more groups like that are emerging -- my favorite over the last five years has been Modest Mouse -- in large part because I haven't been looking for them.
Conspicuously missing from my long list is Sleater-Kinney, who like Nirvana have a world-class drummer but otherwise remain unfathomable to me and more than a little irritating. Rumor has it that One Beat is a sharply political post-9/11 album, but I have yet to grasp a word they shriek, a melody, a signature riff. I do sort of like the Lene Lovich affectation that the less annoying of the vocalists has, and, like I said, I think the drummer is real good.
By my handicapping, Sleater-Kinney is a heavy favorite to win the P&J poll this year. The only thing I can imagine that might get in their way would be if White Stripes can roll over their 3rd place finish last year. Someone should write a book on "The Selling of White Stripes" -- the marketing gimmicks and hype have been relentless. Not a bad band either; they fit very well into the renascence I wrote of above, although in head-to-head comparison with Spoon I think they are a fair ways behind.
The first trend I spotted this year was producers records where the vocalists are anonymous if not downright irrelevant. DJ Shadow, NERD, Cornershop all fit here; as a trend it goes back at least to Beats International, although in spirit it could have emerged with disco. Whereas from Bob Dylan on rock has been a vehicle for self-expression, we live (and especially dance) in a world that is ever more crowded and anonymous, and this music fits this world. Appropriately, I think, and I find that rather liberating.
The second trend I spotted was jazz fusion, not with Cream-style arena rock but with beats from techno, funk, and more exotic locales. Nils Petter Molvaer has extended his series of fine albums that push Miles Davis and Jon Hassell into more regimented rhythms, but Matthew Shipp's Nu Bop is even more to the point, with Shipp's stark chords punctuating synthetic percussion and tape loops. Thirsty Ear has a whole series of Shipp-based records, with an excellent cheapo sampler that makes me want to explore further. David Murray has been busy with his own fusion, with two good records, the Guadelupean Yonn-De and the trio with all-world percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, on top of last year's Senegalese Tidiane record. And Jean-Paul Bourelly's Trance Atlantic ties all of these threads together: Senegalese griot, Haitian rhythm, synthetic percussion, and post-Ulmer guitar.
But the most interesting jazz fusion guy working today is McArthur genius Ken Vandermark, who has followed David Murray's lead in recording at a dizzying pace for obscure labels. Like Murray, Vandermark knows his history and lore, but whereas Murray was rooted in gospel and Ayler, Vandermark has more obscure touchstones -- Joe Harriott, Hal Russell, Peter Brotzman -- but also knows his George Clinton and Sun Ra. Some of his work is frighteningly obscurantist (especially with Brotzman is in the room), but his Vandermark 5 has built rock-solid pieces around both pop and avant-garde themes. Even more impressive is his Spaceways Inc. trio, which started with an album of Sun Ra and Funkadelic pieces, then followed that up with a set of originals, Version Soul, with dedications across the board from Serge Chaloff to Jackie Mittoo.
I haven't done a full census here, but from sampling it looks to me like my list is almost 50% black, slightly less white, with some Pakistanis and Latinos and whatever thrown in to mix it up. But it's even more mixed up than that, with a surfeit of white rappers (of all things). And in the latter category the infamous Eminem ranks 4th or 6th according to how many times you count Buck 65.
Buck 65 is my Artist of the Year: twelve months ago I hadn't even heard of him, not until Robert Christgau pick hit Man Overboard. I ordered that from a record store in Halifax, and was so impressed with it that I tracked down Language Arts and Vertex on a trip to Phoenix and Austin. After he signed his deal with Warner Music Canada, I picked up three more CDs: the new Square; Synesthesia, which evidently came out between Man Overboard and Square and features remixes of "Centaur" and "Attack of the Nerds"; and Weirdo Magnet, a collection of early material. All six records feature spare beats and engagingly witty raps, laying out a space that invites and rewards close listening. One thing I never liked about rap was the inordinate emphasis on words, and even here I could point out that he is more DJ than poet, that his music sets up the punch that the lyrics deliver. Just like its supposed to do.
What makes reggae world music is not that it is foreign to the US but that it is universal. It is not so much a rhythm as the technological and cultural root for the layered re-use of music, where everything is not only fit for recycling but for regeneration as well. Hip-hop, especially as metastasized in world comps like Africa Raps and The Best of International Hip-Hop, owes a deep debt to reggae. Same for most of what is loosely labeled electronica. Lawyers may occasionally throw a monkey-wrench in the works, but re-use is the essence of pop culture, and there will always be more of it than the powers-that-be can thwart. The bootleg phenomenon, which I haven't explored past The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever, is one more escalation. Personally, as an encyclopedist I find this annoying, but as an antiauthoritarian I find it overwhelmingly compelling. There is in effect not just an infinite set of future music yet to be created out of past music, the set is transfinite. Something like Boom Selection Issue 01 is not only overwhelming in its own right, it feels like just the first drop to seep through the dam.
But the other side to the re-use equation is the demand side. Unless something radical changes, the current world-wide trend is toward increasing impoverishment. The rich -- and we are not talking about "rich nations" here, we're talking class -- are sequestered in their wonderful/horrible little worlds, entrenched to battle off the hordes, estranged from the elite culture, but empowered through re-use to reconstruct their own. Reggae was forged in poverty, a readymade fit for re-use.
I count thirteen African records on my list (including Red Hot + Riot and Mali Music which are mixed affairs but rooted in the mother continent). Most of this is old -- mid-'80s and earlier -- which begs the question of whether African music has peaked and is crumbling as Africa itself seems to be, or whether this is mere illusion due to the glacial rate at which the music travels to America. I don't consider myself an expert, and won't even hazard a guess as to the answer.
I will note, though, that Pirates Choice would have ranked #10 had I considered it eligible -- as indeed it has been showing up in some year-end lists.
Aside from listening to music, the main thing I've been doing this past year was reading -- mostly history -- and thinking and every now and then writing about the political debacle we find ourselves in. Actually, the task started Sept. 11, 2001, in an apartment in Brooklyn where I thumbed through the photo collection Century while the WTC burned and collapsed. As an exercise, this had a certain calmative effect, putting the day's events at the end of a century so tumultuous as to render the shocking events anticlimactic.
Since this is the time for lists, here's my 16-month reading list (plus seven previous items of more than passing relevance), roughly in order:
All this reading hardly makes me an expert on anything, any more than the 125 or so carefully selected new records I listened to last year make me an expert on music today. Still, a couple of brief points:
Back to music. A quick glance at the upper end of my B+ list:
Plus another eight titles, but the point that I want to make is that the upper reaches of the B+ list are still pretty good records, at least down through The Reputation, and less consistently so after that. This is my case that I'm not just an easy grader.
Although I count eleven jazz titles on my list (plus two going down to #90), it turns out that I only own two CDs that made Jazz Times' "Top 50 CDs 2002" list: Matthew Shipp's Nu Bop and Dave Douglas's The Infinite. Gary Giddins has a list of nine CDs in the same issue, of which I have one. And I have one of ten CDs that Ben Ratliff picked in his New York Times year-end list. This makes me wonder what kind of jazz critic am I? I think the answer is a jaded rock critic who doesn't get enough jazz free and is too stingy to keep up for the hell of it. Looking at Jazz Times' list I'll note:
I'll figure this out eventually.
Not much country music either. Again, even though I like country quite a bit, there just doesn't seem to be much worth buying, so I don't. Even this is not for lack of trying: capped at B+ find Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Hank III, Flatlanders. My top-rated country album was James Talley's Touchstones, which breathed new life into his old catalogue, showing him to be in fine voice and happy to be playing. Beyond Talley there were Kasey Chambers, Steve Earle, and the Meat Purveyors, if any of them count.
DJ Shadow not only bragged about finding just the right thing, he delivered, time and again. The Private Press was perfectly functional: three or four different, distinctive pieces jumping into the foreground from a matrix of perfect background music.
The thing that Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have going on is that they're so turned on by even the slightest sonic pleasures: they're hedonists and not one damn bit cynical or decadent about it.
Van Morrison's Down the Road was sonic comfort food this year: so reminiscent of his great old albums, yet the work of an old guy with longing memory. Gettin' there myself.
Cee-Lo and Common both wore their religion on their sleeves, but Cee-Lo's the one I'd invite to say grace at my house, because he'd keep it short, and he'd enjoy the grub.
Someone should give Bob Stewart a lifetime achievement award for Best Performance on Tuba in a Supporting Role. He's been everywhere and done everything, but you really notice him when he teams up with Arthur Blythe, as on Focus this year.
Novelty concept of the year: Cuban klezmer music. Not that Roberto Rodriguez's El Danzon de Moises is a novelty record, but the concept introduces it even before the rhythm and beauty take over.
I haven't tracked down Chuck D's version of "Self-Evident" yet, so Ani DiFranco's will have to do. At a time when so many others were stampeding like lemmings she at least had the guts to object.