Pazz & Jop Comments: 2003

Demographic shit: 53-year-old white guy. Lives in Wichita KS. Writes mostly on old shit for a St@tic, a webzine based in Chicago, music section edited by Michael Tatum, currently in Carlsbad CA. Also 2-3 pieces in Village Voice. Wrote 25+ entries for the as-yet-unpublished (not to mention unpaid-for) Rolling Stone Record Guide. Actually, most of what I've written this year has been in my online notebook -- not really a blog, since I don't publish it regularly. (Word count on the 2003 notebooks comes to 190K words.) I also maintain a website which has rated lists of 8773 records. Looking back in the notebook, I crossed the 8000 mark around Feb. 16, so figure I rated (and in 90% of the cases wrote at least a tiny bit about) 800 records last year. I figure I heard 370 albums released in 2003, which breaks down to 137 new and 233 old. (Since I write about old music, my way of breaking this down includes as old things that have never been released before, things that have never been available in the US before, etc. Also there's another 100+ records that I've parts of but didn't buy, and many more that I've read about but haven't explored further. ) I mention these numbers because every rank list takes place within a discrete sample, and I believe -- after all, I was a sociology major -- that the rank list doesn't mean much unless you can also evaluate the sample (methods too, but I won't bore you with a disquisition on that). More lists and more data follow, including some genre breakdowns, so I won't go into that now.

Sexual orientation isn't an identity, nor for that matter is ethnic heritage. It mystifies me that people seem to care about shit like that. I come out of a working class background, and retain much of that. I went through an intensely patriotic phase when I was very young, which was shattered when I realized what the US government policy really meant. I also went through an intensely religious phase (fundamentalist christian, Disciples of Christ) when I was very young, which was also shattered when I realized that a great many religious people were hypocrites and fools. My education can be described as "some college," although it mostly comes from reading and experience. I had a strong interest and inclination when I was very young to become a scientist, which was foiled by my experiences in the public education system -- in particular by a particularly vile 9th grade science teacher. I have been employed in the printing industry and as a software engineer, but haven't been "gainfully employed" in the last three years -- I'm basically a charity case for my wife, much like her cats. I am, in short, a cranky old man. But I figure I'd be a lot crankier if I didn't listen to so much music.

As the year developed, I kept three ranked lists of records: new, compilations/vault music, and reissues. Compilations, vault music, and reissues have been my business this past year, so I take an expansive view of just what qualifies. Vault music is old music that hasn't been released before, at least not in a form that might have been noticed. Compilations rearrange or repackage old stuff, but in new form. Reissues are not just old music, they keep much of the form of previous issues. The list below is somewhat integrated: new music + vault music + compilations that actually add something significant to our understanding of the music, but probably not any reissues (unless they are really expanded). The choice of which old music to include is rather arbitrary: in general, I left out perfectly good reissues of music I already knew about -- or, in cases like Mildred Bailey and Dave Brubeck, should have known about.

  1. Buck 65: Talkin' Honky Blues (WEA Canada) [20]
  2. William Parker Violin Trio: Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear) [12]
  3. Kelis: Tasty (Star Trak/Arista) [10]
  4. Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba (1974-76, Honest Jons) [10]
  5. Lyrics Born: Later That Day . . . (Quannum Projects) [8]
  6. King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74, Shanachie) [8]
  7. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear) [8]
  8. Amy Rigby: Til the Wheels Fall Off (Signature Sounds) [8]
  9. Akrobatik: Balance (Coup D'Etat) [8]
  10. When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (1928-40, Bluebird) [8]

  11. Gene Ammons: Fine and Mellow (1972, Prestige)
  12. William Parker Trio: . . . And William Danced (Ayler '02)
  13. The Guitar and Gun: Highlife Music From Ghana (1981-84, Stern's/Earthworks)
  14. Paal Nilssen-Love/Ken Vandermark: Dual Pleasure (Smalltown Supersound)
  15. Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artemis)
  16. Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble: Exile (Enja/Justin Time)
  17. Kings of Highlife: The Vibrant Music of West Africa (Wrasse)
  18. Hillbilly Boogie (1939-51, Proper '02, 4CD)
  19. The Bad Plus: These Are the Vistas (Columbia)
  20. Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations (ECM)
  21. High Explosion: DJ Sounds From 1970 to 1976 (1970-76, Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD)
  22. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West)
  23. NOFX: War on Errorism (Fat Wreck)
  24. Al Green: I Can't Stop (Blue Note)
  25. William Parker Clarinet Trio: Bob's Pink Cadillac (Eremite '02, 2CD)
  26. Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music (1923-39, Trikont)
  27. Triple R: Friends (Kompakt '02)
  28. Chris Knight: The Jealous Kind (Dualtone)
  29. Roy Haynes: Love Letters (Eighty-Eights/Columbia)
  30. Lifesavas: Spirit in Stone (Quannum Projects)
  31. Abdoulaye N'Diaye: Taoué (Justin Time)
  32. Bettye Lavette: A Woman Like Me (Blues Express)
  33. Jean Grae: The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP (Babygrande)
  34. The Big Horn (1942-52, Proper, 4CD)
  35. DJ Wally: Nothing Stays the Same (Thirsty Ear)
  36. Anders Gahnold: Flowers for Johnny (1983-85, Ayler, 2CD)
  37. Ludacris: Chicken-N-Beer (Def Jam South)
  38. Electric Six: Fire (XL)
  39. Kimya Dawson: My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess (Important)
  40. Timbaland & Magoo: Under Construction Part II (Blackground/Universal)
  41. Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears (Lost Highway)
  42. Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (1970, Columbia/Legacy, 5CD)
  43. James Blood Ulmer: No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (Hyena)
  44. The Rough Guide to Highlife (World Music Network)
  45. Arabesque Tlata 3 (1988-2002, React)
  46. Rancid: Indestructible (Hellcat)
  47. Globalista: Import-Export (Trikont '02)
  48. June Carter Cash: Wildwood Flower (Dualtone)
  49. Stan Getz: Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions (1989, Verve)
  50. Trojan Box Set: Nyahbinghi (1968-75, Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD)
  51. King Sunny Ade: Synchro Series (1982-83, IndigeDisc)
  52. Panjabi MC: Beware (Sequence)
  53. Fannypack: So Stylistic (Tommy Boy)
  54. McEnroe: Disenfranchised (Peanuts & Corn)
  55. Russendisko: Hits (Trikont)
  56. Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (Matador)
  57. Kid Koala: Some of My Best Friends Are DJ's (Ninja Tune)
  58. Zu: Igneo (Amanita '02)
  59. Pink: Try This (La Face)
  60. Dino Saluzzi: Responsorium (ECM)
  61. David Murray Latin Big Band: Now Is Another Time (Justin Time)
  62. Vandermark 5: Airports for Light (Atavistic)
  63. Andrew Barker, Matthew Shipp, Charles Waters: Apostolic Polyphony (Drimala)
  64. Black & Proud: The Soul of the Black Panther Era, Vol. 1 (1969-97, Trikont '02)
  65. Missy Elliott: This Is Not a Test (Gold Mind/Elektra)
  66. Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)
  67. Brigitte DeMeyer: Nothing Comes Free (BDM)
  68. Ndala Kasheba: Yellow Card (Limitless Sky '02)
  69. Cooper-Moore, Tom Abbs, Chad Taylor: Triptych Myth (Hopscotch)
  70. Murs: . . . The End of the Beginning (Definitive Jux)
  71. The Klezmatics: Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder)
  72. Clark Terry & Max Roach: Friendship (Eighty-Eights/Columbia)
  73. Merle Haggard: Like Never Before (Hag)
  74. Nada Surf: Let Go (Barsuk '02)
  75. Aceyalone: Love & Hate (Project Blowed)
  76. Steinski's Burning Out of Control: The Sugarhill Mix (Antidote)
  77. The Jaki Byard Quartet With Joe Farrell: The Last From Lennie's (1965, Prestige)
  78. Mutant Disco: A Subtle Dislocation of the Norm (1978-82, ZE, 2CD)
  79. Best of Koffi Olomide (Next Music, 2CD)
  80. Dominic Duval, Mark Whitecage: Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 (Drimala)
  81. Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in the 70's (1966-77, Soundway)
  82. Bill Cole: Seasoning the Greens (Boxholder '02)
  83. The Bottle Rockets: Blue Sky (Sanctuary)
  84. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Pig Lib (Matador)
  85. EG Kight: Southern Comfort (Blue South)
  86. Jemeel Moondoc Trio: Live at Glenn Miller Café Vol. 1 (Ayler '02)
  87. Flying Groove (1963-75, Bluebird)
  88. Reverend Charlie Jackson: God's Got It: The Legendary Booker and Jackson Singles (1970-78, CaseQuarter)
  89. Dope and Glory: Reefer Songs der 30er und 40er Jahre (1925-47, Trikont '02, 2CD)
  90. Andrew Hill: Passing Ships (1969, Blue Note)
  91. Bill Evans: Getting Sentimental (1978, Milestone)
  92. Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin)
  93. Daughter: Skin (Aum Fidelity)
  94. Watch How the People Dancing: Unity Sounds From the London Dancehall, 1986-1989 (1986-89, Honest Jons '02)
  95. FAB: Fonda-Altschul-Bang: Transforming the Space (CIMP)
  96. Pet Shop Boys: Disco 3 (Sanctuary)
I started this list with 52 new albums, which is down from 62 at this time last year (77 by the time I stopped counting). Then I added some old music that strikes me as worth counting among the new -- not the obvious James Brown and Al Green reissues, but things that haven't been previously released or easily available, and compilations that shed fresh light on old music. And I've also added a few 2002 releases that I not only didn't get to until 2003, that I hadn't even heard of during the 2002 wrap-up period. Those more than make up for the short fall in new albums. To break down last year's and this year's lists by genre and new/old status:

Genre'02 New'02 Old'03 New'03 OldChange
Rock Bands120100-2

This isn't a huge difference, but I see several reasons for arguing that there's been a drop-off in quality in new music this year:

  1. The new records on this year's list are a lot more obscure than the new ones on the 2002 list. The shift toward jazz it evidence all by itself, but within most categories there is a shift to more obscure artists. Probably the biggest single thing that has driven this shift is that I've gotten a lot of these obscurities free. (I would never have found DeMeyer and Kight if they hadn't shown up in the mail. I only bought 7 of the 23 jazz albums.)

  2. If one sticks to the new records lists, I think that at almost every rank point a one-on-one comparison favors the 2002 record. I won't bother to list those comparison points, since they're only really meaningful to me, but I will note that in 2002 I had 16 records (probably an all-time high) graded A or A+, vs. 3 this year. Matthew Shipp's Nu Bop came in #18 in 2002 (my #2 A- record), while his Equilibrium came in #5 this year (skipping oldies Brooks and Ade, again my #2 A- record). This sort of slip at the top affects everything below it, but it's worth noting that most of the slip is at the top. There's nothing comparable this year to the Mekons or Youssou N'Dour or Spoon or Van Morrison (unless the new one I haven't heard is a lot better than everyone says).

  3. Even though I've been concentrating more on oldies and on jazz this year -- I've heard a lot more of both -- I've also read a lot more rock press this year, and I've heard at least samples of almost everything that's been touted. (Admittedly, I have bought less, and brief samples aren't always adequate to judge by.) So I don't think my coverage of new non-jazz records has diminished much from 2002 -- not enough to have an effect as significant as the one observed.

That much said, I think it is the case that my work patterns this year have had an effect on my ability to sort this list out. In particular:

  1. My time has been monopolized by listening to old music -- the Rolling Stone Record Guide work chewed up 2-3 months all by itself, and I still have a big back-queue of oldies for Recycled Goods. Proof of this is that I still have 2002 items that I picked up post-P&J and have yet to get to: e.g., Badly Drawn Boy, Bright Eyes, El-P, Joe Zawinul. One consequence of this is that I very rarely give a new record a chance to grow on me -- OutKast, which I have as a high B+, is the obvious example, but Warren Zevon and Al Green (#9 and #14 on my new-only list, as I write this) are other snap judgment examples.

  2. I've also cut back on buying new records -- especially ones that I'm real unlikely to write about, like hip-hop and electronica (probably my real pleasure centers at this point). Moreover, my main source for used records went bankrupt, and I haven't travelled to places where I could shop. I could go through my hyped list and easily flag a 20-30 things that I would've picked up used if I had the chance. (On the other hand, I bought some heavily hyped things on deep first week sales, figuring that they'd never be cheaper -- White Stripes, Strokes, OutKast, Pink, etc.) On the other hand, I've gotten a lot of stuff in the mail. (The actual breakdown of 54 new records is: purchased new [22], purchased used [10], promo [18], loaners [4]; factoring the old music in will probably increase the promo percentage. So maybe new purchases are up a bit, but used are way down. But both cost money, which makes one reluctant to take chances.)

  3. One other reason I can think of for the drop in the new records list is the rock and jazz press that I depend on for info. I've read the press more regularly this year than any time since the '70s, so my sense of what's new/important is mostly formed by what other people are saying. And I'm becoming increasingly suspicious that both: a) the coverage misses a lot, and b) the writers aren't very good at covering what they do cover. Business has a lot to do with this -- in particular, the first week phenomenon makes it hard to build any sort of critical consensus (takes too long, and the marketeers lose control). But also the critic system doesn't scale well, which will be a growing problem from now on.

Summing these points up, I have two theories: 1) The amount of good new music in the universe is probably expanding at a relatively constant rate -- more this year than last, more last than the year before, etc. It may be harder to find, harder to sort out, etc., but it's out there somewhere. And the trend will continue until civilization collapses, which is unlikely (unless Bush gets re-elected). 2) The high end of 2002's list -- the deepest concentration of really good records that I can recall -- was just a fluke: the combination of a slight increase in seriousness and worldliness (9/11 retroflection) and the fact that I was ready and available to sort it out. 2003 may be a slightly sub-normal year -- the 9/11 focus faded, new tragic events a long wearying grind -- but not really far out of line.

For bookkeeping purposes, the A-listed reissues arbitrarily omitted from the above list were:

  1. James Brown: In the Jungle Groove (1969-72, Polydor)
  2. Duke Ellington's Far East Suite (1966, Bluebird)
  3. Al Green: I'm Still in Love With You (1972, Right Stuff/Hi)
  4. Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (1940-42, Bluebird, 3CD)
  5. The Incomparable Mildred Bailey (1933-42, Columbia/Legacy)
  6. Rhythm Love and Soul: The Sexiest Songs of R&B (1958-81, Shout!, 3CD)
  7. Al Green: Let's Stay Together (1972, Right Stuff/Hi)
  8. Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (Abkco)
  9. The Essential Dave Brubeck (1949-2002, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD)
  10. Bill Monroe: Anthology (1950-81, MCA Nashville/Decca, 2CD)
  11. Mildred Bailey: Mrs. Swing (1929-42, Proper, 4CD)
  12. Johnny Hodges: The Jeep Is Jumpin' (1937-52, Proper, 4CD)
  13. Sam Rivers: Fuschia Swing Song (1964, Blue Note)
  14. Bill Withers: Still Bill (1972, Columbia/Legacy)
  15. New Order: Retro (1981-2002, London, 4CD)
  16. Ben Webster: Soulville (1957, Verve)
  17. Al Green: Gets Next to You (1970, Right Stuff/Hi)
  18. Count Basie: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years (1936-50, Columbia/Legacy, 3CD)
  19. Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come (Deluxe Edition) (1968-72, Hip-O/Island, 2CD)
  20. Parliament: Mothership Connection (1976, Mercury/Chronicles)
  21. Lee Konitz: Motion (1961, Verve)
  22. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Deluxe Edition) (1977-80, Mercury/Chronicles, 2CD)
  23. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Reactor (1981, Reprise)
  24. The Essential Willie Nelson (1961-2003, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD)
  25. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis Again (1957, Verve, 2CD)
  26. Black Uhuru: Red (1981, Island/Chronicles)
  27. Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan: Two of a Mind (1962, Bluebird)
  28. Thelonious Monk: It's Monk's Time (1964, Columbia/Legacy)
  29. The Best That Ever Was: The Legendary Early Blues Performers (Yazoo)
  30. Neil Young: On the Beach (1974, Reprise)
  31. The Essential Sly & the Family Stone (Epic/Legacy)
  32. Burning Spear: Social Living (1978-80, Island)
  33. Merle Travis: Hot Pickin' (1943-52, Proper, 2CD)
  34. James Brown: Motherlode (1967-76, Polydor)
  35. Roger Miller: All Time Greatest Hits (1964-85, Mercury/Chronicles)
  36. Lou Reed: NYC Man: The Collection (1967-2002, RCA/BMG Heritage, 2CD)
  37. Toots & the Maytals: Funky Kingston / In the Dark (Island)
  38. Slim Gaillard: Laughing in Rhythm (1937-52, Proper, 4CD)
  39. Soul Eyes: The Mal Waldron Memorial Album (1955-62, Prestige)
  40. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Organisation (1980, Virgin)
  41. Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (1980, Reprise)
  42. Humphrey Lyttelton: Snag It! (1948-52, ASV)
  43. Earl Hines: Once Upon a Time (1966, Impulse/Verve)
  44. Gato Barbieri: Bolivia (1971-73, Bluebird)
  45. Neil Young: American Stars and Bars (1977, Reprise)
  46. Junior Byles: Beat Down Babylon: The Upsetter Years (1971-74, Sanctuary/Trojan)
  47. Dexter Gordon: Classic Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note, 2CD)
  48. Bud Powell: Parisian Thoroughfares (1957-61, Pablo)
  49. The Essential Byrds (1965-71, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD)
  50. Ultimate Reggae: 20 Classic Reggae Riddims! (UTV)
  51. Thelonious Monk: Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia (1965, Hyena)
  52. First Steps: First Recordings From the Creators of Modern Jazz (1944-53, Savoy Jazz)
  53. The Amazing Bud Powell: The Scene Changes (1958, Blue Note)
  54. The Isley Brothers: 3 + 3 (1973, Epic/Legacy)
  55. The Incomparable Ethel Waters (1925-40, Columbia/Legacy)
  56. Memphis Minnie: Me and My Chauffeur (1929-44, Proper, 2CD)
  57. Flatt & Scruggs: The Complete Mercury Recordings (Mercury)
  58. Jimi Hendrix: Live at Berkeley (1970, Experience Hendrix)
  59. Dillinger: The Ultimate Collection (1974-80, Hip-O/Island)
  60. Lefty Frizzell: Country Favorites / Saginaw Michigan (Collectables)
  61. Stuff Smith: Time and Again (1936-45, Proper, 2CD)
  62. The Stanley Brothers: The Complete Mercury Recordings (1953-58, Mercury/Chronicles, 2CD)
  63. Sam Cooke: Sam Cooke at the Copa (1964, Abkco)
  64. Thelonious Monk: Criss-Cross (1962-63, Columbia/Legacy)
  65. Max Romeo: Ultimate Collection (1970-77, Hip-O/Island)
  66. Willie Nelson: Broken Promises (1960-66, Proper, 2CD)
  67. Archie Shepp: Attica Blues (1972, Impulse)
  68. Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (1959, Verve)
  69. The Essential Thelonious Monk (1962-68, Columbia/Legacy)
  70. Pee Wee Russell: Ask Me Now! (1965, Impulse)
  71. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980, Virgin)
  72. The Best of Donna Summer (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection) (1975-83, Mercury)
  73. Junior Murvin: Police and Thieves (Island)
  74. The Essential Ricky Skaggs (1979-88, Epic/Legacy)
  75. Mott the Hoople: Greatest Hits (1972-75, Columbia/Legacy)

Here's one more list: the A+ and A records from my notebook in 2003, excluding anything released in 2002 or later. The idea here is to get a list of belated discoveries. I don't know how to rank these within grades, so I'll present this as three alphabetized lists:

Louis Menand recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker about year-end top-ten lists. He concedes that they are a necessity -- didn't even say "necessary evil" (my thanks for that): given the sheer quantity of music out there, consumers do need all the help they can get to identify a small subset particularly worth their time and dollars. But he also noted that multiple lists in papers like the New York Times and Washington Post show no agreement in their published lists, which he felt invalidated them. He also identified certain habitual quirks: mainstream reviews who feel compelled to insert a single foreign film in their list, or more outré reviewers who feel compelled to supplemen their favored obscurities with one box office smash. And looking at my list, sure enough, there's exactly one record in the top ten with any sort of popular currency (Kelis, Tasty). This wasn't by design -- except to the extent that adding three albums of old music (two that had never previously been released in the US, and another of Great Depression songs, few of which had been anthologized since) managed to bump Warren Zevon off the list. (But they also bumped an avant-garde jazz drums/sax duo on a Norwegian label that was an order of magnitude more obscure than anything that did make the list.)

So, for what it's worth, I'd like to present my "Circuit City Top Ten" list -- the top ten records from my list that can probably be purchased at Circuit City. (I'm not going to go out and validate this, but I'm probably close to the mark. A Best Buy list would be a bit longer -- in particular, it would include Lyrics Born and Akrobatik from the top ten. A Borders list would add more jazz -- maybe even Thirsty Ear.)

  1. Kelis: Tasty (Star Trak/Arista)
  2. Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artemis)
  3. The Bad Plus: These Are the Vistas (Columbia)
  4. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West)
  5. NOFX: War on Errorism (Fat Wreck)
  6. Al Green: I Can't Stop (Blue Note)
  7. Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears (Lost Highway)
  8. Ludacris: Chicken-N-Beer (Def Jam South)
  9. Panjabi MC: Beware (Sequence)
  10. Rancid: Indestructible (Hellcat)

That gets you down to #45 on the main list. Those are all real good records. I'm less certain about the order, or that other things that missed the cutoff (Yo La Tengo, Fannypack, Pink, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, or even high-B+ OutKast) wouldn't have slid onto such a list with a little more attention. [Note: I came up with a slightly different list for my Static "Top Ten" piece -- shifting the order a bit, dropping Bad Plus (already on my jazz list), sneaking in Electric Six, and adding Johnny Cash out-of-order.]

Still, I think that Menand missed one important aspect to year-end listmaking. When a critic lists an obscurity that's often not an effort to sway the consensus; rather, it's an invitation to share a personal, overlooked pleasure. When I read a critic's list, I do two things: 1) use the ratings of things that I'm familiar with to estimate whether I think the critic is going to be useful for me; and 2) if the critic seems worthwhile, I look at the unfamiliar items and consider investigating them further. Sure, it's possible that this is done to show off -- e.g., to show how far one will go to bring back precious loot. But there's also some basic economic theory behind this: critics, like products, may want to differentiate themselves.

What Menand seems to be asking for is a consensus-seeking process. The Pazz & Jop poll tries to have it both ways: by printing each critic's individual ballot they encourage differentiation, while by summing them all up they try to reach consensus. I doubt that this actually works very well, because the two approaches cancel each other out. I think that there are two big problems here:

  1. Limiting the ballots to 10 records means that you're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Even as early as 1971 Christgau listed 30 albums on his "Dean's List." Some interesting records that missed his top ten were: Al Green Gets Next to You, the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, David Bowie's Hunky Dory, the Move's Message From the Country, and Tom T. Hall's In Search of a Song. The first three are albums that damn near any critic working then would have heard and had an opinion on, but chopping the list off at ten deprives us of that opinion. On the other hand, the latter two are non-mainstream albums that most critics are unlikely to have heard, but are treasured by many who have heard them.
  2. The poll makes no effort to determine the sample size for the records that are listed. There are two reasons for not voting for any given record: 1) you've heard it and don't think it's good enough, or 2) you've never heard it. The poll doesn't differentiate between those two reasons, but the difference is important. The net effect is that the poll results are significantly skewed by how many people have heard each record. You can't measure consensus unless you have some sort of measure of the sample size.

There are also numerous small problems, such as inconsistent voting strategies and interest levels. I think the 30 vote maximum is too high, although the sheer number of voters undercuts the damage there. And one always winds up wondering about the qualifications of some voters. And non-voters: despite the name virtually no jazz critics are invited (not even Giddins). I doubt that demographic info would help much, but I'd like to know how some votes split between, say, voters who have heard fewer than 10 rap records and those who have heard more than 30.

A bigger problem than that is the sheer arbitrariness of the year as the unit of (re-)evaluation. I know that I'll be finding out about 2003 releases for much of 2004 -- especially the next three months. This year last minute cramming helped goose up the list, but I feel much more secure about records that I've lived with for several months than things like Missy Elliott and Basement Jaxx, which have been in heavy rotation for 3-5 days now. The only way to do any real consensus building -- the sort of thing that Menand is looking for -- is to reiterate the poll: do some test polls early, and a final iteration a few months later. (The Grammys deal with this problem by shifting the year off-calendar, and they probably make a real effort to let all of the voters to hear everything after the nominees are selected. Of course, the Grammys have their own problems -- some having to do with the likelihood that consensus isn't all that great a goal in a world fragmenting like crazy.)

Having written about almost everything on my list, I'm having trouble adding anything here. Some miscellaneous comments:

We've seen more talk about prices coming down this year, but I haven't seen much actual effect. In particular, I haven't seen any indication that Universal has dropped its prices on anything. What I have seen are some price drops from real small labels who mostly sell through their websites. I've also seen a lot less price lowballing to try to break new acts: only one I can think of that I bought regular price for less than $10 was Electric Six.

Most likely, part of the problem is the concentration of the vendors, and their own pricing strategies. Best Buy, which is probably the biggest vendor out here, usually sells $18.98 list albums for $13.98, but they sell the $14.98 list Shins for $14.98. What that smells like is that they're getting kickbacks elsewhere. This year Best Buy has really pushed a scam where they discount new records for first week only -- the deepest one was Erykah Badu for $5.98, which popped up to $9.98 after a week. This helps the record companies get a big first week launch on the charts, and no doubt also gets Best Buy a big discount. For consumers, you figure you're not going to get a better deal later -- in fact, around here it's rare to find the album used later for less -- but it's too early to know whether the record is worth buying. I bought OutKast, White Stripes, Strokes, some other stuff like that, while I passed on others that I would have bought at the discounted price had I known then what I know now (e.g., Badu, Missy Elliott).

The single most significant thing on the music business front this year was Bronfman's purchase of WEA for, what, $1.3 billion. This puts an embarrassingly high valuation on a business that claims it is desperately in need of anti-piracy protection, following years of notoriously red ink. I don't know how you'd break down the assets in such a company, but it seems likely that most of it comes from exploitation of existing catalog. This is ever so reminiscent of major league baseball teams -- which notoriously lose money while appreciating tenfold in twenty years. Of course, that's another business that the Bronfmans know something about.

Last year I trotted out a list of 37 books read during the 16 months following the WTC collapse (including 7 relevant ones read earlier). My reading has continued along the same direction. Sometimes I feel like this is a waste, and I should just drop trying to understand the world and settle into something fictional like Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses. Literature always feels to me like a silly luxury.

The following list is a post-facto reconstruction. Wish I had better notes, both to get the order right and be certain that I haven't missed anything.

  1. Clifton Daniel, ed., 20th Century Day by Day -- big DK reference book, basically a chronology with newspaper clippings. This was meant to be a reference for a "century of war" project -- starts with the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion, and hardly lets up from there.
  2. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America -- the bestseller.
  3. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost -- on the Belgian King's Congo Free State, Leopold's political machinations to establish a private colony of absolute plunder, and a worldwide campaign against him.
  4. Joan Didion, Political Fictions -- interesting discussion of US politics from Reagan onward.
  5. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East -- an attempt to blamed the supposed backwardness of the Middle East on their religion and culture. All the more reason to conquer them, my dear.
  6. David Keys, Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization -- rather speculative ancient history, tracking a series of worldwide changes from the 6th-8th century which are attributed to a massive volcano-induced environmental disruption.
  7. Jedediah Purdy, Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World -- flawed liberal take on America's post-9/11 folly.
  8. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power -- useful catalog of frequent US "gunboat diplomacy," including important material on the Philippine rebellion, followed by dubious military philosophy, aimed to promote more of the same. Boot has been a big Iraq war hawk.
  9. Gerald Colby with Charlotte Dennett, Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil -- big book, out of print, astonishingly sweeping saga of how the cold war was fought in Latin America, the unity of Rockefeller's political and financial careers, and the peculiar links to evangelists.
  10. Tom Carson, Gilligan's Wake -- did manage to read one novel in the last three years; structured as the back story to the tv show, I see it as a long meditation on the rot of the soul in the USA, but wonder why he cuts Bob Dole so much slack.
  11. Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Requires a Pagan Ethos -- more dubious philosophizing, from the outstanding journalist, evil Iraq war hawk, and probable spy.
  12. Noam Chomsky, Middle East Illusions -- mostly written in the '70s, when he was a fresher, better writer, and the subject was more intimately personal to him, which comes through.
  13. Tanya Reinhardt, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 -- best description I've read to date of the nature of Israel's anti-intifada.
  14. Roan Carey and Jonathan Shanin, eds., The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent -- short pieces by a wide range of Israelis, including an important dissection of Israel's "matrix of control" by Jeff Halper, and Uri Avneri's frozen lake metaphor.
  15. Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians -- extends and complements Reinhardt's analysis; not as much on Sharon as you'd expect.
  16. Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 2nd Ed. -- dissections of various Israeli arguments, including the Joan Peters book, the nakba refugees, the 1967 war, etc.
  17. Charles Enderlin, Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002 -- meticulous timeline of the "peace process" negotiations and their failures, which reluctantly corroborates much of Reinhardt and Kimmerling.
  18. Stephen Zunes, Tinderbox -- critique of US policy in middle east, particularly use of Israel as "strategic asset"; I find this (and Chomsky's similar arguments) not especially convincing, although I've come to the conclusion that there are convincing arguments elsewhere.
  19. Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon -- a long one that I haven't really tackled yet -- just used as a reference, which barely scratches the surface; but the way things are going it's only going to get more relevant, even if the neocons never get the chance to repeat Israel's adventure.
  20. Dilip Hiro, The Essential Middle East -- useful reference book, only used as such.
  21. R. Stephen Humphreys, Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age -- older, more general book on how westerners systematically misunderstand the Arab world.
  22. Reg Theriault, The Unmaking of the American Working Class -- the retired longshoreman, a highly personal account of the title subject.
  23. Walter Mosley, What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace -- best as a memoir, about his father in and out of WWII.
  24. Shibley Telhami, The Stakes: America and the Middle East -- relies a lot on polling data to make points that should be obvious.
  25. Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America -- best on the contributor-friendly deregulation and nonenforcement issues.
  26. Michael Moore, Dude, Where's My Country? -- best on the disassociation of politics from personal interest that lets these crooks get into office.
  27. Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents -- could use better explanations of the underlying economics, which he is presumably a master of, and long on rants against the IMF, which probably deserves them.
  28. Dan Savage, Skipping Toward Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America -- good dissection of morality as revealed by Bennett, Bork, et al., wrapped up in an otherwise sloppy book.
  29. Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq -- usual critique of US war machine, useful primarily for highlighting the role of propaganda (err, public relations) in same.
  30. Bernard Wasserstein, Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City, 2nd Ed. -- very solid book specifically on Jerusalem, including the Ottoman-era capitulations which set up Christian interests in the city, and the post-1967 efforts to secure Jerusalem as permanently Israeli; a lot of material rarely covered elsewhere.
  31. Baruch Kimmerling & Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People: A History -- again, I've just dabbled in this as a reference, but it seems solid and useful.
  32. Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering -- mostly on the shakedown of the Swiss banks, noting how nothing similar has happened with US banks, which are probably every bit as culpable.
  33. Ian Black & Benny Morris, Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services -- just read the early parts, which strike me as inadequate, particularly regarding the use of the Mossad to promote Arab-Jewish immigration.
  34. Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People -- makes an important argument, much longer and harder than should be necessary.
A couple of things started but not finished are: Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Ingenuity Gap; Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World.

I don't remember when this was -- probably in the late '80s before the previous Bush launched the previous war against Iraq -- but I do remember it dawning on me that it had been a long time since I thought about the Vietnam War, and that it was really a relief not to have that yoke on our necks any more. I grew up during that war -- I was 19 when the war and draft peaked, unemployed, out of school, just the sort of guy my draft board figured to be most expendable -- and it totally shaped (some might say warped) my views of America and the world. Obviously, the biggest thing that happened in 2003 was that we no longer have the luxury of thinking of Vietnam as history.