Pazz & Jop Comments: 2004

Started these comments before Xmas 2004, but after writing the first long political section they sat for a couple of weeks. Never really got back into it, and 'most everything else is just brain dump.

I live in the bruised blue bullseye in the heart of Kansas. If you draw a circle with a three-mile radius centered on the intersection of Broadway and Douglas in downtown Wichita, you'd delimit a solidly Democratic urban area. Few houses in that area were built after 1950, and not many houses beyond that line were built before 1950. Wichita officially leans Republican, thanks to the vast sprawl of annexed suburban sprawl to the east and west, with their gated residential complexes, office parks, strip malls and mega-churches. Most of the business here is conducted around the urban periphery: the aircraft plants were all built in once-open fields, formerly in-town factories like Coleman have moved out of town, as have the office complexes -- most notably the dark fortress that headquarters Koch Industries. Space is one thing Kansas has always had in abundance, so it isn't a big surprise that we waste so much of it. Or more precisely, we throw away what has been used in order to use more.

It turns out that the frontier in America hasn't closed. The new frontier is the fringe of our urban sprawl. People move there, much as they have since the founding of the U.S.A., to build new lives, and to escape from old lives. And they create wealth in the process, in this case converting farmland to roads and offices and stores and modern residential complexes. Nothing differentiates America from the old world more than the sense of living on the frontier. We get much of our identify from the frontier, but what matters most is that we find in the frontier a fountain of wealth. America became the richest nation in the world by mining its resources, and that same tactic continues to work today -- at least for some people -- even when the resource is mere space. The attraction of suburbia may be that it is close enough to the resources of the city but still apart from the city, but the payoff is that it becomes its own self-enclosed, self-selected settlement. The people who move there may have all sorts of motivations: they may fear the city, or see new opportunities, or maybe they just like the feel of living where everything is so new and squeaky clean. But they carry with them the ideology of the frontier, the deepest fount of patriotism in America, and when they move they bond with new neighbors who believe in much the same thing, and as they do so they lose their bonds with their old community, with the city. Between 1960-1966 a little less than half of our close neighbors moved, mostly to the edge of town, mostly for no better reason than they wanted larger houses. (We, and several others who stayed, built on.) Before they moved there was little to mark the movers as being different from the stickers, but after they moved they became different. This process has gone on long enough that there are really three Wichitas: the old town and the sprawls to the east and west.

Similar dynamics occur in most cities in America, with a few significant variations. Cities with very strong centers (New York, Chicago, San Francisco) can continue to thrive without noticing the drain of the suburbs. In other cities the drain is felt but more or less counterbalanced by urban movements, including (but not limited to) gentrification. Wichita has a weak center, so the risk is that the core city will become little more than a low-rent residential area for the suburban dynamos. Even now we have to leave the old town area for movies, most shopping, many restaurants, but Wichita is small enough that's not much of a practical problem. Conversely, there is little reason for the exurbans to ever leave their edge of town. They become ever more isolated, and their isolation has much to do with their drift to the political right.

One of the lessons of the 2004 elections is that the deep divisions within America are not just a matter of political heritage, of race, and of class -- they are reinforced in the physical spaces we inhabit. Living in the bullseye I can safely say that almost none of the people I know and deal with regularly, and very few of my neighbors, fell for George W. Bush. On the other hand, there are vast tracts where the opposite was the case. If the necessary political task is to somehow break through to those people, I'd have to say that the prospects are gloomy. For one thing, the demographic trends work against us. Even so, how can we break through to communicate with them? Communication depends on common language and values, and we have little of either. I may have a slight advantage over your typical concerned New Yorker in that I can see and almost touch their world, but the barrier is still huge, and probably insurmountable -- at least by argument.

One reason Bush won this election is that his world -- not the world he lives in, but the one his people know how to manipulate -- is bigger than we can imagine. That world is not only large; it is isolated from and fortified against our world -- a world we consider to be real because it acknowledges facts, like finite resources and increasing worldwide poverty, that Bush's bubble world denies. For simplicity's sake, let's call this bubble world the Bushwelt -- we might as well admit that Bush has earned the honor. From our point of view, it is obvious that the Bushwelt's days are numbered. We can't predict exactly which catastrophe will hit so severely that it will shake the faithful, but the catastrophes have queued up already, and odds are that there are more that we haven't sized up yet. For one thing, U.S. power to dominate the world is waning -- military power undermined by arrogant overreach and incompetence, and more importantly economic power surrendered to global capital while marginalizing labor and undermining education. Moreover, many resources are finite, and even if there are enough to go around, they can be monopolized and manipulated to create uncomfortable shortages. Bush policies to weaken government and empower capital make us all the more vulnerable to market squeezes -- the health care racket is a good example -- and all the more powerless to correct them, or any other disaster. The latter could come from terrorism or crime, but could just as well come from incompetence. And the wreckless despoiling of the environment raises a number of truly scary worst case scenarios. But four years of Bush rule, which were more than most of us could stand, doesn't seem to have phased Bushwelt at all. Sure, the war on terrorism hasn't gone as well as one might hope, and the economy's hit some rough spots, but they don't blame Bush for that.

Looking at the Bushwelt outside of the Wichita bullseye gives us a bit of relevant data, if not necessarily insight. Wichita's economy took a big immediate hit after 9/11: the biggest industry here is aircraft manufacture, and people just weren't anxious to get onto airplanes at the time. But 9/11 wasn't Bush's fault -- at least that's what most people say, including many who can't stand the man. And the aircraft industry slowly recovered: part due to increased military spending, part because businesses could work around airport hassles by operating their own private planes. The latter happened because the Fed kept interest rates down at record low levels, and because businesses under Bush were able to recover their profit levels faster than workers could improve their wages. The low interest rates were also key to a building boom, which all took place on the fringe of the city. Moreover, people with high mortgages could refinance giving them a boost in net income, while more renters could afford to buy. People who didn't lose their jobs and could take advantage of the low interest rates actually did better during the recession. People with a lot of stocks had some problems, but Bush's tax cuts kept them in line. Consequently, while the core city suffered job losses and givebacks to business, the burbs made out better, and the votes split accordingly.

As for the wars, the American body count that we find so senseless and horrifying is really just a drop in the bucket. There is a big military presence here, and most people connected to the military took the losses in stride -- indeed, few were directly affected. Perhaps more significant, the military is an ordered life with a strong culturally reinforced faith in its mission. The prospect that the President of the U.S. would send soldiers to die for duplicitous political purposes is one that few in the military can fathom. They have a powerful need to believe that their sacrifices are justified, and as such they cling to rationales that those of us not so invested have no trouble discarding. The same sort of thing is true of most of the people who voted for Bush in 2000; conversely, those of us who voted against him have little trouble recognizing that he is a liar, a prig, a coward, a scoundrel, a fool, a fraud, a bloodthirsty little tyrant.

The role of religion in all this isn't obvious. Religion has at best a checkered history, with pious people firmly arrayed on both sides of virtually every issue -- most conspicuously those of war and peace, freedom and equality. The simplest thing that one can say is that religion concentrates conviction, including those that come from non-religious sources. Bush's religion is certainly central to his political success, not so much because any significant number of Americans believe what he believes -- that the state exists to serve the rich, that might makes right, that war is liberating, that freedom comes from the barrel of a gun -- as because we cut the pious a lot of slack. Bush's born again conversion excuses a youth of indolence and destruction, his humility before his rubberstamping God gives him a cloak of ordinariness contrary to his aristocratic privileges, his skill at reducing complex political problems to clearcut moral choices masks his ignorance of causes and arrogance of solutions. For all his signifying, Bush doesn't seem to have much of a religion, but what he does say about it plays well in the Bushwelt, where more often than not religion merely sanctifies fear and loathing.

Throughout history people under stress have turned to religion: for solace, for a haven, sometimes to fight back. Why the Bushwelt should be so stressed isn't obvious. Presumably it isn't the list of impending catastrophes mentioned above -- those are the sort of things that they are neatly isolated from. Nor is terrorism a realistic threat to their world. Rather, they seem to hoard a long litany of grudges. One suspects that the one they find most awkward to talk about (civil rights) is deeply buried at the roots of their angst; that they prefer to vent about homosexuals and "feminazis" is merely more socially respectable. The preachers are very skilled at articulating and exploiting this kind of loathing. Still, even in the Bushwelt religious fervor doesn't go very far. A much broader explanation for their politics is that they detect that their own comfortable status is threatened by an increasingly hostile world everywhere else -- they feel they are targeted by various mixtures of disdain and envy, the urban elites who snub their noses at them and the urban masses who would take what they cannot earn, and the unholy alliance of the two. One reason Bush's explanation of 9/11 resonates so powerfully is that it binds the Bushwelt and Imperial America as one, each taunted by disdain and envy, each determined to survive by imposing our might upon the hostile world.

The big problem with trying to puncture Bushwelt's illusions is that they're probably right. Even if the world isn't exactly out to get them, it seems unlikely that they could sustain their lifestyle indefinitely. Sooner or later the frontier will run out of gas, literally as well as figuratively. Even before that happens the credit could dry up: the U.S. is already the world's worst debtor nation, and Americans are the world's worst debtors. They are likely to run into other problems, but as long as their world remains relatively intact it will be a very difficult task to make an impression on them.

John Kerry lost to Bush by a sufficiently narrow margin that it's easy to point to lots of things that he did wrong or he didn't do right that might have made a difference. He was my least favorite of the four candidates who survived Iowa (I had Dean, Clark, and Edwards ahead of him, in that order), and my gut instinct there seems to have been right: no Massachusetts Democrat was going to have much of a chance. Of course, we don't know how badly the Republicans would have managed to mangle the others. Given the way they handled Kerry the toughest candidate to trip up would have been Clark. But that's assuming that the mission of the Democratic nominee was to out-muscle Bush on the War on Terrorism. Kerry made lots of mistakes -- the line about him starting the campaign by tying his shoelaces together with his Iraq war vote was apropos, but later on he blew it bad when he defended his vote ("knowing what we know now") as the right authorization for a preseident to have, when he could have said that what we know now is not just that Iraq didn't have WMD, but that Bush wasn't a president who could be trusted with a blank check to plunge the country into war. Time and again Kerry came up short: he would criticize Bush's policies and implementations but he never could bring himself to attack Bush personally. The most telling mistake that Kerry made was when he praised Bush's leadership in the days following 9/11. Give him that inch and you give him the election. The facts were that Bush spent most of 9/11 hiding, until his handlers came up with a face and story-line to sell the American people: one that reassured us of our utter lack of responsibility for the attack, and that vowed revenge. He tried to pin the attack on Iraq. He never solved the anthrax events, which evidently came from within the government/military complex. When he did go to war he botched the attack on Al Qaeda, opting for the easier Taliban target and winding up with the basket case that is Afghanistan. He then palmed off that failure as a success to set up an even bigger mess in Iraq. None of which should have been a surprise, given that his acts in the pre-9/11 months not only completely ignored the terrorism threat that had obsessed his predecesor's administration, he had made the terrorists' cause more pressing championing Sharon in Israel and pursuing heavy-handed unilateralism against the rest of the world. Bush's leadership in domestic policies was every bit as flawed: his don't-tax-the-rich program to bankrupt the government, his laissez-faire anti-environmentalism, his industry-written energy program, his giveaways to corporate donors. No president has had a worse first year in office since Herbert Hoover, and Kerry let him off the hook -- blabbering on and on about how he would do a better job of implementing Bush's policies than Bush could do, about how he'd get all that international support, etc. Nothing he said was actually convincing, unless you already realized what a cock up Bush actually was. But the Bushwelt never had a clue, and nothing Kerry said made a dent.

I don't mean to be harsh about Kerry. He ran a competent campaign, and he did a lot of things well. And presumably he had good reasons -- or at least good poll data -- for making the compromises he did. To take one example, I never expected him to criticize Israel, even though Bush's Israel policy is a big part of the problem. In that case I thought he did a good job just to keep quiet and not make matters worse. But in the final analysis he lost, and given his many millions of dollars he's not the guy who's going to wind up paying for his loss. Kerry's loss means four more years with the White House occupied by the enemy. Two more years (probably four) with Congress controlled by the enemy. And God only know how big a hole we just dug in the judiciary. Instead of working on undoing the damage of the last four years, we're stuck now in a rear guard action to limit even more damage. Political disasters happen all over the world, but rarely (if ever) have we been so victimized.

So what does all this have to do with the year in music? Well, this was what the year was all about. The music was almost incidental in comparison. I can't even make the usual statement that at least music got us through the bad times, because what really got us through the first ten months and two days of the year was the expectation of driving a stake through Bush's filthy heart. And not even music made up for the rest of the year.

The big difference this year was that for the first time in my life I listed to a lot of new jazz the year it came out. All of the following stats are subject to change, but as of the moment I have 329 new jazz records on file, plus 109 old jazz records. This compares to 136 new non-jazz records, plus 160 old non-jazz records. If we go back to 2002 (the list was closed around mid-2003) the counts are 30 new jazz, 119 new non-jazz, 10 old jazz, 40 old non-jazz. So over two years we're looking at a 3X increase in the number of new records, shifting from a 1:4 jazz/non-jazz ratio to 3:1, plus a 6X increase in old records, shifting from a 1:5 jazz/non-jazz ratio to 7:8. The net effect of these changes is that I feel exhausted. I'm exposed to a lot more music, which I can spend the same finite time with, so any given piece gets much less attention, and items once they've been rated rarely get replayed. This leads to a softness in the A-list: in past years I would live with favorite albums, but this year all I can do is briefly admire them, leaving me with much softer conviction of their merit.

In 2002 I came up with 77 A- or better new records, of which 13 (17%) were jazz (43% of all new jazz made the list). This year, thus far, I have 89 A- or better, 43 (48%) jazz (13% of all new jazz). Given the distributions above, these figures seem pretty reasonable. Again, it shows that year-end lists are largely influenced by access parameters, and only make much sense if you have an idea what the sample is.

I have another list on my website which has most of the jazz records released in 2004 that I haven't received: 1044 new, 729 old. Add them to my figures above and you get (my cut in parens): 1473 new (22%), 865 old (16%). The list was mostly generated from Alan Larkin's Jazzmatazz list. Not everything in Larkin is included (e.g., I didn't bother with a lot of Japanese reissues), and Larkin certainly misses things -- small labels without distributors (especially European), self-released, CDRs. My guess is that the number of new jazz records is more than 2000 but probably less than 3000. Reissues are harder to guess and less important; the major labels are well covered, so what's missing is mostly Asian and bootlegs (probably Asian too). Another big source of uncertainty is in the realm of locally released jazz in third world countries, where it may be hard for an outsider (or anyone) to distinguish jazz from pop from whatever. The distinctions in my own list get especially arbitrary with latin jazz, of which I have quite a bit (especially Brazilian).

On the other hand, I've never been more ignorant of the rock du jour. I've heard 11 of Pitchfork's top fifty (including Fennesz), 23 of Pop Matters' top hundred (including Fennesz). Animal Collective? Arcade Fire? Fiery Furnaces? TV on the Radio? The latter is on the same label as the Ex, who put out a better punk anniversary album than the Mekons, but I've yet to see them show up on a list anywhere. (And yes, I've even found a list with the Mekons on it.) I do a bit better with old fogies like Rolling Stone (16 of 50), the slightly hipper Blender (21 of 50), and somewhere in-betwen Spin (16 of 40). Still, we're only talking here about the known part of the unknown world. I've gleaned enough from the records on the Rolling Stone/Blender/Spin lists to be pretty sure I'm not missing much. On the other hand, the Mountain Goats put out something like ten records before Christgau noticed Tallahassee. Their new record only appears on one aggregate list that I've noted (Pop Matters; it's also on lists by Michelangelo Matos and Jason Gross), so they're still pretty obscure. The really unknown world extends out from there.

I don't go chasing down these rock rumors for the usual reasons: no time, no money, not enough connections. Given that I don't care what I think about most of these groups -- Green Day, REM, U2, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits -- why should anyone else?

OK, here's the consolidated year-end list, with some late-breaking 2003 records folded in, some vault music, a few comps.

  1. Sonic Liberation Front: Ashé a Go-Go (High Two)
  2. Le Tigre: This Island (Strummer/Universal)
  3. Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear)
  4. Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute)
  5. The Vandermark Five: Elements of Style . . . Exercises in Surprise (Atavistic)
  6. The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll (1946-54, Hip-O, 3CD)
  7. Brian Wilson: Presents Smile (Nonesuch)
  8. David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters: Gwotet (Justin Time)
  9. Zu & Spaceways Inc.: Radiale (Atavistic)
  10. Pipi Skid: Funny Farm (Peanuts & Corn)
  11. Todd Snider: East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy)
  12. Annette Peacock: Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook: The Aura Years (1978-82, Castle)
  13. Capital D: Insomnia (All Natural)
  14. Jon Langford: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot)
  15. Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson (1926-37, Yazoo)
  16. Charlie Haden: Land of the Sun (Verve)
  17. The Ex: Turn (Touch and Go)
  18. Oumou Sangare: Oumou (1989-2003, Nonesuch, 2CD)
  19. Triage: American Mythology (Okka Disk)
  20. The Abyssinians & Friends: Tree of Satta (Blood & Fire)
  21. The Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (New West)
  22. Jewels & Binoculars: Play the Music of Bob Dylan: Floater (Ramboy)
  23. Candi Staton (1969-73, Honest Jons)
  24. Youssou N'Dour: Egypt (Nonesuch)
  25. The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed (4AD)
  26. The Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol)
  27. Satoko Fujii Quartet: Zephyros (NatSat)
  28. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
  29. Black Power: Music of a Revolution (1968-79, Shout Factory, 2CD)
  30. Septeto Rodriguez: Baila! Gitano Baila! (Tzadik)
  31. Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis (1963-64, Columbia/Legacy, 7CD)
  32. The Bad Plus: Give (Columbia)
  33. Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse (Geffen)
  34. Don Byron: Ivey-Divey (Blue Note)
  35. Automato (Coup de Grâce)
  36. Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls: Breeding Resistance (Delmark)
  37. Arto Lindsay: Salt (Righteous Babe)
  38. Whiskey Is My Habit, Cool Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr (1928-35, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD)
  39. Brother Ali: Shadows on the Sun (2003, Rhymesayers Entertainment)
  40. McEnroe and Birdapres: Nothing Is Cool (Peanuts and Corn)
  41. Peter Stampfel & the Bottlecaps: The Jig Is Up (1984-99, Blue Navigator)
  42. Anthony Braxton: 23 Standards (Quartet) 2003 (Leo, 4CD)
  43. Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer (New West)
  44. Steven Bernstein: Diaspora Hollywood (Tzadik)
  45. James Chance: Sax Education (1978-88, Tiger Style, 2CD)
  46. Raoul Björkenheim/Lukas Ligeti: Shadowglow (2003, TUM)
  47. Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware (1948-66, Shout Factory, 6CD)
  48. The Roots: The Tipping Point (Geffen)
  49. Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts . . . Now (E-Squared/Artemis)
  50. Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats (Essay)
  51. Mylab (Terminus)
  52. Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Paseo (Blue Note)
  53. Bennie Wallace: The Nearness of You (Enja/Justin Time)
  54. Marilyn Crispell Trio: Storyteller (ECM)
  55. Cursor Miner: Plays God (Lo)
  56. Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins: Which Way Is East (ECM, 2CD)
  57. Four Tet: Rounds (2003, Domino)
  58. Yohimbe Brothers: The Tao of Yo (Thirsty Ear)
  59. Madvillain: Madvillainy (Stones Throw)
  60. Denis Colin Trio: Something in Common (Sunnyside)
  61. Jerry Gonzalez y los Piratas del Flamenco (Sunnyside)
  62. Tripleplay: Gambit (Clean Feed)
  63. Jenny Scheinman: Shalagaster (Tzadik)
  64. Douglas/Sclavis/Lee/Van Der Schyff: Bow River Falls (Premonition)
  65. Tomasz Stanko: Suspended Night (ECM)
  66. Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan (1933-35, Columbia/Legacy)
  67. The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop (1979-83, Stones Throw)
  68. Ozomatli: Street Signs (Concord)
  69. Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (Matador)
  70. The Bug: Pressure (2003, Rephlex)
  71. Northern State: All City (Columbia)
  72. Juhani Aaltonen, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille: Reflections (TUM)
  73. James Carter: Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (Warner Brothers)
  74. A Proper Introduction to Julia Lee: That's What I Like (1944-52, Proper)
  75. Marty Ehrlich: Line on Love (2003, Palmetto)
  76. Shrimp Boat: Something Grand (1985-93, Aum Fidelity, 3CD)
  77. Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake: Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey)
  78. Juhani Aaltonen Trio: Mother Tongue (2003, TUM)
  79. Iris DeMent: Lifeline (Flariella)
  80. Prince: Musicology (Columbia)
  81. Von Freeman: The Great Divide (Premonition/Koch)
  82. Chicago Underground Trio: Slon (Thrill Jockey)
  83. Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)
  84. The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (1977-81, Sire/Rhino, 2CD)
  85. Nelly: Sweat (Universal)
  86. Chris Potter Quartet: Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside)
  87. Lyambiko: Shades of Delight (2003, Nagel-Heyer)
  88. El-P/The Blue Series Continuum: High Water (Thirsty Ear)
  89. Eminem: Encore (Aftermath)
  90. Courtney Love: America's Sweetheart (Virgin)
  91. Michiko Ogawa Trio: It's All About Love! (2003, Arbors)
  92. Borbély Mihály/Quartet B: Crystal Mountain (2003, Fono)
  93. Geri Allen/Dave Holland/Jack DeJohnette: The Life of a Song (Telarc)
  94. Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo (World Music Network)
  95. Z-Man: Dope or Dog Food (Red Urban)
  96. The Revolutionary Ensemble: And Now . . . (Pi)
  97. Mos Def: The New Danger (Geffen)
  98. Caetano Veloso: A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch)
  99. Raphé Malik: Last Set: Live at the 1369 Jazz Club (1984, Boxholder)
  100. Rokia Traoré: Bowmboď (Nonesuch)
  101. Ramiro Musotto: Sudaka (2003, Fast Horse)
  102. Willie Nelson: Nagadoches (Pedernales)
  103. Per Henrik Wallin/Johnny Dyani/Erik Dahlbäck: Burning in Stockholm (1981, Atavistic)
  104. Bebo & Cigala: Lágrimas Negras (2003, Calle 54)
  105. Boban Markovic Orkestar: Boban I Marko (2003, Pirahna)
  106. The Frank and Joe Show: 33 1/3 (Hyena)
  107. Big Satan: Souls Saved Hear (Thirsty Ear)
  108. Eddie Palmieri: Ritmo Caliente (Concord)
  109. Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970 (1946-69, CMF/Lost Highway, 2CD)
  110. Rabih Abou-Khalil: Morton's Foot (Enja/Justin Time)
  111. Brötzmann/Friis Nielsen/Uuskyla: Medicina (Atavistic)
  112. Fela Kuti (Mixed by Chief Xcel): The Underground Spiritual Game (Quannum Projects)
  113. Antibalas: Who Is This America? (Ropeadope)
  114. Percy Heath: A Love Song (Daddy Jazz)
  115. Lisa Sokolov: Presence (Laughing Horse)
  116. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
  117. Moacir Santos: Ouro Negro (1965-92, Adventure Music, 2CD)
  118. Malik ˇ McPhee ˇ Robinson: Sympathy (Boxholder)
  119. Patti Smith: Trampin' (Columbia)
  120. Russ Lossing: Phrase 6 (Fresh Sound)
  121. Warren Vaché: Dream Dancing (Arbors)
  122. The Blueprint Project (2003, Creative Nation Music)
  123. John Hagen: Segments (Cadence)
  124. Ian Hendrickson-Smith: Up in Smoke (2003, Sharp Nine)
  125. Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine (Arista)
  126. The Silos: When the Telephone Rings (Dualtone)
  127. Mekons: Punk Rock (Quarterstick)
  128. Claudia Quintet: I, Claudia (Cuneiform)
  129. Carla Bley: Looking for America (2003, ECM)
  130. Lou Reed: Animal Serenade (Sire/Reprise, 2CD)

The count here is 129 records. A similar list at this time last year ended with 96 records. The difference is that I heard many more records this year, most obviously many more jazz records. I don't think it's that I've become an easier grader -- if anything, the opposite is true. The high B+ list, not included above, if full of distinguished records that I enjoy very much. The bottom end of the A-list just comes in a shade higher. I could knock some of them down a notch, but the grading feels consistent with the way I've always done it, and few were casually arrived at.

Genre'02 New'02 Old'03 New'03 Old'04 New'04 OldChange
Rock Bands120100921

Some of the classifications are arbitrary and could easily have been jiggered differently. Change is from '03 to '04. The big jump, obviously, is in jazz. The drop in old records (30 to 17) may have to do with the arbitrary manner in which I added old records to the list, although most of that drop is in world, where lots of strange things happen.

One more note: I put the above list together after the ballot was sent in, and there are some discrepancies. For the ballot I didn't consider Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, and I skipped over Zu, the intent being to slide Todd Snider and Capital D onto the ballot: a rare exercise in ballot pragmatism. I also toyed with the idea of dropping Brian Wilson in favor of Jon Langford, and even trading in Rilo Kiley for the Ex. The latter two choices would have pushed me far down the McDonald list -- the logic being to try to pump up worthy records way down the list instead of wasting votes on items that are bound to get plenty of votes anyway.

Some record notes:

Most of the feedback I got on my writing this year concerned Ken Vandermark, and most of it urged me to push him harder. I figure he put out eleven albums this year, so there's been no shortage of inventory. The Vandermark Five packs more punch than any group of that size since Mingus, and is a helluva lot tighter than Mingus could ever stand. My pet peeve all year long has been overlapping horns but Vandermark, Rempis and Bishop never trip each other up. The other albums were much less formal: mash-ups with Atomic and Zu, leftovers from the Duo with Paal Nillsen-Love, new entries with FME and Tripleplay, a double with his big Territory Band, two albums with Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet, a three-way sax-only bash (don't even begin to think sax choir) with Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann, a guest shot with the Gold Sparkle Trio. I haven't heard FME or Gold Sparkle yet, and Territory Band isn't easy to sort out. Meanwhile, Rempis has two albums without Vandermark: the one under his own name is only sporadically brilliant, but the one as Triage offers one stupendous feat after another. Folks who pay close attention have claimed that more and more of the ace saxophone work in recent V5 albums should be attributed to Rempis. I found myself writing "saxophone colossus" in my notebook under Triage.

Sonic Liberation Front strikes me as a pretentious name for a group, but it may just be overly literal. Kevin Diehl's idea is actually quite simple: spice up Afro-Cuban (lukumi) folk riddims with screeching free jazz. It's essentially a gimmick, but it's a great one. This is the only record all year I've played as many as three times since I wrote about it -- the only one I pull out for guests, who generally love the beats but aren't so sure about the sax. But in a year when I've finally learned to appreciate Tim Berne and even Peter Brötzmann I find it goes down like good bourbon.

Pipi Skid gets extra credit for hating George W. Bush even more than I do. I doubt that he's going to be appearing south of the border anytime soon, but he's halfway to becoming the Jay-Z of the United States of Canada. McEnroe and Birdapres are close seconds, the former no doubt contributing to Pipi's beats. But why do all Canadian rappers, from Halifax's Buck 65 to Vancouver's McEnroe, cop the same accent?

How come Le Tigre's major label debut gets less press and less respect than their indies? Sure, it strays more from their base sound than previous albums, but that sort of hook-happy delirium is what bands dream of. After all, London Calling was like that. And if "New Kicks" is what got them going, we can take credit, too.

I went over six months before I granted a non-jazz album a full A grade (and I had doubts about the jazz records too). For me the breakthrough was Rilo Kiley, a pop album I couldn't fault or demure from. Problem is, I've only played it once since then, so in many ways it's the softest thing on the A list.

I figure the reason Brian Wilson could finish Smile now is that it no longer has the onus of being the next great thing. It's so old it's irretrievably retro, which is probably the best place for it. Too bad the Beatles finished Sgt. Pepper on schedule: had they not they wouldn't have floundered so badly trying to top it, plus they would have had some good songs left over.

Todd Snider wrote the best liner notes of the year, and backed them up with a pretty great album. I think he's the only performer on the list I actually saw perform this year -- opening for John Prine, who played some songs that he still hasn't released. Maybe next year.

I begged a copy of the Ex on grounds that they had done some jazzlike things in the past, but Turn is pretty much straight up old-fashioned punk-influenced rock 'n' revolution, not all that far removed from the Mekons or the Gang of Four. Spread out over two discs, it's too much work to figure out just how good it is, but it's somewhere up there. I haven't read a thing about it, so maybe the publicist was desperate.

Tree of Satta is a couple dozen remakes (not remixes) of "Satta Massa Gana" -- the bassline restarting every few minutes, the horns swooping in. It hybrids all over the place, never going dull. One of several records that works as novelties not just because they build on an odd concept but because they make it work.

I love Kanye West's kiddie drug dealer chorus as much as anyone, but I got bones to pick with his understanding of the college he dropped out from. College doesn't make you smart -- Randy Newman knew what he was doing when he wrote "good old boys from L.S.U./went in dumb, come out dumb too" -- although it is one of the few arenas in American life where smart people can feel like they have something going. Nor does getting smart make you poor -- the opposite may be overstated as a truism, all the more so as the privilege that works even better becomes the only thing that pays your way, but it still has a lot of statistical weight. So I'm not convinced by his shtick. Sure, he's smart enough to get by without college, but I've been there done that too, and I'm not convinced it did me right. Sure, he's in better shape, because what he does they don't teach in college anyway.

The most impressive single song I've heard this year, or damn near any other year, is Lisa Sokolov's brighter-than-a-thousand-suns detonation of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning." It's mere concidence that this should appear more/less the same year as the reissue of Annette Peacock's "My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook." The two define a dimension in vocal performance that hardly anyone ever dares to enter: dramatic, visceral, blood chilling.

In case you're interested, the best crossover jazz album I've heard this year was Andre Ward's Steppin' Up. It's not on the list above -- doesn't take all that much to win that category, just a throwback disco album that will make you remember, but not forget, Hamilton Bohannon. The best big band album was probably Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra, Thought Trains. The best of the songbook vocalist albums is harder to qualify but Judi Silvano, Let Yourself Go, is a good one, as is Sasha Dobson, The Darkling Thrush. Haven't heard the latest Rod Stewart, but he probably comes close. This niche is popular enough that it has some attraction for depassé pop singers (see Linda Ronstadt; Joni Mitchell was even better until she got cranky and quit.) The best solo piano album was Satoko Fujii, Sketches, although I can't think of many more -- seems like there are usually dozens. These are various backwater niches of the jazz world: the first is critically dissed, the rest are just problematical for this critic. It's easy enough to see the problem with crossover jazz: the people who are good enough don't have to cross over -- they start out on the other side of the fence. Consequently, the crossover idiom is dominated by musicians like Marcus Miller and Doc Powell, who are mere mechanics in the r&b world.

Overrated jazz album of the year is Maria Schneider, Concert in the Garden. May be my anti-classical bullshit detector is too hair-trigger, but even when I try to modulate it I don't get anything out of this record. One thing I give her credit for is that it isn't pompous, and that's probably why it doesn't leave me feeling mad at it. Just sort of empty. There are quite a few big band records coming out these days. They're not economically viable, but form ad hoc to support this or that composer's pet dream. Aside from the free jazz groups, which mostly devolve into cacophonous wails, the mainstream projects are auteurist, giving off the feel that every nuance was scripted, so the musicians just have to show up, read their charts, and punch the time clock. I suspect that the motivation is that we're dealing with people who learned their craft in the euroclassical world then switched for a major in jazz, and this is their big dream.

I don't understand exactly how this works, but it seems to me that in the last not-much-more-than-ten-years jazz has been remodelled and renovated into something we might call the jazz-educational complex. Jazz musicians have been moving into academia for around 30 years now. (Cecil Taylor at Oberlin is an obvious marker, although George Russell probably beat him somewhere, and I'm sure there are others.) But over the years jazz has become a major, more and more jazz musicians are conservatory-trained, and it seems like almost all jazz musicians do clinics. A few years ago we saw Sheila Jordan, who certainly never learned shit in school herself, put on a clinic/student exhibition at Harvard. She was marvelous, but her students were pathetic -- yet it's probably a big part of her income. Still, not all of the students are pathetic, and consequently most of the under-35 jazz musicians working today have long lists of academic credentials. This skews the way they play: they're more steeped in euroclassics, more formal, less experimental, less intuitive. But more than anything there's just a lot more of them. My impression is that the number of new jazz releases has been growing by about 10%/year for the last ten-plus years -- a big reversal after jazz (at least in the U.S.) was damn near a dead art in the '70s and '80s. 20-30 years ago there was a lot of talk about the possible death of jazz. That clearly isn't going to happen now.

The other big trend in jazz is internationalization. A dozen or more of the records above are by non-Americans, but it's really a lot blurrier than that: many of those records have one or more Americans in the line-up, and many of the American jazz records have foreigners in their line-ups. I get more such records than most jazz writers -- for one thing, having scoured the Penguin Guides I'm aware of more of them -- but my sources are still skewed against imports.

One conspicuous record that I didn't hear this year was NERD's Fly or Die. The initial reason was cost: it was possible to buy their first album new for as low as $7.98, but the new one never dropped below $13.98. It never developed much in the way of critical enthusiasm either. Seems like I've only seen one used copy, which I passed up at $9.98 because by then it wasn't much of a priority. The first record got expensive too -- the early pricing was just meant as bait. Another record I didn't buy was Jill Scott's. Like many name albums, it came out with a discount at Best Buy that lasted one week, then jumped up to $13.98 and stuck there. She's good, but not someone I would buy without some critical reinforcement, and none came until after the price spiked. Since then I've seen her first album on sale, but not the second. And I haven't seen it used -- Wichita has taken a couple of bad hits on the store front, so the only used stores left here are the CD Depot chain, and they're dreadful.

Presumably Kanye West will win the poll. Presumably by a huge margin. He's appeared, usually in the #1 slot, in every aggregate year-end list I've seen, most from sources that are conspicuously light when it comes to hip-hop. As I recall, the Voice poll has always favored rappers who aren't so ghetto they make white critics nervous -- De La Soul (first album), Arrested Development, OutKast; West is right down that line, and he's got charisma that Cee-Lo and the Roots don't have.

I suspect that if you had demographic data on voters you'd find that Brian Wilson's votes mostly come from older guys. Pet Sounds did manage to get the sort of down-generational status that the Beatles have, but that seems to have been it for the Beach Boys. Context means something here, and those without context will be all the more certain that their backlash is justified. Seems like a top-ten album, but maybe not even top-five.

Eminem seems to be dead to critics this year. I thought the record was not just a solid demonstration of his chops; thought it showed some growth, and not just in terms of maturity (which in his case qualifies as low-lying fruit). Better than the last one, which was pretty good too. Number one on the charts, as I write. Doubt that it polls in the top forty.

Just to reiterate my usual points on the poll: the meaning of the data can only be evaluated by understanding the sample context, which means you need to know more about the voters, especially more about what they have and have not listened to; a top-ten doesn't provide enough data points; as it stands the poll is mostly useful for the voter lists.

I wanted to do something here about the shape of the jazz market, but it's too late for that. If you remember the "Great Day in Harlem" photo (1956-57?), that one photo encompassed about 50% of the known jazz universe at the time -- less than 50% of all the musicians, but way more than 50% of all the threads. You can't do that now; I doubt that you could even round up 5%. Diffusion is an old story (cf. Terminal Zone), but jazz is so tightly niched by now that -- well, I talk to people in New York who don't even know what's happening on the next block. There's little agreement about what jazz is, and little in the way of public discussion about that. There are lots of reasons for this, lots of manifestations of what it means. One thing is that outsiders are likely to find it very difficult to get information and insight into what's going on. Jazz isn't really a cult -- more like dozens of cults.

Same problem exists in rock, country, anything with a little breadth to it. For all I know it may even plague new age (or what Borders nowadays calls "lifestyle" music, which as far as I can tell is the same thing). And, of course, the culprits are obvious: the music's too expensive, and there's too little useful knowledge about it. Blame the industry. Blame the media. Blame the way we finance the arts.

Didn't do a singles list this year. Thought about doing a list of anti-Bush songs, but didn't get my notes together in time. There are a bunch of them, worth noting, but that's some other project.

Still haven't made any concessions to dowloading, I-Pod, or other manifestations of the singles culture. Still haven't tried to assemble any sort of mix disc. (An old idea is twenty versions of "Summertime" -- everyone's done it, and the rock versions by the Ravens, Billy Stewart, and Janis Joplin would anchor it.) Got a CD/RW burner on one computer, but haven't learned how to use it efficiently. I can play some music on the computer, and occasionally download samples, but that's about it.

A friend did give me a copy of Danger Mouse's Grey Album. A clever enough piece of work, but it is still limited by its source materials, which are second rate at best. Much better things can be done with borrowed materials, such as Steinski's Sugarhill or X-Cel's Fela. I think it was David Korn who had a sign on his desk saying that if an idea wasn't worth stealing it wasn't any good. The corrolary is why bother stealing something that isn't worth the effort.

The question of how musicians and their sometimes useful music bizzers make a living in a freely downloadable culture is something that will probably have to be reckoned with after the fact. The speed at which it's becoming a fact seems to have slowed down a bit, thanks to the RIAA, but both the problems that fed it and the technology that implements it persist and won't go away.

Books: a year's reading, not counting one book on jazz that I managed to slip in. Still haven't finished Kurlansky, but I'm getting close to the end. More stuff on domestic politics: the Lind, Phillips and Singer books do a pretty systematic job of nailing Bush, although none of them are sufficient on their own. Richard Ben Cramer's book on Israel is the one to read. On the Camp David negotiations I read Beilin but not Ross or Clinton, but I had read Charles Enderlin previously. Seymour Hersh, Rashid Khalidi, and James Carroll are stuck on the shelf.

Some notable deaths in 2004:

Some others: Daniel Boorstin, Marlon Brando, Ray Charles, Julia child, Francis Crick, Rodney Dangerfield, Jacques Derrida, Clement S. Dodd, Malachi Favors, Sam Furnace, Uta Hagen, Ella Johnson, Pete Jolly, Elvin Jones, Barney Kessel, Alan King, Billy May, Gil Melle, Russ Meyer, Helmut Newton, Jack Paar, Robert Quine, Tony Randall, Françoise Sagan, Hubert Selby, Greg Shaw (please bring back The Roots of British Rock).

Rebecca Solnit, in one of her recent pieces meant to instill hope about "wild possibilities" said something that I find very unhopeful: she pointed out that the election was won by the guy with the upbeat message. Admittedly, said message is a blatant lie, with only the most fantasy-addled connection to reality. It's a hard enough road to try to convince people about what has gone wrong and what we are putting at risk by pursuing various policies. But we also have to be upbeat about it? That's really going to be tough.

One problem is that even trying to fix various problems is likely to, at least in the short term, make them worse. And it's hard not to get blamed for that. A big case is fairly simple: the U.S. is able to run consistent long-term trade deficits, because the world likes dollars, and capitalists around the world find it attractive to reinvest those dollars in the U.S., mostly because the U.S. is regarded as a safe and lucrative place for capitalist investment. Any effort we make to change tax and regulatory policy will reduce the capital inflows that make up for the trade deficits. If that happens U.S. trade preferences will suffer, and credit status (the U.S. is the world's largest debtor nation) may get hit even worse. These cycles are so deeply embedded that they would crash the U.S. economy. On the other hand surrendering control over public policy to the capitalists causes all sorts of other problems, including long-term impoverishment that will eventually lead to violence and rampant criminality. In the long term those are, I think, bigger problems, but how do you campaign on a program of short-term pain?

I'm far more skeptical that the U.S. actually gets anything very tangible from its militarism and imperialism. Both ship a lot of money abroad without returning much of anything. But in the predatory world of the right-wing's imagination, any cutback entails greater security risks and possible short-term losses. And maybe it is true that many or most of our allies only defer to us because of our military might; given the choice, as happened almost unprecedentedly in the fall of the Soviet Union, they may revolt, which could have lots of serious consequences. For instance, replacing the dollar with the euro as the basis for trade in oil and other commodities would end one of the main reasons foreigners keep dollars.

It's not hard to come with other mixed blessing issues. There are trade-offs on environmental matters, health care, etc. -- taxes being perhaps the most ubiquitous of tradeoffs.

Michael Kinsey used to have this line about Americans being "big babies": that they whine and moan whenever anyone wants them to pay for something or do something, that the expect the world to cater to their every whim, to shower them with flattery, etc. Those sound like the sort of people who would buy into Bush's message of optimism. One might argue that part of the message to them is to grow up. But they're not gonna like it.