Rock & Roll &
Dad-Rock Makes a Stand
How about that--album sales actually rose a bit in 2011, for the first time since 2004. Some believe Adele's sleeper hit, 21--which at 5.8 million units and three-plus million physical CDs is the bestselling U.S. album since (how could you forget?) Usher's Confessions in 2004--pulled buyers into the appropriate recesses of the usual big-box suspects, if only to pick up Michael Bublé's Christmas bauble too. But this theory was favored mostly by those with cred invested in writing the album off as an economic unit, a prediction the Stop Online Piracy Act now slithering through a well-greased Congress could render premature indeed.
My own statistics, based solely on my increasingly private judgments of quality, compute similarly. Every year since 1974 I've compiled the Dean's List, which ranks every record I've graded A minus or above during the previous 12 months. Where in good years, including the last couple, it would reach 80 or so, in 2011 it zoomed all the way to 107. In part that's because my new Expert Witness blog isn't designed for the one-sentence Honorable Mention reviews that used to eat up as much listening time as the Consumer Guide A's did. But it's also because more artists are making quality albums, simple as that, including such oddities as ex-Christian Neil Young fan Withered Hand, DIY Jerry Lee Lewis fans Low Cut Connie, proto-Occupy peacemonger Emperor X, Israeli-Yemenite peacemonger Ravid Kalahani, and synth-junk pseudo-exoticists Rainbow Arabia. Believe me, year-end huzzahs were scarce for all five elsewhere.
Hyping oddities--"discoveries," in the banal honorific--is a critical sin every bit as venal as hawking hits, and in the hyperlinked age it's a contagion. But the offense is in fetishizing and lying about your scoops. Any critic who does his or her job is going to latch onto dearly beloveds, and I've always found plenty. This year's Dean's List divvies up more or less the way it usually does, dominated by 25 or 30 indie-style acts and hip-hop and "world" records at a dozen-plus each. But many of my finishers are highly personal. Having never prided myself on how unique I am, I would have preferred to come down a little nearer to a consensus that barely exists anymore.
In rock criticism, the consensus continues to be defined by The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, which comes out in mid-January, too late to provide me a measuring stick. So instead I broadened my perspective by checking out the many selections I'd missed on the year-end top 50s of two key publications: establishment print Rolling Stone, where I worked briefly after the Voice fired me in 2006, and upstart online Pitchfork, where I am utterly unconnected. Since I snipe frequently at both, you'll know how bad I think things are when I tell you they're easily the most authoritative music mags out there. And you'll know how limited that authority is when I break down the numbers.
Here are two mags covering what we'll very loosely designate rock even though Stone devours bestsellers and Pitchfork is allergic to them--both intelligent and well edited, both constructing lists designed to strengthen their brands by quantifying their news judgment. (These aren't polls--contributors have input, but it's safe to assume both come from the top.) How many titles would you think the two top 50s share? Twenty or 25, maybe? Nah--the consensus comprises just 13 albums. In ascending order of a projected Pazz & Jop finish I could have very wrong: Panda Bear's Tomboy, Beyoncé's 4, Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring for My Halo, Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra, Destroyer's Kaputt, PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, Wild Flag's Wild Flag, Drake's Take Care, St. Vincent's Strange Mercy, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, Jay Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, tUnE-yArDs' w h o k i l l, and Bon Iver's Bon Iver. And of that measly 13, how many made the Dean's List? Only four, all top 30: Frank Ocean, tUnE-yArDs, Watch the Throne, and Wild Flag. You want consensus, maybe you should start with those. The Frank Ocean is a free download, although note that "American Wedding," a wicked buppie rip of "Hotel California," has been excised, presumably at the insistence of online piracy stopper Don Henley.
You can see the editorial logic of these lists. Stone tends its requisite patch of hip by learning to enjoy the most accessible of the year's Pitchfork faves and sticking with aging alt-identifieds now seen as passé or off their game, topped in 2011 by Radiohead, Wilco, the Decemberists, and TV on the Radio. Pitchfork firms up its market position with deep coverage of experimental electronics both dancey and arty as well as other outliers Stone's squarer demographic tunes out, most of them classifiable as what is sometimes called "post-rock." Rooted in the long tradition of alt/indie snobbery, it also reflexively downgrades hits, monetizing agoraphobia like all boutique operations. Why else banish TV on the Radio's Nine Types of Light from your 2011 year-end after ranking 2008's Dear Science sixth?
Contrarianism has its uses. The Pitchfork list provided me with at least two high Dean's List picks--Oneohtrix Point Never's comfortably spooky Replica and Jamie xx's Gil Scott-Heron postmortem We're New Here. With Rolling Stone, where I'm mining the same seam with less nostalgia and special pleading, I've already made up my mind about the likes of FOJ Robbie Robertson's all too literally unsung How to Become Clairvoyant and Josh T. Pearson's egomaniacally hypersensitive The Last of the Country Gentlemen. Unflattering to my own patch of hip though it may be, however, that seam seems the musical story of 2011 to me.
Call it dad-rock, an ill-defined and already superannuated formulation that is Rolling Stone's true mission and Pitchfork's true anathema--not just Social Security freeloaders like me, but any younger band drawn to the blues-derived harmonic and rhythmic usages of the '50s and '60s. There are dad-rock sympathizers among Pitchfork's many ill-paid reviewers, who I don't believe follow specific orders when they dole out their 6.1s (Joshua Love on saucy Those Darlins), 3.9s (Ian Cohen on raucous Deer Tick), and 4.1s (Stephen M. Deusner on melismatic Josh T. Pearson himself). But there's a culture there in which, for instance, a major-label boutique outlet's perfectly executed Kate & Anna McGarrigle reissue doesn't even warrant a review. And as far as I'm concerned that anti-dad mindset renders Pitchfork even less authoritative than Rolling Stone, which at least make a pass at keeping up.
My findings obviously reflect my age. Hell, two of my top six albums--Funeral Dress II, by Cincinnati dad-rock masters Wussy, and the outtakes disc of the McGarrigles' Tell My Sister--showcase alternate recordings of songs I already loved. Plus I'm always hyping some oldster or other-my 2010 top 10 honored three septuagenarians. Even so, there's never been a year so chocked with comebacks and tributes, survivals and revivals--with reaffirmations that blues-derived iterations of what it means to be human have plenty of life in them yet. Paul Simon's best recording since 1986, Eric Clapton's best recording since 1972, 67-year-old Garland Jeffreys justifying his next-big-thing 30s, Aaron Neville's cast-aside gospel set, and what I consider Merle Haggard's finest album-as-album. A scintillating minor-label Buddy Holly tribute making up for the bloviating major-label one, jazz bassist Rob Wasserman's addition to Nora Guthrie's reimaginings of her dad's lost lyrics, 70-year-old guitar icon Steve Cropper burnishing his and the Five Royales' rep simultaneously, 60-year-old guitar oddball Gurf Morlix doing the same for long-dead odderball Blaze Foley. A late-McGarrigles miscellany and the eternal Peter Stampfel. Wire, B-52's, Gang of Four, Mekons, Dave Alvin. The Baseball Project's second straight home run. Buddhist ex-punk Poly Styrene hitting Woolworth's again the day after she died. Tom Waits with what Metacritic calculates was the best-reviewed album of the year.
Lest you suspect I'm just a sucker for such ventures, I'll name a few that fell short: Etta James, Willie Nelson, Betty Wright, Marianne Faithfull, the Time, Ray Davies, Lou Reed Meets Metallica, Motorhead, and--ugh--Pitchfork and Rolling Stone anointees Kate Bush and Robbie Roberstson. There must be others I'm forgetting, too--they happen naturally in a time when aging artists can still record CDs economically and aging consumers can still buy them. Of course, all these fiftysomethings-on-up are fooling around with a genre that's good at addressing old age just because it was conceived for kids. So I was equally struck by how many relative youngsters risked dad-rock opprobrium without serving up the golden-age baloney that's undernourished folkies since the Popular Front if not Herder: Low Cut Connie and Withered Hand and Those Darlins and Deer Tick and Rave On Buddy Holly and especially Wussy, right, but also the latter-day garage-punk of Let's Wrestle, the latter-day mack-soul of Mayer Hawthorne, the freak-friendly alt-country of Fruit Bats, the freak-identified folk music of Jeffrey Lewis, Teddybears claiming all of rock and roll as their province. Statistically, this is inevitable--there are so many bands, all exploiting the musical past, that of course some will not only see the good in what we'll shorthand as the old humanism, but reinvent it somehow.
Yet when it came time to rank my faves I found myself looking ahead even so. Few of my dad-rock cohort finished top 20; sans Wussy, a cross-generational anomaly I'll explore in full soon, and the McGarrigles, twentysomethings when most of their bonus disc was recorded, we'd be down to Paul Simon's mortality album, the Mekons' history album, and a Buddy Holly tribute dominated by reinvigorated young adults. For the second straight year--and though I don't do trends, this might be one--nothing felt momentous no matter how much venture capital Watch the Throne put into trying. Yet though most of my 15 hip-hop picks were culturally marginal, it was a hip-hop album by 2010 mixtape phenoms Das Racist that ended up bowling me over with its bad manners, stealth politics, scattershot laughs, casual musicality, and willingness to give Williamsburg bands meaningful work. They'd have to grow to be any kind of momentous--just like, for instance, the once-callow Beastie Boys, who in 2011 released a high-spirited hip-hop-cum-dad-rock album after MCA recovered from salivary gland cancer. But these Wesleyan-spawned cross-culturalists, like Smith-spawned beatmaker-rootsmonger Merrill Garbus d/b/a tUnE-yArDs, would seem to have some sort of shot at futuristic music that reinvents the old humanism if they ever reach the pop audience. Which they probably won't.
Maybe that's too pessimistic. After all, who would have figured that the eponymous follow-up to Bon Iver's 2008 cult fave For Emma, Lapping Lakes Like Leery Loons would see egomaniacally hypersensitive Nick Drake wannabe Justin Vernon widely compared to Chicago's Peter Cetera and nominated for four Grammys? And although my changed reviewing regimen meant that I set off on my year-end tour befuddled by four crucial consensus albums, I came to terms with three of them. 21 is both blander and louder than Adele's 2008 19, but I can feel a down-to-earth plus-size who touches women who look a lot more like her than like Beyoncé or Katy Perry. In a persuasively idea-filled rave, Sasha Frere-Jones compared Drake's "plush," "confessional" Take Care to reality television, which is all you need know about why I'm not raving. Helplessness Blues reduces Fleet Foxes' overblown CSNY echoes to Robin Pecknold's convincing Graham Nash impersonation, and though it references the usual fame 'n' romance travails, "Helplessness Blues" is about economic helplessness above all, while in the quiet youth manifesto "Someone You'd Admire" Pecknold reports that he's split between two inner selves: "One of them wants only to be someone you'd admire / One would as soon just throw you on the fire."
I came to terms with likely Pazz & Jop winner Bon Iver too. Chary of beauty-with-a-capital-B since the second time I heard Joan Baez and a leader of the critical charge against both Nick Drake and Chicago, I'm repelled deep in my old humanist soul. In the words of evangelistic Pitchfork editor-in-chief Mark Richardson, Bon Iver "deals with escape and the struggle to get outside yourself." As the dad of a 26-year-old and the teacher of hundreds of post-9/11 and subprime-crisis undergraduates, I get this impulse. Geopolitically and economically--and also, let us not forget, technologically--of course smart young music fans gravitate toward dissolution, disruption, and depersonalization. It's just that--having always preferred my escapes cheap, vulgar, and candidly temporary--I have serious trouble understanding the utility of Bon Iver's, which in the words of skeptical Pitchfork grad Nitsuh Abebe has "no edges, no contours, no particularly distinct lyrics." Yet for all 2011's comebacks and tributes, survivals and revivals, I know enough about mortality to feel sure that some kind of post-rock is inevitable. I'm afraid the coming years will be bringing me some all-too-soft-edged lessons. But that doesn't mean I'm convinced they'll all be useless.
Robert Christgau's full 2011 Dean's List.
Barnes & Noble Review, January 13, 2012