Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Not Just Your Old Man's Takeover

A New Cohort of Standard Bearers Feels Its Oats in a World Gone Wrong

Want to know something else that happened September 11? Sure you do. The Voice's since-downsized Web radio station first "aired" a show we'd recorded five days earlier to coincide with the release of what I'd dubbed, without the slightest originality or hesitation, "Album of the Year": Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft." Less than two plays into my late-August advance, as the debut "single" "Po' Boy" came up again at track 10, I'd become convinced Dylan would win the 28th or 29th annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. Songful, funny, rocking, pro-life, it was to his runaway 1997 winner Time Out of Mind as, say, PJ Harvey's Stories of the City was to Is This Desire? Moreover, there was no competition--no Stankonia, no Car Wheels, no Miseducation, not even a Play or 69 Love Songs. Before it had moved copy one, it was a bigger shoo-in than "Get Ur Freak On."

So please, enough with the dumb idea that the world-gone-wrong events of "Love and Theft" 's release date induced critics to overvalue a putatively prophetic album. "Love and Theft" was always going to win big, and it did--by most measures, bigger than any album in poll history. How did I know this? Because there is such a thing as aesthetic quality, and on "Love and Theft" it runneth over. Whatever guff musos put out about Dylan's crack road band, this quality is overwhelmingly verbal. The old-school licks and phrasing would mean bubkes if they didn't set off and flesh out his best lyrics since whenever. Like the Avalanches, Dylan loves sampling, which modernists called collage. He just takes different liberties with higher-grade readymades--folk, pop, and literary word-bits and music-bits reassembled into something unprecedented that would mean much less if it wasn't also trad. It's an old man's record, absolutely. The old man is ready for death yet still feeling his oats. He fears apocalypse less now that his end is nearer. He thinks this is a hoot. The funnier it seems, the madder he gets about apocalypse. But the fear, somehow, is gone. And as you listen, so is yours.

If this achievement doesn't move you, that's your privilege. But I have no patience with claims that it just isn't there, especially combined with mealymouthed remembrances of Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. Never one who ran on Dylan time, I've had a lot of fun making such comparisons lately, and gee, Blood on the Tracks did sound grand. Bringing It All Back Home, too. But song for song, joke for joke, vision for vision, risk for dare, their superiority to this year's winner seemed marginal. Other favorites--Freewheelin', New Morning, The Basement Tapes--merely held their own. And I was surprised to find that from the unyielding contempt of "Like a Rolling Stone" to the world-weary wind of "Desolation Row," Highway 61 sounded a little too punk for its own good. I preferred the old man.

Which old man, it is relevant to note, is only a year older than the one who's writing his 28th or 29th Pazz & Jop disquisition. At two months shy of 60, I'm very nearly the oldest voter reporting. So maybe I'm just prejudiced, right? Statistically, there's something to this. With the majority of the record 622 respondents declining to supply demographic info, I didn't know most ages. But after a lot of e-mailing to my A-C folder and some careful guesswork with D-G, I estimated that where Dylan's supporters constituted 38 percent of the electorate, among critics 40 and over (about a third of the voters) he pulled 55 or 60 percent. This is a sharp tilt. Note, however, that Dylan still got the preponderance of his points from the under-40s who dominate the poll base, and note too that the gender tilt was steeper. If I'm reading first names right, only 19 women voted for Dylan. The next three finishers--the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes--were far behind Dylan's 234 mentions at 158, 120, and 106, but all three attracted as many or more women. In an all-female Pazz & Jop, Mr. It Ain't Me Babe, now d/b/a Mr. I Never Slept With Her Even Once (what, you think he's Mr. Singing Love's Praises With Sugar-Coated Rhymes?), would have had some competition.

In an under-40 poll, on the other hand, Dylan would still have won handily. If this doesn't seem self-evident, that's because you forgot that his competitors would lose out too. You think arthritis sufferers while away their buyouts listening solely to retrofitted bluegrass and Leonard Cohen. In fact, the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes got about a sixth of their mentions from 40-and-over lifers. If the callow had been as kind to older artists, Cohen, the youngest of whose 20 doddering supporters was 34, would have outrogered the turgid Tool. (41-50, as anyone who checks our highly searchable online list can determine: song-challenged Mary J. Blige, $180-list-and-too-dead-to-enjoy-it Charley Patton, 65-year-old Buddy Guy, Spoon's career album if you call that a career, garage-punk Brits Clinic, Rick Yorn's brother, emo-punk Brits Idlewild, Madonna's brother-in-law, the Ben Folds One, and 67-year-old Cohen.) In fact, the rest of the top 40 is anything but old-guard. In our 2000 top 20 alone loomed 40-and-over perennials U2, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Madonna, and Steely Dan, plus late bloomer Aimee Mann, with more below. After Dylan, the only senior citizens in the 2001 top 20 are ninth-place Lucinda Williams and, out of nowhere or everywhere, 40-year-old world-ska ambassador Manu Chao. Below find comeback-of-the-year New Order, Guided by Voices' retarded Robert Pollard, and two more new old guys: country-rock vets Alejandro Escovedo and Rodney Crowell edging belatedly onto our list. On the cusp, weirdly, is the Pazz & Jop album debut of all-ages crusaders Fugazi, led by pushing-40 Ian MacKaye. (Note: Full classification of the Langley Schools Music Project had not been completed at press time.)

Instead we get a new generation of standard bearers. Beyond the Strokes and the White Stripes, there's a good complement of striplings: well-groomed ingenue Alicia Keys, sampledelic cheeze whizzes the Avalanches, serious-as-art-rock Cannibal Ox, cunningly childish Moldy Peaches. But no fewer than nine finishers fall into a remarkably narrow grouping of 30-ish professionals (the youngest 29, the oldest 33) hitting our chart for the second or third time: Jay-Z, Basement Jaxx, Gillian Welch, the New Pornographers' Neko Case, the Pernice Brothers, Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Macy Gray, and the Old 97's. Fold in slightly younger repeaters Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright, Gorillaz featuring 33-year-old Damon Albarn, and former bubbling-unders Weezer, the Coup, and Low scoring Pazz & Jop debuts with their third, fourth, and fifth albums (but exclude System of a Down and the dull Tool, both too old, not to mention arty in the wrong way), and you have a cohort coming into its own. I don't love all these artists and neither do you. But I like most of them. And I do respect them all. They're never crass or stupid, at least not at the same time. They're trying for something.

Gillian Welch and Daft Punk are about as different as semipopular musicians can be. One is a DIY trailblazer, the other shoots crap in the major-label casino; one fetishizes the authentic, the other the artificial. But though the authentic one may be a little less honest, she's no less forthright about her immersion in craft. She has an idea of what the world is like and what kind of music ought to sound good there, and she commands skills to match, which she's sharpening. Welch says that while she and David Rawlings remain an acoustic duo, her self-released Time (The Revelator), which came in 14th (previous finishes: 23 and 33), comprises "really tiny rock songs" rather than her patented Appalachian simulations. And damned if she isn't telling some kind of truth--it's considerably less studied, austere, and sanctimonious-by-omission. Daft Punk are two ironic-mais-oui French DJs who pushed Homework onto the bottom of our 1997 top 40 behind an ingratiatingly clever synth-funk dance novelty (and 25th-place P&J single) self-referentially entitled "Da Funk." Going all-out for airplay, which in dance music is as big a statement as Elvis citations are in folk music, they led the 25th-place Discovery with an irritatingly catchy synth-voice pop novelty (and 13th-place P&J single) imperatively entitled "One More Time." Their faux pop became actual pop.

Me, I blame Welch for the O! Brother Old-Timey Strip Mine and refer privately to Daft Punk's hit as "Please, Not Again." Both artists pursue an aesthetic so ideologically that it narrows their music. But both deserve props just for having a vision, and though others in their cohort may be less self-conscious about it, so do they. Moreover, all have shown an ability to improve on whatever it is they do--which, because critics don't just pump fave styles but signs of progress, attracts voters who happen to like that thing. An audacious pop album is some kind of wonder whether it sells at Jay-Z or Basement Jaxx or Old 97's or New Pornographers or Pernices levels, while a competent one is a bit of a bore. Compare the shortfalls of marginal cohort candidates (many miss the 29-33 demo) Folds at 46th, Mercury Rev at 59th, Le Tigre at 77th, Maxwell at 87th, Garbage at 95th, Travis at 98th, Built to Spill at 118th, and (run out of town, the hussy) Shelby Lynne down at 142nd, all of whom--except for Le Tigre, who tried to piggyback more politics onto their vogue and got spanked for it--spun their wheels trying to assure their market share or drove off the road trying to expand it. And note that all of these, Le Tigre once again excepted, got twisted up playing by major-label rules.

The cohort is bedrock, a respectable foundation of artists with a future--some pop and some semipop, some quarterpop and some less. In 2002, it'll get bigger. But its members aren't about to change history. So towering over the entire 2001 list is the only genius in sight. With PJ Harvey and OutKast sitting out, Neil Young laying low, U2 at the Super Bowl, and R.E.M. 51st, well--achievementwise, statuswise, who's even close? Lucinda Williams, maybe. Beatmaster to the stars Timbaland if he keeps it up for 10 years--although, lyrically, James Brown is James Weldon Johnson by comparison, Jay-Z Shakespeare. Speaking of whom, nominating Jigga is carrying this black-male-pride bit perilously close to Clarence Thomas territory, and da judge just signed an injunction to keep him out. Other observers tender faith in some promising pup or other, but though Ryan Adams, Alicia Keys, and/or Rufus Wainwright might have the stuff to take it to the next level, the conceptual effort alone would put them in mortal danger, a risk Adams kisses on the tuchis every time he opens his yap. As for the world's greatest rock band, fifth-place Radiohead, they made the world's greatest rock album in 1997 and it didn't even beat Time Out of Mind. You want a credible challenge to Dylan's hegemony-that-isn't, your only resort is the most distant runners-up in poll history--two young bands and one 36-year-old perennial.

Like everybody but our results page, I think the White Stripes made a better record than the Strokes. But not so's they earned a free ride, and not so's the Strokes deserve the drubbing they get for . . . what? For being white male guitar-bearing counterparts of Alicia Keys and her not-quite-superb major-label album with a sound people were waiting for and looks to match. Like Keys, the Strokes give teenpop glamour a tough undercoat--the hip hop sass salting Keys's sweet intonation, the punk static pebbling the Strokes' repetitious rush--and get playa-hated for choosing triumphant accommodation over doomed combat. The various ripoff charges are beyond silly; obviously the Strokes are working a tradition, and just as obviously they sound like no one but themselves. In this they resemble the former blues duo that came in fourth. Both bands end up far from their "roots," and both are sonically thin by design--much thinner than Dylan's guys recycling singer-with-backup riffs that coalesce as you listen up. As in much lo-fi, this thinness is a raised finger--guitars matter so much, it says, that we're reducing them to an ugly essence. But it also begs out of any competition with the big guys. And it provides both with a ready path to progress. Soon the Strokes will shit-can their megaphone and try to think of something to say; soon the White Stripes will send their bills to V2 while continuing to unfold new wrinkles in human relations in 100 words or less.

Some believe Is This It and White Blood Cells represent an alt-rock rebirth, which would be nice. Unless you count materialistic old Spiritualized, the guitar-based hopefuls our college-radio types are always singling out number only three this year, and all are so specialized they make my teeth hurt: slowcore cohort candidates Low, Elephant 6 surrogates the Shins, and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who remind me less of the Jesus and Mary Chain than of the Screaming Blue Messiahs, another dark, catchy garage band whose enduring historical value is as a Pazz & Jop trivia question. B.R.M.C. are traditionalists like our runners-up, with commitment where they have spark. Low and the Shins are eccentrics. You can say that's good--they defy sociology, ignore category, assert identity, blah blah blah. But that leaves me free to opine that, like Steely Dan's showbiz kids, they don't give a fuck about anybody else--and that, partly for that reason and partly because they play too slow, I don't give a fuck about them either. Culturally as well as musically, they don't make enough noise. The Strokes and the Stripes, antithetical though their outreach strategies are, both mean to resonate.

Still, Nirvana is so 1991, and guitar bands have long been and will long remain one option among many. Take as a sign our surprise No. 3, who slowly and eccentrically brought off as unmoored an album, groovewise, as has ever hit our chart. Every year I scoff at the shortfall of "techno"/ "electronica"/"post-rock," but in 2001 the Swan Girl of the Oscars helped turn it into a mainstream critical taste--as an option, not the future. Vespertine is oceanic, impressionistic, classically influenced--the kind of album I can't stand. But its clicks and tinkles and desultory eroticism won me over, perhaps because Björk, like Tyorke, is better off outside the box of rock songform. Desultory to less pleasurable purpose were Björk's countrymen Sigur Rós, recurring like that dream where you forgot your homework. The rest of our electronica finishers, however, took rock songform as a puzzle to be solved, with the top-20 Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, and Avalanches the payoff. Pomo's answer to the Archies were our first virtual finishers, and (just like Blur) took hooks too much for granted. Basement Jaxx's insanely catchy Rooty knew better. But Australia's Avalanches scored the breakthrough--the long-promised new-songs-from-old-songs trick, in which untrackable samples are stitched together until they mesh into compelling music that never existed before. Unfortunately, the music in question is string-section disco.

Pazz & Jop dance albums are something of a contradiction in terms. The album aesthetics we calibrate, high on lyrics and hard on filler, are a rock thing--dance is the realm of the single and the mix. In 2000, we expanded our singles tally partly in hopes that a few club records would slip in. But it hasn't worked. Although the old irritation of fave album cuts (which as a DJ I got to declare singles myself in 2001) is down to Stephen Malkmus's "Jenny and the Ess-Dog," the now pervasive pop-versus-rock polarity-featuring dance-pop, teen-pop, rap-pop, r&b-pop, the inevitable rock-pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop--isn't much better. I'm always pleased to see African Americans up top--Keys's fourth-place "Fallin' " and Jay-Z's third-place "Izzo" swamped by the most dominant single of our computerized era, "Get Ur Freak On." Missy Elliott's Timbaland tabla was a world-beat coup rivaling Manu Chao's in a year that cried out for more of them (Cachaito and Rachid Taha, 55th and 71st, were top 10 for me, and Manteca's Franco comp would have headed my list if it had seemed fair to put 30 years of genius up against one). But on Elliott's good but flawed album--as on Destiny's Child's, Mary J. Blige's, Blu Cantrell's, and Craig David's--I found songs trickier and deeper than the smash. Bidding to "penetrate pop culture," in Jay-Z's words, these r&b artists actually do what antipop ascetics rail against so automatically. They strive for acceptability by sacrificing idiosyncrasy and reiterating clichés, and so evade an essential part of the pop challenge. This tactic can get you great ear candy. But in today's corporate environment it's become compulsory.

A vivid example is the penetrating perpetrator of the hip hop album of the year. The main reason we never get enough hip hop voters is that they don't need us--why should the alpha dogs worry about propelling late-released Ghostface Killah (91st) and De La Soul (54th) past Low and the Shins? I don't think The Blueprint got shortchanged as a result, though. As ear candy and public fact it has serious charms, and who can resist a line like "Sensitive thugs, y'all need hugs"? But its cavalcade of hooks is smarmy and proud--a Puffy album with flow and gangsta cred (attention NYPD: "Still fuckin' with crime 'cause crime pays" may hold up in court!). Compare the edgy samples and 'tude of 1999's Vol. 3 and it's like pitting Nelson Riddle's Sinatra against the Don Costa version. As the most accessible hip hop album since Mama Said Knock You Out, The Blueprint sure beats The Chronic, but it bodes ill for the genre's mainstream--countless wannabes will try to duplicate Jigga's formula, and none will succeed. The underground, leached by the usual puritanism and fertile anyway, has more jam, with the complication that it now nurtures as many up-and-coming white artists as black. Another hope is that some bud among the profusion of r&b also-rans, many of them debuts--down to 100, Bilal, India.Arie, Don Costa's girl Nikka, Res, Angie Stone, and Maxwell--will develop material nobody can deny. Final respects to 73rd-place Aaliyah, who died proving it was possible.

I'm grateful I can care, and grateful too that Aaliyah, whose garish funeral was one of many media phenomena that seemed to grow more grotesque after the WTC carnage, can now accrue dignity on the strength of a good album. This was a shitty year before it got so much shittier, and one way it was shitty was that it was subpar musically. I don't have much doomsayer in me, and my basic belief is that in my lifetime a musical economy has been created that nothing can destroy. Good music has become such a spiritual necessity that no amount of corporate brutality can prevent people from producing, distributing, and consuming it. Nevertheless, I note that the Dean's List, my annual catalog of recommended albums, shrank markedly in 2001, falling below 80 for the first time since 1997. Maybe it's because for two weeks there I didn't listen much--one more productivity hit. Or maybe the doomsayers are right, and fewer talents and lucky stiffs can afford the indie/DIY career option, which accounted for 15 or so of the voters' top 40 albums and two thirds of the Dean's List. That a cohort has learned to work around the moneychangers doesn't mean we should thank capital for providing the opportunity.

The only finisher to confront this fact rather than allude to it was an overachiever on the scale of Vespertine. Ignoring its withdrawn WTC-bombing cover with the ingrained impiety that makes rock critics the permanent no-accounts of cultural journalism, the voters awarded eighth place to the Coup's Party Music, which in its endless verbal dexterity and revitalization of an old-fashioned groove resembled "Love and Theft" more than anything Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch will ever record. There's a lot of bluff on this record, and some bullshit too, though less than in most Dylan. But people know it--at S.O.B.'s in November, Boots Riley's unsubstantiated claims that we were murdering babies in Afghanistan were far less warmly received than the off-kilter funk of his assaults on the rich and the racist. Riley is one of the few artists in rock's whole history to make effective music out of the inhumanity of capital. It's poetic that he got respect for it in the year that reminded or convinced many of us that other brands of inhumanity are probably even worse. One nuclear bomb they're gonna blow it all away, as the New York Dolls once told us on Mercury's dime. But every time we struggle for better music, and all of us do, we're reminded that we have no business letting capital be.

Village Voice, Feb. 12, 2002


2000 Critics Poll | Dean's List 2002