Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Fourth (or Fifth) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll

Pazz & Joppers Dig Pistols--What Else Is New?

A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual write-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies--a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop--if it wasn't saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it's actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll or rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?

Despite my feckless promises, selection procedures were shoddier than ever in 1977. Because I spent most of December puzzling over current trends in British youth culture, letters of invitation were mailed out in a last-minute flurry. Together with fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Ken Tucker, I resorted to last year's list, eliminating obvious dropouts (like R. Meltzer, who claims to have given up criticism for the joys of performance) and adding a few new guys. This process was complicated by my loss of the 1976 addresses; several late entries claim to have received their ballots on due date minus one. So I admit to haphazard panel selection as well as the usual bias of rock critics toward rock and roll. I swear I've never met 25 of the 68 critics who were tallied this year, but since I favor Riffs contributors and rely on the advice of editors and publicists, a certain in-groupishness is also inevitable. About two-thirds of the voters are from New York, including several who weren't in 1976--they keep immigrating. And as usual, I regret the paucity of critics of black music (in the world as well as in this poll), although it was country music that really got the shaft this year, with only four artists mentioned more than once.

If it ever came down to making this all fair and official, though, I'd be in a quandry, because there's lots of people who write about records who don't belong in this poll. At many dailies, the rock beat is less prestigious (and steady) than the obit page for good reason, while a lot of what passes for record and concert criticism at the weekly leisure-time handouts now running amok all over America is obviously nothing more than a means to freebies. I'm sure I've overlooked dozens of serious people who work not only at listening to music but at thinking about it, which is even rarer. But I'm sure too that I've excluded hundreds of dunderheads by means of my arbitrary haphazardness. I apologize to the workers, request the dunderheads to leave me alone, remind everyone that this is still the weird old Village Voice, and insist that the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll actually represents what the best rock critics think.

As you've probably gathered already, what they think is Sex Pistols. As you probably haven't guessed, this both surprised and disappointed me. I was rooting for Fleetwood Mac. For one thing, as you can ascertain by perusing my personal top 30 below, I think Rumours is a (slightly) better record than Never Mind the Bollocks. But I also think it's remarkable historically. As 1978 began, it had been number one in Record World for 32 weeks and seemed quite certain to become the best-selling album of all time, passing not only Frampton Comes Alive!, the Rumours of 1976, but all-time biggies like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Tapestry. More remarkable, Rumours is honest, courageous, even formula-defying music--so much so that when Greil Marcus reviewed it here he predicted that its toughness and passion would cost it millions of customers craving the sweetness of the group's breakthrough LP, Fleetwood Mac. Most remarkable of all, it's still possible to listen to it. Oh, a few sorehead radio addicts like Tom Smucker may add some comment like "docked a point for being sick of it," but the fact remains that this seems to be the most durable pop music ever put on plastic. It's not going to change anybody's life, but rock and roll is supposed to be about pleasure as well as all the heavy stuff, and I'm glad that in this year of the punk Fleetwood Mac was here to remind us of that.

I must admit, though, that there was another reason to root for Rumours: credibility. If a popular favorite had won, it might have convinced a few skeptics that all this punk stuff is not, to use the popular expression, hype. What rock critics are supposed to gain from their hype has never been clear to me: since death by boredom is not something the industry really believes can happen to itself, and since record sales are better than ever, publicists would much prefer we bury the troublemakers and throw our support to manageable hard-rock professionals like the Dingoes and the eponymous Eddie Money. In fact, punk might conceivably destroy the all-too-comfortable symbiosis between rock journalism and the rock industry. Not that it's anywhere near as cozy as conspiracy theorists imagine--even in the best of times relations are marred by habitual disrespect on both sides. But critics are a source of some small status, a perquisite of the easy life that is treasured in this traditionally disreputable biz, and have helped to support and eventually break more than a few unusual but tasty acts, Fleetwood Mac among them. If punk should prove modestly profitable, as seems quite possible, then the symbiosis will continue undisturbed. But if it should prove unprofitable and yet refuse to roll over and play dead, and if critics should continue to support it--a scenario that also seems plausible--then I wouldn't be surprised if some big companies begin to take the same neglectful attitude toward low-rent journalistic recalcitrants as a label like Motown, which has been notoriously stingy with review copies and information for as long as I've been writing about rock and roll.

But all that is the future. What we have now is a critics' poll in which the top three albums feature not only newcomers but rank amateurs. Last year, when the Pazz & Jop top 30 included nine debut albums as opposed to six this year, the big winners were Graham Parker and Kate & Anna McGarrigle--new names, to be sure, but in each case backed by a reliable contingent of veterans. In contrast, no member of the Sex Pistols or Television has ever played on an LP before. The anonymous backup musicians on Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True may have, but only their producer knows for sure, and Costello's tour band, the Attractions, has no professional credentials whatsoever. Neither do any of 1977's other new bands: Talking Heads, the Jam, Mink DeVille. If you want to know why old rock and rollers hate punk so much, there it is--these know-nothings are pogoing right over them.

At least as far as the working press is concerned, and there is the next difference. The 1976 Pazz & Jop top 30 included 15 commercial blockbusters: Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie, Bob Seger (which hit in 1977), Dr. Buzzard (ditto), Boz Scaggs, Boston, Thin Lizzy, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Linda Ronstadt. This year, the critics rejected albums by Mitchell, Stewart, the Cult, Scaggs, Thin Lizzy and Dylan while Bowie ceased to bust blocks, leaving only seven best-sellers: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman (heavy sales among leprechauns), Jackson Browne, James Taylor, the Beatles and Linda Ronstadt (who with the failure of Eno's Discreet Music is now the only artist to have made the last four Pazz & Jop polls, usually in the bottom five). And barring a punk breakthrough of proportions much larger than I think likely--although every night I gaze at the image of Maureen Tucker over my bedroom door and pray that I'm wrong--the only potential 1978 biggie I spy lurking amid this year's works of art is this year's sleeper, Cheap Trick. More and more, rock critics see themselves as guardians of an aesthetic of insurrection, and fuck what people are going to buy.

This phenomenon bespeaks neither cliquishness nor desperation. It is positive. The Sex Pistols actually did better out of town than in New York, proportionally, and Television scored remarkably high among critics who could never have seen the band live; the New York cult artists turned out to be Talking Heads, supposedly CBGB's earliest crossover, and Garland Jeffreys, who almost outdistanced a coasting Randy Newman as singer-songwriter of the year. And although only two more critics voted this year than last, the top albums had much stronger support. The four highest-ranking 1977 albums all earned more points and more mentions than last year's winner, Songs in the Key of Life, which got 292 votes from 25 critics. On the other hand, the consensus on lesser albums this year was more quirkish and arbitrary than ever; where only 11 points separate 1977's bottom ten there was a 23-point difference in 1976.

Some oddities. Of last year's nine debut acts, only one, the Ramones, came in higher this year; both Parker and the McGarrigles dipped, Dwight Twilley and Jonathan Richman finished out of the running, and four artists--the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Boston, Dr. Buzzard and Warren Zevon--produced no follow-up. Ornette Coleman's Dancing in Your Head--"cosmic as they come" (Richard Riegel), "funnier than Funkadelic" (Tom Smucker)--was the first album by a jazz artist ever to make the poll. The Eagles would have placed had not their Hotel California been released December 6, 1976. The surprise finisher was the Chicago hard rock band Cheap Trick, which released two albums in 1977: the debut got a few votes, and the follow-up, In Color, a brilliantly executed if rather content-free compendium of pre-punk Anglophile moves, finished third among out-of-town critics and enjoyed support from New Yorkers as well. Genesis's Peter Gabriel, the Persuasions, James Taylor, the Beach Boys and Kraftwerk (disco crossover of the year) are veteran artists who placed for the first time. So is Al Green (hooray! finally!). And so are the Beatles (welcome aboard, lads). Finally, the number 31, 32 and 33 records deserve recognition: Blank Generation, by Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Ahh . . . the Name is Bootsy, Baby!, by Bootsy's Rubber Band; and Hard Again, by Muddy Waters.

With a few exceptions--like Charley Walters, who acknowledges that maybe he doesn't "truly like real rock 'n' roll," and Ira Mayer, whose deepest sympathies are with folk music--the mood among this year's Pazz & Joppers was exultant. For once, we had trouble keeping records off our lists rather than coming up with ones it wasn't embarrassing to include. I find myself strangely unmoved by Elvis Costello, often suspecting that he is "New Wave" for people with good taste (I prefer the term punk just because it is so hackneyed, inexact and declasse). But last year Costello might have made my top 30 on sheer, calculable quality. Instead, I have to apologize to Elvin Bishop, Eno, Cachao, Townshend-Lane and all the others who have given me intense pleasure in 1977 but couldn't hold up against the competition. My biggest regret was the rule banning imports; I would have given about 24 points to The Clash, my favorite album of the year, and other Pazz & Joppers indicated similar enthusiasm. As it was I agonized forever over my top 10; I could have gone as far as number 18, Muddy Waters, without blushing, and settled on Al Green at 10 because The Belle Album is the finest record in years from the man who may turn out to be my favorite artist of this decade. Dancing in Your Head is great work, I know, but this is a year to celebrate rock and roll. Let's hope the same is true 12 months from now.

And so, me own top 30, with Pazz & Jop points appended where appropriate:

1. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) 13. 2. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire) 13. 3. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees (Warner Bros.) 13. 4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 13. 5. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 12. 6. Andy Fairweather Low: Be Bop 'n Holla (A&M) 10. 7. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors (MCA) 8. 8. The Beach Boys: Love You (Brother/Reprise) 7. 9. Ramones Leave Home (Sire) 6. 10. Al Green: The Belle Album (Hi) 5.

11. Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (Horizon). 12. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol). 13. Philip Glass: North Star (Virgin). 14. Iggy Pop: Lust for Life (RCA). 15. Bizarros/Rubber City Rebels: From Akron (Clone). 16. Ray Charles: True to Life (Atlantic). 17. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire). 18. Muddy Waters: Hard Again (Blue Sky). 19. Asleep at the Wheel: The Wheel (Capitol). 20. George Jones: All Time Greatest Hits Volume 1 (Epic).

21. The Jam: In the City (Polydor). 22. Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness (Warner Bros.). 23. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M). 24. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Stick to Me (Mercury). 25. Iggy Pop: The Idiot (RCA). 26. David Bowie: Low (RCA). 27. Bette Midler: Live at Last (Atlantic). 28. The Joy (Fantasy). 29. "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?" (Power Play). 30. James Talley: Ain't It Somethin? (Capitol).

And my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few sample ballots below:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Barnes, Michael Bloom, Jon Bream, Georgia Christgau, Richard Cromelin, Steve DeMorest, Robert Duncan, Ken Emerson, Joe Fernbacher, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Russell Gersten, Jim Girard, Jim Green, Pablo "Yoruba" Guzman, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Peter Knobler, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Jon Marlowe, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira A. Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Michael Rozek, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Russell Shaw, Don Shewey, Gary Smith, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark Von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Tim White, James Wolcott.

VINCE ALETTI: Cerrone: Love in C Minor 10; Love & Kisses 10; Donna Summer: "Once Upon a Time . . ." 10; The Emotions: Rejoice 10; Loleatta Hollaway: Loleatta 10; Teddy Pendergrass 10; C.J. & Co.: Devil's Gun 10; Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 10; Jean Carn 10; Peter Brown: Fantasy Love Affair 10.

LESTER BANGS: Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation 30; Peter Tosh: Equal Rights 15; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 10; Iggy and the Stooges: Metallic K.O. 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols 5; Ramones Leave Home 5; The Persuasions: Chirpin' 5; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 5; The Saints: I'm Stranded 5; Suicide 5.

PABLO "YORUBA" GUZMAN: Ray Charles: True to Life 15; Johnny Pacheco: The Artist 15; George Duke: Reach for It 15; Caldera: Sky Islands 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All 'N All 10; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 10; Willie Colon: Angelitos Negros 10; Steely Dan: Aja 5; Willie Colon and Ruben Blades: Metiendo Mano 5; Nona Hendryx 5.

TOM HULL: Iggy Pop: Lust for Life 15; Bootsy's Rubber Band: Ahh'the Name is Bootsy, Baby! 14; Blondie Chaplin 12; Kevin Ayers: Yes, We Have No Mananas 12; Hirth Martinez: Big Bright Street 12; Bob Marley & the Wailers: Exodus 10; Ramones Leave Home 9; Tony Wilson: I Like Your Style 6; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols 15; Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors 15; Al Green: The Belle Album 15; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Rock 'n' Roll with the Modern Lovers 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin' 10; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 10; The Jam: This Is the Modern World 5; Bryan Ferry: In Your Mind 5; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5.

JOE MCEWEN: Bootsy's Rubber Band: Ahh . . . the Name is Bootsy, Baby! 20; Mink DeVille 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All 'N All 10; The Manhattans: It Feels So Good 10; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Al Green: The Belle Album 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin' 10; The Heptones: Party Time 10; Ray Charles: True to Life 5; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 17; Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer 12; The Beach Boys: Love You 12; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 12; Merle Haggard: A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today 9; Al Green: The Belle Album 9; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 8; Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness 7; Mary McCaslin: Old Friends 7; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 7.

CHARLEY WALTERS: Yes: Going for the One 14; Genesis: Wind and Wuthering 12; Steely Dan: Aja 10; Dave Edmunds: Get It 10; David Bowie: Low 10; Gentle Giant: The Missing Piece 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols 10; Tom Newman: Fine Old Tom 8; Steve Hillage: Motivation Radio 8; Talking Heads: 77 8.

Village Voice, Jan. 23, 1978


1976 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1978