Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
Books
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

The Eighth (or Ninth) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

The Year the Rolling Stones Lost the Pennant

Early in November, as disconsolate as most of my colleagues about the run of rock and roll in 1981, I disclosed the results of the eighth or ninth Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll to anybody who happened by my desk. "Tattoo You in a landslide," I announced, looking over the fatal piece of graph paper in my mind's eye as I shook the writer's cramp out of my mind's hand. "No other consensus is possible. New wave, punk, whatever you want to call it, is in complete disarray. Sandanista!'s a mess, Trust is underrated, nobody likes Flowers of Romance. The only record I've played a lot myself is Wild Gift--except for my rap records, I mean--but X will never go over at the dailies. Anyway, Tattoo You has hooks, not like Emotional Rescue or something. And this is the most reactionary year in the history of rock and roll. The Kinks, J. Geils, Rod Stewart, all those guys put out good product again. None of it means shit, of course, but at least they're paying attention to craft, writing songs you can remember five minutes later. When the votes start coming in from the Midwest it's gonna be old school tie--the world's greatest rock and roll band rakka-rakka-rakka. They can't miss."

This news occasioned considerable dismay at the Voice offices. Were we going to put them on the cover after resisting the greatest media blitz since Wendell Wilkie like the cool guys we are? No way. Space for the poll was cut and the awards gala canceled. When Poobah Tom Carson and I got around to mailing out the actual ballots, we were lackadaisical, making only token efforts to update addresses and find new names.

But soon things got strange. Reviewing the year's albums, I found that my top ten pool was expanding from a scant half dozen to the usual lucky 13 or so. Records I'd admired and then put away, like Red and Solid Gold, kept sounding better, as did former in-a-good-year-this-would-be-top-20 candidates like Wha'ppen? and Talk Talk Talk. David Byrne and Human Switchboard were just beginning to sink in, and it wasn't until January that a late mailing from Englewood introduced me to a great 1981 album. I didn't expect Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 to sweep past Rickie Lee Jones and U2 in the hearts of the electorate (well, maybe U2), but it sure made it less awkward for me to divide my points--19 or 20 of them could now go in one place. At the same time my list of also-rans got longer and longer--counting five or six imports and a couple of cassettes, I'd have 60 A and A minus long players by poll time, a new record. Then, as the early ballots came in, a quick tally confirmed the strangest turn of all: Elvis Costello was leading the Stones two-to-one.

Well, whew--we hadn't been scooped by People, Rolling Stone, and the Soho News after all. But once I'd chastised myself for selling my own poll short I began to wonder where my story was. How would I dispose of the contumely I'd been storing up for Paul Slansky, Jann Wenner, and Geraldo Rivera, or justify reprinting the wonderful Greil Marcus parody in which Mick denies that the Stones have "something new" planned for their 1981 tour ("We're going to do the same thing we've always done. And then we're going to do it again. Forever.")? Instead I was stuck with good ole Elvis C., critics' darling and hepster's cherce. Trust was indeed the best E.C. since his poll-topping This Year's Model in 1978, but how was this latest triumph of the new wave going to look? Pretty predictable, right?

But not as predictable, I realize in irrefutable retrospect, as the actual winner: the Clash's sprawling, flawed, reached-but-not-grasped three-record set Sandanista!, all but one point of its modest margin provided by the votes it received as an import in 1980, when the grand, fine-tuned, consolidated-if-not-synthesized two-record set London Calling proved the most overwhelming lollapalooza in P&J history. Somewhat more surprising was the runner-up: X's Wild Gift, with votes from daily reviewers in En Why and El Lay and Boston and Dayton and Detroit and Minneapolis too, as well as from 50 or so of the counterculture pros, hobbyists, freelancers, and semiemployed lowlifes who dominate rock criticism as they always have. Trust finished a very close third, with more mentions than Sandanista! or Wild Gift (and precisely as many as last year's fourth-ranked Pretenders). Although first-half ballots indicated that the Stones would trail Prince and Rick Hames (both of whom were on the world's greatest etc.'s tween-set tape at the Garden and one of whom was beset with catcalls when he opened for the world's etc. in Los Angeles), Tattoo You finished a firm fourth, followed by Rickie Lee Jones's Pirates (which I'll try not to mention again), East Side Story by Squeeze (a dubious band which came into its indubitable own), Dreamtime by Tom Verlaine (hipster's choice), Controversy by Prince (who I bet got some votes people wish they'd given 1980's ninth-ranked Dirty Mind, which finished 43rd this year but didn't qualify as "late-breaking" the way Michael Jackson's Off the Wall did last time), Rick James's Street Songs (grass-roots album of the year), and the Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat (lightweight-and-proud album of the year).

Before I explain how I've always known Sandanista! would win, however, I must explore in some detail the common observation that, as Kristine McKenna of Los Angeles put it, "It was a LOUSY year for albums. I only felt strongly about two that came out this year. An amazing year for singles--easily came up with a list of 30 that totally killed me." After several months of pondering this notion and its many equivalents, I've decided that I don't agree. It was a great year for albums. But most critics who offered their comments said something similar, and this year's general enthusiasm for the singles voting (initiated in 1979) proved that they meant it.

For the new poll we divided the singles category in two to reflect the proliferation of EPs--extended-play collections of three to eight songs that list at between $3 (for seven-inchers) and $6 (what the majors charge for 12-inch 15-to-20-minute "mini-albums"). I don't trust EPs, especially as marketed by the bigs, who are not above duplicating/remixing forthcoming album cuts or played-out singles in their pursuit of the cute little new-wave buck; on a cost-per-minute basis, EPs don't give good value like a good LP. But they're the ideal way for an undercaptitalized company to get music out there, and most local bands don't have an album's worth of material anyhow. The winner was the Specials' "Ghost Town," an augury of Britain's anti-police riots, which was all over the radio when Punjabis and 4 Skins inaugurated the hostilities last July; it came out here in an eerie remix that got 20 votes as a single, but since 24 voters liked the B-side ("Why?"/"Friday Night Saturday Morning") enough to put the three-song disc on their EP lists, that's how we slotted it.

The industry still classifies the Specials' label as an independent, but I call Chrysalis a major. Running a surprisingly strong second, though, was Never Say Never, by 415 Records' Romeo Void, a San Francisco band whose It's a Condition finished 17th among the LPs. (I suspect people of voting strictly for the title cut, an outburst of metasexual venom that's induced me to stand around the Ritz with my coat on, but I've never connected with the album, so what do I know?) And of the remaining nine finishers, only Lene Lovich and the Pretenders (whose follow-up album came in a dismal 87th) cracked an indie-dominated field. It's no surprise to see three bands from New York--99's ESG, American Clavé's DNA (Ar-to! Ar-to!), Lust/Unlust's Individuals--and three from Boston--Ace of Hearts's Lyres and Mission of Burma, Shoo-Bop's Peter Dayton--on the list. EPs speak to local loyalties, and Boston and New York are where the critics are. I just wonder what happened to L.A., source of three of my top 10, including the Descendents' "Fat" E.P., which tied for 15th with seven votes, none of them from Los Angeles.

Which brings us to what's supposed to be action central: the singles. In a way I do agree--I play my "street" (new code for black) 12-inches, especially my favorite rap records, more obsessively than anything to come my way since The Clash was an import. But not everybody sought the same action. Kristine McKenna was drawn to English dance music, Vince Aletti to some "street"-Brit synthesis. Despite the EP boom Ira Kaplan still got into lots of American independents; Tim Sommer concentrated on punk/oi/hardcore. Roger Glass listened mostly to black radio in Washington; Richard Riegel and the two daughters who helped him out on his list made do with AOR or A/C or AM or FM or whatever they're calling unlistenable crap in Cincinnati these days, and with a little help from Laurie Anderson he got by.

Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," one half of a dead heat for top single, was the pop event of the year--or rather, the other pop event of the year (what we counterculture pros call the alternative). Billed as an EP because its two sides run 8:12 and 5:55 (here at P&J we define as singles all discs comprising two songs, aural performances, or whatever), "O Superman" came out initially on One Ten, whose chief endeavor is an exhaustive new wave discography called Volume, and was already a phenomenon when John Peel and Rough Trade turned it into a British chart-smasher. After that Warners completed its pursuit of performance art's pride and took the record over. A real new wave fairy tale, and stay tuned for the sequel. But novelty records either get you or they don't, and though I'll take Anderson's paranoid whimsy over Napoleon XIV or Little Roger & the Goosebumps, it so happens that I prefer "Double Dutch Bus" and "Ode to Billie Joe." In fact, I also prefer its other half. The Rolling Stones' greatest anthem in a decade, "Start Me Up" is truer and braver than the increasingly rhetorical "Jumping Jack Flash" or the increasingly self-serving "It's Only Rock 'n Roll," not to mention the increasingly racist "Brown Sugar." But this is true not least because its central conceit--Mick as sex machine, complete with pushbutton--explains why the album it starts up never transcends hand-tooled excellence except when Sonny Rollins, uncredited, invades the Stones' space. Though it's as good in its way as "Street Fighting Man," how much you care about it depends entirely on how much you care about the Stones' technical difficulties. So I found myself rooting for "O Superman." "Start Me Up" may have been the more compelling aural performance. But "O Superman" was the more compelling pop event of the year.

Needless to say, I started rooting only when convinced that "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" would be held to third (assuming it outlasted Kim Carnes's pop event). "Wheels of Steel," the skeptic's (and aesthete's) 12-inch, is a mix rather than a rap, segueing bits of Chic, Queen, Blondie, three Sugarhill productions, and what sounds like a Flash Gordon serial into an ur-novelty that struts rap's will to reclaim and redefine popular culture. Though it finished 12 votes behind the leaders, it got four more votes than last year's winner, "The Breaks," a showing that typifies a year when more of the poll-topping singles could be heard on WBLS than WNEW, and in dance clubs than on the radio--a year when impecunious white journalists went out and bought Frankie Smith (tied for 12th) and the Funky Four Plus One (ninth) as if they imports, which in a sense I suppose they were.

For me, rap was only the tip of the joint. If the audacity of the new black dance music and its alternative (note term) economy didn't reach far enough to constitute a genuine pop event, it certainly resembled one. That a dance hook from Tina Weymouth & Co. (sixth) inspired two rap covers is no less heartening than that Rockpool chose to work with Taana Gardner (tied for 12th). Of course, the end of the year saw a new surge of Brit dance-synth shizzes like Pete Shelley and Soft Cell (tied for seventh); the new funk's alternative economy is even less idealistic than others that have come and gone;and all this tentative critical crossover occurred in a year when there were often only two or three black singles in the national top 20, a shocking retrogression to 1954 that's as much the fault of "progressive" radio (and journalism) as of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, barriers seem to be falling.

But as long as I've waited for those barriers to come down, my deepest musical pleasure this past year was the simple if time-consuming process of not missing any gooduns. This wasn't just a matter of establishing quick contact with late releases from Black Flag and Bohannon and Al Green, of finally landing copies of Z.Z. Hill and the Penguin Café Orchestra, of listening too long to David Lindley and Swamp Dogg. It also involved reevaluating a lot of records I'd adjudged just-fine-thanks and then cramming into my shelves. And while Johnny Copeland dropped down toward the bottom of my list and Aretha Franklin sounded more confused than her best album in a decade warranted, most of this music showed unexpected depth. The second side of Red gripped me almost as hard as the first, and without a "Youth of Eglington" to grab hold; the teeth Shoes have added to their charming formula nipped at my cerebellum; I remembered almost every song on Sly & Robbie Present Taxi; I winced with renewed amazement at 1981's most powerful music, the four songs that begin side two of Season of Glass. Never before have I sat down at the end of January with so many albums from the previous year so firmly imprinted in my head.

And so, to the lists:

First the EPs. Voters got to name five; I'm listing 10:

1. Descendents: "Fat" E.P. (New Alliance) 2. Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.) 3. Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip) 4. DNA: A Taste of DNA (American Clavé) 5. Propellor Product (Propellor) 6. Panics: "I Wanna Kill My Mom"/"Best Band"/"Tie Me Up, Baby!" (Gulcher) 7. Bebe Buell: Covers Girl (Rhino) 8. The Specials: "Ghost Town"/"Why?"/"Friday Night Saturday Morning" (Chrysalis) 9. Peter Dayton: Love at 1st Sight (Shoo-Bop) 10. Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts).

Then singles. I enjoyed 40 or 50, but only 25 totally killed me, with R.E.M. pending:

1. Funky Four Plus One: "That's the Joint" (Sugarhill 12-inch) 2. Taana Gardner: "Heartbeat" (West End 12-inch) 3. T.S. Monk: "Bon Bon Vie" (Mirage) 4. "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" (Sugarhill 12-inch) 5. Killing Joke: "Change" (Editions E.G. import) 6. Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force: "Zulu Nation Throw Down" (Paul Winley 12-inch) 7. Bits & Pieces: "Don't Stop the Music" (Mango 12-inch) 8. Medium Medium: "Hungry, So Angry" (Cachalot 12-inch) 9. Liliput: "Eisiger Wind" (Rough Trade import) 10. Black Flag: "Louie Louie" (Posh Boy)

11. The Treacherous Three: "The Body Rock" (Enjoy 12-inch) 12. Scritti Politti: "The 'Sweetest' Girl" (Rough Trade) 13. Yoko Ono: "Walking on Thin Ice"/"It Happened" (Geffen) 14. Teena Marie: "Square Biz" (Gordy) 15. Frankie Smith: "Double Dutch Bus" (WMOT 12-inch) 16. Depeche Mode: "New Life" (Mute import 12-inch) 17. Pete Shelley: "Homosapien" (Genetic import) 18. Kim Carnes: "Bette Davis Eyes" (EMI) 19. Trickeration: "Rap, Bounce, Rockskate"/"Western Gangster Town" (Sounds of New York 12-inch) 20. Rolling Stones: "Start Me Up" (Rolling Stones) 21. Spoonie Gee: "Spoonie Is Back" (Sugarhill 12-inch) 22. Chron-Gen: "Reality" (Step-Forward import) 23. Brother D. & Collective Effort: "How You Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise" (Clappers 12-inch) 24. Denroy Morgan: "I'll Do Anything for You" (Becket 12-inch) 15. Luther Vandross: "Never Too Much" (Epic).

And finally, the albums, all 60 of the gooduns I've found so far because I want to make a point:

1. Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 (Sugarhill) 19; 2. X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; 3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 13; 4. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: The Message (Sunny Alade import) 12; 5. English Beat: Wha'ppen? (Sire) 9; 6. David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" (Sire) 9; 7. Gang of Four: Solid Gold (Warner Bros.) 6; 8. Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk (Columbia) 6; 9. Human Switchboard: Who's Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 6; 10. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 5

11. Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 12. UB40: Present Arms (DEP International import) 13. Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (Private Parts): The Bar (Lovely) 14. Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15. The "King" Kong Compilation (Mango) 16. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (Geffen) 17. Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.) 18. The dB's: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 19. The Blasters: The Blasters (Slash) 20. Al Green: Higher Plane (Myrrh)

21. Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 22. The Clash: Sandanista! (Epic) 23. Gregory Isaacs: Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 (GG) 24. Sly and Robbie Present Taxi (Mango) 25. Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM) 26. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Bad Reputation (Boardwalk) 27. Shoes: Tongue Twister (Elektra) 28. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 29. Let Them Eat Jellybeans! (Virus import) 30. Penguin Cafe Orchestra (Editions EG)

31. Elvis Presley: This Is Elvis (RCA Victor) 32. Tom Tom Club (Sire) 33. Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 34. Shannon Jackson & the Decoding Society: Nasty (Moers Music import) 35. C81 (Rough Trade/NME import cassette) 36. Teena Marie: It Must Be Magic (Gordy) 37. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (ZE/Sire) 38. Marvin Gaye: In Our Lifetime (Gordy) 39. James Blood Ulmer: Free Lancing (Columbia) 40. Lucinda: Happy Woman Blues (Folkways)

41. Aretha Franklin: Love All the Hurt Away (Arista) 42. Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 43. Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 44. Z.Z. Hill: Down Home (Malaco) 45. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 46. Sir Douglas Quintet: Border Wave (Takoma) 47. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M) 48. David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 49. Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia) 50. Bohannon: Alive (Phase II)

51. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 52. Warren Zevon: Stand in the Fire (Asylum) 53. Mofungo: End of the World (unlabeled cassette) 54. Garland Jeffreys: Escape Artist (Epic) 55. John Anderson: 2 (Warner Bros.) 56. Johnny Copeland: Copeland Special (Rounder) 57. Muddy Waters: King Bee (Blue Sky) 58. Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 59. Smokey Robinson: Being with You (Tamla) 60. Basement 5: 1965-1980 (Antilles).

Somewhere hereabouts you will find Lester Bangs's ballot, a rather less sanguine document which I've reprinted in toto because I think it's inspired, provocative, funny, and dead wrong. I dissent with special emphasis, of course, from "the lie that anybody else finds it vital" etc., even though the prevailing critical mood is more or less (less, but with Lester that's a given) as he describes it. Kit Rachlis, editor of the wonderful Boston Phoenix music section and a critic I value as much as I do Bangs, took it more temperately and from a different historical angle: "[This] is not to say that there haven't been any good records--I have no trouble naming 30--only to say that there's not a great record in the bunch, no record so fierce and reckless and nimble that it will affect listeners just as strongly in five or 10 years as it does now." Lester says nothing gets him off now as much as the music of the past did (and does); Kit says nothing gets him off as much as it should now because it won't get him off (as much as it should) in the future. Both assume what has always been the underlying aim of rock criticism even more than of rock and roll: to transform the thrill-seeking impulses of adolescence into a workable aesthetic if not philosophy if not way of life.

If it sounds like I'm making fun, then I'm making fun of myself (good policy for rock critics even more than rock musicians). I certainly fell for punk, new wave, whatever you want to call it, the basic appeal of which (at least for critics) was the gift of eternal life, or at least the ancient promise of Danny & the Juniors: "Rock and roll is here to stay." And now new wave is here to stay. But it's been five years since punk failed to conquer America (or Britain either, truth be told). There are in fact a whole new bunch of punks out there, and we'll be hearing from them (though I can't say I find much demographic significance in Tim Sommer's fierce prediction that "within weeks" the fans of Heart Attack, a moderately nifty Great Neck hardcore band, will "far outnumber" the critics supporting Grandmaster Flash and Prince, who got 44 and 30 mentions respectively). Meanwhile, what's going on for the rest of us is a consolidation, and if we're lucky a reaching out. By definition this isn't a thrill-packed project, and its disappointments and uncertainties can be daunting. So Lester, an ace critic because he takes everything hard, is bitterly disappointed because "almost all current music is fraudulent" and "worthless" (and also because his friend Richard Hell, never a model of fortitude, hasn't thought up a title for his unreleased album). And Kit, an ace editor because he puts everything in context, is downcast because no record released in 1981 has (will have) the impact and staying power of 1980's Dirty Mind or 1979's Into the Music (by Van Morrison, in case you forgot, which would be too bad) or 1978's Pure Mania (by the unjustly neglected Vibrators, though for impact and staying power I'll take Parallel Lines myself).

It's plain as the light on your stereo that the voters went for Sandanista! to fend off such uncertainty and disappointment. Most critics I know, Kit included, love a lot of it (my January recommendation is Rebel Waltz), but find it frustrating to approach even one side at a time, much less as a whole. With 199 ballots counted this year and 201 last, it got only two-thirds the points of London Calling, averaging under 13 where London Calling was over 15. Yet there are those, Lester included, who much prefer it, for the incontrovertible reason that it takes risks--a whole side of dub, Tymon Dogg, Mikey Dread, the very size of the thing, even the title. And sometimes it gets away with them--who would have thought that the Clash could come up with a "street" record like "Magnificent Dance," a triumph that consolidates, reaches out, and thrills all at once?

But in the end I remain unconverted. For political art I'll take Red Crayola, more sophisticated if less soulful, or Gang of Four, ditto but with a more significant groove, or the (English) Beat, apparently the opposite but don't bet against their smarts, or for that matter Al Green, pushing the same message as the former Robert Zimmerman and supposed new wavers U2 and making me like it. And for risks and what Lester calls vitality I'll take the folks at Sugarhill, both the profiteers who've put together the funkiest house band since Stax-Volt and the aural graffiti artists who come in boasting and jiving as if the American dream retains its magic only in places like the South Bronx, where it's been ravaged altogether. Talk about significant grooves--the most possessed punks never had more spirit or imagination, and here's hoping (not necessarily expecting) that the rappers will grow in wisdom eventually. Still, I'd be hard put to claim that Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 is on a par with London Calling or Dirty Mind (though I'd rank it with Into the Music or Parallel Lines). It really wasn't a year for instant greatness--it was a year for consolidation and reaching out.

Consolidations take time to sink in. Moondance and Layla, as far removed from Aftermath and Rubber Soul as we are from The Clash and Marquee Moon, didn't reveal themselves immediately as great albums. Real good, sure; great, who knew? It took years--and it could happen again. No less than three of the Pazz & Jop top 11--four if you count Dreamtime--confront a theme native to r&b and country music. You can't call it marriage because there's no sign that the couples who carp and coo through Who's Landing in My Hangar? or flay and fuck through Wild Gift want to make it legal or permanent. But they don't want to just split, either, and their best advice might well be found on Trust, Elvis C.'s most mature, musical, and morally assured album. He'd probably warn them not to seek so many thrills, and they'd probably nod yes and go after a few more in spite of themselves, because that's rock and roll. Trust certainly lacks the punchy immediacy of This Year's Model, but no one can measure its lasting impact. Real good, sure; great, who knows?

And if real good is where Trust (and my other sleeper, Wha'ppen?) should end up, so be it--I'll still reach out. Popular music seems as fragmented as in the dog days of 1975--nothing is certain, good records are nowhere and everywhere. But things have changed utterly. While major-label cutbacks continue, more discs are produced by more companies than ever before. Some of these new labels are staffed by laid-off bizzers who actually like music, more by novices who succumbed back when punk was failing to conquer America. All work with acts that in flusher times the biz would have taken a flier on. Their costs (and expectations) are so low that CBS's flop looks like Impoverished's smasheroo (when an indie album sells 10,000 copies it is said to "go vinyl"). And it is these labels that make the difference between dog days and cool nites.

It's become almost redundant to point out how few of our critics' top 40 go gold--14 last year, seven this. Among white artists, only the Stones, the Police, and--'scuse me--Rickie Lee Jones qualify, with Tom Tom Club on the way, though in black music, where aesthetics and economics are still in some kind of alignment, Rick James, Prince, and Luther Vandross all have major hits. But the failure of many conglomerates and established "independents" to even crack the list is something new. Polygram, MCA, RCA, Arista, and Chrysalis all placed in 1980 and were shut out in 1981, with WEA (which also includes Sire, Island, Geffen, Rolling Stones, and Asylum as well as Warner-Reprise) up slightly and Columbia/Epic down one. Meanwhile, independents--some traditional (Boardwalk), some major-affiliated (Mango and I.R.S., which distributes Faulty), some in one-off deals (ZE and EG), and some completely autonomous (Slash and 415)--scored 10 times, a gain of four, with imports up from two to four (including two by the dB's, whose domestically unsigned status is the shame of New York). My own list of 60 includes 21 indies and six imports (three of them once again by American artists).

The flood of marginal product makes the boundaries of criticism vaguer. In the '70s I used to try and hear everything, and in my way I still do, but no longer with even the theoretical expectation of success. There are still domestic '81s I haven't acquired (U. Utah Phillips, Lockwood & Shines, T.S.O.L., Circle Jerks), imports are completely impossible (don't own Repercussions or The Mekons yet), and that's only albums. Moreover, I'm on most mailing lists, which even at the majors is an accomplishment--freelancers now buy or trade for at least half the records they like, and I'll bet that most of the voters haven't heard half the albums on my list. That's what's so remarkable about Rick James's showing. Motown is notoriously stingy with review copies, and James isn't a safe fave from the '60s like Stevie or Smokey or Marvin Gaye. He's cheap and he's flashy and critics heard his album the way everybody else did--after buying it because they liked the singles on the radio. Another pop event, and more power to all concerned (except Motown's publicity department).

But marginal capitalism obviously works to disseminate as well as to soften the collective focus. In fact, with everybody making their own shoestring records and undertaking their own shoestring tours, the concept of the local band has become cloudy if not totally overcast in just three years. The Blasters, 30th on the album list, won our competition with 14 votes, while X--who swept the category last year, and whose label status is identical to the Blasters' (though one hears Elektra is on the case)--only got four, three more than Ernest Tubb, Clifton Chenier, and Steve & Eydie. For the record, Glenn Branca's seven votes made him the surprise New York winner (his album came in 51st), with the dB's second at six and the Bongos, the Raybeats, DNA, and Grandmaster Flash tied at five. Mission of Burma, Romeo Void, the Suburbs, R.E.M., and Rank & File (former Dils now located in Austin) also impressed, and I'd like to hear D.C.'s Trouble Funk. Los Angeles's Hornets Attack Victor Mature won the newly established Poly Styrene Best Name Award, with Phil 'n' the Blanks (Chicago), Little Bears from Bangkok (Seattle), the Better Beatles (Lincoln, Nebraska), and the Fibonaccis (L.A.) close behind. But though in the past high-ranking locals have often ended up making good records, and though new American bands took a leap among the critics (from four up to 11) even whilst the new wave mainstream sucked up N.M.E. blather, I'm not confident that the process will continue forever. Localism means just that--rock and roll dialects don't always translate, and when they do what is said can seem derivative or limited.

But to say music is derivative is not to say it lacks "vitality" or "authenticity," and to say its impact is limited is not say that it goes nowhere. The original winners of the 1981 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll have inspired a lot of loose talk this year about rock and roll as professional entertainment rather than insurrectionary culture. But almost no one asked why the soundtrack to this talk had so much more impact than comparable albums by such veteran professional entertainers as Muddy Waters and Doug Sahm--which was that the Rolling Stones used to pass themselves off as creators of insurrectionary culture, and very likely believed it, since it was true. Seekers after insurrectionary culture shouldn't let professionalism get them down--it comes with the territory. At times when greatness fails to announce itself, they should hand up their John the Baptist costumes and get down to the job of figuring out which professionals have a bead on how to transform thrills into a way of life. It's a problem that breaks into a hundred problems, and there are thousands of answers.


Sample Ballots

VINCE ALETTI (alphabetical): Laurie Anderson: "O Superman"/"Walk the Dog" (One, Ten/Warner Bros.); Blondie: "Rapture" (Chrysalis import); Bo Kool: "(Money) No Love" (Tania import); The Clash: "The Magnificent Dance" (Epic); Coati Mundi: "Me No Pop Eye" (Antilles/ZE); Funky Four Plus One: "That's the Joint" (Sugarhill); Taana Gardner: "Heartbeat" (West End); the Quick: "Zulu" (Pavilion); Strikers: "Body Music" (Prelude); Tom Tom Club: "Genius of Love" (Sire).

TOM CARSON: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; Human Switchboard: Who's Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 15; Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 15; Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast 15; Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15; The Swimming Pool Q's (DB) 5; David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 5; Suburbs: Credit in Heaven (Twin/Tone) 5; English Beat: Wha'ppen? (Sire) 5; Pretenders II (Sire) 5.

TOM CARSON: Yoko Ono: Walking on Thin Ice--For John (Geffen); Romeo Void: Never Say Never; Descendents: "Fat" E.P. (New Alliance); Propellor Product (Propellor); Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip).

TOM CARSON: R.E.M.: "Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still" (Hib-Tone); "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" (Sugarhill); Funky Four Plus One: "That's the Joint" (Sugarhill); Rick James: "Super Freak" (Gordy); Babylon Dance Band: "When I'm Home"/"Remains of the Beat" (Babylon Dance Band); Bob Dylan: "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" (Columbia); Frankie Smith: "Double Dutch Bus" (WMOT); Go-Go's: "Our Lips Are Sealed" (I.R.S.); Replacements: "I'm in Trouble"/ "If Only You Were Lonely" (Twin/Tone); Billy Idol with Gen X: "Dancing with Myself" (Chrysalis).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 25; The dB's: Stands for Decibels (Albion) 20; Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 15; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" (Sire) 10; Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 5; Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 5; Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 5; Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M) 5; Human Switchboard: Who's Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 5.

JOHN FOSTER: John Gavanti (Hyrax) 30; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 10; David Thomas & the Pedestrians: The Sound of the Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrian (Rough Trade) 10; Killing Joke: . . . What's This For? (Editions EG) 10; X: Wild Gift (Slash) 9; Dark Day: Exterminating Angel (Infidelity) 8; Zounds: Curse of Zounds (Rough Trade import) 8; Furors: Juke Box Album (Hit Man) 5; Eugene Chadbourne: There'll Be No Tears Tonight (Parachute) 5; C. W. Vrtacek: Victory Through Grace (Leisure Time) 5.

NELSON GEORGE: Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 20; Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 15; Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Black President (Arista import) 10; Chaka Khan: What'cha Gonna Do for Me (Warner Bros.) 10; Ray Parker & Raydio: A Woman Needs Love (Arista) 10; Maze featuring Frankie Beverly: Live in New Orleans (Capitol) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia) 10; Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 5; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA); Curtis Mayfield: Love Is the Place (Boardwalk) 5.

ROGER GLASS: Quincy Jones: "Just Once" (A&M); Grover Washington, Jr.: "Just the Two of Us" (Elektra); Grace Jones: "Pull Up to the Bumper" (Island); Barbra Streisand: "Guilty" (Columbia); Smokey Robinson: "Being with You" (Tamla); Denroy Morgan: "I'll Do Anything for You" (Becket); Mike and Brenda Sutton: "We'll Make It" (Sam); Rita Marley: "Sin Sin" (Tuff Gong import); Skyy: "Call Me" (Salsoul); T.S. Monk: "Bon Bon Vie" (Mirage).

PABLO GUZMAN: Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 20; Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections (Arista) 20; Devo: New Traditionalists (Warner Bros.) 10; The Clash: Sandanista! (Epic) 10; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" (Sire) 10; Jerry Harrison: The Red and the Black (Sire) 10; Eddie Palmieri (Barbaro) 5; The Police: Ghost in the Machine (A&M) 5; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (ZE/Sire) 5; Was (Not Was) (Island/ZE) 5.

IRA KAPLAN (alphabetical): Cramps: "Goo Goo Muck"/"She Said" (I.R.S.); Cyclones: "You're So Cool"/"RSVP" (Little Ricky); Fleetwood Mac: "Farmer's Daughter" (Warner Bros.); Funky Four Plus One: "That's the Joint" (Sugarhill); Vic Godard and Subway Sect: "Stop That Girl" (Oddball import); Grace Jones: "Pull Up to the Bumper" (Island); Kinks: "Better Things" (Arista); R.E.M.: "Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still" (Hib-Tone); Skeletons: "Trans Am"/"Tell Her I'm Gone" (Borrowed); Voggue: "Dance the Night Away" (Atlantic).

GREIL MARCUS: Go-Go's: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.) 20; David Lindley: El-Rayo-X (Asylum) 20; Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 15; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Reactor (Reprise) 10; The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 10; Joy Division: Still (Factory import) 5; Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.) 5; The "King" Kong Compilation (Mango) 5; Au Pairs: Playing with a Different Sex (Human) 5; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Mekons: Die Mekons (Pure Freud import); Descendents: "Fat" E.P. (New Alliance); Vivienne Goldman: Dirty Washing (99); Romeo Void: Never Say Never.

KRISTINE MCKENNA: James Brown: "Rapp Payback" (Polydor); Passions: "I'm in Love with a German Film Star" (Polydor import); Bob Dylan: "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" (Columbia); Cure: "Primary" (Fiction import); Human League: "Hard Times" (Virgin import); Heaven 17: "Fascist Groove Thing" (B.E.F. import); Psychedelic Furs: "Dumb Waiters" (CBS import); Spandau Ballet: "Chant Number One" (Chrysalis); Foreigner: "Urgent" (Atlantic).

JON PARELES (unweighted): David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" (Sire); Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.); Ronald Shannon Jackson: Eye on You (About Time); Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.); Glenn Branca: The Ascension (99); Congos: Heart of the Congos (Go Feet import); Was (Not Was) (ZE); Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.); King Crimson: Discipline (Warner Bros.); Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia).

RICHARD RIEGEL: Rick James: "Super Freak" (Gordy); J. Geils Band: "Centerfold" (EMI America); Rolling Stones: "Start Me Up" (Rolling Stones); Blondie: "Rapture" (Chrysalis); Talking Heads: "Once in a Lifetime" (Sire); Kinks: "Destroyer" (Arista); Yoko Ono: "Kiss Kiss Kiss" (Geffen); Rick Springfield: "Jessie's Girl" (RCA Victor); David Johansen: "Here Comes the Night" (Blue Sky); Pat Benatar: "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" (Chrysalis).

DOUG SIMMONS: Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts); Minor Threat (Dischord); Mission of Burma: Signals, Calls and Marches (Ace of Hearts); S.O.A.: No Policy (Dischord); Unknown: Dream Sequence (Sire).

TIM SOMMER: Flipper: "Ha Ha Ha" (Subterranean); Cure: "Primary" (Fiction import); Misfits: "London Dungeon" (Plan 9 import); Temple Tudor: "Swords of a Thousand Men" (Stiff); Black Flag: "Louie Louie" (Posh Boy); Exploited: "Dead Cities" (Secret import); the Gas: "Ignore Me" (Polydor import); Secret Affair: "Dance Master"/"Do You Know" (I Spy import); APB: "Chain Reaction" (Oily); the Business: "Harry May"/"National Insurance Blacklist" (Secret import).

Village Voice, Feb. 1, 1982


1980 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1982