Pazz and Jop 2006

The votes are in, and the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll for 2006 declares the winner for 2006 … Bob Dylan. No big surprise. I had predicted Dylan would win the poll a while back, but then as I saw many magazines picking TV on the Radio for No. 1, I began to think that group might eclipse Dylan. TV on the Radio won the Idolator Web site’s new poll (an upstart rival to Pazz and Jop). Dylan ended up narrowly defeating TV on the Radio in a very close finish – which probably goes to show that Pazz and Jop has an older demographic of voters than Idolator. Click here to see the Pazz and Jop survey. I’m glad to see I did my part to put Neko Case, Gnarls Barkley and Tom Waits in the top 10. The Gnarls boys, however, didn’t really need my help in their runaway win for the single of the year, “Crazy.” (That picture up above is an illustration by David O’Keefe from the Voice’s Web site.)

ADDED NOTE (2/10/07): Holy cow! I just realized that the race between Bob Dylan and TV on the Radio was so tight that I alone could have tipped the balance. In fact, I thought about putting TV on the Radio in my top 10, but it just barely missed the cut. (I liked the Dylan record, but not enough to make it a contender.) If I had put TV on the Radio on my list and given it at least 15 points (voters are allowed to give each record from 5 to 30 points), that would have put it over the top. Take about the power of one vote!

The poll’s top ten albums are:
1. Bob Dylan, Modern Times – points: 1123(95)
2. TV on the Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain – points: 1109(99)
3. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale – points: 1031(96)
4. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America – points: 983(81)
5. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere – points: 791(71)
6. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – points: 718(63)
7. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury – points: 673(63)
8. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood – points: 645(64)
9. Joanna Newsom, Ys – points: 626(59)
10. Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards – points: 608(51)

The poll’s top ten singles are:
1. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy” – points: 151
2. T.I., “What You Know” – points: 55
3. Christina Aguilera, “Ain’t No Other Man” – points: 54
4. Justin Timberlake featuring T.I., “My Love” – points: 53
5. The Raconteurs, “Steady, As She Goes” – points: 43
6. Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland, “Promiscuous” – points: 41
7. Justin Timberlake, “Sexyback” – points: 38
8. Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready To Make Nice” – points: 34
9. (tie) Lupe Fiasco, “Kick, Push” – points: 32
Arctic Monkeys, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” – points: 32

You can see my Pazz and Jop ballot here. Here’s how my albums and singles finished in the poll.

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood – Finished at No. 8 in the poll
2. My Brightest Diamond, Bring Me the Workhorse – Finished at 252
3. Midlake, The Trials Of Van Occupanther – Finished at 46
4. Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards – Finished at 10
5. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere – Finished at 5
6. M. Ward, Post War – Finished at 54
7. Bat for Lashes, Fur and Gold – Finished at 1280 (I was the only critic who voted for it)
8. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time – Finished at 23
9. Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped – Finished at 12
10. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Letting Go – Finished at 102

1. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy” – Finished at No. 1 in the poll
2. TV on the Radio, “Wolf Like Me” – Finished at 13
3. Neko Case, “Hold On, Hold On” – Finished at 73
4. M. Ward, “Chinese Translation” – Finished at 223
5. Belle and Sebastian, “Another Sunny Day” – Finished at 91
6. Cat Power, “The Greatest” – Finished at 27
7. Kelley Stoltz, “Ever Thought of Coming Back” – Finished at 384 (I was the only critic who voted for it)
8. Oneida, “Up with People” – Finished at 153
9. The Raconteurs, “Steady, As She Goes” – Finished at 5
10. Portastatic, “You Blanks” – Finished at 384 (I was the only critic who voted for it)

…And here are some of my thoughts on the past year in music. (This is an essay I submitted to the Village Voice along with my ballot. It did not make it into print there, so here it is…)

When 2006 was just a few days old, Jon Langford talked with me about music, death and music about death. Langford, the Welsh punk who somehow became the reigning king of Chicago’s alt-country scene, was a little paint-spattered from a morning of making art as he sat down for a lunch at a cafĂ© that was mostly populated by moms and toddlers. I asked him why murder ballads had once been so common.

“I think it’s kind of liberating for people,” he said. “Pop music struggled with and eventually rejected it. And now pop music’s essentially sanitized to the point where there’s no drinking, cheating or killing songs on country radio – although the movies are full of fantasy, death and violence. A lot of those folk songs were talking about real events. Maybe society is censoring itself. The mainstream cannot deal with this material anymore.”

Langford’s right as far as mainstream country music goes, although there’s more than enough violence in hip-hop lyrics. But while plenty of pop culture is sanitized for our protection, the wildest music out past the frontiers of the mainstream no longer seems as distant as it did a few years ago.

The revolution that the music industry’s been bracing for is happening now. Even as Langford sings about “The Death of Country Music,” the possibilities for new kinds of music being made – and actually heard by substantial audiences – feel limitless. Greil Marcus once wrote about a bygone era of folk music as “The Old, Weird America.” That epoch will never return, but we’re entering a new, weird America.

It still often feels like we’re being told what sort of music we should like, whether it’s a pop-up ad from a record label or some anonymous blogger who’s telling us. But there’s a lot more music, a lot more people weighing in on what’s cool, and a lot more places where you can download the tunes.

Pop music and that amorphous subset of pop called indie rock still flit from one fad to another, but there’s a new sense that anything goes. The entire past is fair game for musical influences. That means everything from creaky old murder ballads to the squarest of lounge music to the bombast of ’70s arena rock. Musicians no longer need worry about being laughed off the stage for playing a melodica. Can a comeback for the hurdy-gurdy or a polka revival be far behind?

In the old stereotypes of demographic profiles, teens and twentysomethings wanted their music loud and bouncy. Give the kids some candy. Now, youthful crowds listen and watch with rapt attention as Joanna Newsom, a singer with a freaky voice, plucks her harp and spins twenty-minute literary epics or an orchestra plays sophisticated string arrangements behind the soft sounds of Sufjan Stevens. Audiences are embracing the quietest of music along with the loudest, solo guys and gals quietly streaming their guitars as well as huge, sprawling ensembles that call themselves collectives rather than bands.

It’s cheap now to record your own music and distribute it, so there’s a glut. A lot of crap, but a lot of great music, too. The two most telling sound bites from the 2006 South By Southwest Music Conference were diametrically opposed comments about the proliferation of musical acts. Morrissey remarked, “Most music we don’t react to, because it’s dreadful. I think maybe there’s too many people making music.” Meanwhile, singer Eddie Argos gleefully asked the audience at a concert by his band, Art Brut: “Are you in a band?” I’ll go with Argos on this one. The more, the merrier.

And the more music, the more weird music there is. The weirdest is still too offbeat to get much airplay, but no one with a high-speed Internet connection needs to feel restricted to using an old-fashioned radio or buying CDs at Wal-Mart.

As 2006 came to an end, I interviewed the legendary Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy. He reminisced about Chicago in the 1950s, when some blocks had blues clubs and record stores at almost every other address. He complained about today’s radio stations playing the same short list of pop tunes by superstars over and over.

“It’s like, I don’t know what your favorite meal is, but if they give it to you every day for six weeks, sooner or later, you’re going to say, ‘Buddy Guy, bring me some of them red beans and rice. I’m tired of this turkey.’ So that’s what time it is now. When we had all the AM stations, you could make a record and take it up to a disc jockey who had the right to play it. Now days, you’ve got program directors that give the disc jockey the records to play, and they’d better not play nothing than what they was told to play.”

Like Langford, Guy is right – up to a point. It’s been turkey time for too long on corporate mainstream radio. And yet, there’s a whole new world out there, with satellite radio station and Web sites where you can hear all sorts of music. The old days are gone, but we’re entering a time when you can once again hand your record to the DJ with some hope of getting it played – except that it’s an mp3 file and you’re sending it to a blog.