Archive forFebruary, 2005

GERIATRICS LOVE COMPANY

    The nominees are better, and so is the show. Now if only the Grammy people could do something about those darned winners….

Three days after the Grammys, critics are in virtual agreement: the 2005 edition of the music industry awards show was the best – or at least the most memorable, or maybe just the least embarrassing – in years.

Of course, the pundits can’t agree on what they liked. Slate’s Jody Rosen calls the theatrical reading of “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West “the night’s best performance,” while John Pareles at The New York Times labels it “strange.” Of a Janis Joplin tribute, Pareles says flatly that “neither the young English singer Joss Stone nor Melissa Etheridge could live up to the Janis Joplin songs they worked over”; while the folks at HITS say Etheridge’s take on “Piece of My Heart” was “the night’s most poignant moment,” noting that “the hairless Etheridge” was making her first appearance since announcing she had breast cancer. Salon’s Neal Pollack calls the all-star tsunami-relief performance of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” “absolutely magnificent,” while the Times’s Pareles calls it “earnest but shaky.” (I’m with Pareles on that one.)

About the only thing the critics all agree on in is this: Marc Anthony, please don’t ever, ever sing with your tone-deaf wife again.

Still, despite assorted nitpicking, you can sense the general shock from the peanut gallery – sound the trumpets, the Grammys were interesting! Salon’s Pollack summed it up best: “It feels like the moment when the music business has finally matured; culture has met commerce at the crossroads, and they’ve shaken hands in friendship.”

Even U2’s Bono – not exactly a man who’s had a bad time at awards shows – sounded stunned when he declared from the stage, “This is the best Grammys I’ve ever seen.” (Bono is a smarmy performer but a witty music-business pundit. Sometime, I have to dig up an interview he did a few years back with the Times in which he brilliantly identified record-label staff as “silkscreen-jacket-wearing men,” code for a particular brand of New York bridge-and-tunnel goombah. Genius.)

The Grammy show tends to showcase performers who are up for awards that night. So the show gets better when the nominees get better – and this year’s nominees were pretty darn good. Salon’s Pollack points out how the Grammys – in their modest, mainstream way – covered a surprising number of acclaimed releases this year: “Kanye West, check. Green Day, check. Franz Ferdinand, check. Modest Mouse, Loretta Lynn and Jack White, Alicia Keys, check, check, check.”

Truth is, if you’ve been paying attention, the Grammy nominees have been getting gradually less embarrassing for about a decade now. As I chronicled two years ago in my 2003 Grammy blog post, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) made an important overhaul to the nominating process around 1995, right after Tony Bennett won Album of the Year for an Unplugged record that probably never should have been nominated. Stung by criticism that only aging or slick performers got nominated and won, NARAS took away the nominating responsibility from the entire Academy voting body and assigned it to hand-picked committees, which sift through the year’s recordings and come up with the nominees. This way, at least the voters have decent stuff to choose from.

This nominating system is vaguely similar to the Motion Picture Academy’s system for the Oscars, and it has the same pros and cons. For the Oscars, nominees are chosen by their peers – actors by actors, cinematographers by cinematographers, documentary features by documentarians. Obviously, we all have complaints with the people the Academy chooses to nominate (Roberto Begnini, anyone?), or not (Paul Giamatti, anyone?), but on the whole it’s a sane system, guaranteeing that at least some of the deserving people and films will get a nod. Not to be elitist or undemocratic, but as lame as the Oscars are, imagine what would happen if the entire Academy – from studio execs to prop men – were choosing, say, screenplay nominees. Imagine the five pieces of shit the voters would have to choose from if the nominating process were open to everyone.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it: prior to 1995, this was more or less the Grammy system, the one that brought you a Best New Artist nomination for Milli Vanilli.

The thing is, Milli Vanilli didn’t just get nominated for Best New Artist, they won. Had there been nominating committees in 1990, perhaps Rob and Fab would not even have been nominated, and the voters wouldn’t have been tempted into making Grammy’s most embarrassing blunder. Still, 15 years later, Grammy voters haven’t learned their lesson. This year, presented with a Best New Artist choice of Kanye West, Gretchen Wilson, Los Lonely Boys and Maroon5, the Grammy voters went with…wait for it…Maroon5, the cheesiest, poppiest choice of the bunch.

Which brings us to the downside of both the Grammy system and the Oscar system: you can lead a horse to four pools of tasteful water and one pool of schlocky water, but you can’t make him drink out of the tasteful pools. You can lay out a huge plate of crunchy vegetables and a small bowl of Skittles, and the candy will be gone. You can, in the spirit of inclusiveness, nominate both Kanye West and Maroon5, both Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, but you should expect the Maroon5s and Gumps to beat the Kanyes and Pulps every time.

This is how Ray Charles’s well intentioned but third-rate Genius Loves Company beat Usher, Kanye and Green Day for Album of the Year. Include a cheesy, comfort-food choice among the nominees – something that makes the senior-most members of the Academy sigh with relief – and the voters will gravitate toward it. Occasionally, in this race, we get lucky: just last year the Grammy went to OutKast’s forward-looking double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. (A rare moment of taste for the Grammy voters? Maybe – but don’t forget that middle-aged people really liked “Hey Ya!”) But more often, Album of the Year goes to someone like Santana or Steely Dan, about 25 years after they were actually interesting.

Record of the Year was even more embarrassing. Presented with a choice of Usher’s “Yeah!” (the year’s most popular single), West’s “Jesus Walks” (the year’s most acclaimed artist), Green Day’s “American Idiot” (the year’s biggest comeback act), Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” (the year’s most-beloved country song) and a somnolent, little-heard duet between Charles and Norah Jones, which song would you pick to sum up 2004? Clearly, you are not a Grammy voter.

The obvious followup question is, why do the nominating committees give the voters that option in the first place? Who knows? The committees probably include a number of old-school voters. And it must be hard not to include those middle-of-the-road favorites; I can’t fault the nominators for wanting to recognize Brother Ray in the year of his passing.

In fact, the committees tried to skew things the right way, nominating Charles eight times and the more-deserving Kanye 10 times, the most nominations of any artist going into Grammy night. But guess who finished with more statues? Final score: Charles 8, West 3. It’s heartbreaking to see the Grammy voters making such poor choices when the organizers worked so hard to make everything else on the show go right.

In short, if you want to enjoy the Grammys, think like a Cubs fan. Enjoy the season. Enjoy the big show. Just try not to pay attention to who gets the trophy. And remember, there’s always next year….

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HIPPY-HOPPY, PAZZY-JOPPY: MY TOP RECORDS OF 2004

    After more than a dozen years of making year-end top 10 lists, I finally get to share them with more than a dozen people.

I wonder if the other 792 critics who took part in the 2004 Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll procrastinated as badly as I did.

It was 3 January 2005, about 4 p.m. My suitcase was still packed, my jacket tossed over a chair. Our plane back from Chicago, where we’d spent New Year’s, had touched down just over an hour before. I’d left Emily in the city to have drinks with friends, while I sped home, flipped on my laptop and frantically shuffled CDs through my stereo and cycled my iPod’s dial like a drug-fueled mouse on a wheel.

The e-mail I got from Chuck Eddy at the Voice in early December had declared the 3rd as the deadline, but back then I didn’t believe they’d stick to that (two days after New Year’s? everybody’s back-to-work day? no way). Then Eddy’s post-Christmas followup e-mail sounded even more severe. I figured, as the new guy, I’d better be punctual for once in my life.

By 5:00 – well, maybe 5:15 – my top 10 picks for the best albums and singles of 2004 were in. Here they are:

2004 ALBUMS

1 Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (djdangermouse.com)
2 Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
3 Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)
4 TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go)
5 Scissor Sisters (Universal)
6 Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
7 Green Day, American Idiot (Reprise)
8 Kelis, Tasty (Star Trak/Arista)
9 Madvillain, Madvillainy (Stones Throw)
10 U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)

2004 SINGLES

1 Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out” (Domino)
2 Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)
3 Avril Lavigne, “My Happy Ending” (RCA)
4 Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman” (Epic Nashville)
5 Prince, “Cinnamon Girl” (NPG/Columbia)
6 Modest Mouse, “Float On” (Epic)
7 Nelly featuring Tim McGraw, “Over And Over” (Curb/Derrty/Fo’ Real)
8 Mario Winans featuring Enya & P. Diddy, “I Don’t Wanna Know” (Bad Boy)
9 JoJo, “Leave (Get Out)” (Da Family/Blackground)
10 J-Kwon, “Tipsy” (So So Def)

Amazingly – considering I came up with them in less than 90 minutes – these lists have stood up pretty well. I thought my haste in compiling them would make me regret them later. And sure, I kind of wish I’d heard the Arcade Fire record sooner, that I’d heard the M.I.A. single at all. But by and large, rereading my lists this week, as the Voice’s Pazz & Jop issue hits New York newsstands and my very own P&J page goes live, I am pretty happy with them.

As it turns out, my lists may have been a little too “good.” I am the third most Critically Aligned critic in the country, according to this website by Glenn McDonald. A Pazz & Jop participant and obsessive, McDonald is not affiliated with the Voice but has been processing the P&J numbers for the last few years to see which of the hundreds of participating critics agree most closely with the final, aggregated results.

I’ve been following P&J for years myself, and I’ve noticed that every year almost all of my (unpublished) top 10 albums make the final list, usually pretty high up. Now, I have mathematical proof: I am, very nearly, the Everycritic. Had I actually voted for the Arcade Fire record – and had I liked Brian Wilson’s SMiLE – I might have had the title to myself. I’m not sure I’m proud of this.

The mere fact that someone is running stats as if rock critics were baseball players might suggest to you how closely Pazz & Jop is followed, in certain rarefied circles. I was telling Emily last night that being a rock critic and getting invited to take part in P&J is like being a comedian and being permitted to join the Friars’ Club. Sure, more civilians have heard of the Friars than have heard of Pazz & Jop, but unlike rock critics, comedians are on TV.

Full disclosure: I asked to join P&J, on the recommendation of my college friend Ted, who’s been taking part for years. See, it really is like joining a country club. A very geeky, pale, unathletic, Libeskind-glasses-wearing country club.

Every Feburary, you’ve got the Grammys. The week before, like clockwork, hundreds of critics have their say in Pazz & Jop, as a kind of corrective to the Recording Academy’s cheesy tastes. Saying that P&J is hipper than the Grammys is like saying Wonder Bread is more nutritious than Cool Whip. Critics may be cooler than Grammy voters but they are also doctrinaire as all get-out, and P&J is basically their annual exercise in groupthink, anointing those records that fall in that sweet spot of Critically Acclaimed Indie-boy Fetish Properties. White rock acts cannot be popular, unless their last name is Dylan, Springsteen or (this year) Wilson. Hip-hop acts can be as popular as they want. Affirmative action is alive and well in rock criticism.

The New York–centric poll is widely followed, jealously dismissed and casually sneered at by record geeks nationwide. If you’re a published U.S. rock critic, you are required to pretend not to give a shit about Pazz & Jop while secretly campaigning to take part in it, after which you are required to act even more like you don’t give a shit.

I admit, and have admitted for years, that I do give a shit. I will probably never have a review published in Rolling Stone – another milestone I’m supposed to pretend not to want – but I’ve always felt it would validate my career (well, my busman’s holiday) to join the P&J brethren. If there’s one thing critics love doing, even if they strenuously deny it, it’s year-end top 10 lists. As both a rock critic and a Billboard chart–following überdork, I like doing them a little too much.

Not counting high school and college, I’ve been a published music critic for more than 11 years now. Including college, I have produced year-end top 10 lists for 15 years. For at least half of those years, the only people reading my lists were a few dozen friends. It seemed a shame to be agonizing over top 10s every year if only my beleaguered friends – kind enough to read the e-mails I shoved into their IN-boxes every February – could see them. (About five years ago, I had one friend who wrote back, like, “Thanks for this, but when in a million years will I ever know what you’re talking about?!”)

It’s ironic that I was finally invited to submit votes to the Voice in 2004, the year in which I did my least concert-going and record-reviewing since I was a teenager. I lost a couple of reliable writing outlets last year, as both CMJ and Billboard moved much of their writing in-house. Besides, with an apartment to buy and a wedding to plan, I was pretty distracted and bound to be a little behind the curve. Maybe that’s why I ended up gravitating, more than usual, toward records that came pre-hyped. Not that I’m ashamed of the records I picked. And I sure as hell am not alone.

There’s no getting around the fact that my tastes intersect with Pazz & Jop. Since 1990, my #1 album has agreed with P&J’s five times (Nevermind, 1991; To Bring You My Love, 1995; Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, 1998; Play, 1999; and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002). Another seven times, P&J’s #1 has made my top five (Fear of a Black Planet, 1990; 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…, 1992; Exile in Guyville, 1993; Odelay, 1996; Stankonia, 2000; Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003; and The College Dropout, 2004). Only Hole’s Live Through This (1994) and Bob Dylan’s last two records (1997, 2001), P&J poll-toppers all, failed to make my lists.

I’m not trying to achieve such close consensus with the nation’s critics. It just happens, every year. So it could be argued that adding me to Pazz & Jop does little to shake up the results. Knowing that Kanye West’s #1 finish in P&J was a foregone conclusion, I tried to be interesting by slotting that undeniably great album at #2 on my list and naming my most-played album of 2004, Danger Mouse’s stunning, illegal The Grey Album, as my top pick. But then, stacking my list with such critical faves as Franz Ferdinand, TV on the Radio and Loretta Lynn put me back in lockstep with the mob. Six months ago, I predicted here on LiveJournal that Franz’s single “Take Me Out” would top critics’ polls at the end of the year, and that Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” would place second. This week, I am proved right – and so my singles list falls in line, too.

And so what? Music hits multiple pleasure centers: physical, spiritual, cerebral. Kanye West and Franz Ferdinand, the critical darlings of 2004, hit all three. Franz’s “Take Me Out” made your body move (ever try walking down a New York street while it’s booming from your iPod? you feel like such a badass) as surely as Kanye’s “Through the Wire” made your head bob. West rapped about Jesus walking; Franz sang about guys who could turn them gay. West’s skits made you feel smart for blowing off grad school; Franz’s arch humor made you feel like you’d never left college. Should we feel ashamed for loving these records?

Movie critics have taken a beating since the fall for getting in line behind Sideways, a blue-statey, wine-darky, middle-aged-cranky ode to people who look, think and act like movie critics. This week, I feel more empathy for those lovable losers than ever. It’s hard to get past one’s own biases as a critic, to remain unmoved by the cultural products that embrace your geekdom and make you feel smart. And just ‘cuz a bunch of critics speak with suspicious uniformity doesn’t make the objects of their affection bad.

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