Friday, January 20, 2006


paging through the charts, part one

It's been fun putting together the historic charts for the Critics Poll. Leafing through sixteen years of ballots has been instructive, and it's reminded me of lots of great records that have been mouldering on my shelves: Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, Fun Trick Noisemaker by Apples In Stereo, Ghostface's Supreme Clientele, to name just a few. A few people have written in and asked me whether I regret any of my votes; the answer is, of course, yes, but I haven't changed any of my picks to save face (and I've got the yellowing old ballots to prove it). Instead of doctoring the results, I've decided to go through the charts and add some commentary here.

Album of the year is the category I take most seriously, and I'm pretty sure I only messed up twice. In '93, I picked Ultra Vivid Scene's Rev over Exile In Guyville, and in retrospect, that was the wrong call. But everybody knows who Liz Phair is, and UVS has mostly been forgotten, so I don't regret keeping Kurt Ralske's name alive. You could argue that Sex Packets was superior to Robyn Hitchcock's Eye, and on some days I'd agree with you -- but both had their rough stretches, and in truth, 1990 lacked that one big hit-it-out-of-the-park album. No, '99 was my major boo-boo, and the only year where I allowed myself to vote strategically to influence the poll's outcome. I was afraid that 69 Love Songs was going to win, and I didn't want to have the same champ as Pazz & Jop did. Shamefully, I voted for Olivia Tremor Control, in part, in the hope that I'd tip the balance in their direction. As it turned out, The Magnetic Fields won anyway, and I ended up with a best-of-year pick that, while pretty excellent, was not a genuine top album. Hefner's The Fidelity Wars deserved my vote.

The voters' choices have been pretty decent. I don't think Let It Come Down was the best album of 2001 either, but that was a seriously split decision, and perhaps it was compensation for shorting Spiritualized out of the top spot in 1997. I've got my problems with 69 Love Songs and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but there's no denying they're both epochal releases. I can dig it that my Jersey voters gave the laurel wreath to the Wrens in '03, but when they turned around in '04 and plumped for the Arcade Fire, I knew something was a little off. But more on that when I announce this year's results.

My single of the year lists are dominated by rap and R&B. Nas has won top honors three times, and really deserved another -- "One Mic" should have been taken the category in 2001. If I could do it over, I probably wouldn't put "Looking Through Patient Eyes" at the head of my '93 list, but I was in the throes of PM Dawn-mania at that time. The voters have, in general, picked stone classics and great songs; "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is the notable, and regrettable, exception.

What strikes me the most about my best singer list is how many of my picks are still my absolute favorite vocalists. Suzanne Vega was my first designee, way back in 1988; she could put out an album tomorrow and she'd be the odds-on favorite to get my nomination in '06. Elvis Costello was tops for me in '89, and runner-up in '03, and I believe he reaffirms his status as the best straight-song singer in rock history with each release. Tracy Bonham, Liz Phair, Laura Cantrell, Erykah Badu: these names show up again and again on my paper ballots. The one name I'm surprised not to see is Sinead O'Connor's. I voted for Robyn Hitchcock in 1990, year of "Nothing Compares 2U", and the only explanation for that is temporary insanity.

The voters like Britt Daniel more than I do (although I like him a lot), and they keep nearly electing Jack White. Time will tell whether they put him over the top in '05. What perplexes me is all the votes for Tori Amos. That woman can do everything but sing; she nearly ruins her own material with those bombastic performances.

Another thing I've learned from paging through my old ballots: I will take any reasonable opportunity to vote for Slick Rick for best rapper. Do I believe that Rick The Ruler is the greatest rapper ever? Come to think of it, I kinda do. Otherwise, my polls are studded with idiosyncratic picks: Ras Kass, Fatlip, Dres of the Black Sheep. I seem to have a peculiar taste for sidekicks, or color commentator-halves of two-men crews -- I like Trugoy ahead of Pos, Big Boi ahead of Andre, and most indefensibly to the average hip-hop head, Mike G ahead of Afrika Babybam (twice). It might read a little weird, but honestly, there's nothing here I feel like taking back.

I'd estimate that over the past sixteen years, there have been about 400 different Critics Poll voters. That means that 399 people who like rap music less than I do have voted in the category. (Sorry, Steven, but you know it's true.) It shows up on the right side of the chart -- Black Thought won twice and placed once, which is pretty inexplicable, and Adam Horowitz, aka the amusing but unskilled Ad-Roc, took the laurels in '92. At least the voters have never tapped Eminem.

Anybody who has followed my rock writing over the past decade can probably recite my choices for most overrated from memory. The left-hand column of this chart is a compendium of my favorite whipping-boys and girls: I voted for Radiohead twice, Beck three times, Madonna three times, and The Roots, Elliott Smith, and Tricky once apiece. Almost nobody agreed with me when I cast these votes, and nobody agrees with me now, but I never look to posterity to ratify anything other that the most watered-down version of contemporary wisdom. In other words, I expect to be coping with Radiohead and Madonna plaudits for the rest of my life. And no, I do not regret my vote for Nirvana in this category. The Critics Poll voters have developed a proclivity for slamming the latest hip act out of New York City; hopefully they'll turn their opprobrium on We Are Scientists and Morningwood in 2006.

Just check out the voters' choices for worst song of the year: with the exception of "Hey Ya", the song that ate Critics Poll '03, this is an unimpeachable catalogue of annoying music. Some of this stuff I'd forgotten about completely -- Dishwalla, for instance, or Live's awful "I Alone". I'm usually Alanis Morissette's biggest defender, but I won't go to the wall for "You Oughta Know" ; and while I liked the Spice Girls fine, I can't fault the voters for slamming the infinitely irritating "Wannabe". My own picks are a little weirder, mostly because I don't really believe there is such a thing as a bad pop song. Thus, I've tended to call out songs that I consider ideologically bankrupt: "Pretty Fly For A White Guy", "Mosh", that unspeakable number by Meredith Brooks. Nonetheless, this category does contain my single biggest blunder in Critics Poll history -- my breathtakingly bad call in '89. "Just Like Hemingway" is actually a really good song: it's an excellent example of fake New Order. I was under the influence of my freshman-year roommate, who loathed anything fey and was always trying to get me to listen to the Seeds and Roky Erickson. Worst of all, my vote blocked me from trashing one of the most loathesome songs in the history of the universe -- "Love Shack", by the B-52s. Forgive me, Blue Clocks Green, wherever you are.

My best producer votes can be broken up into two halves -- the late eighties and early nineties, when I split time chasing Mitchell Froom from project to project and opting for Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine whenever he crawled out of his cave, and the late nineties and early nothings, when I voted for Timbaland every year. Last season's call was probably the most questionable I've made -- I decided to be contrary and tap Madlib, and now I can't remember why. I'm pretty sure Kanye West didn't deserve it, though; he's too conservative, and there are too many genuine envelope-pushers in hip-hop to be voting for a guy with a formula. In general, though, the voters' choices have been impeccable: no matter what you want to say about Blur's fussy period, Stephen Street's production was always pretty tight.

Okay, more later. I'm looking forward to January 28. Get those ballots in, if you haven't already.

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