The 2012 installment of the Pazz & Jop critics poll hit the interweb this week, and to the surprise of no one, especially not Robert Christgau, Frank Ocean’s breakout effort came out on top. I mention Christgau not because of his 33-year tenure organizing the Pazz & Jop poll, which invites hundreds of critics to assign point values to their top 10 albums, but because he published this preactionary piece, correctly guessing which 3 albums would sit atop the list and examining the consensus that sucked the suspense out of those top 3 spots.
I’m a fan of the piece he wrote for a few different reasons. His admiration for Todd Snider’s Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is one; Snider struck me as a cross between a savant and a messiah when I saw him open for Justin Townes Earle in May, but I’m ashamed to say that a lack of external validation eroded my enthusiasm. It’s like Christgau’s words gave me an opportunity to say “I told you so” to myself, if that makes any sense. Felt good.
One part of Christgau’s piece struck me as especially thought provoking — the part in which he talks about the role his age may be playing in his lack of esteem for 2012’s anointed triumvirate:
If twentysomethings want to like Kendrick Lamar’s album more than Loudon Wainwright’s, I say more power to them. The Cloud Nothings’, even — there’s an imagined future there that neither Loudon Wainwright or I will ever know firsthand again, and why shouldn’t someone whose life stretches ahead cherish that? But it bums me that it doesn’t go the other way — that the residual formal mastery of someone like Wainwright seems incapable of touching musical aesthetes of a certain age…
He makes an excellent point, though I think there’s more at work here than just age (of the listener or of the artist’s recording career). I think the “mastery” itself deserves some of the blame.
I’m not a critic, and I certainly didn’t have a Pazz & Jop ballot to fill out, but I do know that writing about music that approaches perfection is difficult. When everything’s done well — great composition, great backing band, great performances, great recording — it’s hard to zoom in on what makes the song or album special, which I’d imagine would be frustrating if your livelihood depended on coming up with an angle that the rest of the Internet hadn’t already chewed up and spit out. It’s hard for me to believe that wouldn’t affect your enjoyment of a recording, or at the very least incentivize pumping up something that’s also brilliant but contains charming or revelatory flaws.
I felt this effect as recently as last week.
I really, really like David Bowie’s new song, “Where Are We Now?”. I mentioned in my response to a comment on Monday’s Justin Timberlake post that the word “resplendent” comes to mind when I listen to it. The chorus is beyond beautiful, with emotive swells, a memorable but unobtrusive counter-melody and a vocal performance that provides just enough vibrato to convey yearning without veering off into the melodramatic. There’s also the bass, which shines in the most subtle way I could imagine — it’s so low after sliding down the neck that note changes are felt more than they’re heard. So cool.
In fact, I think “Where Are We Now” does everything well. To me, it sounds like one of those almost-perfect songs. And sure enough, I didn’t know where to start with it, blog-wise, and tabled its discussion by writing a silly post about fried cheese and Justin Timberlake. Had I not been prompted, I may never have engaged with “Where Are We Now?” on these here pages, which would undoubtedly have influenced my memory of the song at this year’s end.
Who knows. Maybe critics are a more objective lot than I’m imagining. Either way, if you’re like me and enjoy thinking way too long and hard about year-end lists, I highly recommend Christgau’s “May the Consensus Have Consequences” piece, as well as his “Dean’s List” of the best albums of 2012. (I for one am looking forward to diving into Loudon Wainwright’s effort, which I must confess to having heard next to none of.)
Oh yeah, and if you couldn’t already tell, I highly recommend David Bowie’s new tune as well, which can be previewed and purchased below.