MusicWeekend

The Legendary Auteur: Deconstructing Pazz & Jop

by Lucas Fagen on June 1, 2014

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Kanye West, Lollapalooza, Chile, 2011 (via Rodrigo Ferrari’s Flickrstream)

As the Village Voice’s 41st Pazz & Jop Critics Poll makes clear, Kanye West is the most gifted popular musician of our time. This may sound like empty, generalized hyperbole, and it is. But nothing else would do justice to a man whose renown dwarfs your average celebrity, because West has reached an utterly unprecedented level of acclaim. His albums are venerated by rock critics everywhere, with the latest one named album of the year by Spin, Time, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, The A.V. Club, and Complex and second-best album of the year by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NME. His sales are modest compared to Jay Z’s or Eminem’s, but that’s only by titanic standards; most of his albums have gone platinum, and he has an uncanny knack for predicting and defining trends before they happen. I mean, Kanye West is a born media hero. From releasing his album without a cover to refusing pop radio a catchy lead single, from comparing himself to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Nicolas Ghesquière, Anna Wintour, and David Stern to calling himself the “nucleus” of culture to claiming “this one Corbusier lamp was like my greatest inspiration,” he’s been in the public spotlight all year. So nobody was surprised when come voting time, Yeezus beat Daft Punk’s 3rd-place Random Access Memories, beloved of industry-conscious bizzers and connoisseurs of all things Euro, as well as Vampire Weekend’s 2nd-place Modern Vampires of the City, adored by indie-obsessed alternarock nerds and anyone who loves a good, catchy pop song, in a 3-to-2 landslide.

KanyeWestAs Pazz & Jop victories go, Yeezus’s 1991 points are fewer than The College Dropout’s 2826 in 2004, Late Registration’s 2525 in 2005, and especially My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s 3250 in 2010, the latter easily the biggest victory in the poll’s history; although Yeezus’s 649-point margin over the runner-up looms over Late Registration’s 107, it falls short of The College Dropout’s 792 or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s 1616. West has now won the poll four times, a record matched only by Bob Dylan himself. If you don’t think West is Dylan’s artistic equal, you have to admit that his celebrity is similarly out of control, and both artists share a passionate discontent, a wild and unpredictable delight in image manipulation and stylistic metamorphosis. Anyway, not since Dylan’s heyday has one popular musician embodied the present youth culture so definitively. Rap has been America’s reigning pop music for a decade now, and this is West’s great theme. Veering between outspoken political protest and intense emotional outpouring, between unfettered braggadocio and what could nearly pass for analysis, his art almost always takes the conditions of modern African-American life as its subject, conditions in which, for instance, hip-hop can simultaneously remain ghetto-identified and make its practitioners billions of dollars. That his adventures and explorations into this subject have made him the world’s official critical darling is, among other things, a testament to the popular taste.

So who is this Kanye West, this legendary auteur, this Byronic hero? On 2004’s The College Dropout and 2005’s Late Registration, he’s friendly, bright, amused, funny and serious, obsessed with upward mobility, a little shallow at times. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the work of a serious depressive type, mortally terrified of wealth and hedonism and unable to resist their addictive sway. 2007’s Graduation and 2011’s Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne lay the bluster on thick, while 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak is sad and sodden and disturbing, yet all of these are fine albums. They portray a very thoughtful and honest man, boasting immense emotional strength and golden comedic instincts. Musically, his albums hang together from top to bottom, arranged with care and wit, relying on hip-hop rhythms yet encompassing a dazzling range of styles and fusions. Each of his previous three Pazz & Jop winners is a veritable masterpiece. Yeezus isn’t, and this is deliberate. The album was meant to piss people off. Consumed in a seething fit of racial militance, West pretends to be an angry black stereotype for the first nine songs, then goes out on a nostalgic love ballad. Breaking with his customary orchestral unity, his lean, stripped-down, whompingly shrill electronic abrasion just barely forms a musical whole; one could say its bitter fragments cultivate incoherence. His racial protests hit hard, but there’s something pathologically sarcastic and agitated about them, and that love ballad at the end reveals the rest of the album as a genre exercise. His parodies of hip-hop sexism were specifically intended to nauseate, and they do their job all too well.

Who am I kidding? Yeezus is a fine album too. The irony in his stupid brutal rapper pose comes through loud and clear, backing his bravado with deeply rooted moral rage, and the harsh, jarring music, which electrifies Chicago-style drillhop with screechingly distorted synthesizers far uglier than what any dubstep luminary has ever dared, does indeed reward repeated listening with grippingly nihilistic pleasure. I guarantee that had any other musician not named Kanye West released an album this forced, rushed, awkward, and aggravating in 2013 it wouldn’t have made top 50. But that album probably wouldn’t have packed such an ideological punch, either, because one of the things that makes West such a genius is good old-fashioned conceptualization, which highbrows call artistry. It’s less his technical rapping skills, although he does boast a strikingly conversational-naturalistic flow, than verbal content and musical daring. While his albums wouldn’t mean anything if he himself weren’t capable of compelling persona play or brilliantly hooky beatmastery, his signature is an instinctual gift for the fully realized, autonomous artistic statement, and nobody in any genre knows how to put a record together like West does, especially when it comes to making the beats themselves signify — juxtaposing an Auto-Tuned whine about the perils of being rich and famous with a “Strange Fruit”sample in “Blood on the Leaves”or closing the record with the hauntingly sweet childhood throwback “Bound 2”says more about ghettoized African-American culture than, say, a whole album of protest songs by Killer Mike. However flawed or obnoxious you find Yeezus, that’s part of the point. In the end, the album adds up to a very clear statement on racial contradiction in America. Cementing West’s status as our greatest working popular musician, its Pazz & Jop victory seems apt. After all, autonomous artistic statements are what have made 2013 the best year for rock journalism in quite a while.

“The past 12 months had more great music going on than any year in recent memory,” gushes whoever wrote Rolling Stone’s “50 Best Albums of 2013” feature, but the big story this year is consensus. Plenty of great music was released in 2012 and 2011, obviously; it’s just that nobody could agree on what it was. This year, however, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork share 22 albums in their top 50, four in their top 10, and the same top two: Vampire Weekend and Kanye West, in that order. Most of these albums were also selected by publications like Spin, PopMatters, NME, Stereogum, etc., and they all finished high in Pazz & Jop, which with 457 writers voting in 2013 has historically served as a bellwether for rock critics everywhere. Although it would be reductive in the extreme to claim that Rolling Stone and Pitchfork together constitute the majority of great rock criticism nowadays, they are the two most important rock magazines, and they do form a generational and/or aesthetic dichotomy that, if we are to trust the Pazz & Jop results, gets narrower and narrower every year. Rolling Stone continues to treat Paul McCartney and John Fogerty’s new records like modern masterpieces, while Pitchfork still considers James Blake a sex symbol. But Rolling Stone has also become more tolerant of the arty young person’s music that is Pitchfork’s lifeblood, and Pitchfork officially announced its newfound admiration for commercial pop with Jessica Hopper’s retrospective 10.0 Fleetwood Mac rave. What the two magazines share is a taste for the singular visionary, for individual creative talent. Both magazines fetishize genius.

Before you counter that everybody likes geniuses, take a moment to ask yourself just how committed you are to auteur theory. Ask yourself how comfortable you are with the idea that Justin Vernon’s onanistic emotional outpourings equal great art, as the good folks at Pitchfork would have you believe, or whether you really agree with Rolling Stone that 2007’s Magic, 2009’s Working on a Dream, and 2012’s Wrecking Ball rank among Bruce Springsteen’s best albums. Ask yourself whether you think there can be just one most gifted popular musician of our time, let alone whether Kanye West qualifies. Music is of course created, developed, and experienced by discreet individuals, and both magazines acknowledge this in novel and valuable ways. But they also buy into an ethos predicated on ego, equally beholden to romantic European heroism and reactionary American individualism, assuming each record the product of one artiste’s creative vision even in instances when this is patently not the case. There remains a difference between Pitchfork’s self-styled avant-garde innovators and Rolling Stone’s blue-collar rock expressionists, but those are just two sides of the same aesthetic coin, and this is why we have a consensus.

Random Access MemoriesThe most striking statistic in this consensus was the rise of the major-label solo performer. Between 2010 and 2012, Pazz & Jop averaged 17.67 albums on major labels in the top 50. In 2013, that number crept up to 20, with three in the top 4 and six in the top 10. Although one could quibble about M.I.A.’s radical politics or Pusha T’s refusal to “sing hooks” or Laura Marling’s sheer accessibility quotient, most of these albums count as some sort of pop. For the top 5 to include the self-titled Beyoncé, Daft Punk’s Grammy-sweeping Random Access Memories, and Yeezus as well as Vampire Weekend’s indie-rock-album-of-the-year Modern Vampires of the City and Chance the Rapper’s non-Yeezus-rap-album-of-the-year Acid Rap has made 2013 rather commercial indeed, and because of market trends and popular taste as well as rockcrit auteur theory, commercial in 2013 meant solo artists. With a few exceptions, most notably 3rd-place Daft Punk and 7th-place Haim, every major-label album in the top 50 was by an individual artist billed under his or her own name. Beyond West at #1 and Beyoncé at #4, we got Janelle Monáe at #8, spunky Nashville gals Kacey Musgraves at #10 and Ashley Monroe at #23, a newly revitalized Bowie at #15, electroingénue Sky Ferreira at #16, deep dreamy Drake at #18, child prodigy Lorde at #25, eternally insurgent M.I.A. at #28, reformed crack tycoon Pusha T at #30, poor downtrodden folkie Laura Marling at #36, putative master lyricist Earl Sweatshirt at #42, rising guitar god Bombino at #46, and the list goes on.

BeyonceAnyone who believes that pop music sells because most people have good taste should find these major-label solo artists heartening. I mean, when was the last time a female superstar as corporate as Beyoncé made Pazz & Jop’s top 10? (Answer: 2011, when Adele’s bestselling 21 reached 6th-place, before that you have Amy Winehouse’s Back in Black, ranked 4th in 2007, and please note that Adele and Winehouse both won on the singles chart, where the highest-ranked Beyoncé single came in at #72.) Right, in 2012 major-label solo albums made up the entire top 3. But those albums were by Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Fiona Apple, each boho-identified in his or her own way, and only Lamar’s album has sold a million copies. By contrast, Yeezus and Beyoncéare merely the most prestigious of many platinum Pazz & Jop finishers in 2013. Kanye West, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Sky Ferreira, Drake, Lorde, they’re all scions of the pop industry, an environment in which auteur theory scales new heights in puffed-up self-importance and then some. Whether dazzling arenas with spectacular light shows or legions of backup dancers, whether wooing audiences with muscular vocal chops or strutting around with Bluetooth headset mikes, whether splurging on schlocky ballads or elaborate music videos or pristine electronic production tracks, and always posing handsomely atop their giant piles of cash, corporate auteurs flaunt their autonomy, simultaneously playing übermensch and populist hero as both are subsumed in regal display.

The Electric LadyWhatever its grotesqueries, superstar decadence is often rather awesome, and varies radically from performer to performer. Justin Timberlake’s 51st-place The 20/20 Experience and Eminem’s 58th-place The Marshall Mathers LP 2, to choose the two bestselling albums of 2013, move units not just because of how iconic their creators are but because of juicy space-age R&B fantasia and fierce expressive gift, respectively. Beyoncé’s self-titled album is even hotter, brimming with glitzy quietstorm beats, glowing synthesizer texture, and a throbbing tension between the clinically controlled electronic surface and her naked, breathlessly sex-thickened voice. Calmer and grander than her usual approach, Beyoncé will seduce you effortlessly, supremely confident in its submission to sheer material pleasure. But although it wouldn’t have finished 4th if it weren’t an irresistible slice of sophisticated hedonism, it also wouldn’t have gone platinum in a week if not for her status as a self-made, independent, inspirational feminist role model. Recorded in secret with no promotion or advertising so she could loose it on the world all at once, Beyoncé allegedly represents a triumph for the album as artistic building block, as perfectly self-contained statement, painting a full and representative portrait of its creator. Meanwhile, 8th-place neosoul virtuoso Janelle Monáe exemplifies the perils of auteurship as definitively as Stefani Germanotta herself. From its black-bourgeois jazzmatazz to its flowery orchestral kitsch to its all too theoretical funk, Monáe’s The Electric Lady is a middlebrow mess. But critics found the concept profound enough to push it into the top 10, and I almost understand why. The Electric Lady tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, a robotic cross between Freder from Metropolis and Neo from The Matrix who falls in love with a human and consequently becomes ostracized from the very android community she must save from an evil time-traveling secret society before the Agents disassemble her. A shrewd piece of iconography, the concept of the android messiah makes explicit an attraction toward genius individualism that many critics felt strongly this year.

The corporate auteur’s sudden takeover of Pazz & Jop reflects an ideology that rock & rollers have historically defeated with the social construct of a band. Due to mutable and circumstantial combinations of instrumental interplay, interpersonal communication, a sense of group solidarity or lack thereof, and all the messy, magical aftereffects of collective creation, bands have an inherent grip on the kind of complicated, multifaceted meanings that individuals expressing themselves rarely even comprehend. Where lone superstars feed off the universal desire for projected self-fulfillment, a band can reflect an audience’s more specific needs, moods, attitudes, shared values, conscious and unconscious passions. If a band can speak to and for a particular social group in just the right way, its audience can theoretically grow much larger than any cult surrounding a solo artiste. This is incredibly tricky in practice for even the finest marketing team, giving individual performers a commercial edge. As such, it is much more common for bands to join self-renewing subcultures, like an American indie/alternarock scene that has survived in the shadows for twenty years largely thanks to rock critics.

Ah, the alternarock scene. For a style of music rooted in contrarianism, the postrock/experimental/eclectic indie records beloved of Pitchfork and all their insular progeny have found their own hegemony in the last few years even if overall consensus was lacking, and this hegemony has finally been disrupted. Epitomized by the 2009 Pazz & Jop victory of Animal Collective’s disjointedly psychedelic Merriweather Post Pavilion, or to a lesser extent the 2011 Pazz & Jop victory of tUnE-yArDs’rickety, homespun w h o k i l l, this has been a great era for affluent, dilettantish young people, for music that feigns innovation while slathering on avant-cliché, for the kind of pretentious albums only critics listen to. (I might be mistaken, but I don’t think I’ve met a single person unaffiliated with rock journalism who likes the Dirty Projectors, a Brooklyn progressive rock band whose Bitte Orca finished 5th in 2009 and whose Swing Lo Magellan finished 11th in 2012.) But with this kind of music in sharp if provisional decline, the 2013 poll told a different story. There was no Tame Impala this year, no Grimes, no Beach House or St. Vincent or Destroyer, no The xx or Grizzly Bear or Bon Iver, sure as hell no Animal Collective or tUnE-yArDs to deny Kanye West his landslide. Even Vampire Weekend, the closest thing to an affluent, dilettantish young person’s band in the top 10, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200.

There were, naturally, plenty of indie bands. Allowing all sorts of young and old people whether mannered pseudoclassical castrati or ruggedly authentic neotraditionalists, multicultural fusioneers or solitary laptop egomaniacs, underground wannabes or hard workers set on the big time to get a wide range of aesthetic ideas out into the world without committing to the kind of careerism that often scares creative types away, the alternarock scene will be awarded special attention by rock critics as long as Hollywood bureaucrats run the music business. But where recent critical favorites have tended toward dinky, arty, sensitive indulgence, obscurantist avant-garde hackwork intended more for the artist’s immediate circle of friends than Pitchfork’s Best New Music Page, this year indie bands finally started acting more like bands, like groups of people who write songs and tour together. From distortion-soaked garage freaks Deerhunter at #35 to cowboy slackers Parquet Courts at #24 to harsh, bitter Savages at #12, from metal-identified airheads Deafheaven at #19 to hardcore metalheads Carcass at #37 to macho bodybuilders Queens of the Stone Age at #21, from grungy veterans Superchunk at #38 to dreamy veterans Yo La Tengo at #48 to dreamier veterans My Bloody Valentine at #6, hell, from urban balladeers The National at #20 to grand art-rockers Arcade Fire at #14 to warm and loving Vampire Weekend at #2, this sure was a great year for guitar-bearing insurgents committed to electric noise. Some of these albums demonstrate more outreach than others; Deerhunter’s astounding Monomania overflows with classic punk riffs, the hissing, snarling, crackling interplay between electric and acoustic-sounding guitars, and the goofy humor of a wild glam-rocker fond of singing through a megaphone, while Savages’Silènce Yourself is so angry it’s just no fun to listen to. But they all honor the guitar band’s collaborative nature, and every one was released through an independent label.

Days are GoneIn fact, major-label guitar bands worth your time have in the past decade become harder and harder to come by, and Pazz & Jop voters only acknowledged a few. Thirty-third-place dance-rockers Tegan & Sara won votes from the shameless pop audience, as did 34th-place emo darlings Paramore, but neither meant as much to anybody as our only major-label guitar band in the top 30. The official scoop on the Haim sisters’ 7th-place Days Are Gone is that it blends several retro pop genres into a new, distinctive, forward-thinking style, but most of the comparisons the band has been loaded with are specious. If they sound like Fleetwood Mac, as their fans believe, they sound like Fleetwood Mac circa 1982; they’re less “Rhiannon”than “Hold Me”, and “Hold Me”would have spiced up their album considerably. Nor do they recall Shania Twain, who has more sex appeal. I can hear a vague resemblance to ‘80s power-poppers like the Bangles and the Go-Go’s, or maybe the Doobie Brothers, hmmm. But one of the reasons Haim has been so successful is that they’re hard to pin down. Crucially, their blandness signifies. They play a striking yet generic-sounding style of friendly, upbeat soft-rock whose jumpy guitar edges are smoothed over with sunny gloss and ringing keyboards and lavish overdubs, with the occasional big cheerleader chorus thrown in for good measure. The nicest thing I can say about them is that they have a natural instinct for the simple, feelgood hook, as best exhibited in “If I Could Change Your Mind”and 3rd-place single “The Wire.”.] I can’t really think of anything not to like, but I do hope their next album is more interesting.

As our only major-label guitar album in the top 30, Days Are Gone is an anachronism by definition. It satisfied a craving for something many critics felt was missing from Pazz & Jop 2013, namely the corporate band. Personally, I can think of plenty contemporary major-label guitar-identified bands whose music I like or love or at least find theoretically intriguing — off the top of my head, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, Florida Georgia Line, OneRepublic, Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, the Killers, Broken Bells, not to mention the Nonesuch-signed Black Keys or the Interscope-signed Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Maybe you think these bands are evil capitalist puppets; maybe you find them gloriously dreamy. But you have to admit that the corporate band has been on the wane over the past decade, and that Haim quenches a historically inevitable nostalgia for a period between around 1977 and 1991 when such bands were legion. Although the sound is totally different, Days Are Gone is a pop record in the tradition of The Cars or In Color. What its fans primarily respond to is a general level of slick formal mastery that precludes meaning or message, an elegant studio perfectionism that doubles as artistic strategy, with every guitar lick and feathery vocal harmony meshing perfectly into the mix. And not one of my corporate bands mentioned above save Fall Out Boy even approaches this kind of command.

Formal mastery is the great virtue of the pop industry, and rock bands just haven’t been topping the charts lately. Eight out of 2013’s ten bestselling albums were by solo performers, the exceptions being babyish dreamboats One Direction and, more tellingly, Daft Punk, who led what turned out to be a great and unprecedented year in which electronica conquered the world. Especially on the louder, faster end of the spectrum, techno’s mechanical nature aggressively cultivates anonymity, usually defeating the self-regarding egomania you’d expect from an individual DJ showing off his or her chops. With the fat, distorted, abrasive Skrillex synthesizer creeping into the mainstream like never before, claimed by pop artists as diverse as M.I.A. and Charli XCX, Lorde and Britney Spears, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, Icona Pop and Ylvis (to wickedly catchy effect on the funnier-than-shit 62nd-place single “What Does the Fox Say?”), Lady Gaga and Ms. Miley Cyrus, I think dubstep-inflected bubblegum may come to evoke this era as deeply as funk-inflected new wave evokes the early-to-mid ’80s. Its strong Pazz & Jop showing came as no surprise, and it absolutely dominated the singles chart: Lorde’s “Royals”at #2, Icona Pop’s “I Love It”at #8, Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop”at #9 and “Wrecking Ball”at #15, James Blake’s “Retrograde”at #20, Disclosure’s “Latch”at #21, Sky Ferreira’s “I Blame Myself”at #25, Pusha T’s “Numbers on the Boards”and Chvrches’“The Mother We Share”tied for #28, and, at a spectacular tie for #40, Autre Ne Veut’s “Play By Play”, Charli XCX’s “You (Ha Ha Ha),”Chvrches’“Recover,”Disclosure’s “White Noise,”The Knife’s “Full of Fire,”and Lady Gaga’s “Applause”all appropriate techno-derived ideas about groove and rhythm.

2013’s biggest EDM album, oddly enough, had something less obtrusive in mind. Smoother than a velvet-upholstered leisure lounge, more aerodynamic than the Trans Europe Express cruising through an electric café, Daft Punk’s 3rd-place Random Access Memories is the Aja of the computer age, only slicker because drum fills that once required the most expensive hired musicians on the West Coast can now be programmed electronically with the flick of a switch. Their jazzy keyboard aura, soulful singing vocoders, and exacting studio technique define an idealized technological environment, a gorgeously produced digital space rivaled only by the meticulousness of craft that went into its every shimmering bleep. Random Access Memories is a decent record I underrated at first because I was suspicious of its arty underbelly; the California theme struck me as dubious, its elevator and/or cocktail music doubly so. Having warmed to many of its radio-conquering earworms over the summer, it’s now clear to me that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have invented their own engaging, imaginative postdisco groove. With guest stars Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams applying glossy surface to music whose polished precision could comfort even the stiffest anticommercial ideologue, the album locks in from beginning to end, and the funk-derived guitar licks that chime along with its thickly textured synthesizer patterns are an aesthete’s delight. By launching Pazz & Jop’s platinum singles winner “Get Lucky”and its worthy followup “Lose Yourself to Dance”– one an undeniable skyrocket of steady, hookless, pulsating disco energy, the other a relentlessly repeated four-on-the-dance-floor chant — Daft Punk went from former art heroes to instant pop figureheads overnight. Despite the plush passivity they enable, which is the reason why their voluptuous sonic luxury still fails to resonate with me at album length, I understand why many judged Random Access Memories pop album of the year.

Vampire WeekendEven so, it couldn’t touch my own nominee, a record you say hardly counts as pop and Top 40 radio says does too. Vampire Weekend’s 2nd-place Modern Vampires of the City wouldn’t have topped the Billboard 200 or Rolling Stone’s album list if it weren’t at heart a collection of catchy singles, friendly tunes, and choruses that make you grin like an idiot as they bounce around your head. They simply excel at good old-fashioned songform, breezy melodic craft plus summery harmonic embellishment plus crisply confessional lyrics. But their album wouldn’t have topped Pitchfork’s list if it weren’t also a whole lot more pretentious than that, and a whole lot more accomplished. Vampire Weekend first became famous for blending and appropriating uncommon and often foreign elements into a traditional guitar-pop style, and the sheer number of puzzle pieces on Modern Vampires of the City is breathtaking: reggae drums, African rhythm guitar, Irish accordion, church organ, baroque harpsichord, saxophones imitating guitars and buzzing keyboards imitating saxophones, chopped-and-screwed vocals, Bach and Pachelbel and smooth jazz and alternative rap and “Aubrey”and “Simple Gifts,”all augmenting and enriching the standard Western rock band lineup. Rather than indulging fusion dreams or trying to create new genres, Ezra Koenig and keyboard maestro Rostam Batmanglij arrange these borrowed ingredients discretely and sequentially within their established pop style. They’re worked in cleanly, subtly, uncluttered, and achieve a new kind of synthetic modernist collage — layered, referential, sometimes arch, but also warm and generous and vital, evoking the kind of grand universality that’s been a liberal myth since before Graceland came out and that feels so deeply humane anyway. You might think this all sounds like another art-rock album, just what we needed, and you’d be right. But if you can imagine an art-rock album that you put on to hear hooks, riffs, tunes, and songs, an art-rock album so bright you’ll never tire of a pop thrill that remains fresh long after you’ve absorbed and explored a series of rich, dense arrangements whose ingenuity seems virtually inexhaustible, well, art-rock might have something going for it after all.

As pop albums in the formal rather than commercial sense of the term, Modern Vampires of the City, Random Access Memories, and Days Are Gone are exceptions to a consensus that rewards individual creative vision whether corporate or indie-identified, a consensus in which Rolling Stone and Pitchfork’s two very different styles of auteur find common ground in the refreshing, aggrandizing, fascinating force of personal expression. Critics, myself included, are suckers for autonomous artistic statements, and when they work they can shock and amaze. But they can also put you to sleep, and I just wish more critics were willing to admit this. When Kurt Vile murmurs stonerish free-associations into a cheap microphone for an hour, when Matt Berninger devotes album after album to the same doomed romance stuck in bohemian Manhattan, when Josh Homme beats his cheat and howls out tormented cries of rage, when Kevin Shields labors for twenty-two years over an impressionistic postrock symphony, when Beyoncé, Sky Ferreira, and Drake fashion sleek electronic vehicles for their most intimate emotional confessions, they surrender to self-regard, making themselves their explicit artistic subject and turning their music only as interesting as they are. Compared to the more objective musical environments of Vampire Weekend, Daft Punk, and Haim, they sure seem limited.

My attempts at schematizing the 40th or 41st Pazz & Jop Critics Poll juxtapose self-conscious artistry with functional commodity, tiptoeing around the fuzzy antithesis between expression and product. Rock criticism today cannily acknowledges this distinction and then claims it equals good versus bad. Because I believe that consumer-oriented music is just as valuable as artist-oriented music, I think this is wrong. But our relatively pop-friendly top 10 absolutely represents a positive development in the state of rock criticism, and I’m happy about that. Yeezus won because Kanye West is our finest working auteur. Whether his victory will prove prophetic depends on changes in the corporate pop industry and how receptive we are to them.

Personal Favorites

Albums 2013

  1. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
  2. Shinee: The Misconceptions of Us (SM Entertainment)
  3. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
  4. Deerhunter: Monomania (4AD)
  5. Fall Out Boy: Save Rock and Roll (Island)
  6. King DJ: Let Me See You Feel (Bear Funk)
  7. Icona Pop: This IsIcona Pop (Ten/Big Beat)
  8. Pet Shop Boys: Electric (x2)
  9. So So Glos: Blowout (Shea Stadium/SSG)
  10. Songs of Summer 2013 (Power Music Workout)

Singles 2013

  1. Ylvis: “What Does the Fox Say?” (Concorde/Parlophone/EMI Norway)
  2. Daft Punk: “Get Lucky” (Columbia)
  3. Florida Georgia Line & Nelly: “Cruise Remix” (Big Loud Mountain)
  4. Icona Pop & Charli XCX: “I Love It” (Ten/Big Beat)
  5. Shinee: “Dream Girl” (SM Entertainment)
  6. Luke Bryan: “That’s My Kind of Night” (Capitol)
  7. 2Yoon: “24/7” (Cube)
  8. Brandi Clark: “Crazy Women” (Mercury)
  9. Brown Eyed Girls: “Kill Bill” (Nega)
  10. G-Dragon: “Crooked” (YG Entertainment)
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