Charting the Year 

Critics, consumers, and industry insiders on the year in pop music.

The winter months are generally a fallow time for pop culture: Hollywood studios clear out their mediocrities in preparation for summer, bands tour less, and CD release schedules are pretty spare. But it's a great time for taking stock of things, and late February can be an especially interesting time for music fans.

Last week the venerable New York alt-weekly The Village Voice released the results of its Pazz & Jop national music critics poll. An annual fixture since 1974, this year the poll drew an all-time high electorate of 622 critics from around the country, all voting on the best albums and singles of 2001. Next week, a contest more familiar to the casual music fan, the Grammys, will present the view of industry insiders on the same questions when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presents its 44th annual awards ceremony.

That's two ways to view the current state of pop music, but, as most artists would tell you, there's a third way that's a lot more tangible -- album sales. Unsurprisingly, these three ways of measuring the year in pop music (see the Grammy nominations, Soundscan sales charts, and Pazz & Jop results below) present distinct visions of what pop music in 2001 looked like.

According to Soundscan, 2001 was a year of youth-oriented pop and hard rock, with the only real exceptions in the Top 10 (Enya and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) filling the annual niches of cultural status symbols for middle-aged listeners who don't buy many records. The industry, as usual, rewarded tasteful classicism, sticking primarily to prestige artists reworking familiar forms, many with a decidedly middlebrow mix of pretension and respectability (U2, Alicia Keys, India.Arie, O Brother). And the critics' choices are a typically arty and varied mix of biggish sellers and cult artists.

It's probably not a surprise that the latter group is truest to the pop world I'd choose to live in -- I helped select them after all. But at this point I should say that I don't entirely concur with the critical consensus of this year's poll. While Ryan Adams' Gold is the only record in the Top 10 I actively dislike (it sounds like a narcissistic, limp rewrite of El Lay soft rock cloaked in post-alt-country hipster attire to these ears, and I struggled to make it to the end of the thing), both Radiohead and Björk are too prog-ish to suit my biases and not monumental enough to overcome them. The Lucinda Williams and Rufus Wainwright records seem clearly unworthy of their placement in the Top 10 of a year in which artists such as world-music troubadour Manu Chao (#12), London club masters Basement Jaxx (#13), and New York "anti-folk" duo the Moldy Peaches (#31) released more forward-thinking tours de force. But I'd say that the rest of the critics' Top 10 really does capture the most important music released in 2001.

If you believe the Pazz & Jop is an accurate reflection of worth and impact in the pop world -- and despite the rare unworthy winner (Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom in 1982, Arrested Development's 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life of in 1992), I do -- then the obvious question is why more popularly respected yardsticks like Soundscan and the Grammys don't echo it more.

The gulf-like disconnect between critical opinion and sales figures is a shock to no one and far from a new development. The term "alternative rock" was in vogue a decade ago, but really the idea -- or perhaps, the reality -- that the best popular music isn't always the most popular has been around since the Beatles began to buckle. Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau coined the term "semipopular music" back in the late '60s when artists such as Randy Newman, the Stooges, and the Flying Burrito Brothers made it apparent that simply following the charts was no longer a reliable way to find the best new pop music. Though there are regular eruptions that bridge the gap -- Springsteen/Prince in 1984, Nirvanamania in 1991, the boho hip hop of the Fugees/Lauryn Hill/Outkast in recent years -- this has pretty much been the way of things ever since. And until the major labels' monopoly on commercial radio and MTV is broken, it's likely to stay that way.

Only five of the Soundscan Top 25 finished in the P&J Top 300 (Alicia Keys 18th, O Brother 19th, Destiny's Child 81st, 'NSync 140th, and Linkin Park, 2001 sales champ at a relatively paltry 4.8 million, 158th). Despite all the vaguely celebratory blather in the mainstream press about "rock" returning to vanquish "pop" -- as if both scenes as they exist on radio and MTV aren't corporate constructs aimed at similar audiences -- P&J confirms that the nation's music critics actually prefer mainstream pop to hard rock, and if you look at the P&J singles chart, the difference is even more stark. In fact, the only mainstream hard-rock record to crack the P&J Top 40 was System of a Down's Toxicity.

There are cultural explanations for this: You can argue that, as a group of largely city-bred egghead types, critics more naturally respond to the trashy and fun disposability of teen pop, especially since it reminds them of the silly synth pop so many of them grew up on in the '80s, while the rejection of nü metal, which appeals to a more suburban and working-class audience, exposes the class-bound limitations of the scribes. But my problem with that analysis is that, as a guy who grew up in a small Southern town in the '80s and was more prone to listen to Def Leppard and Van Halen than Duran Duran, I still agree with the critical consensus: Teen pop has produced some pretty snazzy records; nü metal's a bore.

By contrast, the once-gulf-like disconnect between critics and industry has narrowed considerably over the years. Rather than heralding the shock of the new, P&J traditionally rewards quality recordings that sell fairly well (Liz Phair's 1993 Exile In Guyville was the only true indie winner of the last decade), and, in theory anyway, that's exactly what the Grammys do as well. And this year's Grammy nominees are full of P&J heavyweights. Because the Grammy year actually runs from October 1st through September 30th, this year's Album of the Year contest actually pits the last two Pazz & Jop winners -- Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" in 2001 and Outkast's Stankonia in 2000 -- against P&J-certified All That You Can't Leave Behind by U2 (7th in 2000) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (19th in 2001).

The wild card is India.Arie's Acoustic Soul. When the nominations came out, most of the mainstream press carefully explained that Arie, relatively unknown compared to the competition, was a critic's favorite. The problem is that her record finished a mediocre 63rd in the most prominent critics poll, and the single "Video," nominated by the Grammys for "Record of the Year," finished a stronger but still underwhelming 24th. Respectable, unconfrontationally liberal, and good for you, Arie's Acoustic Soul is just the kind of record the Grammys love. It'll suffice in lieu of another Stevie Wonder comeback. (Wonder won three Album of the Year awards in four years during the '70s.)

But by Pazz & Jop standards, this is a great group of Grammy nominees, and coming after last year, in which one-time P&J Top Five-finishing albums from Eminem, Radiohead, and Beck lost to P&J Top 20 Two Against Nature by Steely Dan, it hints that the Grammys may finally be getting over their "Granny" label once and for all.

The connection between these two measuring sticks hasn't always been so tight, of course. Since 1974, the Grammys and Pazz & Jop have coronated the same record only four times (Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind in 1997, Paul Simon's Graceland in 1986, Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1983, and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life in 1976). Back in the '70s, the Grammys regularly rewarded P&J contenders such as Wonder, Simon, and Fleetwood Mac. In the '80s the connection became a bit dicier, respectable Grammy winners like Jackson, Simon, and U2 balanced by embarrassing P&J non-finishers like Toto, Phil Collins, and, in a real head-scratcher, Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down in 1984, the year of Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A.

And in the early '90s, with alt-rock ascendant, the Grammys ran and hid, nominating one bathetic mediocrity after another (Eric Clapton's Unplugged, Natalie Cole's Unforgettable, The Bodyguard soundtrack) while P&J was busy lavishing praise on trailblazers (Neil Young, Hole, Nirvana). The Grammys reached its nadir in 1994 when an Album of the Year win for Tony Bennett's MTV Unplugged made the industry mouthpiece seem hopelessly clueless, inspiring a change in voting procedures the next year in which a listening committee winnowed a member-selected field of 20 finalists down to five nominees. The results have been mostly respectable ever since. Last year, with the Eminem controversy spiking things, the result was a rare must-see Grammys. This year, with the only two immediate classics of the new century -- "Love and Theft" and Stankonia -- up for the big prize, it could be more of the same.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.


Soundscan Top 10:

The Biggest-selling Albums Of 2001
1. Hybrid Theory -- Linkin Park
2. Hotshot -- Shaggy
3. Celebrity -- ’NSync
4. A Day Without Rain -- Enya
5. Break the Cycle -- Staind
6. Songs in A Minor -- Alicia Keys
7. Survivor -- Destiny’s Child
8. Weathered -- Creed
9. O Brother Where Art Thou? -- Various Artists
10. Now That’s What I Call Music! 6 -- Various Artists

Pazz & Jop Critics Poll:

Ten Best Albums Of 2001
1. “Love and Theft” -- Bob Dylan
2. Is This It -- The Strokes
3. Vespertine -- Björk
4. White Blood Cells -- The White Stripes
5. Amnesiac -- Radiohead
6. Gold -- Ryan Adams
7. The Blueprint -- Jay-Z
8. Party Music -- The Coup
9. Essence -- Lucinda Williams
10. Poses -- Rufus Wainwright
(See the rest of the poll results at
www.villagevoice.com/specials/pazznjop/01)

Grammy Nominees
Album Of the Year:

Acoustic Soul -- India.Arie
“Love and Theft” -- Bob Dylan
Stankonia -- Outkast
All That You Can’t Leave Behind -- U2
O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- Various Artists

Record Of the Year:

“Video” -- India.Arie
“Fallin’” -- Alicia Keys
“Ms. Jackson” -- Outkast
“Drops of Jupiter” -- Train
“Walk On” -- U2

(The Grammys will be shown at 7 p.m.
Wednesday, February 27th, on CBS.)


Local Beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

One corollary to the discussion of different ways of measuring the year in music in this week's music feature (see page 43) is how local artists fare in all this. From a sales perspective, we're still waiting for the kind of multiplatinum success story that would dent Soundscan's short list, but it was still a pretty good year for local artists making national waves, with Saliva's Every Six Seconds and Project Pat's Mista Don't Play certified gold and Three 6 Mafia's straight-to-video film debut Choices racking up platinum sales.

By contrast, local representation on The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop national critics poll dipped from last year's strong showing, when the North Mississippi Allstars' "Shake Hands With Shorty" finished 49th on the album chart and Three 6 Mafia's "Sippin On Some Syrup" tied for 69th on the singles chart. This year, the only locally connected albums to crack the P&J Top 200 are both partial qualifiers. The Word, which paired the North Mississippi Allstars with steel-guitar wiz Robert Randolph (see Sound Advice, page 48) and jam-friendly jazzman John Medeski, finished 140th, while James "Blood" Ulmer's Sun Studio-recorded Memphis Blood came in at 172nd. The Allstars' follow-up, 51 Phantom, finished an extremely disappointing 592nd, at least partially due to its late-year release date. Other locally-connected albums to receive votes were: The Shangri-La produced Playing For a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-1975, Robert Gordon's mix It Came From Memphis, Volume 2, R.L. Burnside's Burnside on Burnside, Project Pat's Mista Don't Play, and Ike Turner's Here and Now. On the singles list, Project Pat's "Chickenhead," seemingly this year's best local hope, was mentioned on only two ballots. Saliva were (somewhat surprisingly, at least in the singles category) shut out in both categories.

As for the Grammys, this year boasts a solid if unspectacular field of local nominees. The highest profile local honoree will be Al Green, who will receive the academy's Lifetime Achievement Award. Other than that, the most prominent local nominee is Saliva, whose "Your Disease," the lead single from their major-label debut, Every Six Seconds, is up for Best Hard Rock Performance. With competition from more celebrated peers Linkin Park, Alien Ant Farm, P.O.D., and Rage Against the Machine, Saliva has to be considered a longshot to take home the award. Otherwise, look for a strong local presence in the kinds of categories usually shut out of the televised portion of the ceremony: Pop Instrumental (Kirk Whalum), Rock Gospel (Ardent's Big Tent Revival), Gospel Choir (O'Landa Draper's Associates), and Blues (James "Blood" Ulmer and Ike Turner).

On a related note, the local chapter of the Grammy-sponsoring Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will begin gearing up for its annual Premier Player Awards this week. Nominations may be out by the time you read this. The local chapter will also be presenting an exhibit, "Seeing Sun Records," at the Brooks Museum of Art, to coincide with the organization's honoring of Sun's 50th anniversary at this year's ceremony. Running February 25th through April 2nd, "Seeing Sun Records" will showcase the impact of Sun Records on the visual arts, featuring work from William Eggleston, Ernest Withers, Cordell Jackson, and Lamar Sorrento, among others. Vintage albums, photographs, and recording equipment from Sun will also be on display.

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