In Memphis, January is an extended Christmas for filmgoers as end-of-the-year Oscar-bait trickles into area theaters. But February is a great month for music lovers and record geeks everywhere. In a recurring coincidence, mid-February brings the results of New York alt-weekly The Village Voice's annual "Pazz and Jop" national music critics poll, the definitive annual record of critical opinion on the state of popular music, as well as the obviously more heralded Grammy Awards, the definitive annual record of music-industry opinion on the same issue.
The Pazz and Jop has long been the finest single guide to pop music's best and most important work, but the Grammys, after years of ridiculously out-of-touch ceremonies, has been doing a pretty good job of playing catch-up lately. Last year's Grammys featured a battle of consecutive Pazz and Jop winners, Outkast's Stankonia and Bob Dylan's "Love & Theft," for the night's top prize (possible because the Grammy year doesn't exactly match up with the calendar year), though the win, more predictably, went to the safer choice, O Brother, Where Art Thou? This year the albums and singles nominated for the Grammys' top categories don't match up quite as well with the findings of Pazz and Jop (see sidebar), but unlike in years past, the disconnect isn't quite as much of an indictment of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Two Grammy album nominees, The Rising and The Eminem Show, were critics' Top 10 picks (at sixth and eighth, respectively), while another, Come Away with Me, finished a strong 15th in the Pazz and Jop. Home, the highest-placing country record in the Pazz and Jop, finished just outside the Top 40 at a too-low 42nd, while Nellyville finished farther down at 114th, the collective critics (695 this year, who voted for 1,863 albums and 1,435 singles) correctly pegging America's favorite St. Lunatic as a singles artist. By contrast, the only Pazz and Jop Top Five finisher to get any love from the academy was Beck's Sea Change, nominated for Best Alternative Album.
Critics and industry insiders actually agreed on one single, Eminem's "Without Me," though the rest of Grammy's Record of the Year nominees were held in less critical regard, with "Don't Know Why" at 15th, "Dilemma" at 54th, "A Thousand Miles" (those Grammy voters love comely young ladies who play piano) 109th, and Nickelback's Modern Rock radio staple "How You Remind Me" receiving only a single vote. Pazz and Jop's picks feel a lot more monumental, with Missy Elliot's jaw-dropping "Work It" (which was released too late for Grammy consideration), Nelly's ubiquitous "Hot in Herre," and the Hives' explosive "Hate to Say I Told You So" joining Eminem.
But, all things considered, this is the first time in the 15 years I've been paying attention to this stuff that I might actually prefer the academy's vision of the music world, even if the fourth- and fifth-place finishers in the Pazz and Jop -- records the music-biz guardians at the Grammys would likely never even acknowledge -- are my picks for the year's two great albums.
The hegemony of the alt-rock voting block in the Pazz and Jop has been growing for nearly as long as the poll has existed (this is the "29th or 30th" poll), but this is the first year in which those of my ilk (twenty-/thirty-somethings, post-punk-/college-radio-bred critics) have done the poll a disservice. The homogeny of the poll's Wilco-Beck-Flaming Lips finish is, I fear, more a reflection on who votes than on the musical environment in which we live. Grammy's vision, in which rappers white and black (Eminem and Nelly) vie with crossover country (Dixie Chicks) and big-tent rock-and-roll (Springsteen), feels truer to both the pop landscape as it exists and the world I'd choose to live in. The Pazz and Jop finishers this year, by comparison, feel too navel-gazing, too solipsistic and antisocial (though The Streets and Sleater-Kinney make up for this deficiency in a dramatic way, even if they don't have the sales to back it up).
And this issue of diversity is reflected throughout the Pazz and Jop results and the Grammy nominations. Grammys are awarded in 28 fields (genres, basically) and in 104 categories, so diversity is built in -- polka! Native-American music! Some of these distinctions reveal the institution's awkwardness. We could spend forever trying to parse what differentiates "rock" from "hard rock" from "alternative" from "metal": P.O.D. is nominated in both hard-rock and metal categories, and "rock" seems to have become a refuge for the geezers of the music world (average age of the Best Male Rock Performance nominees has to exceed 50). One-award categories "alternative" and "urban-alternative" reflect a reluctant attempt to deal with genres that don't want to play by music-biz rules. But the vastness of it all is still commendable.
As for the Pazz and Jop, well, you can find pretty much anything if you scroll down to 1,863, but the alt-rock blinders that afflict too many voters have pushed tangential genres further out of the discussion and out of the Top 40 published in the paper version of the Voice. The Dixie Chicks' near-miss is emblematic of the poll's increasing bias, and reggae/dancehall and jazz, genres that in the past were good for a token Top 40 appearance, have disappeared, while Orchestra Baobab's splendid Specialist in All Styles (a major Grammy oversight) is the only "world" music to place. Unless you count Solomon Burke's very-crossed-over nod to good-hearted NPR listeners everywhere (12th), you'll have to go all the way to 208th, where Corey Harris sits with seven votes (one from me), to find a blues record.
You'll still be turned on to more good records by a cursory glance at the Pazz and Jop than by a detailed investigation of the Grammy nominations or by any other comparable reference, but if the Voice doesn't attract a more varied group of voters (or purge a few alt-rock specialists), the poll's cachet could start to wane.
So how did local artists fare in these respective measures of cultural importance? The showings were solid but unspectacular on both counts. In the Pazz and Jop, Elvis' remixed (by Junkie XL) comeback "A Little Less Conversation" finished 25th on the singles poll. The best album finishes came from the Reigning Sound's Time Bomb High School (176th) and James Luther Dickinson's Free Beer Tomorrow (201st). Other records with more than a modest Memphis connection (sorry, not counting Johnny Cash or Justin Timberlake) that received votes were Elvis' 30 #1 Hits, posthumous blues albums from North Mississippi blues icons Fred McDowell (Mama Says I'm Crazy, with Johnny Woods) and Junior Kimbrough (You Better Run, a best-of), the latest from one-time Memphians Todd Snider (New Connection) and Garrison Starr (Songs From Take-Off to Landing), the Memphix Records-connected compilation Chains and Black Exhaust, the Bloodthirsty Lovers' officially unreleased debut, the Lost Sounds' Black Wave, Rob Jungklas' Arkadelphia, Viva L'American Death Ray Music's A New Commotion, A Delicate Tension, Snowglobe's "Dreamworks," and Saliva frontman Josey Scott's duet with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, "Hero."
On the Grammy side, most of the local mentions, unsurprisingly, come in the roots categories. The exceptions are saxman Kirk Whalum, up for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Playing with Fire" and Best Pop Instrumental Album for The Christmas Message, and Scott, up along with Kroeger for Best Rock Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group for the aforementioned "Hero." Memphis gets a gospel mention with We Called Him Mr. Gospel Music: The James Blackwood Tribute Album, up for Best Southern, Country, Bluegrass Gospel Album.
But the most compelling local nominations come for blues recordings. R.L. Burnside's Burnside on Burnside will compete with Alvin Youngblood Hart's Down in the Alley (on upstart local label Memphis International) for Best Traditional Blues Album, while the North Mississippi Allstars are again nominees for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 51 Phantom. Finally, the University of Memphis' Dr. David Evans is up for Best Album Notes for his work on Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.