polls are bad and you should feel bad


[A]t length the same hideous voice which I have already described, broke forth: “For God’s sake! — quick! —quick! —put me to sleep —or, quick! —waken me! —quick! —I say to you that I am dead!” (…) As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of “dead! dead!” absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once —within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk —crumbled —absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome —of detestable putridity.
THE FACTS IN THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, Edgar Allan Poe (1845)  

Magazine culture is in large part structured by unaddressed habit — that set of tasks we lockstep undertake week-on-week, month-on-month, year-on-year. Many of them are essentially pre-organising routines that (on one hand) save on labour and panic as you hit deadlines, and on the other lead to reader clarity and convenience. You don’t squirrel a film review away in among the small ads. The news section is best not muddled up with the reviews. And gradually different types of people discover they have a talent for running one or other of these various areas. 

But all these habits have a history — in my lifetime The Times ran its small ads on its front cover — and a key part of history is knowing when a habit is past its usefulness. So I’ll say it: the End of Year Best-of List is past its usefulness. We spend far too much time on it, and it’s bad not good. Every time the moment comes around – around early summer – and my friends and colleagues begin their annual discussion and strategising, my conviction re-emerges: this is now a corrosive critical habit we should be trying to shaking ourselves out of. 

I remember when rock was young…
Of course it made sense when rock was still young, and perhaps not paid its grown-up due, to reach for whatever means you could to establish what it was, how it worked, its limits and there its possibilities. This was Robert Christgau’s plan at The Village Voice in 1971: the first Pazz and Jop was a rollcall, of all the critics he believed should to have a voice in defining the new(ish) music [footnote 1] — and arguably the rollcall was as important as the outcome [2]

Skipping a couple of years when Xgau moved to Newsday, Pazz and Jop returned in anti-canon earnest in 1974 [3], the first year that Rolling Stone and the rockier of the UK weeklies all ran EOY critics lists (Melody Maker having done so from 1970) [4]. Pete Frame’s ZigZag run a “best album ever” list in 1971: founded in 1969, Frame’s magazine was by title and content a corrective for informed music fandom, to rein back what it saw as the commercial UK weekly consensus away from rock’s true values considered as the lingua franca of the underground. Said underground was still busily extant in 1971, if dwindling, but arguably defeated by 1974, when ZigZag ran a “most played albums” poll. As bids to stop time, both were the weapons of an embattled cognoscenti against a corrupting mainstream: a conscious regathering and firming up of the idea of rock’s earliest best years against its tainted present [5]

ZigZag was small and wildly intermittent but it had critical heft — mainstream writers like Nick Kent occasionally used it to sketch out positions and fannish templates for musics the weeklies seemed to have forgotten. Which may be why NME decided in 1974 to run an “All-time Top 100” (as chosen by writers) [6] — a list that periodically resurfaces, as here in Michael Hann’s No-More-Canons piece for the Guardian, and more recently all over twitter. But the device has a deeper provenance than ZigZag: DownBeat had been running its readers’ Hall of Fame vote since 1952 (winner Louis Armstrong), a critics’ poll Hall of Fame since 1961 (winner Coleman Hawkins), and an album of the year to the critics’ poll since 1965 (winner Coltrane’s A Love Supreme). 

What’s useful to note here is that the readers’ and the critics’ polls seem to be being deployed by DownBeat actively to clash with one another, of course to create buzz but also to explore genuine arguments. If the Hall of Fame a rolling “test of time” list, the albums focused present-times New Thing dissent, with Ornette Coleman’s Live at the Golden Circle vol.1 winning it in 1966, political in its scratchy dissonance and dense with Ornette playing seemingly untutored violin. As carefully set in the HoF lists, the expansion of the definition of jazz to include such free improvisation was and remained controversial, with Coltrane one of the few able to effect any kind of healing crossover (by dint of superhuman technique and generous personal manner). 

… Me and Siouxsie had so much fun!
There’s something pleasing and spare to these early jazz-based approaches: three lists including two new names and one new title a year seems perfectly set to enable good discussion — they’re not yet clogged up with their own unending consequences. And in principle, there’s something valuable too about where Xgau wanted to take the idea: a broader community of voices at more than one title, and a much less delimited definition of what should get into the list, the openness very publicly signalled. However I suspect the decoupling from the specific readership of any one magazine was more of a long-term problem than it seemed at the time, and I’ll try and explain why. 

NME’s EOY reader polls also went back to 1952, just like DownBeat’s — and by the 70s all the UK weeklies were running them. Significantly, you still got to vote for individual musicians a lot: best drummer, best bassplayer and so on — which once punk began allowed a startling tussle of attitudes to play out, in which the, um, untechnical likes of Sid Vicious were found alongside eye-popping thumb-slapping virtuosos like Stanley Clarke. As with Ornette — though in many ways also utterly different — the “best” musicianship wasn’t anything the academies were likely to endorse. Obviously there’s a tribal element to the voting — if punk is better than prog then the best bass player must surely be Gaye Advert — but the tribalism is a short-hand version of genuine debates about the social purpose of music. 

And (as at DownBeat a decade earlier) the disparities between critical consensus and reader consensus were also important and interesting – because critics (especially after punk) were eager and able to treat any seeming backward-yearning sluggishness as a source (however regrettable) of critical energy in the other direction [7]

When Michael Hann attacks the NME’s 1974 poll (and the entire notion of the rock canon) as flawed and narrow, the reasons he highlights are as follows: it’s centred round rock (and not pop or jazz, say); it’s all about albums and it’s much too male. This isn’t wrong, exactly — but presented as the root of a long-term flaw it’s ahistorical. Because (first of all), the 1974 poll was really not conceived in its moment as an “all-encompassing” statement about the complete history of music — it was an intervention at a particular moment planned to boost the standing of rock within the semi-popular critical subculture, to ensure it be taken seriously alongside jazz and that mere current chart popularity not be the only measure. And (second of all), all three of these elements were about to be fought out with some vigour within the very same paper (and beyond): the debates around post-punk (as no one yet called it) absolutely tackled all three issues, and indeed made a virtue of challenging them. 

So it isn’t at all an accident that 1978, the year that canon-formation began in earnest (with Paul Gambaccini’s Critics’ Choice Top 200 [8], also saw Julie Burchill’s and Tony Parsons’ venomous sloppy-hilarious unjust demolition of Dylan’s Street Legal and the Stones’ Some Girls: ‘Take These Idols and Stuff Them’. Because punk was the materialisation of rock’s internal tendency to argue with itself about itself (Frank Kogan is probably your best guide here). And the 7” 45 was punk’s best vector (until the triple 12” of PiL’s Metal Box); punk self-identified as the “death of rock’n’roll”; and women emerged en masse through the ranks of the revolt to fashion new ways to speak and sing and play. All this was why this moment was so exciting: the “underground” was being revived and reconfigured, and supplied with a new lingua franca. Except that a whole bunch of musics were now vying for this role — and there would never again be agreement which best fit [9]

In particular, the dethroning of rock as as the (counter)cultural centre meant that either titles went alone with the slide towards tribal splintering, and themselves became narrow and niche-bounded — or that they solved the problem of being the platform the all-embracing counter-canon, which could put rock in its place, punishing it for its flaws and failures, but also acknowledge its strengths and breakthroughs. A forward-looking contrary few recognised this — Collusion magazine for example championed full-on pluralism as an approach — but the barriers against fashioning a genuinely omniverously curious readership were huge, with the habits and practicalities of magazine-making almost all working against it. 

it takes a village
This at least was my own reading, as a new young writer in the early 80s, shy, naive but determined — and very much what I had in mind in the early 90s,when I was unexpectedly unleashed as editor at The Wire, as that magazine transitioned against the general media trend from its early and narrowly austere focus (jazz and 20th-century composition) to something much wider. We wanted to cover a far wider range of music – including noise-rock, rap, what wasn’t yet called electronica and the weirder ends of dance music – with an informed focus also on the deep past (of jazz, composed music, weird old folk and rock and soul) – and to build a magazine and a magazine culture that addressed all this. So we ran EOY critics’ polls for every genre we covered (some with just a single expert “voter”), and then found ahem “algorithms” to combine them all into a single all-encompassing, all-genre EOY. To signal to readers old and new how exactly the change might be unfolding and where we were heading. The Wire had been counter-canonic by design, from the outset: the role of these polls was to call into being a world where all bad old habits held little sway (so we hoped) – where the valuable quarrel between rock and jazz could carry on, and other quarrels also [10].  

Long argument short, an “all-embracing” canon, if it means anything at all, is best as a blizzard of short-term signals back and forth, about (among other things) the stance and direction of the publication they appeared in, about the readers’ response to this, and about trends and currents and notable conflicts in the wider field that the publication addressed. The same roomy and squabbly colloquy of intelligent dissent and jokey dispute must be applied to black music and white, and to whatever from wherever, to the future and the past, to easy and difficult, popular and obscure, what sells and what won’t, to sexy and angry and jumping and hurt and confused and sleepy and chill and dreamy and all the rest, to a roiling world full of sounds that didn’t fit, and all the easy-seeming sounds that fit their cliché conventions so exactly that they that everything somewhere utterly else. Some of that was achieved knowingly — participants recognised it and worked towards — and some of it was certainly luck and some of it was sly editorial manipulation and hard-won guesswork. Because ensuring the blizzard of short-term signals didn’t just swamp one another — that they can be picked out and used to map out surges and collapses on a changing terrain — requires a lot of detailed, experienced tinkering, as well as (I suspect) a fairly stable self-identifying community. The first of these is very prey to circular bubble-thinking and unwitting embedment of internal bias; the second, in the digital age, has proved a sadly fractious goal. 

If he has key flaws as a critic, Xgau has enormous strengths as an editor (and vice versa too, no doubt), and I’ll tackle them all elsewhere one day, maybe. Except to insist that his importance is easy to underplay because his project looms so very large,. And you didn’t have to agree with any of his specific judgments to recognise that, year on year, his year-end essays were a device to address everything in the previous paragraph. Not least (perhaps) because as an editor, from early on, a central interest was raising the quality of critical writing in the ppopular and semi-popular realm. To the point where — possibly? — the quality of the music mattered more as a spur than a goal. You loved where you were or why stay, in a milieu that had never paid well? 

From the early 70s up until it began to fall apart, the Village Voice music section was essential exactly because of all the ways it was achieving these various things I’ve been sketching. Tinkering to establish and maintain a self-identified community able to explore a related family of musics as they evolved and squabbled: if my goals as editor overlapped with these, it was because I’d been reading the Voice avidly for some years by the time I was installed at The Wire’s little flight console). In 2006, the noxious clowns then running the Voice sacked Xgau; in 2012 they fired my friend Maura Johnson as music editor. But up until whichever moment you feel marks the actual real end, the continuity of Pazz and Jop, real and imagined, delivered a palpable, readable sense to the results, as gathered eventually from up to 300 contributors. Because the fact of the sharing, the solidarity of it across all disputes of taste, was part of the point — and a very large part. And to feel real, that sharing (and the creativity of that squabbling) required a location and a machinery. 

chimpan eno to chimpan zeno 

So, to return to my opening claim: EOYs have become bad and you should feel bad. There’s a Zeno’s Paradox feel to all the work being put in – year-on-year more and more thought moving the dial less and less. Everyone straining to add new names and new recordings to the great pool, to drag attention away from the past and into the present — and every year the pool seems more unchanging, more stagnant. We’re 48 years on from the first Pazz and Jop: if there’s a 49th, the aggregate of the LPs listed in it will have a 49ths-worth the canon-heft of anything that survived from the first year. There is nothing to be gained — like Zeno we never get where we’re going. 

Why? Because every year’s end we put so much effort into attaching the present (the end of the given year) only to the extremely recent past. Any energies that cheered or stung or startled us out from the ordinary, anything torqued towards the Fizzing Discourse of the First Instance, is hurled only against anything immediately contemporary to it. If new champions ever even emerge, they’re pre-emptively chosen as moulded into the shapes of whatever already “stood the test of time”, magnifying everything staid and starched and teacherly worthy about it, the better to resemble what was already admitted into acceptance. Which immediately becomes the worst and stupidest test for pop culture, because it smothers all possible quarrel and shifts the notion of ‘importance’ onto exactly the wrong unchanging elements. To establish the right to a vitrine in the Halls of the Tests of Time, you shut out anything naughtily absurd and NOW that a slice of silly pop might have — anything about it that captures and charges its moment. So the competition is consciously, habitually, ruinously limited: the game is handicapped, and handicapped against the very players we want to favour and to highlight. Every other discussion is locked out of bounds. And all this is done simply because it’s the way it’s “always” been done. Which isn’t even true — as I've shown, it’s a semi-recent invention, become drearily routine and pervasive only in the last couple of decades. 

When the first rock lists were made, they were made with a view to changing perspectives, to altering the world’s ideas of what mattered and why — and they did. And for a while after that, till the mid-80s, say, they were producing intense and fascinating arguments — the Tight Fit ’Fantasy Island’ 12” is more important than Led Zeppelin III, as a waggish sage and provocateur once wrote. And then reaction began to set in: a decision was made in too many quarters to try to create test-of-time accords that defanged these debates, and all debates after them, and that decision now holds sway everywhere. The vital Rude World is dissolved and cheekily argumentative renewal is banished: in a mush of tokenist quasi-pluralism, the usual suspects (plus Catch a Fire and Kind of Blue and maybe Nation of Millions) are gumming up a human ear forever. Stop the listing and let’s unblock and regroup [11]


1: Pazz and Jop 1: The Who, Who's Next, 2: The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, 3: Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story, 4: Van Morrison, Tupelo Honey 

2: The idea wasn’t Christgau’s. Never not irritating, the long-running spoonerised title ‘Pazz and Jop’ was an hommage to an earlier poll run by Jazz and Pop magazine, which had folded in 1971. It was also a playful bid for openness of genre, because labels are for squares and the best part of definition is what’s left open to allow future developments. Jazz and Pop had begun life in 1962, as a rival of DownBeat, changing its name in 1967 to respond to Sergeant Pepper, and from then on publishing an international critics’ poll pertinent to rock, the first such that I know of — and Xgau’s Pazz and Jop adopted its ratings system. Contributors of note inclouded Lenny Kaye (of Nuggets and Patti Smith fame) and Frank Kofsky (a firebreathing critic deeply linked to the most radical end of free jazz). J&P’s 1967 poll: 1: Beatles, Sgt Pepper, 2: Mothers of Invention: Absolutely Free, 3: Donovan, Mellow Yellow, 4: Rolling Stones, Between the Buttons. 

3: Pazz and Jop 2: Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark, 2: Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic, 3: Randy Newman, Good Old Boys, 4: Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale 

4: Record Mirror and Disc were at the pop end of the UK weeklies. RM’s first EOY was 1975, the year that it finally absorbed Disc — possibly meaning that Disc never got to run one (I couldn’t find a way to check this that didn’t involve three days in the British Library newspaper archive). 

5: ZigZag Best Album Ever (1971): 1: Love, Forever Changes, 2: Beatles: Sgt Pepper, 3: Dylan: Blonde on Blonde, 4: Byrds, Notorious Byrds Brothers. Most Played Album (1974): 1: Love, Forever Changes, 2: Capt Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica, 3: Byrds, Notorious Byrds Brothers, 4: Van Morrison, Moondance  

6: NME 1974 Top 100 albums of all time: 1: Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), 2: Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde (1966), 3: The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1967), 4: The Beatles, Revolver (1966). 

7: Because Vanguardism-as-Voice-of-the-People had twice now been demonstrated within the charts themselves: rock and punk were avant gardes proven popular (and jazz once had been too), and this gave permission to critics to steer away from the current (beached) tastes of its readership towards the wild spiky best of the new. In 1979, when the readers were still very happily taken with all things Weller (best bassplayer: Bruce Foxton), the paper’s line was veering sternly elsewhere. NME 1979 critics EOY: 1: Talking Heads, Fear Of Music, 2: Public Image Ltd, Metal Box, 3: Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, 4: The Jam, Setting Sons

8: Critics Top 200: 1: Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), 2: Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde (1966), 3: Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (1965), 4: Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (1968). 

9: ZigZag notwithstanding, if the canon-formation industry began in earnest in 1978, it only truly bedded in the mid-80s, in the wake of the turbulence and challenge UK punk brought to rock: and it arrived as a way to smooth away the clashes, and to domesticate the Clashes. Case in point, in fact: The Story of the Clash Vol.1 (Epic 1988), where the complex existential battle to self-birth, including songs as snapshots of arguments as they first played out, failed experiments, were erased in favour of a mythologised rubberstamped lump (see Jon Savage’s furious review collected in Time Travel). By the mid-90s, this approach was general, with pro- and anti-rock more or less agreeing on the least interesting origin story, and all kinds of now-acknowledged sins projected unjustly onto roots that had been far more turbulent and interesting. In the 70s, the rock papers were urgent battlegrounds, not at all the sites of smug victory they're seen as in present-day depictions. Seriously it took decades to put all the quarrelsome imps back in their various bottles. 

10: Wire EOY 1993: 1. Bjork, Debut, 2: Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II, 3: Joe Henderson, So Near So Far, 4: Bill Frisell, Have a Little Faith, 5: Brodsky Quartet, Crumb/Schubert, 6: Trans-Global Underground, Dream of 100 Nations, 7: Cypress Hill, Black Sunday, 8: PJ Harvey: 4-Track Demos, 9: American Music Club, Mercury, 10: Various, Chess Blues Box

11: My good friends are once more gathering their thoughts for Pazz and Jop — and once again I’m filtering out the EOY discussion, as I have for years now. To me this habit is cargo cult stuff, a set of ritual moves, for sure to revivify the best of what once was — but by means of moves that exactly smother it. But my scepticism isn’t just trolling: because I know the ritual is a way to manage and negotiate our shared disappointment and hurt, that “all of this” (which is where we met and came togther) is praqctically speaking coming to an end. And yet coming to an end it very plainly is, as the ugly and stupid shot-down of working titles full of talented, energetic writers and editors accelarates all around us. I linked to Alex Pareene on the end of ‘Rude Media’ above: and this is one way to tell the story — he’s an eloquent analyst — but at some point we also always have to acknowledges Lester Bangs’s dream, of those vast archive-cellers full of the entire documented history of noise, not static and silent but raucously alive. Which is another way of describing ourselves, obviously — and another way of asking, how do we once more find a way for all this to speak, if journalism and the internet have destroyed one another and failed us… ? 

mark sinker released this post 7 days early for patrons.   Become a patron
Tier Benefits
Recent Posts