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tUnE-yArDs (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

New York's state of mind

Music | Aural and philosophic chaos reign in the latest Pazz & Jop music poll

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

The Pazz & Jop music poll has long been an annual feature of New York's Village Voice newspaper. Determined by critics according to a strict rating system, the results often make more sense of the zeitgeist than the Grammys and Billboard, which by their very natures overemphasize the ephemeral.

Of course, skewing young, liberal, and self-consciously hip as Pazz & Jop's critics do, the poll has its limitations. But as it's the young, liberal, and self-consciously hip who increasingly wag the socio-political dog, knowing what music speaks to and for them is essential for anyone intent on holding that dog still long enough for those wagging it to grow up.

The 2011 Pazz & Jop has just been published, and the top-five albums are particularly revealing. Three restless, musically fascinating women (PJ Harvey, tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus, all four members of Wild Flag), a predictably tasteless hip-hop tag team (Jay-Z, Kanye West), and a cantankerous white man old enough to be the father of them all (Tom Waits) collude to shove the graceful and modest Adele, who by any other measure defines the pop-cultural moment, down to No. 6. What can such results mean?

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For one thing, aural chaos is more in style than ever. In Waits' Bad As Me (ANTI-, No. 5), Harvey's Let England Shake (Vagrant, No. 2), and tUnE-yArDs' whokill (4AD, No. 1), genres collide, break, and recombine across time (Waits), space (tUnE-yArDs), or both (Harvey). Jay-Z and West's Watch the Throne (Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation), meanwhile, continues hip-hop's tradition of mashing together sounds both found and original. And Wild Flag's Wild Flag (Merge) strips catchy, Go-Go's-style rock to its no-frills, garage-punk essence.

But there's philosophical chaos too. "My country, 'tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty," sings Merrill Garbus of America in whokill's opening track. "How come I cannot see my future within your arms?" And although Harvey pledges "never-failing love" to her homeland in the song "England," she also accuses that country's war-torn history of "leav[ing] a taste, / a bitter one" in her mouth and declares, "I cannot go on as I am."

When neither America nor England is good enough for a woman, she has practically ruled out the entire Western world, leaving mainly poor, Communist, or Muslim countries in which to find her terrestrial freedom and peace. Given Garbus' love of World Music rhythms and percussion, she might be willing to settle. Harvey, however, even at 42, might want to consider a career as an astronaut.

Different kinds of claustrophobia haunt Pazz & Jop's other three poll toppers. Waits' could pass for stifled, Kerouac-ian wanderlust. ("I'm going away," he repeats in "Face to the Highway"). Wild Flag and the rappers, on the other hand, narrow their worlds to romantic, or at least emotionally heated, relationships.

Wild Flag's concerns are expressed in language so generic that their insularity is almost beside the point. Jay-Z and West, on the other hand, express theirs in what has long been hip-hop's default patois: a vulgarity-laced flow of boasts and threats so constricted it barely qualifies as speech, let alone the free kind. Even in the song they sing to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph ("Made in America"), they can't resist gutter slang.

"The streets raised me," raps Jay-Z. "So pardon my bad manners." He's 42 as well. Apparently, the fad of perpetual-and perpetuating-adolescence is, like rock 'n' roll itself, here to stay.

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