Every year, New Jersey based songwriter / music journalist/ novelist Tris McCall conducts his Critics’ Poll, a set of questions as basic as “best albums”/ “best singles”, as refined as “best guitarist” and “best album cover”, and as snarky as “song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat” and “hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire”. Tris encourages explanations and rants. This year, Pop Rock Nation’s Brian Block is publishing his ballot, free for comment and carping. (His Best Albums vote is in progress…)

Single of the Year:

1. Aesop RockZZZ Top
2. Decomposure Readymade
3. Profusion – Chuta Chani
4. Ani DiFrancoWhich Side are You On?
5. Of MontrealSpiteful Intervention
6. Passion PitTake a Walk
7. Dar WilliamsI am the One Who Will Remember Everything
8. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – Want It Back
9. KillersRunaways
10. Birdeatsbaby – Incitatus

Honorable mentions:

BBU – Outlaw Culture
Death Grips I’ve Seen Footage
dEUS – Ghosts
Dirty ProjectorsOffspring are Blank
Emilie AutumnFight Like a Girl
Fiona Apple – Every Single Night
First Aid Kit the Lion’s Roar
HospitalityFriends of Friends
Kate Miller-Heidke – Ride This Feeling
Lana Del ReyBorn to Die
Magnetic Fields – Andrew in Drag
Mars Volta the Malkin Jewel
Mike KeneallyI’m Raining Here, Inside
Mountain GoatsAmy a.k.a. Spent Gladiator 1
Regina SpektorAll the Rowboats
Squonk OperaShimmy and Shake
Taylor SwiftWe are Never Ever Getting Back Together

You, Tris, find it part of your (pleasurable) duty, as a citizen and journalist and fan, to engage with popular music. My pleasurable duty in these roles is more about engaging with unpopular music. Far more people listen to popular music; but far more people *make* unpopular music. So I think my approach ought to be, in its own way, just as representative.

Best singer:

Fiona Apple. That merger of bluesy conviction and accurate diction (“You made your major overtures When you were a sure and orotund mutt And I was still a dewey petal Rather than a moribund slut”? Yes, I can make out the words) ain’t normal.

Best rapper:

Collectively, BBU have a good case. Don’t know if I’d vouch for Perez, Milam, or Wallace quite that highly as individuals.

Best guitarist:

Last time Mike Keneally (Zappa’s old stun-guitarist) made a pop album, I noted here – more for my sake than yours – that “Mike Keneally” is automatically and always the correct answer to this question. This year he’s got a new record, Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge – makes plenty of sense in Keneally’s own discography but as much or more sense as the first new XTC album in 12 years. It’s excellent; buy it. Anyway, Keneally downplays the guitar’s role almost completely, in favor of elaborate vocal arrangements and some keyboards, except on two songs. It would be ridiculous to choose him based on two songs. My answer is Mike Keneally.

Best piano/organ player:

Mishkin Fitzgerald (Birdeatsbaby). mishkin_fitzgerald She also wins “best name” and “best red hair dye”, which are valid reasons for picking her over Jackie Dempsey (Squonk Opera).

Best synth player:

Greg Scalera (Agony Family)

Best bassist:

Tony Gedrich (Extra Life)

Best drummer:

Nick Podgurski (Extra Life). Also: best drummer who isn’t allowed to play half the time because his band has a thing about “dynamics” when it should have a thing about “letting their drummer whomp stuff”: Patrick Hughes (Lost Lander). Best drummer who’s allowed to dominate the proceedings: Charley Drayton (Fiona Apple). Best drummer who may or may not be abnormally good, but whose drum parts are mixed loud and sure sound fantastic: Brandon Young (Delta Spirit).

Best backing vox:

The many layers of Caleb Mueller (Decomposure)

Best production:

Verlaines – Untimely Meditations, with production by singer/guitarist Graeme Downes.  Regularly, throughout the album, you’ll have five different instruments playing five different things while Downes is singing – and you can pick out and focus on any darned one of them. The busiest great pop album I’ve ever heard.

Best lyricist:

For peak value, that’s easy: ZZZ TopCrows 1, and Gopher Guts, by Ian Bavitz (Aesop Rock) are image-dense but coherent and brilliant , operating on a level no one else is working at. Some of the most powerful songs about pride and putting on an identity; about reacting to the death of a too-young friend; and about relationship failure, self-disgust, and symbolic benedictions ever written.

For a full album … it could still be Bavitz. It depends, since I don’t have the spare time or concentration to track down every allusion when he *doesn’t* give many clues, how much credit he should get for the existence of RapGenius.com: I mean, Leisureforce is a powerful song too, but for me its power is basically the hard-won donation of two dozen amateur sleuths at home, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts online. I’d rather vote for Chris Hannah (Propagandhi), whose fierce politics are always that of a relatable and uncertain and daily-life-living human being who can’t quite hide his goofy streak, and whose poetic skills are used only in the direct service of saying what he’s trying to say.

Best songwriter:

Amanda Palmer

Best live show:

Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra, at the Cat’s Cradle. Partly because she’s a goddam rock star. Partly because I’ve never seen a rock star work so hard to make sure that by show’s end, you knew all her bandmates and roadie and photographer by name and thought *they* were rock stars. Partly because she had a couple of excellent audience participation gimmicks. Partly because she and her band’s 3-hour set included fourteen songs from a record they’d released three days prior, and never came close to losing the audience. And sure, it would’ve been nice if her town-by-town rented clarinetist and flautist (I think?) were paid in money along with drinks and company; I’m a unionist, I get it. But those two guest musicians never looked anything other than thrilled to be there; and I, in their place, would have felt the same.

Best album cover:

Debo Band. debo_band It looks like Vassily Kandinsky gone into map-making, with the legend explaining the circles and curved lines elsewhere, beyond our sight, so as not to impinge our imagination.

Best album title:

Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, by Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny. I’m not sure what the title or the band name are meant to indicate, but that’s okay: it’s a fair warning about the lyrics, which are intriguing too.

Most welcome surprise:

In 2010, my most welcome surprise was a top-10 list (and beyond) filled with artists I’d never heard before; the surprise was that I was still, at my age, so capable of new thrills. In 2012, my most welcome surprise is a top-10 list (and beyond) crammed with artists I’d already known and loved – including quite a few of my 2010 discoveries – still working at peak form.

Bill James’s Law of Competitive Balance applies as strongly to music as to baseball, I think; while there isn’t a predictable age at which songwriters decline, they also aren’t able to call up a Mike Trout when Albert Pujols starts to fade, and any time an album includes several spectacularly good songs, it’s far more likely to be a fluke of timing than a real established level of ability. My 2012 was full of artists refusing to return from the extreme end of the bell curve. And as great as it is to be open to new discoveries, it’s also great not to depend on them.

Biggest disappointment:

I’m afraid I thought Boots Riley (the Coup) and Max Bemis (Say Anything) descended into sloganeering this year, and I didn’t like the resulting records. I realize Bemis is in love; I realize you can interpret his swinging back and forth between extremes of sappiness and adolescent apocalyptic angst as the strength of his determination to defend his woman. Me, I see it as Hallmark cards plus years of tantrums, clogging his brain until he can’t remember how to write.

Worst song:

My 4-year-old wrote it; hang on, I wrote it down somewhere. “Cats in the creeper universe/ Cats in the creeper universe/ There’s 20 cats in the creeper universe/ That’s 109 cats./ On the bottom of the creeper universe, there’s 10 more cats/ There’s 10 more cats hanging on the sides/ And that is the end of the song“. It’s a tuneless mess (although my cover version is melodic). I like it quite a bit.

Song that kept getting stuck in head:

Amanda PalmerWant It Back. A virtually perfect ’80s-pop pastiche — and if you think there’s even a hint of insult in “pastiche”, you don’t know me yet.

Artist I don’t know but should:

Frank Ocean‘s singles haven’t grabbed me yet, and I haven’t explored him further. But I should; I owe him for his vocals on No Church in the Wild.

Song that would drive me craziest on repeat:

Killer MikeJo-Jo’s Chillin’. It’s a good song, but the ice-cold narrative objectivity would char my soul pretty soon.

Most overrated song/artist:

Grimes and Beach House are vaguely pleasant in small doses, but I really don’t get the fuss. Same, to the fourth or fifth power of incomprehension, with “Call Me Maybe”.

Song/artist you feel cheapest about liking:

The entire Bad Lip Reading video collection. Apparently the only thing that keeps my tastes from being as pop-centric as yours is that I can’t ignore terrible lyrics, and therefore need them to be made surreal.

Most overplayed:

Call Me Maybe.

Hoary old artist who should spare us all and retire:

Bruce Springsteen, good lyrics or no. We Take Care of Our Own is the most tuneless, listlessly repetitive song I’ve heard since…. oh dear. I can’t find a good analogy. And my sinking feeling is that this is only because I’ve forgotten most of Springsteen’s other recent singles.

Artist you respect but don’t like:

Almost any critically acclaimed metal artist these days. I *like* heavy metal, but I go for less depresso atmosphere, less ability to sustain 11-minute compositions, more tunes, faster flurries of drums, and shorter attention spans than the critics do. So I’m probably missing out on stuff I’d love because they won’t tell me.

Album with most-botched production:

Nothing too bad. I wish Lost in the Trees’s art-pop album had been more dynamic and less sedate.

Well, hold on. There’s also the fact that I accidentally bought the “clean” version of Killer Mike‘s new album R.A.P. Music. The whole concept of a clean version of it is bizarre …

killer_mike_rapSwears are edited out. So are drug references, including the phrase “War on Drugs” and accusations that cocaine was a bad thing used to destroy neighborhoods. The clean version blanks out both of the rhymes about police terrorizing “Mostly black boys, but they would call us ‘nigger’/ And lay us on our bellies, with their fingers on the trigger” — although Mr. Michael Render’s point is, pretty clearly, that it’s a little late to protect listeners from “nigger” and “trigger” as concept. Also deleted is the word “gun”, but not (for example) “glock” or a dozen other gun-type references.

Most of the story JoJo’s Chillin’, about a babydaddy who flees the state to avoid criminal charges (and his family), bribes a guard, sadistically attacks several people including a woman he has consensual sex with first, and gets away with it, is left intact, cusses aside, but not the part where he and the woman do a line of cocaine. Rather less of Reagan, an eloquent and with-specifics attack on the former president, is left for a listener to hear. But we do get to hear “I’m glad Reagan dead. Ronald Wilson Reagan … 666”. Satan is okay with censors!

Artist who will still be good in 2023:

I hate to jinx things, but: Amanda Palmer‘s got ten great years under her belt, so why not ten more?

Additional comments:

Most inconsistent album: Amanda Palmer – Theatre is Evil. Hard album to rank. It’s more than CD length: ten fast songs, ten slow songs. Personally, I burned from that a 56-minute CD of ten fast/ two slow songs (those two, “the Bed Song” and “Grown Man Cry”, are brilliant and heartbreaking). That 12-song CD would be my #1 for the year. Whether that’s a fair rank after I deduct the time I spent attempting to like the other eight wandering, underwritten, lugubrious (in my opinion) tracks is another question.

Berklee College of Music in Boston had a great year for me. The Debo Band, 11 current and former Berklee students, made my favorite album of African-styled pop music ever. Meanwhile I discovered Paranoise and its replacement Mawwal, two outstanding World Music (centered in Pakistan-style) bands led by long-ago Berklee grad Jim Matus. Some people might suggest my favorite World Music albums should be made by people elsewhere in, like, the world. These people are terrorists.

– Brian Block