The Fourth Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
What About Bob?
I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming, but in the weeks leading up to the tabulation of our fourth annual No Depression critics’ poll, I wondered whether our top vote-getter this year might be Rosanne Cash’s career-best personal statement, or perhaps Neko Case’s long-awaited leap toward the big leagues, or maybe Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint’s tag-team Crescent City treatise, or possibly Solomon Burke’s country collaboration with Buddy Miller, or even Rick Rubin’s final go-round with Rosanne’s father.
Sure enough, all five are right there at the top — in spots 2 through 6. Somehow, in the throes of my prognosticating, I completely missed the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t a case of just absentmindedly forgetting about it or overlooking it. Although Bob Dylan’s Modern Times was our top vote-getter this year by an almost obscene margin, it didn’t even make my top-20 ballot, nor my co-editor Grant Alden’s.
The latter is no real surprise, as Grant has made no bones about his general disinterest in all things Dylan for pretty much his entire life. Such a thing might seem heretical for an editor of a roots-minded magazine, but frankly I’ve always sort of admired him for it, in the sense that it takes all kinds to get the full picture, and the world certainly has enough Dylan-worshiping music critics already.
Generally speaking, I’d count myself among those legions whose appreciation of songwriting has been shaped greatly by the classic work of His Bobness. My own rabid Dylan phase struck when I was 19; I flew across the country to the 1985 Newport Folk Festival on the weekend of my 20th birthday almost solely because there were rumors that Dylan would show (he didn’t).
Modern Times, much like its 2001 predecessor Love & Theft (which topped that year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll), apparently has been anointed as another Dylan masterpiece. I just don’t hear it myself, nor did I with Love & Theft, or its similarly acclaimed 1997 predecessor, Time Out Of Mind.
Admirable records, sure, for a legendary artist who could easily rest on his laurels yet has pointedly chosen not to do so. But will I ever actually listen to them, and return to them repeatedly the way I did Bringing It All Back Home, or Blood On The Tracks, or Freewheelin’? Not a chance. To me, they’re just simply not that good — too esoteric, not melodic enough, “cool” at the expense of warmth. I can’t help feeling that Dylan’s recent records have been revered mainly because they’re the work of a legend, not because they’re actually legendary work.
Or maybe I’m just missing out. Certainly 25 voters in our poll would contend that’s the case. Still, I feel quite secure that the albums at the top of my own list this year — Vince Gill’s These Days, Josh Ritter’s The Animal Years, the Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, the Weepies’ Say I Am You, Pete Droge’s Under The Waves — are without question the best works of those artists’ careers. They may all be chasing Dylan’s trails in the grand arc…but right here, right now, theirs are the records I’m reaching for.
— PETER BLACKSTOCK
The confessions of a materialist
A couple years ago two good friends, both men of my general vintage, could barely eat the fine Thai lunch we’d ordered because I’d said something that kept them hooting. What I said was, “I don’t listen to music on my computer; I have a component stereo.”
It is possible they are still laughing.
Today I am still listening to music on that component stereo. But it is clear, even to me, that some near tomorrow will spell the end to hearing new music on the highest fidelity equipment my money has been able to buy.
Universal and Beggar’s Banquet have already begun sending advance music out as links rather than envelopes to be opened and CDs to be played. Doubtless others will soon follow, and while I can appreciate both the financial and ecological benefits of the electronic transmission of music, it is not yet clear to me how — or even if — I will adjust to the new paradigm.
See, I was with Thoreau, embracing that simple life by the quiet pond, right up until the moment he tossed out two pieces of marble because they required dusting. Surely somewhere in the margins I wrote, Just don’t dust ’em! and learned the valuable lesson that one may only be taught lessons one is prepared to learn.
I am a collector of all kinds of things. Not a maniac, not a completist, not a compulsive shopper, but someone who is comforted by the untidy presence of the various ideas and passions to be found in books and records and outsider art.
For the most part I think of myself as being pretty disciplined about the things I acquire, the books and music and vintage magazines I keep. My wife, doubtless, would look around this office and cackle, if she were the sort of woman who cackled. Over the years I reckon I’ve kept 5 to 10 percent of the music sent me, but that still amounts to a lot.
Having the tangible object is somehow important to me.
Figuring out how to download music and store it on another external hard drive, wielding one of those tiny MP3 players, none of that sounds like fun. (I bought my wife an iPod for her birthday last year, and she loves it; in part, perhaps, because I can’t even intuit how to turn the damn thing on, or off.)
And I think it makes the music less valuable, less important, more disposable, even as I would concede that it is sometimes convenient to listen online to the streaming sounds of an artist about whom Peter and I are arguing. But even occasionally plugging the headphones from my, ahem, component system into the trusty G5 (or listening to Susan’s iPod in the car), I’m struck by how tinny the files sound.
We are moving into a world on shuffle play, today’s greatest hits soon to be deleted for tomorrow’s whims, with no permanent record left behind. It is much easier to delete an e-mail than to dispose of a CD, and I am much more likely to find an unexpected treasure — like Diana Jones’ debut — amid the chaos of those CD stacks than I can ever imagine discovering online.
We can still play those old 78s. What happens in five years or ten or twenty when our external hard drives (or whatever) are outmoded and all those 99-cent soundfiles no longer play with contemporary equipment? Will we replace the Beatles catalogue, yet again, or just quit buying (and listening to) music altogether?
I am also an art director and a writer. I like and admire and aspire to good packaging; I appreciate and read and occasionally write good (and bad) liner notes. I like context, I prefer books to newspapers, the Atlantic Monthly to USA Today. I believe in the long-player; I believe in the artist’s right to sequence an album, and in my obligation as a listener to trust that the artist put those songs in that order for a reason.
These things, all of them very important to me, do not matter, in the end. The world is moving in another direction. It’s just a question of how I will fit into the new paradigm, and the new one after this one.
Or if I will.
Regardless, my favorite albums of 2006 were albums, not collections of songs, and they were about something. Several offered tart commentaries on the future and urgent importance of New Orleans; Rosanne Cash released arguably the best record of her career, a meditation on the loss of her famous father; and the Duhks’ Migrations produced a handful of songs I listened to over and over again, and not simply because they made little Maggie dance.
I am grateful Maggie has not yet asked me what the Duhks’ songs mean, particularly their recording of Tracy Chapman’s “Mountains O’ Things”.
— GRANT ALDEN