Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Pazz and Jop Ballot; or, Defending 'Goblin'

Even though it's been six years since Robert Christgau got fired from The Village Voice, I remain positively giddy each January when his creation, the Pazz & Jop music poll, comes out. This year's edition went live today, and count me as one of the people who assumed that Bon Iver's self-titled second disc was gonna win the album poll. Boy, was I off: It finished in ninth. The actual winner was tUnE-yArDs (the brainchild of Merrill Garbus) and her second disc, w h o k i l l. It was the first time a woman has topped the poll since Lucinda Williams' 1998 record, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That was also the last time women occupied the top two spots: Williams narrowly edged out The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and this year Garbus slid by PJ Harvey's career-comeback Let England Shake.

Of course, Pazz & Jop isn't the same without Christgau's year-defining essay that always used to accompany the results. (Last week's "Rock & Roll &" essay is more about his best-of list than the music year in general, although it's definitely a must-read.) I've been contributing to P&J since 2000 -- my No. 1 album that year was And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out -- and while I miss Christgau's hands-on stewardship of the poll (although he still does contribute a ballot) I think this is by and large still the definitive countdown of the best in music.

This brings us to my ballot. A focus on film reviewing in recent years -- and a concentration on covering rock music thanks to my work at About.com and Revolver -- has made it a little tougher to write about all the albums and songs that matter to me on a daily/weekly/monthly basis, so I figured I'd take a moment to highlight some of my picks. But probably, I should just spend my time defending my No. 1 album of 2011, Tyler, the Creator's Goblin, a lowly No. 98 on the album chart that contained votes from 700 music critics. Even Metallica and Lou Reed's universally loathed Lulu charted higher.

Released in May -- just two months after the artist born Tyler Okonma turned 20 -- Goblin was impossible to judge without also discussing the man behind its making. The leader of Odd Future, a buzz-heavy L.A. rap collective, Tyler, the Creator has been criticized for his homophobic and misogynistic antics that he's been unable to defend in any meaningful way. Goblin is a treasure trove of similarly disgusting sentiments, and he and his posse of Odd Future rappers -- with the possible exception of Frank Ocean, whose Nostalgia, Ultra suggested he might be the one guy in this group who has a healthy amount of empathy for other human beings -- do little to convince me that these dudes aren't straight-up jerks.

And yet... in ways that recall Never Mind the Bollocks or Appetite for Destruction, Goblin is a record I find fascinating and gripping in almost perfectly indirect proportion to how much I like the artist personally. Goblin is Tyler's second album -- his first was Bastard -- and it's been compared to the unapologetic rage of Eminem's early records. (As Brad Wete noted in his Entertainment Weekly review, Goblin really deserves the title My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy even more than Kanye's 2010 record does.) Tyler's anger at those around him -- music critics, Bruno Mars, kids who grew up rich, Bill O'Reilly, girls who won't sleep with him, girls who will sleep with him but give him diseases -- may be partly in his head, but as a producer and a record-maker, he knows how to turn his album into a paranoid, claustrophobic hall of mirrors in which his misanthropy starts to develop its own kind of bizarre inner logic.

But despite his monstrously ugly persona, Tyler succeeds in making his shallow complaints compelling. He mourns the friends he's lost, he pines for the one good girl he managed to come across -- naturally, it's his fault that she got back with her old boyfriend -- and when he talks about killing himself, his freak-show keyboards and jittery samples give the boasts a frightening realism. (Even when it's stooping to mere shock value, Goblin turns out to be rather effectively shocking.) And while he doesn't want you calling his music horrorcore, there's an undeniably nightmarish quality to it. But that doesn't mean it's monotonous: Only after weeks of slowly digesting Goblin and then putting it away for a while did I realize how the songs' hooks had stuck with me. No question his petulance ties the (admittedly overlong) disc together, but his beats -- sometimes merciless, other times tricky, occasionally haunting -- are a close second.

If Goblin was a movie, it might be Rampart or There Will Be Blood, starring a thoroughly detestable main character who we don't like but whom we come to understand. And so we have yet another musician whose personal behavior is repellent but also fuels the vibrant, upsetting and, yes, sometimes funny art that he makes. You wouldn't want your daughter dating this creep, but on Goblin he lets you enter his dark twisted fantasy. Just remember it's a fantasy -- or at least I hope it is.