Top-ten lists generally come in two distinct models. In some years critics anoint one record: Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991, Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1984, the Clash's London Calling in 1980. (Once in a while there happen to be two: Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain in 1985.)
1994 looks to be built along the lines of a second model. A handful of records-- Hole's Live Through This, R.E.M.'s Monster, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, and Neil Young's Sleeps With Angels--are jockeying for position on the top ends of the lists published thus far around the country, and a lineup close to that seems likely to fill out the top slots in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop nationwide poll of critics. The poll, which reflects the votes of more than 300 critics who publish in outlets ranging from the New York Times to fanzines, comes out in late February. Given the Voice's laudable attempts to make the sampling as broad as possible, it's a pretty fair approximation of critical consensus from year to year. As the sampling gets larger, the winners tend to be those who can cross over and garner support from more than one of the poll's fairly distinct groups: the daily critics, who favor the responsible superstars; the slightly more adventurous but also more fickle alternative critics; the major magazine writers, heavily influenced by industry politics; and the feral underground types who don't vote for anything either commercially or critically popular on principle.
This last group, particularly, will have greater influence as time goes on. Note that the top contenders this year are all successful mainstream acts, a plain example of the alternative takeover and a portentous one: when critical and commercial consensus are so similar, something's bound to start cracking soon.
Besides the bands mentioned above, other contenders are Green Day, suffering a strong backlash after selling too many records, and Pearl Jam, perennially disparaged by critics but helped by Eddie Vedder's oddly persuasive conviction of his own self-importance. Soundgarden will get votes to show that the critics are down with the kids. Beck has a strong LA base and Entertainment Weekly's David Browne and Spin behind him. Indie fave Pavement seems to be fading. Nirvana votes are going to Courtney Love or being siphoned off by the embarrassingly corporate title of the band's 1994 record. Love will probably take the poll's top spot and deserves it for all the right reasons: a striking record and the most difficult and unforgettable star turn of the year.
It was a bad year for black music: none of the few interesting rappers--the Fugees, Nas--are as yet making an impact on the lists. Snoop Doggy Dogg will get some votes, as will pal Warren G. Ted Hawkins, the black country soul singer who died this year, may do well. Soul songstress Dionne Ferris was big in LA, unknown everywhere else. Iris DeMent's gracious My Life and the Mavericks' fabulous What a Crying Shame will be the token country entries this year.
And as for the female rockers who dominated the poll in 1993 (with Liz Phair, the Breeders, and PJ Harvey in the top five), 1994 was a different story. Phair lost the support of many critics who liked her debut and was denied even a mention in Spin's end-of-year issue after she stranded a Spin reporter in a Chicago hotel room and opted for a Rolling Stone cover story. Veruca Salt isn't even name-checked in Rolling Stone's list of the year's notable albums, but turns up on Spin's top ten and will probably do better with support from alternative critics in the Voice poll. The eerie British pop band called Portishead, fronted by the mysterious Beth Gibbons, may be a sleeper.
As for the magazines, Musician made Nails frontman Trent Reznor artist of the year. Rolling Stone's critics poll names Love, Cobain, and Reznor, in that order, as artists of the year but hedges its bets nicely with a band-of-the-year category that put Nirvana on top and a best-new-band category that put Green Day on top (and on the mag's cover: such decisions are always predicated on finagling the accompanying interview). The magazine's critics named Live Through This, Monster, Soundgarden's Superunknown, The Downward Spiral, and Sleeps With Angels as the top albums, again in order. Spin declared Billy Corgan artist of the year, based on the Smashing Pumpkins' Lollapalooza stint. Their top ten is a bit cramped from having been compiled in October; that's Spin for you.
Pearl Jam's three-hour live nationwide radio broadcast last Sunday was less than compelling. Most interesting was how the band discombobulated programmers across the country by strewing the shows with recordings that used every obscene word you could think of: locally, Q101 interrupted the program repeatedly and still missed about a dozen "fuck"s and one big loud "pussy."...
From the medical desk: "Rod Stewart too tired for an encore in Rio." The Trib reported on January 3 that Stewart "played to a crowd of 3.5 million on New Year's Day but was unable to perform an encore....He was taken away by ambulance after being given oxygen to combat exhaustion. Stewart ascribed his condition to strenuous soccer games that morning and a large lunch."...Speaking of the Trib, Hitsville's recent lecture on the paper's repeated screwups on Internet addresses didn't have much effect. In last week's Friday magazine, After Hours columnist Achy Obejas's America Online E-mail address was given as "achyaol.com." It's really "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.