'Voice' Music Poll Undermined by Internet

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You know the Oscars, the Tonys, and the Grammys — but as awards season looms, here's a prize you may not have heard of: the "Pazz & Jop Critic's Poll," published by the New York alternative weekly The Village Voice.

Starting in 1971, rock critics around the country — hundreds of them — have voted in the fancifully named Pazz & Jop to declare the best albums of the year. Joni Mitchell, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Prince, Nirvana and Kanye West have all topped the poll. But now changes in the media landscape have challenged the poll's supremacy.

Since its inception, the poll has been a place for critics to vote for the best recordings of the year and debate news and trends, like the rise of hip hop, the grunge era, or, in 1997, the significance of a late-career masterpiece by Bob Dylan, "Time Out of Mind."

But the Voice has had a rough go of late. Long past its influential peak, the cosmopolitan weekly was bought in late 2005 by an Arizona newspaper chain. In August of last year, the new owners fired Pazz & Jop's longtime overseer, Robert Christgau.

Many of the country's most prominent critics, including Tom Moon of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ann Powers of The Los Angeles Times and Jim Derogatis of The Chicago Sun-Times have told NPR that they won't be voting in the poll this year. Not all cited Christgau's departure as the reason, but the move may undermine Pazz & Jop's calling card — its status as a complete survey of the nation's critics.

Sasha Frere-Jones, the pop music critic for The New Yorker, is one of the critics who will abandon Pazz & Jop.

"He was one of three or four people who invented rock criticism," Frere-Jones says. "When you fire Bob Christgau, you know, it's a slap in the face to so many of us in so many ways."

Each year, Christgau used the occasion to bring the year in music into focus. In addition to tabulating hundreds of ballots, he wrote a mammoth essay, and sifted through comments from contributors.

"I was very proud of Pazz & Jop. I understand why people care about it. I am not going to miss the labor of doing it," Christgau says. "The reason I kept doing it is that I think there's some value — although it's a diminishing value — in finding out what critics think."

Christgau, now a contributor to NPR's All Things Considered, increased the scope of the Pazz & Jop poll each year, adding alt-weekly, fanzine and internet writers, who combined with established critics in a forum where commercial favorites vied with obscure critical darlings. In 1978, Elvis Costello, then a relative newcomer, edged out the Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan crushed the ultrahip Strokes in 2001.

Sasha Frere-Jones describes the yearly event as something like a trade fair or convention for people obsessed with music, only more fun.

"It's like the world series for smarty-pants people," Frere-Jones says. "I liked the argument part; I liked the riot of voices. There's a moment of consensus, a moment of 'what did this mean?' Maybe at the end of the day everyone throws down their hats and says 'we didn't figure it out' but it generated a lot of heat and light, and it brought out a lot of fierce writing from people."

Rob Harvilla, newly appointed music editor for the Voice, is taking over for Pazz and Jop's deposed founder. He says he respects the decision of critics who have bowed out, and says that no one can step into Christgau's shoes. Even so, Harvilla says the poll was always set to continue.

But a critics' revolt isn't the only thing Pazz & Jop has to contend with. Like all newspapers, The Village Voice has seen its territory infringed upon by the growth of the internet. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a similar poll popped up on the web.

"I feel like it makes a little more sense for an online property to be doing this," says Brian Raftery, an editor of Idolator.com, a blog in the Gawker media network. In November, Idolator announced a critics poll of its own, to be called Jackin' Pop. Raftery and his co-editor Maura Johnston — like many bloggers — both work from home. In a Manhattan cafe, just a dozen blocks away from The Village Voice offices where Harvilla will put together Pazz and Jop, Raftery argues that the web has changed the very nature of music criticism.

"I think right now the world of music criticism — whether it's blogs or alt weeklies or newspapers putting their stuff online for free everyday — the day to day, hour to hour metabolism of talking about music is only found on the Internet," Raftery says.

Robert Christgau, who says he will vote in both polls this year, has been a witness to that change. He's seen the critical establishment grow from just a few dozen writers into a new world where everyone with an Internet connection can sample the music of the day and post an opinion on it. When everyone's a critic, what's the point of a critics' poll?

"Has the Internet made the rationalization of critical opinion easier? Not in my opinion. I don't think so. Because there's simply too much for anybody to digest. You need gatekeepers," Christgau says.

The Village Voice will release this year's Pazz and Jop in February. Idolator's list is scheduled to be posted today. Young acts like TV on the Radio and Joanna Newsom are expected to do well.

But don't count out the veterans. Asked to predict a winner, both Harvilla and Raftery picked Modern Times, the 31st studio album from Bob Dylan.

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