Critical Review: An Interview with Village Voice Music Editor Rob Harvilla on Pazz + Jop


The Village Voice’s annual Pazz + Jop poll is the end-all-be-all of year-end record lists. The ultimate in nerdy music romps, the alt-weekly’s annual cover story elicits the input of hundreds upon hundreds of professional music writers (including your beloved Beard) in an attempt to definitively capture the year’s critical darlings. Each participant is given a certain number of points to doll out to their “favorite” albums, and the resulting tabulations represent a closer consensus than pretty much anything else out there.

Of course, in any competition (especially when fueled by legions of cred-adorned music maniacs), there’s more at work than meets the eye. After the jump, our resident whiskerly warrior, goes at it with Voice Music Editor Rob Harvilla — who we’re told was indispensably aided by Zach Baron, Rob Trucks, and Jesus Diaz — on the decision to crown TV on the Radio king, whether style trumps substance, and how some critics try to rig the results.

[11:20] Not_Rob: Hello [11:20] TheBeard4904: Hey rob. You guys busy over there? [11:22] Not_Rob: Well, still in a sort of delightful post-Pazz vacuum [11:23] TheBeard4904: Haha, I can imagine [11:23] Not_Rob: It’s Miller time, is what I’m saying [11:23] TheBeard4904: That’s every day around 4 in this office 😉 [11:32] TheBeard4904: ssounds like you’ve been busy. How early do you guys get going on the Pazz + Jop poll? [11:32] Not_Rob: I would say something shifts slightly in my demeanor around, maybe, September and I start thinking about essays, writers and topics and whatnot. [11:33] Not_Rob: The ballots are generally emailed out shortly after Thanksgiving [11:33] Not_Rob: we switched over to a new system this year, and it was initially a bit of a fiasco [11:39] TheBeard4904: I’ve talked to a few friends through the years about how things have changed at the [Village Voice’s] music desk. How much weight do they give the poll over there (or music covers in general) these days? This one has a pretty big legacy? [11:40] Not_Rob: I’ve got a lot of support in terms of space, budget, etc. [11:42] TheBeard4904: That’s great to hear. I have a lot of friends at alt-weeklies, and I feel like the consensus is that that kind of support for big music features is something of a rarity. [11:42] Not_Rob: Yeah it’s a rarity to get music on the cover, and that’s been true everywhere I’ve worked [11:43] TheBeard4904: Yeah, and when you do, lists are always the easiest sell [11:43] TheBeard4904: I feel like we do twice as much traffic anytime we slap the words “top ten” on anything [11:43] Not_Rob: Oh, of course [11:44] Not_Rob: People love to argue and feel insulted on behalf of X band, X album [11:46] TheBeard4904: I do feel though, that pazz and jop is a lot different than other lists, in that it tries on some level, to be a little more definitive [11:46] Not_Rob: Well it’s certainly not One Man’s or One Publication’s opinion [11:47] Not_Rob: From my perspective I’m always wanting it to be bigger, and more inclusive in terms of other genres, etc. [11:48] TheBeard4904: Along that line, have you tried to shift things much since you took it over? After 30-odd years doing it, I’d imagine [former Music Editor Robert] Christgau left a pretty lasting sense of what it should be. [11:49] Not_Rob: Well the biggest change there would be, rather than attempting the sort of sweeping 6,000-word Total Overview entirely myself, I decided to break it down into a bunch of essays by a bunch of different writers. Just to get some other perspectives, this thing involves so many talented writers/critics it seemed a shame not to use ’em. [11:59] TheBeard4904: What do you think it represents? Is it the consensus of what everyone likes, what we want to honor? [11:59] TheBeard4904: Is there a difference? [11:59] Not_Rob: Well what we like and what we want to honor, there are probably differences [12:00] Not_Rob: I think some people are pragmatic in their voting definitely [12:00] Not_Rob: There’s a comment we published, by Geoffrey Himes I think [12:00] Not_Rob: who said basically “these aren’t my 10 favorite records, necessarily, but they’re the ones I had a chance at influencing” [12:02] TheBeard4904: I think you’re hitting on what I think is both most interesting and most conflicting about year-end lists. The sort of game of it [12:02] TheBeard4904: I have to admit, I missed the deadline this year (I was traveling), but I know in past years, I’ve thought pretty strategically. I find that I’ve often voted for things that would actually be in my top 11-20 in hopes of inching them onto the board. [12:03] Not_Rob: Sure [12:03] Not_Rob: I mean I’d say I liked Erykah Badu and the Hold Steady equally in absolute terms [12:03] Not_Rob: but Erykah I thought had a shot to do particularly well [12:07] Not_Rob: What would you have voted for this year? [12:07] TheBeard4904: That’s a complex question 🙂 [12:07] TheBeard4904: which is part of why I dragged my feet [12:07] TheBeard4904: when I approach these lists, I feel this real conflict, between what I think is the “best” and what I actually listened to [12:08] Not_Rob: Yes [12:08] Not_Rob: The iTunes hit count doesn’t lie, my friend. [12:08] Not_Rob: You listened to “hot N cold” like 50 times and that’s that. [12:09] TheBeard4904: So, the question is, should the list be about what you listened to the most or what you thought, objectively, was most important? [12:10] TheBeard4904: I just wonder if we all did it on iTunes, if the list would be very different. MGMT might be number 1 🙂 [12:10] Not_Rob: That’s true, but stuff released in November would be at quite the disadvantage [12:11] Not_Rob: I’d like to think the poll can reflect both [12:11] Not_Rob: both Quantity and Quality as it were [12:11] Not_Rob: obviously there’s hopefully substantial overlap [12:12] Not_Rob: and when people don’t like something like TVOTR [12:12] Not_Rob: they’ll say “oh people are just talking themselves into it” [12:12] Not_Rob: “they like the IDEA of liking it more than they actually like it” [12:12] TheBeard4904: I do think that record is really good [12:12] Not_Rob: Yeah, I agree [12:12] TheBeard4904: but, I do wonder about stuff like that [12:12] TheBeard4904: A good example I think — Joanna Newsom’s last album ranked very high on a lot of lists, but I can’t find anyone who still listens to it a lot (it was innovative and interesting, but not necessarily all that gripping in the long-term) [12:13] Not_Rob: I have friends who are really into her, and other friends who enjoy mocking those friends [12:14] Not_Rob: that requires a very specific mood [12:14] Not_Rob: but yes totally conceivable that someone listened to Avril Lavigne or whatever twice as much but still voted for Joanna [12:15] TheBeard4904: I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, it’s just interesting. [12:15] Not_Rob: As long as that doesn’t get out of hand. [12:15] Not_Rob: As long as it doesn’t become This Is the Taste I Wish I Had. [12:15] Not_Rob: This is the Taste I Wish to Project to the World. [12:15] TheBeard4904: Yeah, that’s what I always wonder. With Pazz + Jop, everyone’s lists are out there for the world. [12:16] Not_Rob: Right, and those can be extensively scrutinized. [12:16] Not_Rob: “Here are all the ballots where the only hip-hop record is Kanye West” etc. [12:16] Not_Rob: So all this factors in, yes, but I hope in the end it’s still honestly a reflection of what you like. [12:16] TheBeard4904: You have to on some level consider it, and, amongst critics, there is some competition. [12:17] Not_Rob: There’s this guy Glenn McDonald, who every year within like 12 hours has this elaborate network of stats. He shows you like which ballots are most similar to yours by percentage: [12:19] TheBeard4904: That’s amazing. [12:19] TheBeard4904: There’s a “most eccentric” voters category. [12:20] Not_Rob: Yeah obviously the dude would tell you it’s nothing, but I’m a journalism major after all. [12:20] Not_Rob: So you look at “voter centricity,” at the very bottom, voters whose ballots resembled no one else’s and you know there’s Philip Sherburne, a great critic really steeped in dance/electronic. I can totally believe there’s great shit he knows about that others are just missing. [12:22] TheBeard4904: Phil and I actually edited together for awhile. He’s sent me amazing minimal records that I feel like must have been pressed in editions of 6 in an abandoned Berlin basement. [12:25] TheBeard4904: Back to a point you mentioned a bit above. Do you think release date skews things? I sort of wonder if the TV on the Radio and Vampire Weekend release dates had been switched, if we’d see them switched on the poll as well. [12:25] Not_Rob: It’s not as egregious as the Oscars probably in that regard, thank god. Who I wonder about with that this year is Portishead. There’s saturation points for records generally. Clearly VW survived that. [12:27] TheBeard4904: When the Portishead came out, it was definitely a contender [12:27] Not_Rob: Right, but them not touring or anything, post-Coachella, that’s it in terms of publicity in a way. [12:27] Not_Rob: We’d like to think these things don’t manner but at least somewhat they probably do. [12:28] Not_Rob: And of course what happens in mid-December… year-end polls come out at Spin, Pitchfork, etc. I’m not sure someone says “everyone likes TVOTR, I better get on board,” but you are reading about the record over and over. You’re more likely to put it on again. [12:31] TheBeard4904: Still, if people didn’t think it was great, it wouldn’t be an issue. [12:32] Not_Rob: Right. I think the love for TVOTR is genuine. [12:32] TheBeard4904: I think ultimately this list differs than a lot of others, in that more than the actual order mattering, it kind of sets out the year’s real contenders. I might not like TVOTR that much but I can certainly agree that they mattered a lot this year. [12:33] Not_Rob: Sure. As a capsule for what people were talking about, grappling with, it’s particularly valuable, even for critics who follow these things closely, and thus aren’t likely to be shocked by the results. Paging through you can always find minor surprises, stuff that rated higher or lower than you’d have thought. You asked forever ago, something like “is this definitive?” I like where we’re at, but we could always improve in that regard. [12:53] TheBeard4904: Where do you feel like you’re at? [12:53] Not_Rob: We could always use more experts in other genres. Metal, jazz, hip-hop beyond the 10 or so records that cross over, etc. On our list there’s definitely a core of what’s hugely dissatisfying to call “indie rock”. [12:54] TheBeard4904: How broad is the spectrum of writers? Do you give special attention to courting folks who represent certain, lesser-tred genres? [12:55] Not_Rob: Well definitely, that’s always the challenge. I reach out to editors for lists of newer writers, etc. [12:56] TheBeard4904: I’d imagine it’s a tough task, because in some respects, your poll can only represent the people out there, and A LOT of the discourse is about indie. [12:56] Not_Rob: Well that’s true, but like I say, the surprise for people steeped in this stuff is what’s ranked 50-100 and so on, and an influx of experts in other fields would put some interesting stuff there I think. We’ve got almost 500 people in this, so there’s a consensus absolutely, but there’s plenty of detail to dig into, and plenty of ways to enhance that. [12:59] TheBeard4904: Well, I look forward to seeing which way you go and I’ll definitely overcome my demons next year and actually vote 🙂