David Bowie and Pazz & Jop

Yesterday David Bowie died at the age of 69; today, the Village Voice published its annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, though they no longer cite (at least that I can see online) what edition it is—the 43rd or 44th, I think (unless it’s the 44th or 45th). I haven’t yet listened much to Blackstar, the album Bowie released just a couple days before his death, but it was touching to note that 21 critics thought highly enough of their advance copy of the title track to have placed it in the poll’s Top 40 (it came in at #23). (Another song—a better song, I’m thinking after one full listen—called “Lazarus” garnered two votes as well.)

As someone who has always believed that American critics mostly undervalued Bowie during his prime (which somewhat belies his early reputation as a “critical darling”), I started wondering specifically about how, in fact, he fared historically in Pazz & Jop, the best (certainly the most comprehensive) marker we’ve got of the American critical response. Not the only marker, though: you could also pore through original reviews of his records in Rolling Stone (many are available online), Creem (which I may try to do in the weeks ahead, just to get a gauge), Circus, the Voice, etc. Not every American critic who reviewed or praised a Bowie album in the ’70s necessarily voted in Pazz & Jop. More important, such a survey should probably come with an over-sized asterisk that notes the distinction between “critical raves” and “critical interest,” for it is also my long held belief that while American critics didn’t always “put out” for Bowie with rave reviews, he did command their attention throughout the decade in a big way. And with few contemporary rivals: Neil Young almost certainly jettisoned him in this regard, and possibly Springsteen (who didn’t truly arrive until the midpoint of the decade), and maybe (big maybe) Steely Dan or Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, but… anyone else? My speculation is that American critics en masse were extremely interested in Bowie, wrestled with his many shifts and personas, and enjoyed writing about him, but that they just were not, in the end, blown away by the results of his work. (It is also my sense that the American critical reception of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry was very much in parallel with that. A comparable survey of Bowie/Roxy in the UK press—compared to the American press, I mean—would show markedly—nay, radically—different results.)

So, here’s Bowie’s P&J scorecard, from Hunky Dory through Let’s Dance. With Christgau’s rankings added just for good measure.

Hunky Dory
Critics: #10
Christgau: #19

Bowie’s first P&J entry is also his highest; he never grazed the Top 10 again (repeat: he never grazed the Top 10 again). Six critics who listed it (there were others, presumably, as their vote counts don’t total the 88 points it garnered overall): Brian Cullman, Lenny Kaye, Patricia Kennely (who awarded it 30 points, the highest supporter among the bunch), Greil Marcus, Jeff Mesin, Tom Smucker. Note also Mike Saunders’s lone (and late) vote here for The Man Who Sold the World. And Christgau’s poll note, in which he suggests that HD “ought to make him a star, eventually.”

1972/73: Ziggy/Aladdin Sane/Pin Ups
Sadly, no Pazz & Jop in ’72 or ’73. Hard to imagine Ziggy not placing fairly high, just as it’s hard to imagine Aladdin Sane doing well at all, though this is mere speculation. (FWIW, Christgau himself gave both LPs a B+, though called AS “more interesting thematically than Ziggy Stardust, and… better rock and roll.”)

1974: Diamond Dogs
Critics: Didn’t place
Christgau: Didn’t place

This is hardly surprising; the album was poorly received. Had there been a P&J singles poll this early on, my guess is that “Rebel Rebel” would’ve found its way in. Christgau does note in his essay, “And only one [vote] for: each of David Bowie’s LPs (both from Robert Hilburn, a diehard).” By which I assume he means DD and Pin Ups, the latter of which was released late in ’73.

1975: Young Americans
Critics: Didn’t place
Christgau: Didn’t place

Ditto the above; not initially well received, “Fame” and/or the title track might have fared okay. It made Bangs’s ballot, garnering 5 points (tied with Born to Run and Metal Machine Music).

1976: Station to Station
Critics: #13
Christgau: #4

STS, along with Changesonebowie, was the Bowie disc Xgau favoured most. Bangs’s rave of the album (orig. from Creem) is in Psychotic Reactions.

1977: Low
Critics: Didn’t place
Christgau: #26

I seem to recall the reception to this was not (as per Diamond Dogs) anything like hostile, but probably closer to lukewarm. I would assume in a poll conducted today among U.S. critics, this might see the biggest jump in stature. Even many side 2 agnostics acknowledge the complete (and still startling) brilliance of side one. Charley Walters, whose 1977 fairly resembled my 1977 (with its mix of prog and punk), did rank it, awarding it five points. (As a side note, neither of the Bowie-produced Iggy albums placed in the poll, though the Dean places each in his Top 30, and Tom Hull has Lust for Life in his Top 10.)

1977: “Heroes”
Critics: #21
Christgau: Didn’t place

Critically, the mirror image of Low: no Christgau love, minor across-the-board critical support.

1979: Lodger
Critics: #31
Christgau: Didn’t place

Two voters shown here to place it: Jon Pareles and Tom Carson. Carson ranks it #1. In his great Rolling Stone Illustrated History essay about Bowie, he calls Lodger the fulfillment of the Berlin Trilogy. Some very good thoughts on that essay—and about the critical response to Bowie during the ’70s—in the interview Steven Ward and I conducted with Carson in 2002.

1980: Scary Monsters
Critics: #19
Christgau: Didn’t place

Interestingly, of the two ballots shown, Pareles and Carson again.

1983: Let’s Dance
Critics: #19
Christgau: Didn’t place

Critics also ranked “Let’s Dance” (the single) #14 and “Modern Love” #24. Christgau ranked the “Let’s Dance” video #7. (That one surprises me somewhat… the video? David Bowie made videos??)

3 thoughts on “David Bowie and Pazz & Jop

  1. Thanks for the detective work. And yeah, Bowie made several videos, not all equally good (some, pre-MTV, were “promo clips,” made/cobbled together “for” him by rec co prob), but check “Let’s Dance,” elevated in Australia ( on Ayers Rock maybe?), all in whites, looking like Lord Jim and playing electric guitar in white gloves, grooving with fans; also the sexy and sexier versions of “China Girl,” rolling in the tide with title person

  2. Thanks, Don. Was expressing fake-shock about Bowie and videos, though it has been ages since I’ve seen “Let’s Dance.” The Serious Moonlight Tour, which I caught in Toronto, was the precise moment when I got off the Bowie bus for a good long while. That show left a bad taste in my mouth, and I was surprised by my own reaction–how bored I was throughout. I had been on the fence about the LD album, but that live show made the decision for me–though it didn’t take long for “Modern Love” to catch me again, one of his best pop singles ever.

  3. Just want to note separately some interesting feedback from Dan McQuade, who wrote re: the original post:


    > > > Christgau does note in his essay, “And only one [vote] for: each of David Bowie’s LPs (both from Robert Hilburn, a diehard).” By which I assume he means DD and Pin Ups, the latter of which was released late in ’73.< < <

    Dan: I’m guessing it might have been a vote for David Live, Bowie's first live album which also came out in 1974. I could be wrong, too, of course. I just think the live album seems more likely to be what that's referenceing than Pin Ups, which I think came out in October of 73.


    Dan might be right–David Live hand’t even occurred to me. If so, Hilburn might be the only documented fan of that disc (I’ve never listened to more than a couple songs myself). There's a very interesting piece up about it in PhillyMag noting that Bowie himself never listened to the thing. (The piece is written by Dan himself, incidentally.)


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