Radio Hits One: Beyoncé's Unlikely Pazz & Jop Coup

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If the triumph of tUnE-yArDs in this year's Pazz & Jop albums poll was one of the biggest upsets in the poll's history, then the companion singles poll offered one of its most predictable winners to date: Adele's "Rolling In The Deep." Smart money had been on that song taking the prize since it began its record-breaking chart run almost exactly a year ago, and few songs offered it much realistic competition. When I was predicting results among friends in recent weeks, only two songs seemed like remotely possible spoilers, and I was close enough on one (Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass," which finished at No. 3) and way off on another (Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks," at No. 10).

My Sound of the City chart talk colleague Chris Molanphy already viewed the albums poll through the prism of sales in his Pazz & Jop essay, where he lamented the inaccuracy of his own prediction that Adele's 21 would become the third album to ever rank as both the top-selling album of a year and the Pazz & Jop-voting bloc's favorite (after Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A.). Apparently not enough of the five million Americans who bought 21 were also professional music critics; the album finished at No. 6 on the poll. But Adele did notch a similarly rare achievement on the singles poll, where "Rolling In The Deep" became the third poll winner in Pazz & Jop history to have also been Billboard's No. 1 song of the year. Again, one of the precedents is an unsurprising '80s blockbuster, Prince's "When Doves Cry," but the other is a bit more surprising: "Gangsta's Paradise." The Coolio smash dominated 1995 with a Stevie Wonder melody and a Dangerous Minds soundtrack placement—and it spawned an obligatory "Weird Al" Yankovic parody—but otherwise it's hardly a canonized pop classic.

Last year, Pazz & Jop stats wizard Glenn McDonald added the P&J&B (Pazz & Jop & Billboard) page when I wanted some hard data to back up my suspicion that the 2010 singles poll was the least pop Pazz & Jop in history. As McDonald's "P&J Popism" graph shows, the crossover between the Voice singles poll and the Billboard charts dipped the lowest it had ever gone for three consecutive years from 2008 to 2010. In the 2011 poll, the numbers have bounced back slightly, higher than 2009 and 2010, but lower than 2008 or any previous year.

Some have lamented the dominant presence of indie rock on the Pazz & Jop albums poll over the past decade, as the results have come more and more to resemble Pitchfork's year-end lists. But I never saw much of a break there from the poll's history of rewarding albums from punk and new wave bands, wordy singer-songwriters, and other kinds of artists that fall into the traditional "critical darling" role. The singles poll, however, has seen a much more significant sea change, from celebrating the best (or at least the catchiest) of the pop charts nearly all the time to giving over nearly half the list to the exact same critical darlings dominating the albums poll. See the hit-packed top 10 singles of 1983 or 1992, and compare that to 2009 and 2010, when token song picks from indie bands with zero presence on any radio charts (Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Girls, Animal Collective, Sleigh Bells) cluttering up the singles poll and making it look redundant with the albums poll.

By comparison, 2011's top 10 list (top 11, really, since two songs are tied for No. 10) is truly packed with singles. Seven songs were Hot 100 hits in 2011, M83's "Midnight City" was a minor rock radio hit that infiltrated the mainstream via TV and ad placements, and the other three (Azealia Banks' "212," Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," and Tyler, The Creator's "Yonkers") were all buzz-building viral hits by new artists that blew up on YouTube, which at this point is as much a portal of popular music as any radio format. Tyler's polarizing album Goblin deflated the mounting Odd Future hype with so-so reviews and landed way down at No. 98 on the albums poll, while Banks and Del Rey had not yet released their debut albums by the end of 2011. "Video Games" did enter the Hot 100 this week, however, and it's a funny bit of timing that Del Rey's breakthrough single has been cemented as the seventh-most-acclaimed song of 2011 during the week that all of her media coverage is focusing on poor reviews of its Saturday Night Live performance. You have to get all the way down to the No. 12 single to find a non-hit that could be called a surrogate for its parent album: "Bizness" by the albums poll winner, tUnE-yArDs.

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