Music Edition 2007: Part I, Introduction

‘Tis the season. I listened to about 60 non-notational albums this year, some more often than others, and now it’s time to sort it out. Other publications like to list their top ten, fifty, or hundred favorite albums of the year. Such a format presents two problems that I’ll try to avoid here. They are:

1. What albums haven’t you heard? When Stylus (R.I.P.) or whoever reveals their favorite albums of the year, you assume they’ve heard all the albums the list, but it raises the question: what aren’t your favorite albums of the year? All the albums that aren’t included, yes, but given that untold thousands of albums are released annually, which albums did you compare to emerge with the conviction that the present ones are superior?

There are likely three reasons that this isn’t the common practice. The first two are practical (and convincing): no one gives a shit and there’s a word limit. The third reason is dubious, though. When we heed the advice of critics, we confirm their authority. Their power comes from knowledge that we do not possess. It’s strange to be able to define knowledge, but if we know the parameters of their decisions, the entire process becomes transparent, and the mystique of their critical authority diminished.

2. What the hell is the difference between the fourth and fifth best album of the year? Remember that any list entitled “best-of” is another way of saying “our favorite.” There is no clear criterion for deciding what is your favorite: you like the cover, you like a girl that likes the album, you know a dude in the band. There is no unjust reason to like a work of art, although there are countless unjust reasons to dismiss one. When an individual ranks an album higher than another, it’s a statement, an objectification of a year’s worth of subjective ink. Let’s consider film. The critics that chose these films in 1952 as the greatest made in the few decades of the medium’s existence, along with reviews, rewards, and box office receipts, reveal the consensus of that era. These silly lists are the artifacts that serve as the underpinning of film history. The same goes for music (although these types of lists for albums only started appearing in the very late ’60s).

Still, I’ve chosen not to rank the albums numerically. I’ve categorized them into four classifications: gold, silver, bronze, and constellation prizes for all those that competed (except those especially odious albums that deserve the pillory). Unless the release is somewhat under-the-radar, I’m not going bore you with, “Radiohead, a British rock quartet…” but I might explain why Robert Wyatt is important.

Another issue I want to address is: Why is your list so similar to Pitchfork’s? That’s a good question. First, all the hatred directed at Pitchfork is ridiculous and founded in the negative kind of elitism. (I’ll dedicate a later post to positive elitism.) Pitchfork’s detractors usually complain about one of the following:

(x)”Pitchfork makes it too easy for people that don’t spend their lives searching for good music to find good music.”
(y) “Pitchfork reduces music criticism to a bunch of meaningless numbers.”
(z) “Pitchfork’s approval of album is so crucial that many people won’t give an album a chance if PF pans it.”

The implications of x are vile. I don’t want to adventure too much psychoanalysis (or be too harsh), but some that search out esoteric music do so merely for the sense of superiority it affords them over others. They consider their taste in and knowledge of music a merit badge, one awarded for hours spent in search of quality music. If someone else finds a shortcut to that music and enjoys it, the snob feels like the philistine has cheated. This might sound ridiculous to you, but the sentiment is widespread. Anyone that has ever felt this way, including myself in weak moments, can see Naples and die.

I am ambivalent about y. This is a complaint mainly lodged by people that write professionally for music, and it’s rather vain. The idea is: “I’ve come up this really unique take on this band, and that fits into my overarching analysis of the state of music today, and so.. No, wait, I’m not finished!” The truth is that most people don’t care. The truth is that most people don’t consult a newspaper or a website to find out what music they should listen to, but even among those that do, few want to know more than how many diamonds it got. If Pitchfork decided to strike their grades, we’d see their influence decline significantly. (They might become a less handsome, less indie-friendly version of The Wire.) It’s also a shame because Pitchfork employs some of my favorite music editors. The worst thing about the rating system is that it allows people to forgo reading Dominique Leone, Nitsuh Abebe, Mark Richardson, Drew Daniel and Jess Harvell. So, I accept this criticism, but it isn’t sufficient to condemn Pitchfork wholesale.

I have to agree with z. I’m guilty of this. I’ve never heard The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir, or the notorious Travistan, even though Blueberry Boat is one of my favorite albums and the biggest Dismemberment Plan fan I know claims that Travistan is as good as anything T-Mo did with the group. I might have given these albums a chance had Pitchfork not trashed them, and almost certainly if they had praised them. Alas, we can’t hear every album. I would rather judge for myself how I feel about any given release, but I feel comfortable enough skipping one if its Pitchfork reception is lukewarm. And why not? Even though their consensus taste isn’t aligned too closely to my own, I can depend on the discretion of my chosen editors. As I trust their taste and discretion, it’s no different from taking advice from a learned friend. No one would condemn listening to an album because a friend recommended it. And there’s a difference between listening to an album because Pitchfork approves and liking an album because Pitchfork approves.

Again, it’s unfortunate that some albums aren’t given a fair trial because of Pitchfork. There’s something ineffably unwholesome about the kid I once saw going through the racks at Other Music with a print-out of PF’s Best New Music section– but that’s influence, and it’s what the market wants. In a few days I’ll post all the albums I heard (and often loved) this year, Pitchfork-certified or not.

~ by ohkrapp on January 5, 2008.

7 Responses to “Music Edition 2007: Part I, Introduction”

  1. it makes me really happy that someone is going to end up here by clicking on the link in my FB profile and think, “pitch..fork?”

  2. Nice dig at Gombrich. That dude is a dick.

  3. oh crap– not meant as a dig! that’s just something he says.

    paraphrase: there is no wrong reason to like something, plenty wrong of reasons to dislike it.

    i think i’ll un-link that.

    why’s he a dick?

  4. actually, come to think of it, everyone is always rolling their eyes at him :(

  5. Oh, no, don’t unlink to him. The paraphrase is totally right and an attitude that should absolutely be expressed more. He can just be dismissive of newer art and media without necessarily any reason other than that it’s not I guess “productive,” in that it doesn’t add to the “linear” progression of art history and instead makes what he seems to think are pointless digressions. He’s someone who I guess is pretty fashionable to dislike now, so all shame on me.

  6. […] album entry originally had commentary (as in the first and second parts). However, since music criticism has long been reduced to rankings and decimals, […]

  7. […] album entry originally had commentary (as in the first and second parts). However, since music criticism has long been reduced to rankings and decimals, […]

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