The end of the year is when the music industry stops to catch its collective breath, and part of what this breath-taking entails is the release of the de rigueur end-of-year lists. This is a great time for me, owing to the fact that my life is perpetually defined by a queasy mixture of busy and lazy that prevents me from paying as much attention to music as I'd otherwise like. December and January are the months I spend tracking down all the good music I missed from the previous eleven months, courtesy of lists such as this and this and this, to name a few of the more obvious candidates.
Last year, on the tail-end of the music list season, I initiated a conversation with the Factual Opinion's Marty Brown on the subject. (Tucker was involved too, but for the most part opted to lay back in the cut and watch the two of us go at it.) We set up a Google Doc and went back and forth for a couple weeks. The conversation sort of petered out . . . I was busy at school, I suspect Marty is plenty busy as well, time passed. After a while I realized that so much time had passed since we started the conversation that it really wasn't timely at all anymore. So I made a command decision to sit on the conversation for a year until it was timely once again. (Remember: busy / lazy.) Now that we are once again in that late year / early year dead zone when people are staggering around high on Christmas food and New Years' cheer and not really paying attention to new music just yet, it seems appropriate to once again take another look at the ways in which we listen to and formulate aesthetic criteria for music.
I haven't changed anything, save for a couple editorial insertions to indicate where circumstances have interceded over the past year. Let's just say I didn't see Channel Orange coming (but then, I'm willing to bet, neither did you). If you'd like to refresh your memory of the year in music that was, once removed, you can start by scanning The Factual Opinion's list here and here, as well as my list here. The conversation began on Twitter with Marty calling me an old man for having such an old man Top 10, to which I replied, you've got me dead to rights.
Thanks to Marty and Tucker for participating. One of the reasons I initiated the conversation in the first part was a desire on my part to participate in more cross-blog activity with like-minded writers - I see people doing stuff together all the time and it looks fun. Who knows what the future might bring?
Tim: Music has been on my mind more than usual these past few weeks. Not necessarily the music itself, but the ways in which I consume music, a topic that was brought into sharp focus by the recent, predictable crush of end-of-the-year lists. First off, I must admit that my music consumption has been sharply down lately, for a number of reasons. Many of these reasons were situational - moving, new job, new city, etc - but it's worth pointing out in this instance that at some point situational obstacles can become static conditions. Life doesn't get any less complicated the older you get, and you're never able to devote as much time to listening to new music as you did when you were a kid. (By "kid" I think most of us probably understand that the "Golden Age" of pop music is usually your late teens and early twenties.) That wonderful day when you can sit down and "catch up" on all the music you've been missing never seems to arrive, there's always something else that needs to be done.
This wasn't always the case. For a while, after I had been into music heavily already for a few years, I was involved in college radio - specifically, doing RPM reporting and an electronic dance music show with my ex-wife. Then, of course, after we separated I continued as a music journalist, primarily working for Popmatters.com, again specializing in electronic music but also branching out and eventually writing about almost anything that crossed my path. I got used to being "plugged in" to new developments. I also got used to going to the mailbox and receiving sometimes dozens of new CDs and records every week. But eventually I got sick of it: there is nothing quite like being a music reviewer to burn you out on music altogether. I quit doing it because, after literally hundreds of music reviews, the very idea of listening to music had become an unpleasant one. I pissed off my editors by getting less and less dependable until I just disappeared altogether. It was necessary for my sanity that I just stop. There's not a lot of career mobility in music journalism, very little recognition, very little satisfaction other than the very simple pleasure of getting free music. That wears thin after a while.
So I went from being very well-informed and extremely plugged-in to being set adrift, with only my wits to keep me informed. And in the years since I had been first into music, the world had changed immensely. Just having a subscription to SPIN magazine didn't cut it anymore (although, for the record, I do still subscribe to SPIN, albeit more out of inertia than anything else). (2013 Update: SPIN has now ceased publication, and I have been informed that the remainder of my print subscription will be fulfilled by Car & Driver.) In the years since I began to decouple myself from the music industry hype apparatus, the internet changed everything and I realized that I had become, to my horror, a dilettante. Having a massive music collection and impeccable taste wasn't enough, that giant wall of CDs and historical perspective made me a dinosaur. Everything seemed to happen differently, to be done differently, to be talked about with a different language. All through this lament you're right to detect more than a little bit of anxiety over just getting older, but for me the worst part of getting older - and I'm not even that old, just "older" than I used to be - has been the realization that LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge" really wasn't quite so funny as I used to think.
And every year I've been more and more forced into the position of playing catch-up. The year-end period has become invaluable, a time to take stock and plunder everyone else's list for all the cherries I missed the preceding eleven months. The last few years I've participated in TFO's year-end singles round-up, but this year you switched formats so I didn't get that huge packet of hundreds of MP3s curated by you two, Sean Witzke, David Brothers, and whomever else was involved. I was left to my own devices, so when the time came to fill out my own Pazz & Jop ballot - the last remnant of my former life as a music journo - I put together a really predictable and conservative list off the top of my head. And then you put out a forward-thinking, relatively iconoclastic list filled with stuff that A) I hadn't heard but had at least heard of, and B) I had never even heard of. It was a fairly unsettling moment. You were right to call me on the fact that my list was rather decrepit - but the problem is that, in the year 2012, I didn't know how to make a better list. That's all good music - I'd certainly dispute your characterization of my list as definitively "MOR," and we can talk about that later - but I have lost my feel for new good music, and I freely admit that. I'm puzzled and distressed by that. I want to see about correcting that.
So I guess, by way of introduction, my first question is a purely practical question: how do you keep up? How do you find the time to keep your head in the game, when the game keeps changing?
Marty: Well, the first thing is that I steal. That’s something that came out in our Twitter conversation: you still buy all your music, and didn’t even realize that artists like the Weeknd and Danny Brown are giving away legit albums for free. That’s a big deal. A quarter of my favorite albums this year were free downloads offered by an artist or label. Another handful aren’t available on iTunes, Amazon, or eMusic (or weren’t when I wanted to hear them.) Unless you have access to, like, Pitchfork’s FTP site, there’s no way to keep up with the breadth of music that comes out each year without setting aside any moral scruples or technological issues with illegal downloading.
I have no conscience about stealing music. Up through 2006, I bought just about every album I wanted to hear. It was an expense that was unsustainable, especially if I wanted to do anything else in my life. Plus, I ended up owning a ton of shitty albums, and still (even though I bought somewhere around 90 CDs in 2006) missed out on the majority of stuff that I should have heard. That’s not even counting singles, which are arguably more important than albums right now.
Obviously, I have an obsessive personality as well, which helps, and free music helps me keep my bullshit meter on a low setting. So I cast a wide net. I spent about a decade honing in on my own taste, figuring out what aspects of music I most appreciate, and checking out anything and everything that might fit into that rubric. It’s really exciting when something immediately strikes me, but I also spend time with stuff I don’t instantly understand. I tend to go back and check in with the things I thought I didn’t like--that’s just about the best thing I think you can do for yourself as a music fan. I tend to use other critics’ opinions to balance out my own prejudices. If I see an album that a lot of other people dig, I’ll try to figure out why they like it. There’s still stuff that I think is squarely Not For Me, but often I’ll be surprised by those. A couple of albums I bristled at this year--like tUnE-yArDs and St. Vincent--ended up on Pazz & Jop ballots from critics whose taste usually overlaps mine, so I’m gearing up to give them another shot with fresh ears.
I think it’s a two part process. You make the music accessible for you, and you make yourself accessible for the music. From my point of view, it’s the second part that most critics have trouble with--which is part of another discussion, I think.
How about you? What’s your process, typically?
Tim: First, I want to emphasize that I definitely agree with your notion that sometimes it’s necessary to push yourself as a listener in order to try and appreciate things that might not immediately appeal to you. Or which on first blush you might even hate. Paying attention to other critics is definitely important: it’s the old 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong model. If every critic I trust and respect says something has to be good but I’m not feeling it, chances are good that the problem is me, not them. (Keeping in mind, of course, that you obviously reserve the right to point out that the emperor has no clothes.) In the case of most of what passes for indie music these days, it’s less 50,000,000 Elvis fans and more like 500 Shabazz Palaces fans, but the principle still stands. If enough people say something loudly and emphatically enough, perhaps there’s something there I’m just not seeing.
The best and most obvious example of this that springs to mind is Spoon - I’d heard Spoon before 2005. I worked in college radio when Kill the Moonlight dropped but I just didn’t get it - it sounded like a dozen other things, it wasn’t floating my boat for whatever reason. And then when Gimme Fiction dropped in 2005 it wasn’t just a popular album, it was almost instantly canonized. I knew I was missing something so I went out and bought a copy. First few times I still didn’t get it, then it grew on me, and then the album moved into constant rotation for probably the rest of forever. Now I can’t even imagine why I didn’t like them in the first place - they’re just about as close to being untouchable for life as any band can be in this fickle music environment. It’s hard to imagine now a time when I didn’t like them, they seem so obvious in retrospect, but I always keep that in mind when I run across something that I don’t like now. Maybe if I give this Cults album a few more spins I’ll learn to love it, that kind of thing.
Sometimes when I talk to people about music - which, aside from the internet, isn’t something I find myself doing an awful lot, because most people (even seemingly intelligent people) have horrendous taste in music - I try to explain why it’s important to make yourself listen to things you don’t immediately like. That’s a difficult idea for some people - that you might have to work at liking things, that you might see some value in trying to understand why something is popular or well-regarded even if it doesn’t immediately appeal. You mentioned St. Vincent and I have to admit I’m in that boat with her: I understand why she appeals to many and I can see her skill, but I haven’t been able to get over what is essentially an informed disinterest in the actual music itself. Maybe one day I’ll “get” it. (2013 Update: Still haven't got it.
As for the question of procuring music. I hardly want to give the impression that I don’t download music. That would be disingenuous. But I’ve never really gotten over the idea that downloading music is somehow tentative, a substitute for the real thing but never a full replacement. I can still remember - as I’m sure many people reading this can - the glory days of Napster back in the days before people even knew what the RIAA was. I downloaded a shit-ton of music, but even then there was an expectation in my mind (if no one else’s) that if I downloaded and liked something, then I needed to go buy it. Not out of any misplaced guilt over the moral quandaries of IP theft - hardly! - but because I genuinely like buying music. I remember the Flaming Lips were a group I got into solely based on the fact that I was able to check them out online as opposed to taking a chance on dropped $12 or $15 cash money based solely on a review somewhere. I downloaded The Soft Bulletin back in the day, listened to it on my computer, and decided I really liked these guys. So the next logical step in my mind was to walk down to the store and buy a physical copy of The Soft Bulletin, so I could actually own it, so I could read the liner notes and admire the artwork and have it on my shelf to loan to friends or make copies or whatever.
I still do that. I like the sensation of buying music because I have an old-school collector’s mentality. I used to be one of the Wednesday guys at the comic book store, for many years, but eventually I was able to break that habit. I’ve never quite been able to break the Tuesday habit, though, if you know what I mean. If you want to know about my process, lately it’s become more haphazard than anything else. I still love going to record stores and spending money but I’m slowly - s l o w l y - learning to recognize that sometimes it’s more productive to actually go home and download something I don’t know about, as opposed to spending $20 or $30 on discs that might be complete disappointments and might sit in a desk drawer gathering dust for the rest of my life.
The problem is that the Tuesday Club isn’t the world we live in anymore, in many significant ways. When I read about an artist like Frank Ocean, for instance, I see all these great reviews, I listen to a couple tracks on YouTube, I think to myself, “OK, this is something I might want to listen to in greater depth.” And then I go to the store to find a copy of Nostalgia, Ultra and it’s not there. And it’s only after the fact that I go back home and realize that, hey, this isn’t something I was ever going to be able to buy in a store. (And probably never will, considering he samples the entirety of “Hotel California” on “American Wedding.”)
That’s just the way it works nowadays, and it doesn’t seem as if there is any branch of music more impacted by this than hip-hop. I remember when mixtapes were really skeezy bootleg things you’d buy in the backroom of independent record stores, completely sketchy pieces of shit put together by local DJs or whatever almost as demo tapes. Then established MCs and DJs started doing them on the side and they became steadily more significant. And then at some point in the last few years the mixtape became the dominant medium for hip-hop. Full-length “artist albums” really aren’t important anymore. If you’re an up-and-coming rapper, the way you make your name is to record a bunch of really good mixtapes in really quick succession. The format allows people to mess around and do weird shit that you couldn’t get away with on a $15 for-sale album. Then if you’re “good enough” you get signed to a label and they give you money to go in the studio and basically record a bunch of pop crossover attempts with, I don’t know, Nikki Minaj or Katy Perry or something. That album drops, no one really likes it, if you’re lucky one or two of the songs have some kind of impact on radio, but that’s besides the point: after your Major Label Debut, you go right back to making your mixtapes, wherein you spend half the time slagging the record company for making you record such a watered-down piece of shit LP. (2013 Update: This has changed significantly in the previous 12 months, for reasons I still don't quite understand, and the best proof is that Pitchfork's number one album of the year was a rap album released on Aftermath / Interscope and available for sale at Target.) And you make all your real money off touring, merchandise, festivals, and maybe getting to do a verse on a Kanye track. (This is not to imply that people - the average artist, at least - ever made any significant money off of record sales alone, but I can still remember a time when it was accepted without comment that rappers didn’t tour.)
So the question becomes: what happens when this new system produces something on par with Illmatic or Aquemini, that next great hip-hop disc that everyone’s talking about but you can’t actually buy in a store? When I finally sat down and listened to Nostaliga, Ultra I realized the question was academic: this is a classic, you can’t buy it in a store, and “free” is the intended price. I’ll never have a copy of that album to put on my shelf, unless I burn it myself and spend time putting together a homemade jewel case with my BeDazzler. Whenever Ocean actually gets around to dropping a “real” LP it probably won’t be half as good, but that doesn’t matter anymore. (2013 Update: Yeah, I was wrong about this. I still like Nostaliga, Ultra better, but there's a not-zero chance that Channel Orange will be bringing home all the Grammies this year.)
Marty: I got a sweet record player for my birthday this year, and I started a vinyl collection. I try to stop myself from talking about it as much as I’d like to, because it’s sort of like talking to people about acting or why The Descendants is a piece of shit or Feng Shui or Fantasy Football--of which I’m totally already guilty. It’s obnoxious. But one of the greatest things about it, is that it changes the way I interface with music.
First off, I’m an only child. Possessions are my friends. I like to own things. At a certain point, though, building a CD collection just felt like I was building a collection of shiny pebbles. I didn’t have any use for it, other than to try to fulfill some obsessive need. Plus, it’s impractical. I had a whole wall of my apartment dedicated to ugly-ass CDs that my girlfriend sweetly put up with for four years. So I jettisoned the CDs. But vinyl just plugs me back into accumulation. Objects are fun again! Building a collection has become really satisfying again, and things like art and album sequencing matter in a way they haven’t for me in years.
But here’s something I think about all the time: Does this infatuation with my record player mean that I will start to only like albums that sound great in my apartment, like, while I’m doing the dishes? How does that impact my taste?
When I moved from LA to New York, there was a dramatic shift in my listening. I needed things I could walk around with, rather than drive around with (or, more often, be stuck in traffic with), and that meant stuff with a strong rhythm section. Let me tell you, being stuck bumper-to-bumper on the 10 East while listening to Come With Us can drive a man insane. For walking up 6th Ave, though, nothing’s better.
The flip side is that there’s a lot of music I can appreciate that has no real place in my life. Liars comes to mind. I love that band, love what they do, love what they stand for. But they just don’t fit into my rotation. So, they don’t show up on my personal year-end lists or whatever, but I’ll fully support them being high up in the conversation when we do TFO stuff.
So that’s constant question for me critically: how do I/you negotiate the distance between music that you intellectually appreciate and the stuff that has a direct impact on your life? Because then, when I write about music, it becomes almost pure intellectual exercise. It’s nearly impossible to put the emotional or visceral impact of a song into words without resorting to cliches and platitudes. Personally, I try to identify the tangible things the artist does to achieve that emotional effect, but even that creates a certain disconnect between writing and music.
That’s something that drives me bonkers: Criticism is an outcome-focused art; but I am way more interested in process. Thing is, I don’t see many other critics that are. For example, I’ll see someone dismiss a Jay-Z song because his flow runs a little behind the beat. I’m like, that’s the *worst* thing to pay attention to. Why are you focusing on Jay-Z’s technical skill, when there’s a whole SONG happening here. Or, like, the line in “Monster” where he goes “Everybody want to know what my Achilles heal is/ LOOOOVVVE,” which I think is him being self-aware and cracking a joke, but everyone else dismisses out-of-hand because it doesn’t fit into some sort of pre-determined hip-hop sensibility. Most critics aren’t willing to accept things that work on more than one level, especially things that contain humor.
I guess that’s all to say: I’m way more interested in what things are trying to do than what they’re doing. Because of that, I end up like a lot of things that are imperfect, uneven, unfinished or not objectively good. Because who out there relates to perfection?! I’d rather hear someone going for it and falling short, than hear someone being conservative.
Tim: It’s very interesting that you’ve embraced vinyl in the way you have. I have to admit that I am completely nonplussed by the vinyl renaissance of the past decade. Maybe it’s because I came of age as a music listener / consumer at the same time when the compact disc cemented its (short-lived) dominance. (I imagine we’re around the same age, so we probably have similar memories as far as this narrative goes.)
When I was a kid there were still these weird blocky things called eight-tracks found in odd corners of the house. And then cassette tapes came out and everybody switched to those. My parents, who of course grew up with vinyl records, abandoned that format as soon as was humanly possible. They were heavy, easily damaged, incredibly un-portable. My grandfather owned a record store for many years back in the sixties and seventies, and my mom worked for him on and off, so she certainly knew a fair bit about vinyl records . . . and what stuck with her was that having to lift giant boxes of vinyl records was the pits, and that the advent of these tiny tapes that you could stick in your car or into a little pocket player that you could take with you anywhere you went was a revolution of Copernican proportions. I know that people still bought records late into the 80s, but I didn’t know those people. We bought tapes. When we got a CD player in the late 80s, we never bought a tape of prerecorded music again. And when we got a CD burner in the late 90s, we never bought another blank tape again. And we were thrilled.
Now people hate CDs, and they love cassette tapes. The people who are fetishizing cassette tapes now - are they old enough to remember how much we grew to hate the damn things? Sure, they were portable and convenient and small - but those were virtues relative to vinyl records and eight-track tapes. Now we have CDs and MP3s, and most likely everyone reading these words has some kind of little plastic box within arm’s reach that can hold hundreds or thousands of hours of digital music. Why romanticize something so terrible? As for vinyl . . . I was married to a DJ for five years. When you’re married to a DJ you have to carry a lot of records. I hate carrying records - can you detect a running theme here? For the longest time DJs were the one demographic that kept vinyl record sales alive, because you couldn’t mix music live on tapes or CDs. Now you can do that with CDs and MP3s - I’m so out of touch with that world right now that I don’t even know what the industry standard is anymore. As recently as five years ago digital DJs were still considered gauche. But I would be surprised if that hasn’t changed, if for no other reason than that the incredible newfound popularity of tacky stadium dubstep and pop house in the states has undoubtedly marginalized the old-guard purists who insist that Carl Craig doesn’t sound right unless he’s pressed on 180 gram vinyl.
I understand the vinyl record is a better fetish object, especially for artwork and liner notes and all that jazz . . . but the affectations and inconveniences outweigh the appeal, at least for me. Most of the music I listen to is either in my car, on my computer, or on headphones. My hectic lifestyle, such as it is, is just not conducive to having officially-sanctioned music listening periods. I can’t (easily) rip a 12” record onto my laptop. And frankly, the kind of people who buy vinyl records make me see red. I’m sure this description doesn’t apply to you, but you know who I’m talking about: man, music doesn’t sound good unless it’s on vinyl. Man, it sounds so much warmer on vinyl. Etc etc. If you’re a college undergraduate who owns multiple vests and cultivates creative facial hair and the last piece of music you bought was Washed Out’s Within and WIthout on vinyl, you’re a terrible human being. Most all music pressed today is mastered digitally anyway so the supposed “warmth” of the analog format is completely illusory.
That’s my old man rant on why I hate vinyl fetishists. Anyway.
You said something just now that really made a lot of sense to me, in terms of being able to finally get a handle on your critical aesthetic, why you like what you like and why you react the way you do to certain types of music. “I’m way more interested in what things are trying to do than what they’re doing.” That is a fascinating observation. You’re completely accurate, I believe, in describing the field of music criticism as being (for all its avowed focus on the big new things just around the corner) incredibly conservative. People like perfection, or at least the illusion of perfection. For most people - and I think I can even extend this description to include people who listen to a lot of diverse and interesting types of music - imperfection is a big turn-off. Or if you’re going to have imperfection, it has to be a really calculated imperfection, like early Pavement, when everything sounds just slightly off but you know in actuality that Malkmus spent a lot of time worrying about just how “off” it should sound.
I had an experience like this recently with a group I thought I really liked - Girls. Their (I should say his, since it’s just the one guy who runs the show) debut album was fantastic, really rough and energetic and kind of weird in this really hermetic way. And that album got such a huge response that he got a huge recording budget for his follow-up and wrote all these really tasteful, classically crafted rock tracks with multiple guitar solos and gospel choruses and everything . . . and I was simply shocked that someone who had been so interesting had managed to almost completely drain the life from his music. But he had a vision of what he wanted, and what he wanted was to make really big-sounding professional indie rock records, and I guess the reason his first album sounds the way it does is that he just didn’t have the resources to do it. Which is sad, because in hindsight I realize what I liked most about that album was the way it sounded.
But if I’m honest, that’s not usually the kind of thing I respond to. In your formulation, I can see that my tastes do tend towards being conservative: I like to hear artists change and develop and grow. It’s very rare that someone comes out of the gate knowing how to make their music sound just the way they want it to. It usually takes a long time, lots of trial and error - two albums, four albums, 100 shows, 500 shows, whatever. Lots of work. And then if you put that work in, the expectation is that - unless you have rocks in your head - your ability to execute what you want in terms of craft and polish will naturally follow. I guess as a critic what I enjoy the most is hearing artists get to that point, climbing that mountain, getting better on their feet as they go. I think an artist like Girls is an interesting counter-example here because he’s obviously an extremely talented musician who made the mistake of getting too good too fast. Of course, judging from the universal acclaim his second album has got, I don’t think many people would say he made any kind of mistake whatsoever.
So when you object to certain music as being “MOR” - middle of the road, a tag that really chafes me for some odd reason - I think I can understand now more of what you’re saying. If something is too polished, too professional, you have a hard time relating to it. And that’s perhaps one reason why your lists always seem to me to be disproportionately overpopulated by new artists, or older artists who are completely tearing everything apart. Whereas when I go through your list, I hear a lot of people who sound promising, but who maybe aren’t there yet - I find myself thinking, “this is interesting, maybe in a couple albums they’ll really be able to do something with these ideas.” But for you, you aren’t interested in where they’re going. You want to see the mistakes they’re making along the way. The idea of them getting to the point where they don’t make those mistakes strikes you as incredibly boring. I don’t think, based on what you’ve said, you would ever describe an up-and-coming musician as “promising” - because you honestly don’t have any interest in hearing what happens when they grow up and get their act together.
Tucker: I just wanted to chime in and say that this last paragraph describes my own feelings better than I would have been able to on my own.
Marty: Exactly. It’s two things, really, both of which are a bit cynical. The first is that I don’t trust artists with their own visions. I feel like 99% of artists crash and burn when given free reign. The 1% is My Bloody Valentine. (2013 Update: Just in the last month My Bloody Valentine have announced that their long-awaited follow up to Loveless has been completed. I expect we shall soon see just how much free reign is too much free reign.)It’s unromantic, but artists need a series of checks and balances, something to run up against. That could be a recording method, or a budget, or just band chemistry--two points of view just charging into each other. But they need something to run up against, because that friction is where the exciting stuff happens. On a large scale, I think that all music is born from that principle, and it happens on a small scale with artists over and over again.
The second thing is that I don’t trust myself to be “objective.” I’ve tried it as a music critic (“critic,” really; or even just a rock-crit fan), and I end up with the same opinions as everybody else, with the added bonus of not really being excited about the music that I think is “good.” Good music is the worst! That’s what I mean by MOR (though, to be honest, I was also just baiting you): music that does just enough to sound interesting without taking any real risks. And I think that’s the stuff you come up with when you try to be objective, because that’s exactly the stuff that’s objectively good.
And, look, there’s some albums I’m really into on your list (The Rapture and Destroyer), and there’s some artists I really like, even if I didn’t cotton to those particular albums. And I don’t think that tUnE-yArDs and PJ Harvey aren’t taking risks. (Tune-yards errs on the other side. It’s all risks, and all risks has the same temporizing effect as no risks, and then it also sounds a little silly.) But, taken all together, they’re all the same type of artists. They’re all working with the idea of a classic rock album. Even the Rapture and Cut Copy, who work with dance music, made rock albums.
To me, that’s just not a fair way to evaluate the breadth of music that’s coming out right now. It’s too small a sample. I get that they probably sound diverse within themselves, but there’s just so much missing--rap, dance made for dancing, mass-market pop--that it feels like it comes from such a limited point-of-view. Not that you have to shoehorn all that into a top ten list, but it seems like maybe you should at least give yourself the option of including them.
Clearly, I’m picking on you. But I don’t really mean just you.
Tim: Would it surprise you to hear that I agree with the substance of a lot of your critique, at least in relation to my own prejudices? Part of the reasoning behind this exercise was a desire to get to the bottom of exactly why I’ve been feeling a type of malaise in my relationship to music. It’s not necessarily a lack of enjoyment as a lack of enthusiasm, if I’m communicating correctly: I like the music I’m listening to but I’m also getting bored with the hassle of having to keep track of everything. Which sounds like something an Old Person would say, but there you have it.
Because - and I want to stress this so there’s no confusion here - what you’re saying about the type of music we listen to when we want to listen to “good” music is 100% correct. This is especially true when you look at things like year-end best-of lists, compiled by well-meaning if slightly (or more than slightly) pedantic rock critics who are still accustomed to thinking of the album as the primary form of consumption for most pop music.
But with that said I have to stick up for the album here, even if I recognize the format’s limitations: I think the pop music LP is an important and unique art form in and of itself. Music culture on the Internet has become fixated once again on the single, with the embedded YouTube video clip taking up the role that the 7” 45 RPM single did for our parents and grandparents. And all of this is well and good - the song is the fundamental building block of pop music, after all - but making the shift from a music economy built around the unquestioned dominance of AOR to a landscape with an incredibly plurality of formats has not been a completely seamless process for a lot of listeners, myself included. It’s not that people aren’t making albums, obviously, but that albums are just one of the ways that good music can be heard. And anyone listening exclusively to albums is missing out on a lot.
You put your finger on the problem when, in reference to my list, you said that “taken all together, they’re all the same type of artists. They’re all working with the idea of a classic rock album. Even the Rapture and Cut Copy, who work with dance music, made rock albums.” I’ve been thinking about this comment for the last few days, and the more I think about it the more it makes sense. I remember back in the mid-to-late 90s when dance music was first beginning to make inroads to critical acceptance in the world of rock critics. Dance music had been around forever, and electronic dance music had been popular for a good decade and a half, but it had always been focused on singles. If your mindset as a critic is built exclusively around appreciating the specific aesthetic qualities of the long-player record album then you’re going to have a hard time understanding movements and artists who work exclusively in singles. So when artists like Orbital, Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers started to orient their ouputs directly toward the AOR format, critics responded enthusiastically - because the music had changed ever so slightly to fit their preconceptions of what “serious” music needed to be. And you could tell similar stories about hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s, or punk in the late 70s.
So artists who buckle down and start making albums start making music that sounds like what we expect albums to sound like. But AOR doesn’t have the same kind of cultural ubiquity that it once did . . . and many of the best artists working today don’t really seem to be saving their best material for their LPs. We’ve already discussed the mixtape phenomenon, and in this context I think it would be interesting to look at the ways in which a mixtape is both similar to and different from the conventional, commercially-released album - and, of course, the ways different artists use the mixtape format for different goals. I’ve been listening to SBTRKT’s album lately, and it’s interesting to me that the album - while certainly good, don’t get me wrong - sounds very much like an attempt to make a capital-A Album, and less an attempt to actually distill his career to date, which is probably what would have been expected even five years ago. Looking at SBTRKT’s discography on Wikipedia, you see a whole pile of EPs and 12” singles, and then his album all the way at the bottom, almost as an afterthought compared to his incredibly prolific career as someone who primarily makes club music - or, at least, music formatted for club and radio consumption, as opposed to sitting at home with your headphones.
Ten years ago there would have been the expectation that anyone with an eye towards building a substantial career outside of the Mixmag crowd would automatically have switched over to the LP as their default release mode - with all the promotional and thematic baggage that entails - but now its a lot more common for the LPs to be their own thing, with the main output of singles and EPs being left alone. Meaning that those of us operating under the old rules - you know, the whole “wait until the first album when they compile all those early hard-to-find singles” mentality - are left wondering what all the fuss is. We need to get off our asses if we want to catch up because there’s no longer an Astralwerks waiting in the wings to compile The Early Singles for every up-and-coming house act.
So those artists still working in the old model can seem pretty conservative almost without even trying, simply by dint of working within a model that so many younger artists have already eschewed. And those established artists who still do good work in the format - people like Destroyer, or PJ Harvey, or any of the above - veterans who are already heavily-invested in AOR model - wake up sometimes and find their albums being stocked in Starbucks. (I don’t think I’ve seen Kaputt in Starbucks, but it’s not hard to envision that it could be.) Big-time albums by established artists can look like fossils. And when you point out the genres and artists on whom I’m missing out - and who I know I’m missing, “rap, dance made for dancing, mass-market pop” - it’s stuff that’s already largely abandoned the AOR model as a workable large-scale economic platform. Dance acts don’t put their dance singles on their albums; rappers save their best material for the free mixtapes where they don’t have to pay for cleared samples and don’t have record executives making them record a pop crossover “hit” with the Jonas Brothers; mass-market pop was always an ill-fit for album-length material but only now that so much of the industry is once again driven by single sales are we allowed to admit it in public. And lazy folks like me better wake the fuck up and see that some of the best stuff just isn’t going to available for sale at Tower Records. (For more reasons than one.)
As to your first point - limitations can be important, but I would be wary of making any kind of hard-and-fast generalization. The systemic limitations of the music industry - even in this supposed “post-industry” era - are such that you’d be hard pressed to find more than a few artists in the history of music who ever experienced complete creative freedom. And when it does happen, sure, you hear all about the dramatic misfires like Suede’s infamous Dog Man Star and the last two decades of Michael Jackson’s solo career. But then as you point out you’ve got My Bloody Valentine, and I’ve also been listening to Talk Talk’s last two albums recently - recorded almost entirely free from any constraints except for Mark Hollis’s tetchy perfectionism. So putting the question in those terms doesn’t seem to me to be entirely productive.
Good musicians will find their own restrictions. Pop music is an inherently limited and limiting form. I recognize that in much of what I appreciate in music and in much of what I write about music, I can be something an arch formalist. In academia you don’t really find that kind of belletristic pontification anymore - inveighing on the virtue of craft for the sake of craft went out of style with Cleanth Brooks, and there are many good reasons for this. But in my own private heart of hearts I still respond strongly to the conservative virtues of craft and austerity. Almost all pop music can still be boiled down to the basics of verse-bridge-chorus-middle eight-verse-bridge-chorus structure. Those are the same restrictions against which almost everyone, from Radiohead to Tyler, the Creator, has to measure themselves. I enjoy the infinite diversity of responses to such a rudimentary problem of format.
Austerity doesn’t always work so well in pop music because so much of the field is still judged by its ability to provide effective testimony to the experience of youth. But sometimes it takes a while to figure out how best to approach these challenges, and by then you’re left with the somewhat paradoxical spectacle of middle-aged men and women producing solid work in a field that prizes youth and novelty above maturity and familiarity. There are good reasons why the former is prized so highly, but the kneejerk dismissal of the latter seems - if inevitable - certainly short-sighted.
Marty: Sure, but you could say that about anything. I love the phrase “contempt prior to investigation” because I feel like that covers about 95% of negative music criticism. And, look, it’s difficult to not let your initial impression of an artist affect your opinion. On the flip side, sometimes you need someone else to confirm that you’re hearing something amazing. Rock crit’s best friend is credibility, and that can often leads right back to contempt prior to investigation.
But I think the reason that we’re talking about AOR is because there’s a prevalent knee jerk acceptance of them. Pazz & Jopp is living proof of that. Is Tom Waits’ Bad As Me really one of the ten best albums of the year? Or is it just immediately available to those who only listen to 15 albums a year?
Of course that all brings us back to the initial question: How do you keep up? For me, I just chase down every recommendation I see anywhere, and I try to keep up with every artist I already know I appreciate. I keep a word document with all the albums I’d like to hear, and I try to set myself up to hear them at the moments that I think I’ll be most available to enjoy them. I think that’s important. You have to give the music its best chance to strike you. If you start to feel like listening to music is a chore, it’ll start to sound that way to you.
My thing is, I’m not trying to keep up with music because I’d like to be a critic. I listen to music because I get a lot out of it. Music is one of a few things that consistently has a palpable, positive effect on my life. Beyond that, I have a lot of friends who are interested in what I think about current music, and a small handful of people who read the shit that I write. So, I feel a certain obligation to myself and my friends to be critical about what I like. But because it’s an ongoing conversation, I also feel an obligation to be open toward what they like as well (Even Though I Will Talk Shit to Their Faces).
So, here’s what I try to keep track of, in order:
1) SinglesListening to as many singles as possible is, I think, the best way to keep up with music right now. You get a broad spectrum of genres, and a good idea of the sounds that are HOTT. You know, that kind of thing. Then you can chase down albums by the artists you dig.
2) Artists I’m intrigued by (meaning not just artists I already know I like, but ones that I think are doing things that are legitimately interesting)
5) Individual critics
My problem is, I have trouble figuring out how to keep up with singles in a satisfying way that doesn’t just involve checking out other websites’ Best Singles lists. I find a ton of great stuff that I love that way, but as a “critic” it feels a little cheap.