[written Feb. 9, 2001]
The end of each year brings temporary relief to thousands of magazines and rags out there who struggle to come up with semi-interesting content on a monthly basis. "Best of" awards are part of the usual flavor, and why not? It's a nice way to sum up the year, separate the wheat from the chaff, and reminisce on good times.
So I'm reading stuff like Spin Mag and Urb and Rolling Stone for their best-of's, and I'm disappointed.
My past criticism of critics aside, it's just astounding that these best-of's make it through the head honcho editor. For reference, here are some of Spin's 2000 faves: Eminem, Radiohead, D'Angelo, PJ Harvey, U2, Madonna, Aimee Mann, Mouse on Mars, and Sigur Ros.
To break the list down, we first weed out traditional critics' favorites: Radiohead, U2, PJ Harvey. These are the artists who immediately get lovey dovey reviews as soon as they release a new album. The reason for this is because critics are very careful that they frame themselves as being hip and popular, but not so mainstream that they won't get any respect for being free-thinking adults. It's a fine line to draw. Bands like U2 and Radiohead are just the right mix of alternative and popular that they can justify the listing with "how could you NOT mention them?" Personally I listened to U2 and PJ Harvey and thought they were mediocre albums, and Radiohead's was downright boring.
Okay, U2 and Portishead definitely weren't bad. But they weren't, like, the best of 2000, you know? It's more like, oh, they have a new album? That's cool, lemme hit up Napster. U2 has some good songs, like "New York", "Elevation", possibly "Wild Honey", and the closest-you-can-get-to-anthemic-without-being-on-Achtung-Baby "Beautiful Day". PJ Harvey strikes me as being a listening experience similar to the Rollins Band. The sound is great, but you spend most of the album wondering, "Okay, what the fuck was that?" or "You got that out of your system, happy now? Let's get back to the music..."
Notice I did not put Madonna up there. She's always a mixed bag with critics, with some albums getting good reviews and some getting very scathing ones. Now critics like her more because she's older, more stable, and less of a threat to their well-being. For some reason I see that as another factor influencing critics: the threat posed by an artist...
Take Eminem for example. All you fucking hear about with Eminem is how shocking his rhymes are. About how he hates gay people, and about how he would kill his parents and his girlfriend, and even his protegé! My virgin ears! To critics he is instant bullshit material for them to write endlessly about, droning on and on about the same topic as all the other hack critics struggling to make a buck. Meanwhile, the fact that Eminem actually creates anthemic and damn good raps eludes them. People I know can quote some of his lyrics, but it's not because they're drawn to ooh! ahh! the scandalous nature of it, it's because it's good shit. Typical critic action. Missing the point completely, but stumbling upon something like a blind pig and a truffle.
Now you take D'Angelo and Aimee Mann, who are like your one-hit wonders of the list. Okay, so they both have pasts, but is anyone interested? No. Oh look, D'Angelo is naked in his video. Ooh, Aimee Mann was the soundtrack's heart and soul in Magnolia. Big deal. They have about as much star power as Eric Stoltz at a premiere of a German polka documentary. Why does this come off as star-crossed critics trying to fill space in their wrap-ups?
Finally there's Sigur Ros and Mouse on Mars. Who? Perhaps I'm just not well-informed, but this sounds to me like an example of the patented "critic's pet band". You know how everyone has that one group they really love that no one else has ever heard of? Same for critics. It's the choice that defines someone as a real student of music, not afraid to charge off on his own in search of new flavor. Well, okay Mr. Critic, but I don't need that out of you.
What I need from a damn critic is someone who has a good idea of what everyone already listens to anyway and then selecting groups and artists who are slightly more progressive or classic than the favorites of the day. I don't read a critic to read an experimentalist's viewpoints (the guy who recommends 20 unheard-of artists, thus alienating people because no one is willing to try new groups without a safe port to launch from) or to read a critic rehash a hype-filled press release about a new album from your favorite artist (!).
I also don't read a critic to hear wishy-washy sentiment. I am moderate in my tastes, meaning I'll listen to a broad spectrum of styles, and combinations of them. But this only works when the people I read are at their most extreme and combative, when they either completely destroy an album or completely praise it. Granted, I prefer they destroy an album (if I buy something on Amazon.com, I usually skip to the reviews that are the most negative, to gauge reality vs. hype) because it's easier to figure out the depth of the critic's knowledge on the subject than when he's kissing up to the product because he doesn't know better. Then again, even overly optimistic sentiment is good if you know the critic uses praise sparingly, and it's all still better than when critics say a few pages of both good things and bad things, and come to the conclusion of...zip.
Fuck...what the hell? My computer spontaneously rebooted. Don't you hate when you lose what you just wrote, and then you have to start over and try to reconstruct the masterpiece you had so carefully crafted?
Okay so as far as my top album list is concerned, it has two criteria: 1) it has to be a trendsetter, in that it gives birth to a bunch of imitation bands, and at the same time be unique in its sound, and 2) it has to be fucking good, whether everyone knows the lyrics to the song or the sound becomes classic and anthemic.
Yes, under my criteria, you could put Aguilera and Spears on the top list. Not that I like their music very much, but they sure did let loose a whole slew of followup girls, and their songs will be part of the collective consciousness for years to come. I may not like the music, but they're pretty hot to look at and also they release catchy songs.
So my top albums would include Stankonia by Outkast (the twaiiinng of their voices is unmistakable; B.o.B. and Ms. Jackson are now classics, and Snappin' & Trappin' and Gasoline Dreams are underappreciated), Eminem's latest, Madonna (nice album baby!), Roni Size (who publicizes d'n'b better?), Limp Bizkit (what rock band isn't a blend of LB and KoRn?), Thomas Rusiak (popular in Europe, but never made it to the US, but plenty of hot shit to groove to), Goldfrapp (got lots of press but little play as far as I can tell, a nice sojourn for people dying for new Portishead stuff), and Bomfunk MC's (another group popular in Europe but not in the US, some cool shit that you might've heard at your favorite alternative clothing store or during the NBA all-star slam dunk contest hype). Runners-up: Jay-Z, DMX, Snoop Dogg. It's not that they didn't release great albums, but they were really just the same stuff, even if it's really good. That is, same high quality that you'd expect. There's a distinction between a must-listen-to list and an annual best-album list. :) I dunno why I like rap much more now; I don't listen to the radio so it's not that I can't avoid it, I just always prefer harder music.
Music is a very strange animal indeed, and I appreciate the diversity of it. It's weird when you go to different settings and hear radically dissimilar styles of music based on demographics and location and income and all that. Music at the very least should be listened to with personality, and with a vigor for freshness. There's just no excuse for going to a basketball game (hear this, Mr. Cuban?) or to a public place and hearing hit songs from a few months ago. Wtf is that all about? Music is all about personal pleasure or fulfillment, so dammit, don't fuck around with it!
If you know of consistently good review sources for music, let me know. There's something just not right with picking up Newsweek and reading a reviewer's article on Snoop Dogg's latest album, which he probably stole out of his daughter's room while she was at school. Rolling Stone is okay, if not sometimes a little too much. Mixmag and whatnot seem to enjoy everything, which isn't so bad because at least they're happy. The radio is utterly useless here in Dallas. (we now follow up our ten spot of Led Zeppelin with...a ten spot of Rush!) I shouldn't be so hard on Spin Mag though; their mag is about as good as you can get, and the top lists (except for albums) were entertaining. The articles are decent, but the regular reviews are crap.
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