On October 1st of this year, having decided that I'd gone long enough without listening to any new music, I plugged my iPod into my car stereo, dialed up American Music Club's The Golden Age, and broke my embargo. Why AMC? Because they're one of my all-time favorite bands, and because I'd had The Golden Age sitting on my shelf for almost a full year, unlistened-to—which seemed an unnecessarily cruel price to pay for musical chastity. Also, after a year of listening to my collection in alphabetical order, I found the habit hard to break.
Other habits proved equally stubborn. For the past year I've been listening to roughly 700 to 1000 songs a week for Popless, and plowing through that field has necessitated a lot of skimming. (Hey, I've heard Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" probably 100 times… I don't need to spend another 10 minutes with it to know that I'm not going to delete it from my hard drive.) So when I listened to The Golden Age for the first time, I quickly grew impatient. The Golden Age is a decent record. It's not American Music Club's best work, and coming on the heels of 2004's welcome comeback Love Songs For Patriots, it's hardly revelatory. But the songs are reasonably catchy and pleasant, with some typically witty wordplay and earnest sentiment courtesy of bandleader Mark Eitzel. There's just nothing—how can I put this delicately?—essential about it.
After a year spent sorting and culling, I've gotten my music collection—the portion on my hard drive at least—pared down to about 80% all-time favorites, and 20% music set aside for further research. And having spent a year listening mostly to those favorites, it's awfully hard to stop weighing all new inputs against the music I'm planning to enjoy for the rest of my life. When a song sounds merely adequate, my first impulse these days is to hit the skip button. And then, ultimately, the delete button.
I know some people can't condone that. Yes, cutting tracks from an album destroys the integrity of the album itself, and yes, maybe I'd come to like a song more if I give it time. I'm aware of all those arguments. But after a year of Popless, one question has begun to dominate my consideration of all music, new and old:
Do I need this?
When I initiated the Popless project a year ago, I had several goals in mind, but perhaps the most important was to stem the tide of the unwanted. As part of the process of determining what's review-worthy, I'd been spending the majority of my music-listening time sorting through bands and albums that I didn't much like. And along with my dampening enthusiasm, I was beginning to wonder if wading through slop ultimately impedes a critic's ability to recognize—and properly dismiss—mediocrity.
A few interesting blog-essays have recently considered why it is that book reviews and record reviews are so much more generally positive than movie reviews and TV reviews. The obvious conclusion? It's much harder to cover the waterfront with books and music than it is with TV and movies. Outside of the big titles that demand to be reviewed—which may well suck, and thus get properly panned—the bulk of book and CD reviews are written by reviewers who do a certain amount of pre-selecting, and tend to gravitate to what they know they'll like.
But there's another reason for the broadly boosterish tone: We critics have to write about something. And after listening to 10 middling CDs in a row, when we come across an album that sounds adventurous, or tuneful, or even just competent, we run the risk of overrating it. This has happened to me personally just over the last couple of months, as I've returned to listening to new music. I'd been slogging through the key 2008 releases suggested by friends and colleagues, and after registering my immediate impressions and doing a lot of pruning, I came up with about 500 songs (from about 75 records) that I considered "keepers." Then I made an iPod playlist of those songs, put it on shuffle, and was startled by how weak and pointless so much of it sounded. Some perfectly fine songs by, say, Headlights or The Low Anthem, may have seemed like new classics in the context of the albums they came from, but heard immediately after Constantines or Gnarls Barkley, they were so, so very skippable.
So… What do I need?
As I've been catching up with the music of 2008, I've noticed that a lot of my favorite acts—such as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Deerhoof, Lambchop and Eric Matthews—have been recording albums that stay well inside their comfort zones. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Critics write the same things over and over again—using words like "jangly" and "jagged" to describe abstractions like sound and emotion—so why shouldn't a singer slip back into a familiar cadence, or a guitarist retreat to the same three chords? What some call hackery, I'm perfectly willing to call liturgy. We repeat ourselves because sometimes that's how we most effectively make ourselves understood.
Still, when listening to a song that sounds a lot like one I've already heard, the feeling of warm familiarity eventually starts to fade, and I inevitably end up comparing the new and the old, and wondering which I'm going to want to hear a year from now. Because while musicians keep on writing new songs, the vast majority of them—even by the established artists—are pretty forgettable. That's not to say they won't do in a pinch. Even the blandest song can approach greatness if the performance is strong, or if the song fits snugly into an album of killer material. But as I've tried to decide what songs best represent 2008—based on my crash course, bear in mind—I've ended up fast-forwarding restlessly through albums I initially thought I liked, because it turns out I'd been mainly responding to atmosphere, not songwriting.
Consider Girl Talk's Feed The Animals, an energetic party record assembled by Gregg Gillis with his usual mash-up flair. I thoroughly enjoyed Girl Talk's Night Ripper, and on first pass through Feed The Animals, I thought Gillis had come up with another winner. Then, upon listening more closely, frustration set in. Gillis has a knack for combining hip-hop, alt-rock and kitsch-pop in such a way that it all meshes seamlessly, but though his albums are broken up into individual tracks, those tracks don't generally display much internal cohesion. They flow out of what comes before and into what comes next, as Gillis adds and drops samples with no clear pattern or purpose, beyond making listeners smile and say, "Hey, I recognize that!" Girl Talk comes closest to making the kind of sample-driven dance music I've always longed for, slamming together familiar fragments of popular culture in a gleeful free-for-all. But there's something missing here—some layer of commentary or structural brilliance that would make Girl Talk's music endure. Like a lot of what I've heard from 2008, Feed The Animals lacks songs.
For the most part, 2008 has been a lousy year, culturally. It was a lousy year for music, a lousy year for movies, a lousy year for the economy—just a lousy year. Good people died, both famous (like Paul Newman) and not-so (like my friend and fellow critic Andrew Johnston). And though a lot of us have reason to believe that "hope" and "change" are on the way in '09, that doesn't make looking back on '08 any more fun.
There have been bright spots, though. Though I need to spend more time with them, I've been impressed by the latest efforts from Deerhunter, The Hold Steady, Sun Kil Moon, The Walkmen, Ryan Adams, Sigur Ros and R.E.M. I think that neither Los Campesinos nor Vampire Weekend could possibly have lived up to their initial hype, but both bands delivered debut albums that strike me as pretty winning, and highly promising. Not enough attention has been paid this year to The Week That Was, Langhorne Slim or The Rosebuds—three acts that released concise, tuneful records filled with those song dealies I was pining for a moment ago. And perhaps the best album I've heard lately is Starling Electric's two-year-old LP Clouded Staircase, which Bar-None reissued in '08, to dispiriting indifference.
Yet even with this year's really good albums, I fight the impulse to delete. I can't help but wonder if I'd be missing anything if I trimmed The Walkmen's You & Me down from 14 songs to 10. All the songs on that record are good, but they're also all very similar, and I don't know that 48 minutes of You & Me is necessarily any better than 35 would've been.
Some friends contend that I'm becoming too picky in my middle age. I've always been a fairly soft touch as a critic, and I still have a higher tolerance for some disreputable genres and modes of popular art than a lot of my fellows. (Laugh tracks? Procedurals? Soft rock? Prestige pictures? Daily newspaper comics? All okay with me.) This year though, I've been left relatively cold by a lot of movies that other critics have raved about, like Ballast, Man On Wire and Slumdog Millionaire. And the same is true of a lot of the music that people have been recommending to me. I can't quite embrace Bon Iver, which sounds sweetly atmospheric but naggingly unfinished. I like Fleet Foxes, but I keep thinking they're too much like My Morning Jacket but without the exploratory side or the stomping rock side. Lil' Wayne is too aimlessly raunchy for me; Santogold too shrill; Spiritualized too tuneless; MGMT too busy. I thought I'd love She & Him, because I like M. Ward and breathy retro-pop, but Zooey Deschanel's voice is so flat that nearly every song on that record sounds amateurish and self-indulgent.
Throughout the year, I've been wondering: What is the responsibility of a critic? Is it to respond openly and enthusiastically to whatever an artist is trying to do? Or is it to nitpick it in the name of maintaining some authority? For most of my career, I've leaned toward the former, but I'm starting to see the value in the latter. Everything looks flawed to me these days—even the music, movies, TV shows and books that I love. When I review Mad Men or Lost for The TV Club, I often take pains to note the flaws even as I'm raving about what those shows do right, but whenever I do that, I wonder if I'm unnecessarily bumming out fans who came to The TV Club merely to celebrate the good. If I'd reviewed The Shield finale—one of the best TV endings of all time—would I have been persnickety enough to point out that some of the dialogue was strained and the ending rushed? If so, would that have served a purpose? I'm honestly not sure.
So what's my responsibility to 2008's music? Maybe it's enough just to note how it all sounds. But is the sound of 2008 the sound of deep reverb, a la Magnetic Fields, Spiritualized and Vivian Girls? Scuzzed-up power-pop like Jay Reatard, Cheap Time and Gentleman Jesse? Retro-soul? Robot voices? The post-M.I.A./Go! Team cheerleader-rock of The Ting Tings and Santogold? Maybe it's the sound of art-rock bands like TV On The Radio and Sigur Ros taking a hard turn towards the mainstream with albums that feature smoother surfaces and sharp hooks, or the sound of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes disappearing into the woods to wait for the world to become just a little less lousy.
One thing I've loved about doing Popless is that I've had 11 months to contemplate—in public—what kind of music I like, and what I'm fine leaving behind. I've discovered that I'm big into dynamics—songs that change and have arcs and push for drama—and I'm in thrall to music that aims for transcendence. I love complicated patterns, and albums that create their own environment. I like the feeling of spontaneity—of a moment in time, captured forever—but I also like music to have a guiding intelligence nudging it along. Adulteration is okay by me. And some measure of polish is good too.
I'm not as wowed by indie-rock as I was a decade ago, though I'm sure that some people would look down the list of bands I've listened to and liked in 2008 and think that I'm protesting too much. I do still like a lot of music that most would classify as "indie," either in the business sense or the artistic sense. But I like my indie-rock with a modicum of ambition, competence, and personal vision. I'm not wild about lo-fi for its own sake, or ironic kitsch, or even honest kitsch, in the form of homage.
And when it comes to the music I deeply love, it's almost all rock 'n' roll and vintage soul. I like a good beat, a catchy melody, clever arrangements and open emotion. I like musicians who play their instruments well. I shy away from abrasion, except in special circumstances. And I've got no problem at all with music that's soft, pretty—even wimpy. I'm a middle-aged family man. I have nothing invested anymore in being thought of as a badass.
You can't convince me that music is aesthetically superior if it's tough to listen to, or if it's so true to its genre that it could be generated by a machine. It's not automatically worse, either—but when people run down another's musical taste based on its lack of edge, I wonder if they're really interested in the music, or just in pushing folks around.
So much is determined by context. Last week, the good people who write for Nerve.com's "Screengrab" blog picked their personal "guilty pleasure" movies, and on that list were the likes of Meatballs, Big Trouble In Little China, Rock 'N' Roll High School, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Backbeat—all movies that no one should have any reason to feel guilty for liking, unless they're worried about losing some hardcore cinephile cred. I don't want to pick on the Screengrabbers, since some of them are my friends and I'm a fan of the site, but exercises like selecting "guilty pleasures"—or determining what's "overrated" and what's "underrated"—often say more about the audience the writers are courting than the quality of what they're labeling. In the broader culture, bands like The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers are underrated, because they don't reach an audience as large as they deserve. But some close followers of the alt-rock scene would argue that those two bands get way too much attention. Meanwhile, those same scenesters might scramble to call a Coldplay or Hall & Oates CD in their collection a "guilty pleasure" (or excuse it with a mumbled, "that belongs to my wife"), while out in the real world, those acts are widely beloved.
One idea I've tried to explore throughout this year of Popless is that while I do believe there are objective qualities by which we can evaluate art, ultimately our taste is wholly subjective, influenced to some degree by our personal experiences and memories. For example, we can judge, objectively, whether a piece of music is in tune, or whether the production is slick. But it won't matter so much that the vocalist is off-pitch if she's our daughter, or if the lyrics or performance move us in some personal way. Similarly, slick production might not bother us in if it's a song we remember hearing on the radio that time that we drove to the beach with our friends—or even if the song just evokes a moment like that.
Those biases would seem to be obvious, yet I heard from a lot of readers throughout 2008 who appreciated my being honest about what I hadn't heard before, or what I wasn't generally wild about, or what I liked because of when and why I first heard it. Those personal reactions—so often driven by age, region, or social circumstance—are why it's important to think of criticism as an ongoing conversation that as many interested parties as possible can take part in. Because what I find dull or disposable, someone else might be able to defend persuasively, based on profound personal experiences that I never shared.
For example, it's occurred to me this year that my rock-crit heroes Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs were perhaps too engulfed in the music of the '70s to really hear some of it. Even though they mostly championed the right musicians, they also demonized or dismissed artists who didn't deserve to have their particular brands of self-expression treated with such scorn. As I've written often this year, I love to study trends in popular music by "shadowing" the acts who last a long time and score hits in multiple eras, while never earning much critical respect. But that kind of study takes time and distance, and it defies the instant analyses required of day-to-day music criticism.
That's why you probably shouldn't take any gripes I have about the music of 2008 to heart. Get back to me in 2018, when I've had to time to live with these albums a little, and have heard how they sound to me after enduring another decade of what a wise man once called "life's little ups and downs." Or better yet, check in 20 years from now with the future critic who's only 14 years old right now. He or she will undoubtedly understood more about the music being made today than I ever will.
I'd be remiss in closing out this year—only one more column to go, folks!—if I didn't thank my regular readers and commenters for making this such a rewarding project. I've always thought of writing about music as an act of fellowship between me and other people who listen to a lot of music. But before I commenced Popless, I'd been feeling more and more like I was sitting on a stage, lecturing to an audience of people who were talking amongst themselves while occasionally nudging each other to say, "Can you believe this idiot?"
Some of those feeling recurred this year too. I expected some criticism of my personal taste, but I didn't expect the occasional criticism of me, personally. Some readers felt they got to know me better through these columns, and decided that they don't like me much. When the comments got really rough early on, I started thinking of ways I could bow out of the project and save some dignity. But I'm glad I persevered, because the vast majority of you have been very kind in responding to my personal experiences with your own, and in making suggestions for bands I should check out.
At the start of this project, I said I wanted to nurture an environment where people could comment on music more as enthusiasts than scolds or snobs. I think this has been a place where readers have felt they could leave a cogent, heartfelt comment about Tom Petty or R.E.M. or Stephen Stills and not get bullied for it. I received many notes from people—both publicly and privately—who said that their music-listening experiences had been a lot like mine, and that they appreciated having a weekly conversation about bands they knew and loved. I haven't responded to many of those notes because it would seem kind of self-congratulatory to do so, but I sure did appreciate them.
In the wake of Popless, I want to keep digging into the past as often as I can. I've started to develop an interest in the spacier side of the late-'60s Greenwich Village and Sunset Strip folk-rock scenes, and I'd like to investigate some of those lesser-known singer-songwriters. I've also gotten a lot of suggestions from readers for '70s prog acts I might like; and I'm still woefully behind on jazz and hip-hop.
One of my favorite things about being a music fan is discovering some band that unlocks the door to a scene I'd mostly missed. It's happened to me fairly regularly over the years: letting The White Stripes guide me to neo-garage, for example, or Curt Boettcher to sunshine-pop, and then spending months following that path wherever it winds. Along the way, I encounter a lot of weeds surrounding the flowers. And I rip them up as best I can, while trying to remember that what may look like a weed may actually be a plant that hasn't budded yet. It may not matter much what I like or what I don't like, or what I praise from the heart and what I praise because it's good enough for now. What matters is the searching, the contemplation of what's been found, and most of all the communing with others out toiling in the fields.
This, I need.
Next Week: My favorite songs of 2008.