Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Pitchfork 500 and my own 40 for 40

Earlier this year, I read the Pitchfork 500 book from cover to cover.  The format is a bit exhausting -- five hundred blurbs of 100-150 words each -- and if you don't already know most of the songs I'm not sure how much you can really get out of the book.  There were maybe thirty truly excellent write-ups that either really made me want to hear the song (if it was one I didn't know) or forced me to think differently about something I thought I already understood quite well.  I would classify another one hundred or so as "good" or "very good", and the rest were just kind of there.  The forced editorial style of constantly quoting from the lyrics of the songs and trying to connect those few lines to the criticism of the song simply didn't do it for me most of the time.  Ninety nine percent of music lyrics lose their power to captivate when removed from the context of the music.  

However, the essays at the start of each chapter/time-period were nearly all outstanding, and the sidebars that looked at specific genres or microgenres, often with a healthy dose of cynicism, were also consistently entertaining and a welcome break from the super-seriousness of the rest of the book.  

It was disappointing to see such a varied mix of songs from the 70's up until the late 90's (i.e. until the early years of Pitchfork), only to have the book suddenly dive deep into an indie rock hell with only token nods to hip-hop and techno.  In the introductory essays to each chapter, hip-hop and techno were highlighted as being so vitally important to the evolution of music, but they were mostly ignored once they hit the mid-90's and had passed through the established canon of those genres.  Still, for a coffee table book about music that I (mostly) love, it was a worthwhile and often thought-provoking read.

But my main problem with the book was that it claims to be representing the best music of the previous 30 years by songs, rather than albums, or as the back cover explains, "[reflecting] the way listeners are increasingly processing music -- by song rather than by album".  However, the actual song selections don't reflect that philosophy, especially once they hit the mid-90's and beyond.  A good portion of the book reads like they made a list of the best (PF-approved) albums from the time period and simply picked a song from each of those albums.  You could go through the top albums of the year lists for PF from 1999-2008 and pick out many of the artists that appear in the book for yourself.


A lifelong friend turned 40 last year and "celebrated" by carefully compiling a "40 songs for my first 40 years" list.  She told me about working on the list and I knew right away that I had at least one thing to look forward to about turning 40.

That time is quickly approaching.  She roughly defined the criteria for the list as "whether or not I could listen to the song repeatedly without being sick of it and whether it invokes a strong emotional connection for me."  Simple and to the point, and the eventual list was unranked.  I want my criteria to be a bit different, and I struggled to define exactly what kind of list I want to make.  However, after reading the Pitchfork book, I certainly knew what kind of list I didn't want to make.   You will not be seeing 40 tracks from my favourite 40 albums, that's for sure.

First and foremost, it will be a songs list.  Some of them will be the songs that "changed everything" and profoundly affected my listening habits going forward.

The list should tell a story, so roughly speaking, it should summarize how my tastes in music changed throughout my life.  Songs that captured certain periods or important moments in my life will be on there.  In the past I've made fun of publications that bestow a magical influence on a song or album, writing that such-and-such an album summed up the year or who's impact would resonate through its legions of soon-to-be copycats.  I make fun of this because it doesn't make sense to generalize about a huge community of music listeners in this way.  But for an individual, a song absolutely can summarize a summer or a year.

Because the songs tell a story, it shouldn't be necessary to like all of them as much now as I did then.  In most cases, they will be songs that have been close to me for years or decades, but in some cases, a song may be necessary to tell the story even if I don't care for it much anymore.

Not all of them will be songs from great albums.  In some cases, I will not have even heard the albums they came from.

A few bands will make the list on account of being in my pantheon of favourite bands ever.  If there's not a particular song of theirs which stands out in a way that I've described, I'll probably have to pick a song that defines the essence of that band for me.  I will not reflexively pick a great song from what I think is their best album.  The song is always the key, it would have to be the song that first drew me in, or the song that I heard and knew I'd be a fan of the band for life.

Not every year needs to be represented, it's not a "40 songs for 40 years" list.  Some years may have a few songs represented and many others will have none, because life just isn't neatly ordered that way.

It will be a biography told in the space of 40 songs, attempting to summarize what I am and what I once was as completely as possible.

Even at this late stage of the game, I'm not sure in what format to present the list.  It will be unranked and the songs will be presented in the order that they impacted my life (regardless of which year they were originally released).  Blurbs in the style of yearly top ten lists seem bland and inappropriate for a project like this.  I'm trying to get it all figured out.  

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