Scribes Sounding Off: For The Love of The Song, The Pitchfork 500

by Chris Estey

It came out a few days ago, and I held a brand new copy of The Pitchfork 500 in my hands as Henry Owing of Chunklet Magazine howlingly tore into rock critic cliches at Seattle’s Cap Hill Sonic Boom promoting his and his friends’ hilarious own Rock Bible tome. A few people in the store were a little wary of the shiny-covered, looks-good-in-your ten inch vinyl bin guidebook from the Chicago-based website and Fireside Books. “Why songs, not albums?” one of us asked, sincerely but a little critically. Another cracked: “500 songs? That’s sort of random.” Standing in the classy but chockful-of-musical goodness Sonic Boom, surrounded by bountiful aisles of delightful reissued and newly released vinyl, weird imported and rumored-about cult group releases, and vintage LPs by bands with rabid regional fanbases, I couldn’t make sense if it either. But on Monday morning, as KEXP Blogger Justin Spicer reported in his “News Mash-Up“:

“Atlantic has announced that digital sales of their albums are trumping physical sales. In case that makes no sense to you, let’s put it another way: kids would rather buy individual MP3s and ringtones of varying sound quality than fork over the dough for a bulky case and disc where the sound quality is worse than vinyl and is sure to include a batch of songs they don’t like. Atlantic goes so far as to tell Rolling Stone that they ‘finally figured it out.’ Perhaps a 39% spike in digital sales helps one see the light.”

Many people I know like to talk a little shit about Pitchfork, the website that features five new reviews every weekday, with lots of fun and interesting news in the left-hand column and all kinds of generous downloads and links to videos and think-columns on the right. Or at least talk shit about the bands featured there, if not the content of the scribing itself. In my own world, this morning, for example, P4k convinced me to probably not buy Chinese Democracy (rating: 5.9) — after reading several other assessments that either seemed too Axl-lauding or rest-of-the-dismissed-band mourning, Ian Cohen’s analysis seemed like the one I’d most agree with. On the other hand, reviewer Joshua Love made some excellent criticisms of the new Decemberists’ EP, faintly praising it with 7.0 but not quite talking me out of laying down cash for the highlights it contains (some cool recent singles I’d missed). In either case, I think the writers did their job, whether I followed their instructions or not; and neither of these were as controversial as the hyping of some bands and the curb-kicking of others bands in years past (which I won’t bother to bring up again, as I’m sure you read all about it on message boards).

People have been fantasizing about what a print version of Pitchfork might mean for some time, but due to the prophetic, tenaciously aware — but seemingly never too self-aware — aesthetics of the site, people shouldn’t be too surprised it that it would first come as a historical assessment of specific songs rather than of albums. Because that’s pretty much where the wind is blowing to, as Atlantic has figured out. Heck, one could even question why the daily updating of the website’s center column is still album review focused. Most probably, this sturdy but not too thick, very shiny but not gauche, and really neatly sized volume (keep it with your ten inch vinyl, you fetishists) will probably still be used for reference for years after the primary format for pop music has changed. Or never changed: It isn’t only “anti-rockist” writers who have claimed “it’s always been about the song.”

It seems like P4k founder and president Ryan Schreiber and editor-in-chief Scott Plagenhoef must have been collecting a consumer’s guide of the greatest alternative music interest songs ever since 1977 now for a long time, maybe since the site started in 1995(!). The Pitchfork 500 features sometimes encapsulated, sometimes essay length rundowns of noteworthy tracks from the critical print/Internet greats, boasting fresh, funny, and very informative work from Chris Dahlen, Douglas Wolk, Drew Daniel, Geeta Dayal, Dominique Leone, Brian Howe, Joe Tangari, and many others. In-house talent shines as well, including missed-from-the-magazines senior news editor Amy Phiilips, the very dependable Mark Richardson, and Schreiber and Plagenhoef themselves (the latter who wrote one of the essential 33 1/3 books, on Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister). Overall, they let the contributors get charmingly empathetic (Dahlen’s brisk but dazzling take on Lou Reed’s Street Hassle) and amusingly flippant (Brent DiCrescenzo’s full-page comic-relief sidebars, the most cruel but spiritually accurate “Yacht Rock”). They bounce from major label punk to avant-rock, sum up the crucial jams from early NYC rap, and settling all things indie-rock while not failing to include all the other cultural cubbyholes and mini-genres (“from Grebo to Glitch” as one BD ‘bar states). It’s easy to fantasize about this same team doing whole books based on “Skatepunk,” “The New Electro,” and “Alt-Country,” though one page of “The Post-Grunge Nadir” is probably enough (but is definitely one of my favorite pages here).

For a book that is designed specifically to help people find their new favorite songs, probably off the Internet (but not necessarily bypassing the local record store, assuming the reader has one), it’s this quality of writing and presentation that makes The Pitchfork 500 a crucial step in the rock book evolutionary process (whether you perceive that as ironic or not). Like the site itself, the guts of the guide is spare in design but certainly not unattractive; maybe some sort of graphics would make it more appealing, but photographic images, drawings, or album covers aren’t why I go to P4k in the first place (even before my coffee) every morning. It’s to find out what to hear and what to avoid, to perhaps get my mind changed either way, to get a little excited when my favorites are vindicated by a still much-useful powerful media voice, and, yes, even to talk a little shit when I think something’s unfairly elevated or eviscerated.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 8, 2008 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the artist index which includes not just listings of an artist’s songs in the book but any mention of the artist in the book at all. There’s Nirvana with the number of entries that you would expect from the band, and on the same page is where you would find Pearl Jam…except….Pearl Jam isn’t there. In Pitchfork’s history of music from “Punk to the Present” Pearl Jam does not exist.

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