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Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010
Judging by the "Top Ten" list of hundreds of critics in Village Voice's Pazz and Jop Poll, Pitchfork is either really good, or critics are becoming really lazy.

Recently, the general “Who had the best album of 2009?” debate came to an end with the release of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll. For those unfamiliar, the poll comprises the “Top Ten” list of hundreds of music critics. Top honors went to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.


Animal Collective’s win wasn’t surprising. When Merriweather was released last January, critics all but anointed it an album of the year contender. But Village Voice contributor Chuck Eddy raised an interesting observation: Eight albums from the Pazz and Jop top ten list were also on Pitchfork‘s top ten list.


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Wednesday, Dec 9, 2009
For a decade that prided itself for breaking down musical barriers, there is a noticeable lack of female presence on this decade's most highly-regarded albums.

Regardless of your music taste, coming up with a list of the influential artists of this past decade is relatively easy. The White Stripes, the Strokes, Kanye West, Animal Collective and a few ‘90s holdovers like Radiohead and Jay-Z would certainly make the list. These were just a few I could rattle off in about 30 seconds. However, as I gazed at this list, I started to wonder what was wrong with it. It was lacking…something.


Estrogen.


Not to generalize: Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) is on the short list for “Artist of the Decade”, and artists like Neko Case and Cat Power have made some of the best albums this decade. But compared to the breadth of female trailblazers that broke out in the ‘90s, this decade has come up somewhat on the short end. And as a result, popular music in general has suffered from this.


When I was making my “Decade’s Best” list ten years ago, I could rattle off nearly a dozen female artists who made a significant impact on popular music without batting an eye. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams, Courtney Love, Missy Elliott, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey and Björk for starters. With this decade, I was struggling to list six that emerged in this decade. Yes, after a few minutes of research, I could easily list a dozen heavy hitters this decade, but in the ‘90s, female artists were often overshadowing their male counterparts.


Take the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll for example. For those unfamiliar, it is a poll comprising 500 critics’ “Best of the Year” selections. In the ‘90s, four of the ten top albums of the year were by female artists (1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, 1994’s Live Through This by Hole, 1995’s To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey, and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams). Total number of top albums awarded to a female musician in this decade by the Pazz and Jop poll: zero.


This exclusion has surfaced on several notable “Best of the Decade” lists. Pitchfork and AV Club’s Top 10 did not have a release from a female artist or a female-fronted band. Paste’s list is a notable exception as Gillian Welch (Time (the Revelator)) and M.I.A. (Arular) made their top ten list.


It would be foolish to dismiss the relative male dominance of these lists as sexism. Albums that have received multiple mentions, such as OutKast’s Stankonia, Radiohead’s Kid A and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells deserve to be mentioned based on their own merits. But for a genre (mainly indie) that prides itself in progressiveness, it’s hard not to hearken back to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album Phair said was in part recorded as a response to the male-dominated Chicago indie/alternative scene.


The ‘90s saw such a flood of high-profile releases by female artists that the movement spawned the massively successful Lilith Fair. That movement even produced a bit of a backlash as critics hoped edgier artists like PJ Harvey, L7, and the Breeders would share the roster. What made the ‘90s such as huge decade for female artists? Why didn’t it carry over into this decade?


The answer could just be coincidence. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Björk, Luscious Jackson, Hole, Garbage, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill all released albums that were critical and commercial hits around the same time. With such a wealth of talent, it sort of produced a “perfect storm” of great albums by female artists. Whether this coincidence can happen again is anyone’s guess, but I sure as hell hope next decade we’ll see a similar storm form.


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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009
A growing list of bands unpopular with critics, but genre-defining nevertheless, is impatiently awaiting their admittance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As the years progress, the process of getting into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beginning to look a lot like the process of earning a letter for a high school letter jacket: The superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Aerosmith) are awarded just for showing up, as are the academic overachievers who are still social enough to get a seat on student council (U2, The Police, Talking Heads). However, the nerds who create the science fiction clubs and painstakingly put together the yearbook (Rush, Genesis, Yes, Kraftwerk) face a much steeper battle for recognition.  And while you can’t really letter in smoking, there’s no way to recognize the smokers and the class-skippers (Slayer, The Replacements), those folks who are just as essential as the jocks and student council presidents in defining the experience that is Rock and Roll High School.


Perhaps by coincidence, the same year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame turns 25, KISS may finally get their due as inductees. They have been eligible for almost a decade. And while I’ll be the first to praise Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, there’s no question who has been more influential in rock. Alice Cooper may have been first, but KISS made makeup and pyrotechnics almost essential in a big-time rock show. KISS was one of those bands that inspired thousands of teenagers to want to form a band to get to that level—the stage explosions, the groupies, the outfits. But the Hall of Fame is like a selection committee for a state dinner: you want to invite the people who’ll make you proud, not ones that will embarrass you. But sometimes you have to acknowledge those very folks (which is one possible reason why the Sex Pistols took a great deal longer to get into the Hall of Fame than the Clash).


Fans, and even non-KISS fans, have been screaming to let KISS into the Hall of Fame. But now that their work is done, people have started to raise a ruckus about why progressive rock has not been represented. As for speed metal fans, a Metallica nod won’t be enough to keep people from demanding a Slayer induction as well.


The nomination of Genesis is a decent start for progressive rock, but King Crimson, Yes, and Rush are still patiently waiting for nomination. One problem for progressive rock is that, in general, it’s not a genre adored by rock critics. But regardless of whether you think 2112 or Relayer is a masterpiece, progressive rock’s most notable characteristics (the odd time signature shifts, full albums broken into “acts” or “suites”) are everywhere in rock. If a song by a rock band exceeds eight minutes, chances are high that there’s going to be a Yes comparison. Even a band as critically adored as the Decemberists has garnered plenty of prog rock comparisons.


At least Rush or King Crimson will put on a polite show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert if and when they get inducted. What the hell would a Slayer performance be like? Don’t think that doesn’t cross a voter’s mind when he or she is filling out their ballot. As most rock historians should know, rock was never intended to be pretty or suitable for an awards banquet. And the exclusion of the geeks, nerds, and troublemakers—who not only contributed significantly to rock, but helped build foundations for an entire genre of music—is inexcusable.


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Wednesday, Oct 21, 2009
Though it was beloved by a generation, cassettes were quickly dumped by Gen-Xers. But unlike vinyl, this medium is not coming back.

The vinyl revival is one of the more welcome nostalgic movements in popular music. For all the talk about how younger generations do not appreciate the physical medium of music, it’s heartwarming to see kids in their early 20s fishing through the vinyl sections of their rapidly-vanishing local record stores. So what if some are doing it for no other reason than hipster cred? It’s good to see a physical medium for music thrive.


It took a little less than a decade after the decline of vinyl for a nostalgia movement to arise. In the mid-‘90s, some bands would even have the top of their CD design take the form of an album or a 45. Almost 15 years later, we still have vinyl lovers, but we are slowly starting to experience a bit of CD nostalgia as well. Even though CDs are still very much present and available, people have started to stubbornly cling to them just like albums.


Part of the reason for this sort of “pre-death” nostalgia can be attributed to some savvy marketing by record companies. In the past two years, nearly every iconic album from the ‘90s, from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to Radiohead’s OK Computer, have been re-released in deluxe packaging CDs. They come with a great deal of liner notes, some sweet packaging (check out Pavement’s reissues), and a ton of b-sides. For a Gen-Xer with more disposable income now than they had while they were in college, these offers are hard as hell to turn down. While this accounts for a tiny fraction of CD sales, these reissues prove there is still a need for some people to possess the physical product. A second reason for this “pre-death” nostalgia relates to a grass-roots desire for many people to want to see their local record stores stay in business. Yes, you could buy the new Phoenix album online, but like shopping at the farmer’s market, you just feel better making the trek to a local store and making the purchase.


Image by Andy Hepburn

Image by Andy Hepburn


If the boomers grew up on the album and the Gen-Yers grew up on the CD, Gen-X certainly was weaned on the cassette. And while it’s evident that there is certainly a market for vinyl, and there is a pretty good chance that the CD will experience a similar, if nowhere nearly as intense revival when it eventually goes away, one thing is certain: there is no such nostalgic feeling for cassettes.


Though cassettes were very much part of the music scene in the ‘70s, they took off in the ‘80s, finally outselling albums in 1983 at the height of Michael Jackson mania. But while the album enjoyed a four decade-plus run as being the preferred medium for popular music, cassettes only enjoyed an eight-year run before CDs overtook them in sales in 1991. Though its reign was relatively short, cassettes were the primary listening medium for virtually all of Gen-X. But upon its death in record stores, the mourning period for Gen-X and Gen-Y for this medium was about as fast as a Family Guy flashback. Hell, even the kitsch factor of 8-tracks gave that medium a longer mourning period.


The lack of mourning for the passing of the cassette is curious, but not entirely surprising. As a canvas, the cassette just didn’t have the majesty of records. Somehow the covers of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band just don’t seem as iconic when they’re condensed into a space that’s slightly larger than a pack of smokes. Hauling them around was usually a pain in the ass. And finally, the general sound quality wasn’t the reason why most people opted for cassettes. It was for their portability.


If there is a movement for nostalgia for cassettes, it’s not the medium, but for the concept of freedom it offered listeners. For those who thought junior high and high school were exercises in purgatory, a Walkman finally offered some minor refuge. The medium also offered the masses an exercise in freedom with the ability to create their own playlists from blank tapes.


Nick Hornby and Rob Sheffield have both written moving accounts of creating great mix tapes for loved ones with High Fidelity and Love Is a Mix Tape, respectively. Both authors tell about the arduous process of not only making sure the songs could adequately fill each side of the tape, but of having to listen to the entire tack, then pushing “Pause” just at the right time for the next song to be recorded. Then came the mix-CD, cutting this process down from 90 minutes to a mere five. Now, with playlists, this process can be done in seconds. The gesture is the same, but it’s the equivalent of taking your significant other out to dinner instead of going through the painstaking task of fixing a meal for them at home.


Like DAT’s, some mediums are just meant to die and never experience a revival. Cassettes seem destined to fall into this category. When I was packing for my fifth move in about 7 years, I finally decided to pour all the cassettes that got me through junior high and high school in a plastic sack (save three or four for sentimentality). I chucked them into a dumpster and didn’t feel the slightest bit of longing or loss. As essential as they were to growing up, it seems like cassettes were just the training wheels for what was to come later on.


Tagged as: cassettes, mix tapes
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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009

The 2010 nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced. The ballot includes KISS, the Stooges, Genesis, LL Cool J, ABBA, Jimmy Cliff, the Chantels, Darlene Love, Donna Summer, Laura Nyro, the Hollies, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of these 12, five will be chosen for induction into the Hall early next year. That’s a pretty diverse selection.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has long suffered from two main flaws when it comes to choosing artists for induction. First, the Hall subscribes to the Rolling Stone definition of rock music: basically, all popular music since the late 1950s that isn’t country. In particular, what is favored is the music the baby bomber generation grew up on and loved. This makes perfect sense as the Hall was co-founded by Rolling Stone creator Jann Wenner, and features several contributors to the magazine on its nomination committee and in its voting pool. More problematic is that there is no hard metric to help decide an artist’s merit for induction. Unlike with sports hall of fames, artists are not measured by figures or performance statistics in order to ascertain their worthiness to join the Rock Hall. The only hard criterion is that an artist is only eligible for induction 25 years after they have released their first recording. Aside from this one rule, the 30-member nomination committee weighs concepts like influence and longevity in choosing artists for the ballot in lieu of more concrete measurements like record sales or number of awards won. Additionally, members of the nomination committee can easily exert their own personal prejudices, leading to the active lobbying of induction for some artists and the active dismissal of others held in low critical regard, regardless of that artist’s impact or influence. These factors combined explain why Percy Sledge, Miles Davis, and Madonna are in the Hall, and why Deep Purple, Genesis, and the Cure aren’t.


The Rock Hall of Fame has made some strides in addressing common criticisms of its induction process. For starters, the number of artists on the nomination ballot has been increased from nine to 12 artists this year. Additionally, the Hall’s Chief Curator Jim Henke has explained that the nominating committee has created three subcommittees to suggest nominations in particular genres (“one on progressive rock and heavy metal, one on hip-hop and one on early rock and rollers and rhythm & blues”), which inspires confidence that the Hall is aiming to reach outside the baby boomer music canon. Those considerations have resulted in a pretty intriguing ballot; while there are still head-scratchers (really, Laura Nyro?), there are a fair number of artists who definitely have earned their places in the history of modern music. Let’s take a look at a few of them.


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