As a cultural form, the role of music in people’s lives is undeniably important. Regardless of individual tastes for genres and styles, it is a rare person who does not have some personal and deep-seated love for some form of music. And like the individuals who listen to and absorb music’s forms, there is an incredible array of types of music, with broad categories giving way to sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. In spite of this, many publications treat music as something easy to qualify, a form that can be quickly summed up in subjective likes and dislikes and graded accordingly.
For five years now, PopMatters has endeavored to expand the critical perspective on music. Taking full advantage of the Internet as a medium, PopMatters treats artist features, album reviews, and interviews as equally deserving of in-depth analysis. PopMatters music reviews help place albums and artists in context, analyze their features, and attempt to expound on music’s continuing relevance. As a tool for aiding music consumers in making their choices, PopMatters music reviews seek to give more than a summary opinion; they offer insight into what a release is (or isn’t), and this treatment is extended to those acts enjoying critical buzz and those that aren’t. As Associate Music Editor Justin Cober-Lake puts it, “Covering over 150 albums a month, we get it all, and we don’t limit ourselves to any genre. It’s not just our quantity that sets us apart; our reviewers write with style and intelligence and bring an incredible array of backgrounds and perspectives. Since we run long reviews, our writers have the opportunity to engage their albums in a deeper way. With breadth, depth, and smarts, our music coverage is as good as it gets.”
When it comes to features, the PopMatters music section offers more than fluff pieces and commercially motivated write-ups. Instead, we offer hard-hitting, critical insight into meaning and cultural relevance. Our writers use their diverse backgrounds to bring music’s various voices into the light for detailed examination. PopMatters pieces invite readers to think about music and the artists they love, as well as learn about those they’ve yet to hear about. When we cut loose and do fun pieces like lists, we do so while maintaining our commitment to style and substance.
With dozens of unique and talented voices offering their takes, we’ve published an incredible number of quality reviews and headline articles in the last five years. The following picks offer a look back, but they’re also meant to keep you excited about what’s ahead as we continue to bring you the best in music analysis.
Patrick Schabe, PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
PopMatters Editors’ Picks
100 from 1977 - 2003: The Best Songs Since Johnny Rotten Roared
Feature by PopMatters Music Critics
Starting this list off in a big way, this fun feature proved that PopMatters can do the list thing. Our variety of writers helps keep our perspective broad, providing a fine compilation of song preferences from a slice of music history by PopMattters’ entire music crew.
Best Music of 2002
Feature by Sarah Zupko and PopMatters Music Critics
The annual rite of passage for music critics, year-end collections offer members of the music staff a grueling but rewarding chance to strut their stuff. The 2002 collection of “Best of” particularly illustrates a broad understanding of music and music history, told in tight, snappy phrasing.
...And Bless the Mic for the Gods: Rakim Allah
Feature by Mark Anthony Neal
An excellent historical and theoretical overview of Allah’s work. Neal examines individual works, but also fits Allah into the past and current hip-hop scenes. This is both a good introduction to the artist as well as a good analysis for long-time fans
The Clash — London Calling
Review by Adrien Begrand
Not only one of the best albums of all time, London Calling is also one of the most written-about albums of all time. Yet Begrand finds a way of making it as fascinating as ever in this review, foregoing all that has been previously established to renew the case for the album’s place in history on the eve of its silver anniversary through a combination of knowledge, insight, and well-crafted writing.
Missy Elliot This is Not a Test
Review by Terry Sawyer
Sawyer’s investigation here is a favorite example of affection and objectivity in reviewing works by favorite artists. Plus, his phrasing’s killer.
Miles Davis: the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
Feature by Marshall Bowden
This article examines how so many different historic trends found expression in the music of one very well known jazz musician. It examines the political and historic ramifications of Miles’ music, which came at a fascinating crossroads of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the rising popularity of rock (to the detriment of jazz’s popularity), and found a unique avatar in the figure of Jack Johnson. This review is a truly fascinating study of a great work of art.
Dani Siciliano Likes…
Review by Matt Cibula
This is a stellar example of good music reviewing for PopMatters. Cibula has a smart take on the album and contextualizes it. His personality is in the piece, but only to add flavor. The article is well structured and well written.
Sunday Singing: The Black Gospel Quartet
Feature by Mark Anthony Neal
Launched from a personal memory of broad ramifications, this piece is a fine example of writing that tells readers about a period of cultural and musical history and its reaches into contemporary sound.
Jolie Holland Escondida
Review by Zeth Lundy
One of the most difficult aspects of describing music is translating the auditory experience into words. When a PopMatters CD review really hits home, it often invokes a language of imagery brought up by the music, allowing the reader to experience it viscerally, and Lundy’s review here is a fine example of this type of writing.
How Hip-hop Music is Slowly Transcending its Circular Culture
Feature by Stefan Braidwood
One of the best things about PopMatters is that it treats sometimes-overlooked subjects with the respect that they deserve but seldom get. While wildly popular, hip-hop culture rarely gets the kind of intellectual yet affectionate criticism that Braidwood provides here. This is an in-depth look at the history of a genre and an intelligent speculation of where it’s heading.
Joe Strummer 1952-2002
Feature by Various PopMatters Music Critics
Occasionally, PopMatters has the sad task of eulogizing cultural icons when they’ve passed away. This special tribute to Joe Strummer was so well received that people from the music industry sat up and took notice. What other publication has covered Strummer’s work so well? None!
Jill Scott Who Is Jill Scott?
Review by Colin Ross
Ross’s review of Scott’s disc is a shining example of PopMatters at the intersection of analytic and reader-friendly. He manages to unpack much of the album’s meaning-rich layers in clear, concise language, making the album all the more compelling for the nuanced writing.
Working the Borders: The Tijuana and Monterrey Scenes
Feature by Matt Cibula
One of the aspects of music that PopMatters continually tries to highlight is context. Here, Cibula provides a thorough, expressive study in region and cultural expression in music.
Illogic Celestial Clockwork
Review by Dominic Umile
A publication of diverse writing styles, PopMatters writers run the gamut from introspective and personal, to conversational, to meticulously crafted. Umile’s piece reflects the latter side of PopMatters. Lyrical yet fluid, it’s among the many, many examples that show our writers do more than “just review”, they write.
Banned in the USA?
Feature by Patrick Schabe
This piece questions how music works in the greater society as an expression of emotion and historical moment. The US touts “democracy in action” and “free speech”. Looking at music banned post 9/11, Schabe thinks otherwise.
TV on the Radio Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes
Review by Justin Cober-Lake
All too often, a reviewer is forced to voice disappointment. While PopMatters has featured its fair share of delightful, viciously clever scathing reviews, it’s even more of an accomplishment when a writer manages to express an album’s lacking features while remaining objective and analytical. Cober-Lake’s piece is one such example.
Shadow of a Gunman: Brit-Punk and Northern Irish Terrorism
Feature by Michael Stephens
Among PopMatters’ earliest feature sections was a celebration of punk rock’s silver jubilee, dissecting the environment that led to 1977’s musical revolution. In this piece from that series, Stephens argues that real revolution is forged through the blast of a guitar, not the blast of a gun.
Aesthetic Anesthetic: Liberating the Punk Canon
Feature by Mark Desrosiers
Another piece from the Silver Jubilee feature, this essay offers an example of PopMatters at its most self-reflexive: aware of the often strange juncture of music and writing about music. The punk revolution is tyrannized by academia, Desrosiers writes, and he provides a look at how music history is written and what is lost in the process.