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.
While Pitchfork‘s influence has been well documented, this year’s selections look less like a list and more like a test where most kids in the lecture hall copied off the smartest kid in class. How else would you explain the inclusion of three relatively obscure albums (the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, the XX’s xx, and Girls’ Album all have sales well below 100,000) that were routinely touted in Pitchfork‘s website throughout the year?
True, album sales and artistic merit aren’t usually proportionally related, but it’s worth noting that in the age of media consolidation the only way bands like Girls and the Dirty Projectors can reach a wide audience is through music review websites. And last decade showed that critics were starting to pay more attention to these sites than longtime print media standards like Rolling Stone and Spin. This year, two five-star albums from Rolling Stone (U2’s No Line on the Horizon and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream) placed a distant 32nd and 57th respectively on the Pazz and Jop list. Of course, Rolling Stone can share some blame in this, as the magazine has been notoriously more lenient in determining what merits a five-star album (if you’re Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, chances are all you have to do is release an album to get this mark). It’s amazing to think that in 1992, the magazine awarded R.E.M.‘s Automatic for the People the first five-star review of a newly-released album in years.
The shift from big media standards like Rolling Stone to indie-centric websites like Pitchfork is certainly not a bad thing. But when one website can shape the tastes of hundreds of critics, you’re bound to run into some problems. I keep thinking of a pivotal scene in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X when a police official muttered “No man should have that kind of power” as Malcolm X dismissed dozens of marchers with a simple hand gesture.
At its best, Pitchfork has introduced listeners to the Dirty Projectors, the Arcade Fire, and Animal Collective, bands that very well may not have otherwise found a large audience. At its worst, Pitchfork can create a snowball effect, in that many critics may tend to withhold their judgment on an album until Pitchfork weighs in. Seriously, would the Flaming Lips’ freakish Embryonic have placed so high in the Pazz and Jop list if Pitchfork gave the album a 5.4 kiss of death?
Pitchfork has a plethora of detractors. Much of the criticism is sour grapes. But some criticism is warranted. After all, it’s hard to put your entire trust in a website that will almost certainly guarantee a band or artist like the Eels, Lucinda Williams, or Pearl Jam will never see the light of an 8.0 or higher review score for a new album, even if they release their own In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. But after reading this year’s cumulative list of hundreds of critics, it looks like a good number of critics are indeed waiting for Pitchfork‘s blessing before making their own decision.