Pitchfork: The Taste Maker

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.

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.





"Without Us? There's No Music": An Interview With Raul Midón

Raul Midón discusses the fate of the art in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists," he says.


The Fall Go Transatlantic with 'Reformation! Post-TLC'

The Fall's Reformation! Post-TLC, originally released in 2007, teams Mark E. Smith with an almost all-American band, who he subsequently fired after a few months, leaving just one record and a few questions behind.


Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.


The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.


'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.


2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.


'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.


Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.


Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.


Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.


Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.