Great meals fade in reflection. Everything else gains.
— Richard Roma in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross
We critics, we can’t help ourselves.
Rewind the clocks back to five years ago. In August 2009, Pitchfork began rolling out its Best of the ’00’s feature, despite the fact that 2009 hadn’t even finished yet. The publication’s thorough and extensive coverage spans 500 songs, 200 albums, and numerous feature essays. Reading it now, it definitely still carries with it the gravitas of trying to make a Very Big Statement about a decade; yet, when you look at the date of publication, it’s hard not to suspect that, so to speak, the gun had been jumped.
However, Pitchfork wasn’t the only publication at that time whose writers were painstakingly making those oh-so-close marginal decisions about which albums summed up the decade the best. Paste would follow with its list not but two months later, right at the start of November. The A.V. Club made its call just a few weeks after Paste. Stereogum published its picks a month after that. Both Stylus and Slant published their lists either right at the end of 2009 or just after its conclusion.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, even the notion of coming up with a reasonably confident list at the end of a single year usually feels haphazard, particularly since writers are usually required to turn in their picks months before the year is out. Looking back on my 2012 list, for example, I can already tell what albums I missed that year, as well as the albums that I probably wouldn’t rank in my top ten of that year at this time. Of course, this isn’t to say that waiting a certain amount of time will always produce a more accurate result; probably the easiest example that demonstrates this point is Kid A, which nearly ten years after its release still received the same amount of effusive praise from its critics. (For proof of this, merely read any blurb written about the record; or, for a somewhat more hyperbolic interpretation, read Chuck Klosterman’s famous “Kid A foreshadowed 9/11” analysis.)
So while a critic’s stance on certain albums may change given the benefit of a few years’ hindsight, it is reasonable to say that certain albums do have the staying power that their early hype suggests. Sure, we can all laugh about Kid A’s comically effusive praise in the year 2000 (and the subsequent restaurant menus it inspired), but the majority of people still felt the same way come the final months of 2009. While I don’t enjoy that record to the extent that most critics do, I nonetheless respect those critics who genuinely gave Kid A time to simmer in beyond the year it was released. Like it or not, some records are just that good.
Nevertheless, there is a benefit to reserving judgment for some amount of time. This can even be seen in the aforementioned Best of the ’00s lists, the ones that were published before the decade rang its final bells. In the top 20 of Pitchfork’s list, the years with the most albums represented are 2000, 2001, and 2002—the years whose albums had the most time to sink in. 2009 is only represented by one record (Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion), and 2008 isn’t even represented at all. I’m willing to bet that many writers from that publication, years later, might have grown to appreciate LPs from the later stretch of the decade enough to consider them worthy of the highest spots on that list.
That valuation is difficult to make, however, when writers have to deal with an asymmetry in the experience of the music; how can one hope to weigh an album she has just heard against one that she has come to know and love over the course of many years? Even though the numerous publications that included Merriweather Post Pavilion on their Best of the ’00s lists clearly love that record, did it ever really stand a fair chance against Kid A and Stankonia, which had almost ten years to their names? This is where the relevant disanalogy between an end-of-the-year list and an end-of-the-decade list becomes apparent: while a critic’s experience with different LPs within a year may only be separated by weeks or months, in the span of a decade a critic is always going to have had more time to dive into music from the early stretch of the decade. (This isn’t to say that there is no benefit to waiting to write an end-of-the-year list, but rather that the context of a critic’s experience with a record are far less disparate than that of a decade.)
But perhaps the most valuable reason for why waiting before crafting these decade retrospectives is because us writers haven’t really escaped or even fully understood the context from which the records we write about have sprung. Since at the time of a release of an album we’re still enmeshed in the moment of it all, we often can’t see the forest for the trees. Critics can attempt to build narratives in the short term, but such narratives often don’t withstand scrutiny in the long run. For example, anyone writing about the resurgence of DIY in recent years now has to face the problem of the co-opting of DIY culture by major media and corporate interests. “DIY” has now become a vague catch-all term used to describe any number of dissimilar indie bands, a fact which challenges the very notion of a purely DIY ethos.
With respect to the ’00’s, at any given point critics felt compelled to write narratives that later became undone, which can be illustrated by a telling example. Anyone excited about the “rock revival” in the early part of the decade, where most bands had names along the lines of “The ____s”, had to face the music when, not even halfway through the decade, many groups associated with that style began falling off the radar fast. Those who have managed to keep going on in spite of rock revival’s unceremonious decline, such as the Strokes, have yet to receive critical appreciation that they did during their rock revival years. (In the Strokes’ case, Is This It? remains, for most, an unassailable benchmark.)
Moreover, beyond questions of genre and critical preference there are material concerns about the production and distribution of music that changed not only critical narratives built in the ’00s, but also those from decades prior. While the grunge scene in early ’90s sang the praises of bands jamming it out in their garages and releasing roughly recorded demos, the truest realization of that ethos would come in the ‘00s, with the advent and subsequent proliferation of key technologies such as affordable, high quality home recording equipment and online interfaces for the easy distribution of music such as Bandcamp and Myspace.
Of course, history is a slippery creature; there continues to be heated debate about political figures that have hundreds, if not thousands of years to their name. For every one major figure, there are seemingly innumerable opinions. For that reason, my claim in making these remarks is not to say that there will arise a more sensible universal consensus were all of us internet writers to wait in publishing our end-of-the-decade features—far from it. The music writing world would be a very boring place indeed were all publications but mirrors of each other. Moreover, in spite of not waiting for the decade to finish before publishing their lists, Pitchfork, Slant, Paste, Stereogum, and many others came to largely similar decisions. Throw a dart at any of those lists and you’re likely to hit Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Is This It?.
Indeed, in the list voted on by PopMatters’ global staff, you will find those same picks as well. Though many publications might have called it a bit early, that doesn’t mean they called it wrong. Many of our writers feel as passionately about Kid A as the next publication’s writers. Yet as the ballots started to come in, I noticed something: the waiting did pay off. For every pick I expected to see, I saw several more that I never would have expected to show up in a recounting of the ’00s. Looking back on my own picks, I’m glad I waited four years before fully formulating my list; while I’m not embarrassed by the albums I thought were the best as the decade ended, I do think the claims I once made about them were largely overstated. An associated benefit with hindsight is the ability to explore those areas that one hadn’t previously taken the time to look into. In the ‘00s, I was still enamored with minimalism in the contemporary classical world, and as a result I was completely blindsided by the exciting developments in the “indie classical” and the avant-garde classical world. I still think highly of Philip Glass and John Adams, but in listening to people like Sarah Kirkland Snider and Travis Laplante, my horizons of how I understand classical music as a whole are expanded.
Over the course of the next three weeks, you’ll see a lot of writing on PopMatters about the ‘00s. We’re beginning this series with a collections of essays at our staff; these include broad analyses of trends in genres (Will Layman’s “Jazz of the ‘00s: Jumping the Great Divide”), changes in the kind of musicians dominating the airwaves (Jon Lisi’s “How Women Dominated Pop Music in the ’00s”), and personal reflections on albums that meant a lot to individual writers (Scott Elingburg’s “Lit Up: The National’s Alligator and the Hope of Indie Rock”). Then we will begin running our picks for the Top 100 Albums of the ’00s, with 20 picks being posted daily.
The quotation from Glengarry Glen Ross at the top of this essay is one of the finest I know on the subject of reflection. In the case of looking back on a decade’s music, however, Mamet’s words require some amending. A great album can grow or fade in reflection, depending on its greatness. Most importantly of all, though, is that with time for reflection comes access to a whole lot of gains: unearthing an underappreciated record to diving deep into an unfamiliar scene, time gives the music writer a chance to discover things previously left to the periphery or, in many cases, blind spots. Brice Ezell