Flip It Over: An Ode to the B-Side

We determine what song is worthy of the "A" or "B" side -- not the music industry. On Will Stockton and D. Gilson's 33 1/3 B-Sides.

The 33 1/3 B-Sides
Will Stockton and D. Gilson, eds.
September 2019

As a musical concept, the B-Side is fascinating. The implication that one side of a record contains songs of lesser quality affects our listening experiences. How do we listen to a B-Side, knowing it’s marked as a second place finisher? Though the B-Side is more conceptual in a Spotify-streaming world, when it comes to the subject its a natural fit for Bloomsbury’s popular, pocket-sized 33 1/3 series to tackle.

In a collection of new essays from previous 33 1/3 authors, The 33 1/3 B-Sides excavates, explores, and ultimately argues for B-Sides to be taken as seriously as their A-Side counterparts. Why? It’s we the listeners who get to determine what’s worthy of being labeled as Side A and Side B — not the music industry.

A broad essay collection like this needs some parameters. Editors Will Stockton and D. Gilson offer a start in the sub-title: Beloved and Underrated Albums. However, that could be any record viewed through any context. Smartly, Stockton and Gilson break the collections down further into neater parts of three: Part One, Juvenilia; Part Two, Marginalia; and Part Three, Memorabilia.

Of the three categories, the first two, Juvenilia and Marginalia, present as self-explanatory. Juvenilia encompasses records or albums that affected or had an effect on our juvenile selves –“juvenile” loosely defined as a time when our minds and bodies are still malleable and subject to the pressure of our microcosms — especially our listening habits. Marginalia, the lengthiest of the three sections and the most academic, scours the bargain bins for the overlooked and marginalized records of popular music.

But it’s the final section, Memorabilia, that dives into fascinating territory of music as vessel for memories. Gilson notes in his introduction, “the chapters we gather under ‘memorabilia’ privilege the album’s status as an accompaniment or memento…although often contentious here with ‘marginalia’ the emphasis in these chapters…resides in memory itself.” What better way to experience memorabilia than with a direct line to a writer’s memory?

When done well, essays that “privilege the album’s status as an accompaniment or memento” bring about a kind of transfiguration. What was once an object—a piece of plastic with sound waves dug into it—becomes an experience. That’s why the final section holds the most potency.

Essays within Juvenilia are succinct and offer a genuine affection for their source material—material that includes Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, Del Amitri’s Waking Hours, and (one of my favorites) R.E.M.’s Chronic Town—but the essays are limited in scope. A few selections burn bright amongst the pack; Tara Murtha makes an impassioned case for Sinead O’Connor’s career at the time of her 1990 record, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. In a pre-#MeToo era, O’Connor’s trials are eerily adjacent to our current political clime.

Sean L. Maloney’s ode to Billy Idol’s 1993 album Cyberpunk (complete with 3.5 inch floppy disk!) deserves wider attention for its sheer insanity. Sean Taylor’s examination of De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead hits with direct perspective from the opening sentence: “Lived blackness can be exhausting.” Taylor’s specifics on “lived blackness” as they pertain to De La Soul is an optimistic and haunting reflection of suburban American blackness channeled through the album’s tense yet loose songs.

Arranged chronologically, the essays in Marginalia read like a list of rejected 33 1/3 book proposals. But that’s part of the fun when traversing the realm of B-Sides. Albums like The Dells’ There Is (1968), Guy’s Guy (1988), Rodan’s Rusty (1994), Boris’ Pink (2006), and Daniel Lopatin’s Chuck Person’s Ecojams Vol. 1 (2010), won’t soon rise above their prized, personal status as margin-walkers of mainstream of music, nor should they. These essays are labors of love, a chance for these authors to shine some light on overlooked, unloved albums that deserve, at the very least, a short nod of approval but not a book-length exploration.

Marginalia, with its focus on outsider art, is easily approved for skipping around. Some of these essays will appeal to the reader while others will simply exist as nuanced writings that show the breadth of the authors’ musical tastes.

Of the entire collection, don’t skip the third installment, Memorabilia, and don’t flip past the editors’ worthy introductions recounting their experiences with music as memorabilia. Music is at its most powerful when it drills a line directly into one’s psyche and burrows into the tunnels of nostalgia. Memorabilia—from Andrew Schartmann’s dig into Hirokazu Tanaka’s Metroid soundtrack to Hayden Childs’ recollection of Silver Jews’ Bright Flight (given extra weight, considering songwriter David Berman’s recent death)—is full of bright and passionate essays built on the links between memory and music. The personal is the most attractive of these writings and the more an author can split her soul open and sort its contents, the more likely it resonates.

Will Stockton’s introduction concerning Prince’s Emancipation (1996) and D. Gilson’s memorial on Christina Aguilera’s Mi Reflejo (2000), are substantive and set the tone for the collection by diving into all three categories: juvenilia, marginalia, and memorabilia. Stockton lays out his fascination and attraction to Prince and his inability to prune his recorded output, while Gilson takes a completely unremarkable Christina Aguilera LP and inverts the album’s flaws to identify with his own.

Along the way both editors (the two co-wrote the 33 1/3 book DC Talk’s Jesus Freak together) uncover what it means to have a deep personal connection to an artist even without understanding what makes them tick. Together, Stockton and Gilson’s observations make their musical authority believable and also incredibly relatable. The two introductory pieces fit together like two sides of the same coin and linger before the book begins in earnest.

There’s plenty inside The 33 1/3 B-Sides to keep readers glued to the meanings behind popular music and if you enjoy the 33 1/3 series, this book is the perfect complement to read from time-to-time between music texts. Your new favorite record might be waiting in the margins of any of these essays.

RATING 7 / 10