Top Belatedlys.

January 19, 2009

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Belatedly, I’m thinking about Top 10 Albums of 20__ lists. I think they’re bunk. I don’t listen to albums, really–I listen to songs. In the past, when asked to come up with a top 10 album list, I’ll ask if I can just do songs, and when told no, I politely decline. When I discover an extraordinary new voice, I’ll listen to a whole album once, maybe twice, and then I’ll start culling out the songs I really love. I did this to Bon Iver’s record–now I just listen to “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks”–fantastic songs. In the iPod age, does anyone actually listen to full albums as their music mainstay?
So the top album list thing is really just a shorthand. The top albums are the albums that had the most songs you happened to dig on them–for me, an average is two, and a fantastically great ‘album’ will have four or five.
A few years ago, N.E.R.D.’s first record was on everybody’s top 10. My old manager Jim kept grumbling, “But noone’s actually listened to that album!” I think he was right (and I think, barring “Lap Dance” it was not so hot in the first place). People put it in the top 10, I believe, to honor the amazing productions that Pharrell and his co-Neptune (name escapes me) did that year–blast after blast of amazing tracks. But there’s no framework to genuinely honor that achievement.
Roni Size’s Reprazent won the Mercury Music Prize in the UK one year in the 90s (again, refusing to do research here)–a really big deal. The press spun it as an artistic breakthrough for jungle/drum and bass dance music–perhaps to ‘real’ music, ie, album-making, not just single-dance-track making. In fact, they were giving the award to drum and bass music in general, which was burning up England at the time.
Robert Christgau put “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle” (from my last album, Golden Delicious) on his list of top 10 singles for 2008. Actually, technically, it wasn’t a single (ie, released to radio, video made for MTV and VH1, etc). It was just one track on an album. But the chart isn’t top tracks. Which I think it should be.
(PS–thanks, Bob)
The notion of ‘Rockism’ infuriates me, because I hate the application of snooty academic language by rock critics seems dreadfully wrong-headed to me. Let me apply the term nonetheless. Rockism means things like: the primacy of a performer who can ‘pull it off live,’ who writes his own material, who creates albums with depth and breadth, rather than flimsy hit singles. Hence the top 10 album list, despite the fact that the rules of Rockism don’t work anymore.
Rockism is messing us up, and not just artistically and critically. The music business is built around albums–publishing contracts (that means for songwriting) are for ten-song albums, you get paid less if you put out shorter EPs or singles or something. I put out the Panderers’ Hotshot’s Boy this year, as a five-song digital EP (iTunes and etc)–I put out the five tracks I liked the best, and figured that this was the direction our musical age was headed, and also that, ironically, one is more likely to listen, in one sitting (or commute to work), to a 20 minute, five song batch than a 60 minute, 14 song batch. Instead, I found that, after the song “Come On” got on a SONY Commercial, and played on KCRW in Los Angeles and some other radio stations, stores weren’t interested in carrying it–because it was just an EP. “Got a full album?” they asked.
I subscribe to the theory that the lack of singles in the 90s is one of the things that’s sinking the music business right now. Back then, they’d make you buy a $15 CD for one song–almost invariably, the one you saw on MTV was the only good song on there. The cost of manufacturing CDs is ridiculously cheap. They were making big dirty money by marking up the CD to high heaven. So, when the music business weeps about how it’s tanking, how everybody is stealing from them, I’m not inclined to sympathize.
(Though, in fact, were it 1999, and I had my current solo career, I’d probably be a lot richer)
Had the industry (I hate calling it ‘the industry’, people call it that just so they feel like they’ve got a real job) switched over to $0.99 singles before iTunes forced them to, they might still be healthy.