do we really need another pitchfork retrospective?
  • WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 01, 2010

  • Posted by:

Why does one of the driving forces of forward-thinking music criticism insist on frequently dwelling in the past? The self-proclaimed source for rising music often finds itself knee-deep in decades long past, categorizing and ordering songs according to the whims of the editors. But why? And should we be paying attention? Let's take a moment to talk about it now, so I don't have to talk about it anymore.

First, a gut reaction: "The 'Fork loves to force their overlord editorial on other perfectly fine decades, stiffing our desire for innovation by trying to further categorize the things we already know and love" (is one way of putting it). But this view (which many hold, unreasonably) does not take into account the work or the reasoning behind their efforts, or the other negative effects of taking opinion things too seriously.

The "Staff Lists" are painstakingly compiled as some sort of end-all opinion of something painfully subjective... like trying to rank all the food in the known world with no wiggle room for dietary restrictions or personal preference. It's impossible, and yet they seem to think they can do it for every decade (as far back as the 60s). The amount of music in the world is too large to ever neatly package into 200 universal slots labeled "the best" of any given time period.

Then you say, but "everyone does this kind of stuff, because they need content, and it's August or Christmas" ( that doesn't make it necessary). Or: hindsight is 20/20, and the retrospective can help us remember what should be remembered. Can't we see more clearly, ten, twenty years from now how a decade such as the 2000s affected our lives? Surely 2030 will know better than we the staying power of Arcade Fire's early work.

But Pitchfork already did the best songs of the 2000s, right after the fact (year by year!), and are now closing the gap in their lists by filling in the 90s (rounding out at least one list for every decade leading up until today). The music video list (for the 90s, recently posted) was novel, but the song list seems more ludicrous and less relevant than ever. As one Twitter user put it "another countdown to Radiohead at number one". That's not necessarily true, but Pitchfork has been known to play favorites, which tends to be a crippling blow to objective reporting. And this isn't Rolling Stone, people are probably going to live and die by this list, just as they do the dreaded Pitchfork 10-point rating scale.

I think we should take a closer look at the process; how are these lists generated? Do the Pitchfork staffers all write down one hundred songs they liked from the 90s and tally the votes from a hat? Or do they sit in a room with a bunch of records, start by picking number one and work their way down until all can agree (or close to it)? The latter method could take another decade just to finish.

From experience, making a list with four people's opinions is hard enough... how many staff writers get to weigh in on this list? Pitchfork is smart enough to know that user polls are often full of baloney, they rarely swear by them. But Pitchfork never seems self-aware enough to know that their smarmy minimalist take on entire decades of hits (and misses) often slight people, or ignore small sub-genres. I'm not trying to say they are right or wrong... I'm just trying to say it's next to impossible to be impartial in this kind of assessment.

Which is fine, but too many people take Pitchfork as a pulpit. One day I'd like the world to see the site's definition of "music" and how it relates to the wide world of Western music. I don't mind it being biased, but unlike newspapers, many people take Pitchfork's opinions as the opinions of a larger body of people... sometimes misrepresented as "everyone", or just, "everything that matters". It's the same thing as reading the New York Post and taking all the opinion verbatim... you'd be surprised how many people don't understand what a slant is. Sometimes I wonder if it's a coincidence that a stereotypical mindless mob of angry people trying to accomplish/destroy something are often depicted carrying Pitchforks.

So, the ultimate answer for me is no (we don't need any of them really, lists from anyone, ever), but they provide us with something to talk (and argue) about, and it certainly distracts the average worker long enough to derive some enjoyment. Take the list with a grain of salt (or, if you're like me, a box of Morton's). It is not absolute, it is the opinion of a very specific peoples. You shouldn't be preaching it unless you truly agree with all 200 slots. And if you have an opinionated bone in your body, chances are, you won't. -joe puglisi

Joe Puglisi freely admits he has made lists for this website, and hopes you disagree with all of them. Tell your friends though.

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