Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: The Pitchfork 500

The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide To The Greatest Songs From Punk To Present
Edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber
Rating: Flip through its pages at a Borders while waiting for the magazine section to clear out so you can look at a Hustler.

If indie rock were a sport, Pitchfork Media would be ESPN. Both are the heavy-hitters of their respective craft and the competition is not even close. And you may curse both of them for playing favorites, pretend they can be ignored and not relied on, but deep down you’re happy that they’re in your life. You can’t be a sports fan and turn a blind eye to ESPN, and you sure as hell can’t be an indie-rock aficionado and have no idea what an 8.3 means.

All that being said, the world-wide leader of indie has recently released The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide To The Greatest Songs From Punk To The Present. From David Bowie to Panda Bear, Pitchfork writers team up to tell the tale of the last 31 years of music via the songs they finds important. Notice it’s not “the guide” or “a guide,” but rather it’s their guide. And in the world of indie rock, their endorsement means more than anything. I started reading Pitchfork every morning some years ago and it didn’t take me long to figure out where the battle lines were drawn, and discover who was cool (Stephen Malkmus, Britt Daniel), and who wasn’t (Billy Corgan, Ryan Adams). So when I sat down to read this book, I wasn’t expecting many surprises. But with the dawn of the fresh and fantastic Pitchfork TV, I was still openly optimistic that it would be an enlightening read.

My initial instincts were correct.

The most stimulating and informative part of the book is located within the short introduction written by Pitchfork founder and president, Ryan Schreiber. It’s amazing to think that Pitchfork has been around since 1995. You really have to give Schreiber credit. He created an influential and trailblazing website that focused on independent music that was either being ignored or undiscovered by the mainstream press. And like so many of the independent rock bands he admired, he did it with the same do-it-yourself ethics. A 19-year-old with no college education or writing background created what would become a behemoth of a music publication. That, my friends, is punk. When the site was in its infancy, he probably never imagined he would ever be in a position to release a book of his favorite songs and that just having his brand plastered onto the cover meant instant credibility in some circles.

Starting off with the burgeoning punk scene of the late ‘70s, The Pitchfork 500 meanders all the way until yesterday, leaving not a single relevant genre untouched. The book attempts to do a pretty good job of covering songs that the average music fan probably doesn’t have in their regular iTunes playlist (“The Greatest Gift” by Scratch Acid), while still paying lip service to deserved songs, no matter how many times they went platinum (“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson).

As mentioned, the book attempts to do a good job of inclusion, but when you’re talking lists, someone is going to be left out. This list is no different. It’s also true whenever you’re dealing with a large glorified list, what’s omitted is always more conspicuous than what’s included. So to that end, I was a bit put off that not a single Pearl Jam song was included, especially when you consider that other deserving alternative major-label acts like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Beastie Boys were represented. And I have never even been that big of a Pearl Jam fan. But to try and tell the story of rock and roll the last 31 years through song, while paying heavy attention to the ‘90s and not have a single smash hit from Ten is at its best elitist, and at its worst just downright inaccurate and dishonest. (I would also rant about the Jane’s Addiction snub but that would add 1,500 words to this column.)

I read Pitchfork’s daily album reviews knowing the first couple of paragraphs will comprise of the reviewer masturbating all over the computer screen with word-play. That’s fine because I know in a 1,000 word review the writer’s point-of-view will eventually show its face. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when you’re talking about a 100-word entry about a singular song. In most instances, the writer does the normal Pitchfork song and dance, and before you figure out what you’re reading, they skip along to the next song.

Take this entry of the Walkmen’s “The Rat,” written by Brian Howe:

New York City’s the Walkmen have an ear for grandeur. Their glacially jutting arrangements and the scenery chewing of singer Hamilton Leithauser make them sound like an uptown version of U2, with prep-school smarm subbing for ecopolitical earnestness and Brooks Brothers peacoats for wraparound shades.

Huh? “The Rat” might be one of the best rock songs written in the last ten years. And that’s how you let those who may not know in on the secret? Prep-school smarm subbing for ecolpolitical earnestness? You serious? To be fair, I am cherry-picking, but those are the opening two sentences, and what follows isn’t much better. And even if it was, I am fairly certain the reader would lose interest before they even have time to hang up their stupid peacoat.

That’s a problem, and here’s why. Of the 500 songs, I’m guessing I own 35-40% (I didn’t feel like counting.) Some predate me and some I just missed. But after reading the book, I don’t have a huge desire to go on a search and destroy mission to locate “Dirty Talk” by Klein + MBO. I just don’t. And I have no doubt it’s a great song. But if it finds me, it won’t be because of this book. After I read Our Band Could Be Your Life, I wanted to listen to Big Black over and over. After reading The Pitchfork 500, all I wanted to do was set a thesaurus on fire.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few bright spots. Brent DiCrescenzo’s entry on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” had me at “Dum. Dum dum—bam! Dum. Dum dum—bam!” But then it veers off course as he unnecessarily compares the band and Poison as opposite ends of the spectrum in the mid-80s. Oh, well. Whatever. Nevermind.

It’s by no means a horrible book, but it’s not a must-read either. I’ll also give the book credit for its immediate release in paperback. It’s good to know if you choose to buy The Pitchfork 500, you won’t have to spend $40 on a book whose inevitable final destination will be in your bathroom resting on top of the Onion book and Jon Stewart’s America.

And for all my grievances, I am still happy Pitchfork is in my life. A contingency of songs on my iPod are probably there because of that site. Pitchfork at its core is an asset and positive force to the ever-evolving music scene. As Schreiber writes in the introduction, the 500 essential songs of the next thirty years are already being written. I just hope the next book isn't.



Matt said...

If Pitchfork is the FoxNews of indie rock webzines then Alex, you make NQL the MSNBC of such genre. Way to keep them in check! Glad to know the writers at Pitchfork can sit around and objectively summarize songs that they placed in their top 500. Where songs 400-500 just songs that the the PFM writers could tolerate?

Brian said...

Look at Alex, flipping paradigms: "if ('Dirty Talk') finds me." The seeker becomes the sought commodity.

Alex said...

You aren't comparing me to Keith Olbermann are you?

Brian said...

Matt, I have to say, and I agree with Alex, that this is their list. Their name is in the title; their logo is on the cover. I don't think they ever made any bones about this book being anything other than 100% subjective.

However, I also agree with Alex that omitting a humongously impactful band like Pearl Jam is pretty glaring. It makes me wonder what their rubric for picking songs was. From 1976 to now, how many millions of songs have been released, how many of them have the Pfork editors heard and internalized, and how much do their knowledge bases overlap?

Alex said...

Scrolling through my iPod, I think my initial claim of 35-40% ownership is too high. 20-25% would probabably be more accurate. (Everything else I wrote is spot-on and not subject to debate.)

Jim P. said...

Which PJ song would fit in their list?

Alex said...

I can't think of any deserving single past Ten. But I think "Alive," "Even Flow," or "Jeremy" all could have made the cut. Not all, but at least one. If there's room for Green Day's "Longview" (which I'm fine with), then there is room for "Jeremy."

Btw, Ten isn't even my favorite PJ album (Vs. probably is). But if you're looking for a PJ single that signifies a musical era, it should be from that album.

Matt said...

Did any songs shock you that made the list?

Alex said...

Here are a few that surprised me. Not that they don't belong, but I just wasn't expecting them:
Modest Mouse "Broke"
Wilco "Via Chicago"
Pulp "This is Hardcore"
The New Pornographers "Letter from an Occupant"
Jay-Z "Takeover" (how about "99 Problems"?)
Pixies "Wave of Mutilation"
Flaming Lips "Waiting for Superman" (how about "Race for the Prize"?)

Overall, it's a pretty good list. Lots of great songs. Caught myself saying "Yes!" to myself a few times. Seeing "Car" by Built to Spill comes to mind here. It's just bad presentation. Although I don't think it was supposed to be Pulitzer winning.

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