Best Music Writing 2007
Robert Christgau, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor
It’s sad testimony to my attention span that collections can hold my interest longer than most full-length books. Call it the ‘shuffling’ of reading or call it lack of discipline, I can accept either. I just seem to spend lots of time with these annuals.
I’ve always had three sources for finding new music: the radio, people I trust, and music writing. In the days before ClearChannel, radio, especially free form radio, was a good bet. And some days you can find that on Internet stations although even there narrowercasting applies. People you trust would be fine if they kept listening but for everyone with their ears still on two or more have hit a dead end.
That leaves the writers and they are their own challenge. Often following fashion. Holders of world views they don’t disclose. Or worse, folks with big blind spots. Even the ones you grow to love and trust will do you wrong. It’s a lot like life.
Anyway, Christagu’s contribution to this series comes hard on the heels of his firing by the Village Voice. I can remember running out every week to get the voice and waiting for Christgau’s monthly omnibus of short reviews. Other than J.D. Considine there was nobody else who could accurately sum up an entire album in so few words.
In his introductory notes, Christgau says he was forever trying to explain to publishers that his readers liked to read rock criticism. I think that’s true. He also says his goal was to find great writing. Well, they all say that and he does a better job than most. But there is always this wild subjective element in a collection (what got left out, I wonder) and you quickly understand where you and the editor part ways.
Still, as a glimpse of the current state of music–a state I can too quickly caricature as Beyonce, Jay Z and The Hold Steady–these tomes serve a useful purpose. As my own listening drives me deeper into the roots music I love it’s important to maintain some connection to the broader culture. I’m probably not going to ever embrace everything new but I don’t want to reject without a cursory listen either
So what of this volume? The two best entries are Michelangelo Matos on The Supremes’ ‘Love Child‘ and Jonathan Lethem on James Brown. Yes, I’m more interested in the subject matter but both are entertaining pieces of writing in which you learn something. And there was this neat essay about how compression is killing the sounds of records by Nick Southall.
Duds? A few. The blog postings for instance. If you’re reading this you know I hate the truncated, staccato style that passes for web writing. And then there are the rock star pieces. Richard Hell, I learned, is now an author. Well, his CBGB’s obituary reads more like a fanzine entry. Yep, he was there. Doesn’t mean he’s the guy to render the verdict.
And David Byrne? Someone, please, accept the idea that the artists you love in one discipline may not be adept in another. Byrne’s nonsensical review of a metal/noise show/performance is truly awful, from the use of the now-devoid-of-meaning curatorial to a free association of adolescent imagery. The big suit and weird character songs were great. I’m glad he goes to clubs. I just don’t think he writes about it very well.
So, would I recommend the book. Only if, as Christgau says, you like reading rock criticism.