The horde of amateur music critics at Pitchfork Media has just crapped out a tome titled The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present (Fireside). The book purports to present "edifying essays" about the greatest 500 songs of the past thirty years and "all-new reviews" of songs by artists like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, U2, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, and dozens of other stuff people have already heard and already have their own opinions about.
What's so funny about Pitchfork attempting to present a definitive guide to anything is that 13 years ago, Pitchfork was a small, upstart "Web 'Zine" -- the cyber-equivalent of a cut-and-paste-and-photocopy publication, with inexperienced music writers going on and on with endless, rambling reviews of obscure indie music. Granted, the site has grown immensely since its humble beginnings and now claims to land 1.6 million unique visitors per month. And that's part of the problem with this book -- it shows a clear line from indie buzz king status to "Rolling Stone rock critic-conglomerate imitator."
For a publication that's taken immense pride in allegedly "breaking" bands (some people would say they single-handedly hyped up a then-unknown Arcade Fire), Pitchfork is seemingly going back to the basics and reloading the canon of rock legends. There's nothing edgy, surprising, or salient about most of these picks. Sure, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Brian Eno are all very important figures in the history of music, particularly the "art-rock" genre, but if I'm going to read a dissertation on music legends, I have to at least recognize the byline. What's Joe Schmoe or Jane Doe going to tell me about MC5 or Bowie that Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe haven't already said better?
And call me a quibbler if you want, but the press release for the book claims we'll be "kicking it off in 1977 with the birth of punk," and I'd argue that punk was born at least a year before, with the release of the Ramones' self-titled debut album -- and there's a good argument that the advent of punk was actually in 1973, when the New York Dolls released their self-titled debut album. One can even clearly trace the roots of punk rock back to 1966, when psychedelic garage rock bands like The Seeds were taking a more raw, minimalistic approach to music.
But whatever. The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks... was released in 1977, and for self-educated latecomers to punk rock (of which Pitchfork is certainly one), that's the flagship album. Still, you can't talk about the importance and influence of current punk and indie music artists without digging into the roots. This book skips right over them, going from Kraftwerk to Justin Timberlake with tangential aplomb.
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Perhaps this book would work better if Pitchfork had done what it claims to do best -- introduce and break awesome, unknown, current bands via endless heaps of dense reviews, rather than try to eek out a place among pretentious rock historians and pop culture commentators. Because whatever you want to call 500 essays that skim the front of the "Best Seller" bins, you certainly can't call it "definitive." -- Niki D'Andrea