I wonder if I will end up not really caring about music anymore as a result of doing this. I can actually see it starting to happen already. Part of that comes from re-evaluating my priorities in the face of the ongoing grind that is having a long-term long-distance relationship, sometimes abstractly and sometimes as starkly as stuff vs. her, winner her. Another part is the simple needing to exhale after immersing myself in it for so long, especially as the past half-decade, on the whole, feels as uninspiring as any period I can think of in pop history.
I like writing about singles because I like the kind of off-canon pleasures they can provide. I like canons, too. And the ways in which those categories interact is something I’m fascinated by—a few things I’ve written, and others I haven’t yet, are deeply informed by it. So depending on your ambition, the amount of time you have to indulge your ears, the number of recordings you can access, and the relative ease of keeping track of listening on a laptop, it’s presumably as easy to find 100 good albums a year as 10, enough to fill a single 80-minute CD-R of favorite tracks from the year as to locate 100 songs that do it for you on some level.
Or at least that’s the way it feels to me, because I did all those things at different times over the past five years. In 2003, 2005, and 2006, I could barely name 10 favorite albums for the year; in 2004 I did a Top 100 albums list that I still think looks good today. In ’05 and ’06 I could barely make a year-end mix; each featured two tracks longer than 10 minutes. That’s what kind of years those were. By comparison, in 2003, ’07, and ’08, I put together lists of 100 tracks or more; only the ’03 selection looks at all forced in retrospect.
And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if, approached from a slightly different angle (maybe a more stringent interest in indie rock, or global pop, or minimal techno, or rap, or etc.), those numbers could be reversed around with little real loss of quality, and probably a number of gains. (In that period I hadn’t listened to R&B with real diligence until ’07, so that’s probably one right there.) That doesn’t mean I think there’s “no such thing as a bad year”: I still think 2005 and ’06 were the pits, and even the little bit of catch-up I’ve done since then hasn’t convinced me otherwise. But my memories of those years are so different—’05 very satisfying personally, ’06 quite the opposite—that I think baggage has little to do with it. And if anything, ’08 proved the rule: I like every one of the 50 albums and 100 tracks I listed, but as Jess pointed out when I played him an embryonic version of the tracks list while visiting Baltimore in May, “These are all good songs, and there’s absolutely no narrative here at all.”
There’s been less of a need for pop music to have some kind of overarching narrative for a while now; we can all construct our own from various blogs and websites, or plug into specific kinds of fandom and get deep into their codes, or we can pluck impetuously from Hype Machine, or just listen to the radio and watch TV and take our musical cues from there, or blah blah blah—you get the idea. All of that is fine, but it’s harder to pull a compelling narrative from all that data. Or else, and maybe more to the point, it’s entirely too easy to find those narratives, all of them coming up at once making it harder to focus, so that the array and amount of possible avenues to explore/be rewarded by blur so hard into each other that the whole cancels out the parts. It’s probably not either one; it differs for each of us. But those poles don’t seem as far apart as they might appear.
Again: I don’t think we’re living in a golden age, not particularly. Well, we are in terms of telecommunications devices and digital storage and etc.--everybody knows that already. I do think that ’03 to ’08 has been almost entirely a transitional phase, pop-wise. Little during the period has seemed to develop with much rapidity; maybe some of the U.K. hardcore-continuum stuff, but even there the developments have come to seem preordained, the mutation from grime to bassline/Northern/funky mirroring that of jump-up jungle into speed garage/2-step. Yet you can tell the difference between a record made in 2001 and one made in ’04, or one made in ’06 from one in ’08. There are loads of revivals, trends, fads, remixes, and leaks to be heard from time frame to time frame; you could put together a 1,000-song playlist to demonstrate them all.
The question is whether doing so would make you more of a diligent historian than a nut job, or vice versa. Certainly the fact that I thought about it long enough to write it down demonstrates that I’m a little of both. But there’s something about the era that makes tagging it and bagging it seem logical: we have more time to reflect on the present when it doesn’t seem especially tumultuous. And the sheer amount of types of stuff means we will sometimes approach something wondering which category it goes in.
My friend Jill came to hear me DJ two weeks ago. I played a Caro track, and she asked, “Which kind of dance music is this?” I told her house; she was confused—to her, “house” means pianos, 1987 to 1990 or so. The truth is that I couldn’t care less about the more niggling end of dance-music genre distinctions except in an umbrella-term way, so I struggled with further explanation. But parsing those semantics is a way to approach something like dance music, or “world” music, where finding out about the unfamiliar is part of the appeal. And “world” has been making increasingly up-front gains on the popular imagination—not so much via Marley-type global superstars (close as artists from Shakira to Manu Chao to M.I.A. have or may yet come) as foreign pop having become normalized, the same way iPod culture is said (rightly, I think) to have propagated a more directly pro-pop (or at least not anti-pop) stance among indie fans.
This is a greater gain in consumer terms than purely in musical ones—at least right now. Your town may have a lousy Gypsy-punk band or two, or a DJ who’s experimenting with some of the stuff she’s gotten to know thanks to a gateway like M.I.A., or another band that’s preparing, appearances be damned, to go Vampire Weekend a step further by really nailing that loose-slip groove on all those Franco reissues and trying to write songs to match. What it’ll lead to over the next five years is too murky to predict—a pile of good records, I imagine, if nothing else.
But if there’s nothing else, what good are the records? Focusing my listening has made it obvious how forest-for-trees serious listening has become in the larger culture. (I’d say “larger picture,” too, but that’s not really news at this point.) Because I’m not willy-nilly downloading stuff that, put together in a playlist, might give the appearance of a nascent narrative for the month or year or epoch, I’m not thinking of or hearing music quite that way right now. That will change as I up the amount of new stuff I’m listening to, but I could easily see myself caring about that less. It’s already happening, largely because this is a rotten time for freelancing: I’ve had far fewer assignments this month than the last two Januaries, when I was slowly getting back to speed after putting together critics polls, and without stuff to review I don’t listen to as many new CDs. This will likely continue through the year—there aren’t as many places to write, at least not for pay. That said, if I wind up caring less about music-as-it-evolves, that’s fine; there’s still a lot of music-as-it-evolved waiting to be explored.