Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Stylus Decade pt. IV: The Writing

Welcome back to Broon's Tunes for comprehensive coverage of The Stylus Decade, cos I've apparently got nothing better to do (haven't you?)

The Stylus Decade comprises 200 blurbs between 100-500 words long, and eight long-form essays. It's far too much to read in one sitting, and far too much to discuss in one blog post, so I've decided to dedicate the next year or so to line-by-line analysis on this blog.

Not really.

All I'm going to do is mention a few of my favourite parts which I picked out while reading it.

The Blurbs

I don't mean to sound like a miserable bastard (it just comes naturally y'know) but when people just talk about the calibration of the lists, the numbers and sequences and omissions, the music itself is forgotten. I'm sure half the people who moan about Kid A being number one actually do enjoy that record, or at least enjoyed it before they realised everyone else enjoyed it much more than them.

Anyway, there's little worth to any stated opinion about music without justification, so I'd rather focus on many of the fine justifications offered up by my Stylus colleagues. As stated, there's too many to mention, but these are a few which jumped out at me.

I think my two favourite blurbs are those by Jonathan Bradley for The National's Boxer (No.41), and Fergal O'Reilly's Discovery (No.3). I've read them both four or five times now, because they're both just so wonderfully constructed. No quibbling, go read them in full.

Mike Orme's "Rebellion (Lies)" somehow manages to give a new perspective to one of the most-played indie rock songs of recent years (No.93)

and while you're there, check out Theon Weber's pinpoint take on the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps" (No.82).

Paul Scott's says The Strokes "Hard To Explain" (No.59)
"both embodies and celebrates the indolence and inarticulacy of youth with a wit many miles from their contemporaries."
Most of Dom Passantino's album blurbs made me laugh, partly because he can always be relied upon to pull an obscure Britishism out of nowhere (rare in online music journalism which is always targetted at an American audience). Case in point: Half Man Half Biscuit's Achtung Bono (No.87) making the list in the first place; also, Brenda Blethyn, Danny Dyer, Rio Ferdinand and Nick Knowles all getting a namecheck in his blurb for it. No wonder he loves that band. But also, check out his Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (No.60) blurb, which is self-deprecating in a wholly admirable and very funny way.

Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca was one of only three 2009 albums to make the list. It's the kind of album music writers will always love, because it's so easy to write about, there's so much going on that it'll always provide a thoughtful writer with ways in which to show off their knowledge and interpretation. But the intro para to Tal Rosenberg's blurb (No.58) is particularly imaginative, and the rest aint bad either.

Actually, Tal was in top form throughout. Check out his short Erykah Badu (No.99), and his longer DJ Sprinkles (No.71), which come to similar conclusions: "so often, great art is the actualization of the all of the artist." That's what authenticity is, isn't it? When an artist can't help but convey their weaknesses as well as their strengths because they convey themselves, in full, their all. There's a dissertation in there somewhere.

Two of the hardest blurbs to write in this project were Merriweather Post Pavilion (No.23) and Kid A (No.1), the former because it's the great hype beast of the last twelve months, the latter because it's the great hype beast of the last ten years; so nobody reading your blurb is coming in disinterested. But Jeff Siegel and Josh Love did great jobs with their write-ups, in contrasting ways: Jeff didn't even acknowledge MPP's hype or context, he just talked about the record, remarkably in terms I hadn't read it written about before; while Josh wrote almost entirely about the reception to Kid A, the arguments, the meanings of those arguments, its importance, not in grand socio-cultural terms (the dreaded z-word avoided) but in real, fan-level reality.

Peter Parrish on Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River:
Even when Sheff dabbles in the slightly ridiculous, as on "A Stone," he pulls it off. By embracing the ludicrous and flipping the song's focus on its head, he takes us on a bittersweet Pixar adventure about the daydreaming fancies of stones. As the mournful trumpet solo plays out, it's quite possible to start feeling sorry for inanimate chunks of geology.

For all its dark reality, anger and sadness, that's the moment when Black Sheep Boy really won my heart. It made me care about a goddamn make-believe rock.

I've no idea if I agree with Ian Mathers' Six By Seven (No.95) blurb, but it was good enough to persuade me to buy the album on CD (it's now at the bottom of my pending pile, to be heard in approximately 4 months' time). Mathers' Endless Summer (No.74) was excellent too, though I know I don't agree with his high estimation there. Just below it, I enjoyed Todd Hutlock's take on Villalobos's Alcachofa (No.73), partly because writing about minimal techno is so damn hard to do without concocting ridiculous imagery or falling back onto cliche. Todd avoided both pitfalls with ease.

I actually need to stop now because there's just too much, and this post is already too long for 100% of the internet to read (margin of error 0.1%). I've not mentioned any song blurb in the top fifty and I've barely touched on the top twenty albums page which was the best overall page of the lot! I just can't cover it all, but leave a comment if you fancy mentioning anything else in particular.

The Essays

I have no real interest in country music, but I found Thomas Inskeep and Josh Love's chat about country very interesting: it seems I'm not alone in my disinterest for the genre, it discussed why, but it also explained a little why I might be missing out. Josh:
"The big complaint I think people still have is that country is corny, but of course that's because the songs are actually about stuff. It's a lot easier to not be corny when your songs are about nothing."
I don't know how I might adjust to songs that are actually about stuff. That kinda feels like a challenge.

Dan Weiss wrote an interesting piece about the de-politicisation of this decade's music:
"Twee ambiguity returned to the forefront with the freak-folk of Joanna Newsom and orchestral outpourings of Sufjan Stevens paving the way for too-hip LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective to putter into the fold. Radiohead's lyrics went back to not making sense."

"...Unfortunately, those who really did detail atrocities went mostly unheard and unwanted, especially in rap. Nas reversed his tough-guy roots to do hardline reporting in a KRS-One move most took as preachy. Mr. Lif and Public Enemy made no waves ripping the housing crisis and even star of the hour Lil Wayne mostly got laughed down for trying to extend his moment ten minutes to blast Al Sharpton."
Is that all about the internet? The net is an eternal feedback loop. If your fans are a little bit annoyed with some of your lyrics, it's easier than ever for them to tell you, tell your label, and tell other fans. Where once they might've silently slid away, now they bitch and moan in comment boxes. And political lyrics are always likely to provoke negative feedback. When the net puts a billion opinions in front of you, idiots and experts level in the name of democracy, it's so much easier to play safe and out of the rabble.

Finally, I must recommend Mike Powell's piece (made of lots of little pieces) which is written in such a thoughtful way, using anecdotes and confessions and unanswered questions. Mike never writes like an expert handing down truth; he's always accessible, open to ideas, perceptive but not prescriptive. His work is always worth a careful read, and his essay for The Stylus Decade is no exception.

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