Arts Desk

NPR Names the Best Music of the Year (so far), Why Music Magazines Are Dying

Last week All Songs Considered invited its listeners to vote for their favorite tracks and albums of the year (s0 far).

The results?

"In the end, Animal Collective edged out every other artist for both Best Album and Best Song. Artists like Grizzly Bear, The Decemberists and Neko Case weren't far behind. One thing was clear: that 2009 has been one of the strongest years for new music in recent memory."

MP3 tracks accompany the list for Best Songs of 2009 (so far), in case you're not up to speed with what's cool.

About that last point: Did ASC mean new music or new artists? The former is redundant; you can't poll Best of 2009 (so far) using music released prior to 2009. And the latter is simply untrue. Bob Dylan, U2, Conor Oberst, Animal Collective, Neko Case, Grizzly Bear, The Decemberists–which of these is a new band? I took the remark to mean that the field is flatter, the world more fair, but I think that's kind of naive: The Internet is just as good as FM radio and MTV at promoting some bands above all others and keeping them up there for a while.

Jonah Weiner has a piece up at Slate explaining the recent deaths of Vibe and Blender and layoffs at Spin and Rolling Stone. He serves his argument in three parts: 1.) "There are fewer superstars, and the same musicians show up on every magazine cover"; 2.) "Music mags have less to offer music lovers, and music lovers need them less than ever anyway"; 3.) "Music magazines were an early version of social networking. But now there's this thing called "social networking"..."

Point no. 2 deals much more plainly on the topic of critic access (see: watermarks), with one strange deviation. Weiner writes:

"It's a valid point that the professional critic still wields an aura of authority rare in the cacophonous world of online music, but between taste-making blogs and ever-smarter music-recommendation algorithms like Apple Genius and Pandora, the critic's importance is being whittled down."

Except, that's not a valid point. It feels good, sounds good, etc., but labels don't see "us" as authoritative and readers are often able to form their opinions, thanks to leaks and album streaming, before we're able to tell them what's what. (That NPR is using its readers to determine a best-of list is a great example of this. This used to be a privilege of music critics.)

Also, smaller point: The essence of a cacophony is that you can't tell one voice from another. I really think that's happening.

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  • Steve Kolowich

    Nice points, Mike.

    I noticed that while the Decemberists' album landed at No. 2 in the rankings, the top vote-getting song from that album was "The Rake's Song," which happened to be the single.

    I acknowledge that music appreciation is a subjective exercise ("How can it be BULLSHIT to state a PREFERENCE???"), but that "The Rake's Song" was the worst track on that album might be as close to an objective truth as you'll find. My guess is the label chose it as the single simply because The Hazards of Love is an opera, and "The Rake's Song" required the least context.

    The NPR listeners clearly heard the whole album. Does their faith in the single reflect a faith in the label that chose to highlight it? Or does it merely reflect a difference between their tastes and mine?

  • C-Mon

    interesting post... music mags could be choking due to a coupla other factors as well.
    1) that a lot of music mags (like mags in general) cover music marketing, not music. and, in my mind, people are tired of it... (just look at rolling stone cover stories as evidence in this case.)
    2) a lot of criticism is kinda navel-gazey, an opportunity to throw references to lots of obscure bands than to say something interesting about the experience of the music or what it represents within a broader cultural context... music is not alone in this. it happens in every other cultural arena, especially fine art...

  • Steve Kolowich

    Further research reveals that eight out of the first nine songs on that NPR list were released as singles...including all of the Top 5...

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