Music in Review: Idolating Pitchfork in Maura Johnson’s Absence
After reading my critique of Pitchfork’s P2K: The Decade in Music list in City Paper's Music in Review issue, a friend commented that “sometimes I don't know what's more cliché: reading Pitchfork or complaining about Pitchfork.” Reductionist arguments like that are easy swipes, but they speak to the incessant griping, legitimate or not, to which Pitchfork’s every move is constantly subjected. If you feel that nitpicking Pitchfork’s interminable lists is just as futile as creating them, reading after the jump might not be such a hot idea.
In a year that saw the shuttering of numerous print publications, one of the Web’s biggest woes was Maura Johnson’s departure from Idolator, the once-mighty music blog that, in her absence, has gone straight to US Weekly-like hell. The site, once balancing thoughtful coverage of all things indie with equally thoughtful American Idol rundowns, has given into its weaker impulses and become a breathy, exhalation of celeb news, with lolcat critiques of Lady Gaga’s outfits and Chris Brown’s Twitter trends. I’ve decided to pay humble tribute to Johnson by examining Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of 2009 using her old rundown format—the Good, the Bad, and the Whaaa?—a feature that now seems like a distant memory buried beneath countless pages dedicated to Rihanna’s latest haircut.
The Good: In a year when most lists culled from familiar major players, Pitchfork allows for some genuine surprises, including deserving nods to worthwhile mainstays like Jim O’Rourke and Dinosaur Jr. and understated favorites like Bill Callahan and Fuck Buttons while not throwing this year’s worthy newcomers under the bus (Japandroids, Neon Indian, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart). It thankfully also acknowledged that Cymbals Eat Guitars, just barely coming in at No. 43, needed some time to ripen.
The Bad: Outside of the tensionless reveal of its No. 1 pick (hey, did you know Animal Collective put out an album this year?), this year’s ranking was more consistent with the site’s obvious preferences than in the past. Depending upon your perspective. that's either comforting or maddening. Out of the 40-plus Best New Music designations given, only six of these albums failed to chart (YACHT, Isis, Volcano Choir, Camera Obscura, Wavves, and Sunset Rubdown). In other news, Future of the Left received a lowly honorable mention that reinforced, even in the wake of the collective ball-dropping of its former outfit McLusky, that the band is destined for relegation to the indie-rock fringes. The list also continues the trend of semiapologizing with the site's love for Passion Pit (“Passion Pit's debut album can seem to come on like a big, friendly dog slobbering you with kisses: one part "Eww, too much!" and two parts "Aww, I can't resist!"), as though the band were a socially awkward sibling it feels compelled to invite to parties. And considering Phoenix’s ubiquitous Pitchfork presence, its squeaking into the Top 10 at No. 8 rings false.
The Whaaa?: Pitchfork’s Top 10 is rarely surprising, but this year’s had a few unexpected notes. Bat for Lashes turned out to be a sleeper favorite while the biggest surprise came with the unabashed appreciation for the xx, who took the No.3 spot. Who knew the band’s song(s) were so beloved? I smell a pug-induced slice of snark when its follow-up album tanks.
And if this list does nothing else, let it be a lesson to all lo-fi wunderkinds who are thinking of taking some drugs and breaking down at a big European festival—if you embarrass the Web site’s good name, your name will quickly turn to mud.