December 12, 2009

The decade lists keep rolling out. Pitchfork was ahead of the game, posting theirs earlier this fall. Now Rolling Stone has unveiled its own authoritative list, complete with a snazzy cover design (in fact, this is probably the best Rolling Stone cover of the past 10 years). The magazine has gone through some fairly major changes over the decade to cut costs. They've cut back Rolling Stone's size, format, etc., while websites like Pitchfork have expanded in every way. Now we've got old print giant on the one hand (trying desperately to keep up with the culture it once spoke for) and the new cutting edge P4k website on the other (which is where the growing majority discover new music; if consensus can exist anymore, P4k has the sway to shape it). Rolling Stone has little influence among anyone under 30; it really belongs to the boomers...especially because hardly any young people actually buy magazines!

Simon Reynolds has hatched a theory about popular music tastes that he's developed by scanning the "best of the decade" lists from places like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The lists predominantly feature albums from the first half of the decade. You're likely to see albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Kid A, Stankonia, Is This It, Funeral, etc. dominating the list, while obviously great albums from the last couple years won't even break the top twenty. What's behind this trend? Well, Reynolds argues, it has nothing to do with the quality of music (in fact, each year brings new albums that are just as good, if not better, than the year before); it has little to do with having some distance from the album; it isn't even because lists are essentially vehicles for personal nostalgia (which I think to be the case). No, it's because we as listeners of popular music are less able to reach consensus on definitive albums (You can read his full article/theory here). Instead, because of a variety of factors, the pop music canon has become increasingly fragmented over time because there is exponentially more music being made today than yesterday; musicians now, more than ever, can pick from a growing range of genres and experiment. Add to that the decline physical media (cds, tapes, etc.), which has definitely had an effect on consumer habits and buying patterns.

This makes sense, especially when you consider how music is currently being produced and consumed, not to mention this decade's blatant shift from physical (both in print culture and music) to digital media. Reynolds also stresses that music responds to social need/convention. In other words, consensuss builds when we need it to. To use Reynolds' point against him, if you look at the beginning of the decade, there was a strong feeling of urgency about the music being made (a lot of fear, resentment, and so on). The future looked bleak and we needed albums to rally around. Looking back, it's hard to ignore the fact that 00, 01, and 02 are the most favoured years. And I don't think it's ludicrous to connect that with the 9/11 watershed (though I shudder at the thought). Like all historical measurements, commemorative lists are bound by the projections of their makers. That event was symbolic on a number of levels and we're bound to interpret the music from those years in light of what took place. Could something like this happen again in popular culture? The once powerful tastemakers like Rolling Stone and Spin aren't going to convince all of us that x or y have captured our cultural zeitgeist, but I think a lot of us will still be looking for someone to do so when catastrophe hits.

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