December 24, 2008

b(oot)log on books: The Pitchfork 500

Posted in mumbling at 1:57 pm by rgsc

Christmas came a little early for us here at b(oot)log when some friendly elves sent us a copy of The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to The Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present (see also the book’s site). Not everyone is a fan of P4K, but I must admit I still think they are one of the best sources for news & reviews online, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their point of view or style all the time. Now that Pitchfork is a venerable online institution, the editors undertook the ambitious task of compiling the greatest songs from 1977 to 2006 (with a nod to possible great songs from 2007).

Let’s face it. We all love list. Just look around at this time of year we are inundated with “best ofs” and “worst ofs” and favourites from the past 12 months (just take a quick peek at Largehearted Boy’s ever growing list of Best of 2008 lists for music and books. Craziness!). They are inherently subjective – endless arguments can ensue about why something was left off a list or why one entry was ranked higher than another – but I find them fascinating. The purpose of reading lists is twofold for me: first, they let me know what someone with some self-proclaimed knowledge on a subject thinks are the most important and secondly they can shine light on things that I’ve possibly undervalued or overlooked. Ultimately lists, or at least the best of them, challenge assumptions and make you re-evaluate your preferences.

This is what makes The Pitchfork 500 such a fascinating read. When only choosing 500 songs (not even albums!) for a 30 year period with no genre limitations where do you start? What are the criteria? The editors don’t spell out what their definition of ‘greatness’ is, as they seem to recognize that there is no simple mathematical formula but rather that it has to do more with a feeling. That “man this song is sooooo GREAT!” reaction. Sales are easy to measure but don’t often signal a mark of greatness. Impact can be hard to quantify but is certainly more important. Mostly, however, I think the 500 worthy songs were something that the 30-odd contributors decided were the best after what I imagine was a passionate, heated debate. Sure there are going to be some worthy songs left off or, particularly with the songs from the 2000s, some might turn out to not be so great after the passage of a little more time, but ultimately the book is extremely successful as it has made me think hard about their choices and there are certainly enough songs that I’d never heard of to keep me going for quite some time.

The songs included range from chart toppers to ultra obscure arranged chronologically in chapters that span 3 year periods with informative introductory essays at the start of chapter which set the scene. As you might expect, each of the 500 songs are given concise but informative entries. I scratched my head, for example, when I saw AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ on the list but it made more sense when I read the exegesis Tom Breihan, even if I still don’t fully agree. The entries provide the origin, context, and impact of the songs, along with trying to explain the more intangible elements of what makes them so damn great. Perhaps my favourite thing about the book are the sidebars that appear throughout giving you thematic detours. Want to know what they think the best Industrial, Slowcore, Alt-Rock, Italo-Disco, Twee, Regional Rap, Yacht Rock, etc, etc, etc, songs are? Then look no further (an index to the sidebars, would have been nice, though). These are fantastic tools to broach a genre or subgenre you might be interested in but weren’t sure where to start.

The book is something you are more likely to peck at over time than devour straight through but which ever way you approach it will lead you to a new way to think about your old favourites and lead you to something new.

You can pick yourself up a copy at fine retailers just about everywhere (check out the list of online shops at Simon & Schuster (Canada) and the one from the book’s site). If you are looking for a last minute Xmas gift for that music nerd in your life you have about 10hrs (on the east coast at least, more on the west, if you’re in the UK/Europe you better get moving) to get to your local bookstore – I know Chapters/Indigo is stocking it so get thee to the mall!

Happy holidays everyone.

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