Combing through the country's major music magazines, it's clear that the best albums of 2001 were made by Bob Dylan, Björk, Radiohead, Alicia Keys, Macy Gray, Ryan Adams, System of A Down, Jay-Z, and the Strokes. These artists kept popping up on all the Best of 2001 lists and, in fact, they're the ones we've been reading about all year. So those rankings must be true.
Except they're not. And anyone with two ears, a mild interest in music, and a little common sense knows it. There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of the albums Rolling Stone, Spin, or that latest entry into the music-mag game, Blender, chose to honor. But how could it be that everyone is sweet on the exact same albums? There were tens of thousands of CDs released in 2001, and at least a couple dozen really great ones — some of them by people like the Court & Spark, Califone, Even Johansen, the Frames, Dakota Suite, the Beauty Shop, Masta Ace, and some dude named M. Ward. But most people will never hear word one about them because every major music magazine devotes its space and energy to the same cast of characters.
Of the 10 records Rolling Stone ranks as 2001's best, exactly zero were released and distributed by independent labels. Instead, their list includes Radiohead's Amnesiac — which isn't even the best Radiohead album of the year (that honor would go to their live set, I Might Be Wrong) — and a Mick Jagger solo album that's bad even by the comically low standard by which Jagger albums are measured.
Rolling Stone is an easy target, but its competitors don't fare much better. Blender's top 10 also put up a goose egg on the indie front, while Spin found room for just three indies in their top 20 of 2001.
I mention all this not to re-open that increasingly dull "indies vs. majors" can of worms. The point is not whether indie records are better, but rather that most people will never know about most great records because music magazines aren't writing about them. Year-end lists illustrate the point, but the problem exists year-round. Why?
The easy answer might be that music critics have become lazy and complacent followers, lacking the strength of their convictions. Used to be the best of the lot were snobby contrarians, championing records no one's heard and assuming any artist the record company pushes as the "next big thing" probably sucks. It was an imperfect system, but it helped give artists without much promotional muscle a chance at cracking into public consciousness. Maybe critics couldn't stop the New Kids on the Block from selling millions of records, but if nothing else, they could try shaming those record buyers into recognizing the error of their ways.
But blaming writers for the sorry state of music criticism today is sort of like blaming inmates for the sorry state of the prison system. Good critics still hunt constantly for good music that isn't necessarily thrust into their faces by p.r. flaks. Just dig around on the Internet for the personal top 10 lists of prominent critics and you'll find gems by folks like the Tyde, Roger Wallace, the Eyeliners, Rockfour, and Four Tet. It's just getting tough to find magazines with the space or the incentive to cover many of these acts. Because acts like Rockfour and the Tyde are on labels that can neither afford to advertise in Rolling Stone and Spin, nor hire the appropriate publicists and promotions teams to work up the kind of buzz that sells magazines, few publications cared to print a word about them.
Beyond money issues, there's a sense that these magazines have come to trust the collective opinions of record companies, publicity firms, MTV, the radio, and even other magazines' writers over the individual opinions of their own. Personal passion has been quashed by corporate groupthink: How good could this record be if no one else is writing about it? Or, if six million people are going to buy this record, it couldn't be all bad. In other words, they do believe the hype.
Critics are not completely blameless. With very few publications willing to pay writers a decent wage to write intelligently about interesting music — and plenty willing to buy snappy, clever fluff about Britney, U2, and Staind — we've mostly given in. We've become content to trade in any high-minded ideals about actual arts criticism for a meager living as reactionaries, hedgers, apologists, and hype-men.
Full disclosure: I'm as guilty as the next hack in this sad debacle. I write for some of these publications and contribute significantly to a successful men's magazine that's not particularly known for it's enlightened attitude. And admittedly, I'd rarely forgo a well-paying assignment writing about a No Doubt album in order to cover a lesser-known artist for little pay in a smaller publication. I wouldn't claim to like something that's crap, but I'll gladly collect rent money waxing poetic about why Slipknot stink. And my position is similar to lots of other critics — leaving you with an awful lot of stories on No Doubt and Slipknot. And none about the Beauty Shop.
Sure, alternative weeklies, smaller magazines, and fanzines still publish stories about all music under the sun, but their reach is limited and the quality of their writing might charitably be called hit-and-miss. Besides, since many of these publications, and their writers, take their cues (sometimes not consciously) from major music magazines, this unadulterated hype-mongering has filtered its way down. Intellectual laziness has become commonplace everywhere — reviews and stories often resemble nicely-polished press releases. Meanwhile, any insightful voices in the wilderness tend to get drowned out by the chorus of voices echoing the party line.
The question is this: What's the basic mission of a music magazine (and by extension, a music writer)? Is it to tell readers about the music they like or tell readers what music they should like? Music magazines currently operate mostly under the first model, since it makes the most business sense.
With the help of market research, magazines have come to the conclusion (perhaps correctly) that readers don't really like to read about artists they've never heard of. They also don't like to be told their favorite artists, in fact, suck. Record labels, among a music magazine's largest advertisers, don't like it much either. Thus, the likelihood of seeing a fevered gutting of a commercially successful record in a mainstream music magazine has just about disappeared.
Music magazines have apparently given up on trying to be cultural critics or, at the very least, consumer advocates. They've simply accepted their fate as just another arm of the giant hype machine, battling to be first to tell readers about something they'll be seeing next week on MTV. The goals have seemingly narrowed: from wanting to turn readers on to music they otherwise wouldn't hear, to an anxious desire to remain — in the parlance of hype-dom — merely "ahead of the curve."
And the biggest loser is the reader, informed by the endless editorial fellatio on the same 20 artists while a world of great music passes by. ♦ This article first appeared in Creative Loafing.