by carl wilson

"Is This A Two-Thumbs-Up Mountain?"


Yesterday in The Globe and Mail, a review of the new Beck disc, Guero.

Today in Overtones, it's CBC's 50 Tracks (and The Other 50 Tracks) versus the iPod Shuffle in a look at the standoff between the selecters and the sensualists about whose mode of listening rules. And: Zoilus-household secrets revealed!

Weekend Review

Shufflers versus list makers

26 March 2005
The Globe and Mail

Books in my house are arranged in two ways: My shelves are split into poetry, fiction, non-fiction and music books, ordered alphabetically by authors' names. My wife's books are scattered like ex-mob informers under the witness-protection program. If she has five J. M. Coetzee novels, they are in three different bookcases. To find one, she browses her whole library and often ends up reading something else altogether.

My excuse is that I come from a family that includes three professional librarians. My wife, on the other hand, is the one who has written two books, perhaps with all the alphabetizing time she's saved. When I first noticed her biblio-anarchy, I assumed she just couldn't be bothered. But she was as attached to her (non-) system as I was to mine.

While we think it charming in our case, this division represents two different approaches to culture — and like other kinds of extremists, the camps are growing further apart. Consider two current pop phenomena, the iPod Shuffle and CBC Radio's 50 Tracks.

The cataloguing instinct has given us the hits charts by which the music business runs, obviously. But such lists are too evanescent for fans who prefer to debate sweeping rankings such as the Top 50 Bassists of All Time. This year, the vast Canadian middlebrow class, myself included, has been sucked into that mentality by 50 Tracks, broadcast every weekday morning for the past couple of months, and wrapping up today with a five-hour countdown.

Passionately piloted by musician-broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, the program's mission was to select the 50 “essential” Canadian songs, broken down by decade. Songs were nominated by guest experts and voted on by thousands of listeners, democratically confirming the supposed indispensability of Neil Young, Alanis Morissette and Rush, but not excluding outliers such as D.O.A.'s Disco Sucks, a song sung by a guy whose last name was Shithead.

The program is part of a wave of CBC list-making Event Programming that includes a radio show that judges which Canadian book you must read each season, and the Greatest Canadian television series. This is what the CBC does instead of exiling hot young things to tropical islands to commit adultery. Eschewing cruel contests over marriageability, parenting, business acumen, worm-eating or modelling, politely anal Canada makes reality shows about lists, about canons of cultural significance — in other words, about Canadian identity.

I think 50 Tracks turned out well as a historical roundup, though if I were a young Canadian drum 'n' bass or hip-hop fan, or a francophone, I doubt I'd be so sanguine. (Only one French song made the list, Gilles Vigneault's Mon Pays.)

Still, I could not resist last week when Ottawa public-relations consultant Keith Serry, who runs the music weblog Pregnant Without Intercourse ( ), invited me to join his daily on-line series The Other 50 Tracks, in a panel of six journalists, bloggers and fans.

What exactly is “other” about it? We might be an even less diverse group than the CBC panels. But we discarded the notion of “essential,” making for a more kamikaze run. Serry granted us a limited veto over one another's choices. (The Tragically Hip and Rush have been kiboshed, while the Weakerthans and Nomeansno survive.) Our debates are unedited for obscenity, length or civic responsibility, and we need not spend half the time bantering with Shelagh Rogers. In general, the sight of a randomly self-appointed body wrestling over a brazenly arbitrary list lends a necessary tinge of satire.

Lists can be a way of coding an aesthetic manifesto in a culture hostile to both manifestoes and aesthetics. They're a thought-provoking device and raw material for analysis. (You need charts in pop history the way you need lists of French kings to study Europe.) But mainly they're a crude way of bringing some of the oomph of sport to cultural conversation. More darkly, they risk implying that one song or book can be measured objectively against another — and that accumulating, ranking and quantifying information constitutes a genuine engagement with art.

At the opposite pole is hit gadget the iPod Shuffle, a slim plastic tube the size of a raised middle finger to the concept of cultural context. Like the ubiquitous iPod, it's a portable player loaded with digital files of your musical collection. But the Shuffle then spits out songs at random. It doesn't even have a display screen to say what's playing. Its slogan is “Give Chance a Chance.” It is hostile to best-of lists, trivia, hierarchy and human agency. To fulfill its nature perfectly, it would be loaded up for you by a stranger. Or a cyborg.

The Shuffle subordinates you to your songs, the way my wife's disordered shelves mean her books surprise her again and again. It's an Internet surfer's aesthetic — songs are discovered, downloaded (with misleading information, with no information), taken in and then tossed away. There's a purity of experience, making language a void and sound a drug.

Existentially, perhaps we inhabit a shuffleverse, a passing parade of intense, inchoate sensations and surfaces. But art is also social and so is (despite occasional autistic excesses) the list maker's desire to know where and when a song comes from, to whom it relates, what influence it's had.

Music fans seem to be splitting up into shufflers versus list makers. If only both sides, like my family's bookshelves, could coexist lovingly. My favourite Web cartoon, Cat and Girl by Dorothy Gambrell ( ), has a strip on the theme:

Bespectacled-feline Cat and hipster-hairstyled Girl are hiking up a mountain for a picnic. Girl complains, “IQ, ERA. Music charts, movie reviews and Zagat. Viewing the world but only seeing the rankings and numbers. . . . How many stars do I get for waking up this morning? Is this a two-thumbs-up mountain? . . . Forever quantifying. How lame is that?”

“Eight,” answers Cat, and takes a bite of his ice-cream bar.

The 50 Tracks countdown begins at 1 p.m. today on CBC Radio 1 and 7 p.m. on CBC Radio 2. See .

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 26 at 12:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



On the 'Canadian music cira civil rights' tip, check out Nate Patrin's selection from '71. Does anybody know anything about these guys?

Posted by Dave M. on March 27, 2005 11:21 PM



Hey Carl,

What do you think of prominent Canadian Oscar Peterson? I dig him backing Ella and/or Louis -- dig him a lot -- but the few of his own compositions I've heard haven't struck me hard. I think he wrote a big suite with the great Michel Legrand in the '90s, but I haven't heard it.

Disappointed to see the Crew Cuts on the 50 Tracks list but no Four Lads. Love the Four Lads. Istanbul, not Constantinople! You Don't Please Me When You Squeeze Me, No Not Much! Great singers.

Inclusion of the Crew Cuts unfortunately underscores the whiteness of the Great White North -- so many of their big hits slightly watered-down covers of black U.S. R&B.;

Saw your take on Neil's "Helpless" on the Other 50 -- lovely. Have long disliked "Heart of Gold" -- nice tune, but a prime example of Neil's fallible lyrics.

Missing great Canadian songwriters -- Veda Hille and David Francey. Glad to see Jane Siberry on the Other 50.

Oh, Canada.

Posted by John S. on March 27, 2005 1:07 AM



no, that's just it: those examples aren't available. wouldn't digging around for obscure acts to include be skirting the issue anyway? it seems to me what's called for is a more rigorous look at what the cbc's canon – as it stands – actually means.

Posted by jones on March 26, 2005 5:50 PM



All good points. I'm planning to address some of this with future choices in the series. But in defence of the Ceeb and of The Other 50 (which would have been more interesting, I agree, with a greater diversity of voices) - rewriting the history of Canadian music is a project that would be better approached with a different methodology than these sort of listmaking exercises. With a couple of important exceptions, nonwhite voices weren't present in Canadian music as heard by the broad public until relatively recently. There are a lot of reasons for this - partly it's demographics (it's always easy to underestimate how overwhelmingly white the Canadian non-aboriginal population was for so long) and partly of course it was institutional and generalized race and class prejudice in what music business there was prior to the 1970s (not much) and on the anglo-centric old CBC, which is still, you're right, not changed enough in a dozen different ways. So while I do agree we have more of an obligation than we've honoured so far, to bring some more of those neglected recordings back into the light, some of it would take actual historical archival research to find, if it were available at all, because it's just not on the historical record, figuratively or literally. Go on and name some examples, certainly, and I'd be happy to look into those I don't know!

Posted by Zoilus on March 26, 2005 4:47 PM



Overtones/The Other 50 Tracks not nearly hard enough so far on the CBC program i don't think, especially as regards the gigantic racial elephant in the room. you needn't be a disgruntled rap fan to wonder WHY there's nary a non-white canadian on the list prior to 1990. and as long as the Ceeb is busily dismantling its more forward-looking music depts, we might do well to ask whether we'd be having an easier time naming eg.a canadian funk band from circa THE GOLDEN AGE OF CIVIL RIGHTS if radio had bothered putting an ear to the ground outside its 'key demographic sphere' at the time.

Posted by jones on March 26, 2005 3:57 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson