by carl wilson

The Heartaches of Classic Material

Here's a real outtake from the annals of journalism: A grouped review of some music-list books that the Globe's Books section dithered over till it went stale. And so, an exclusive for readers of Zoilus. Sorry to all the authors for the endless delay.

Edited by Oliver Wang
ECW Press, 220 pages, $19.95

By Martin Popoff
ECW Press, 486 pages, $24.95

By David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren
Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press
320 pages, $37.95

Reviewed by Carl Wilson

Something there is that doesn’t love a list, as Robert Frost didn’t say. The horde of best-of lists that shows up each New Year’s is like a peacock pen full of preening critics, whose self-important adjudications are at least as much a wall as a bridge between art and audience. [...]

But something in us is addicted to them too. Such argument starters often seem the only way to get people talking about culture. So there they are, in every issue of Blender magazine (the Maxim spinoff that would be the new Rolling Stone, now with 200 per cent more breasts) on up to the American Film Institute (No. 1 with a bullet: Citizen Kane!) and the Modern Library (and the Oscar goes to James Joyce for Ulysses!).

Yes, it’s a billboard for the stupefaction of contemporary criticism by marketing and service journalism. But to stop at that would be to miss a crucial element of what we talk about when we talk about pop culture, in which listmaking often seems less compulsory than compulsive. Teen diaries on the Web, in all their misspelt glory, bloom with lists of Top 3 Songs About How I Feel Right Now; chat-rooms come to blows over the Top 50 Guitarists.

Lists bring some of the heat of sport to the couch-potato world of cultural spectatorship. And in their passive-aggressive way, these patchworks of declared alliances and oppositions do add up to rough self-portraits, just as your book and CD collections do (as anyone knows who enters a date’s apartment and immediately starts scanning — and judging — the shelves).

In the hands of a crafty critic, the list can serve as an aesthetic manifesto in an age that disdains both manifestos and aesthetics. Attach your perspectives and theories to a ranked set of titles in boldface, and people will gobble them up who would never touch your treatise Rock Personae as Doubling and Disguise: The Many-Hued Faces of Prince Rogers Nelson. Just call it “Prince’s 20 Trickiest Joints,” and get out before page 10.

Three recent volumes apply that approach to country, hip-hop and heavy metal, with varying success. Indeed, if you asked me, I could write a list:

List Books: The 5 Commandments

5. Basics: Make A List, Rank It, Keep It Tight: Simple, right? In fact, all three books partly fail this test. Martin Popoff’s heavy-metal list is based on a poll of some 18,000 readers of his fanzine Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles, leaving the writer to make entertaining but unhelpful snide remarks about their collective taste throughout, and the reader to wallow in arena anthems rather than being informed of the genre’s more inventive offshoots.

The 80 or so hip-hop discs in Oliver Wang’s Classic Material have been chosen by consensus by the contributing critics from across North America — too bloodless an approach for the game. Worse, they are unranked, and in meaningless alphabetical order. A chronological approach might have lent flow to this collection of mini-essays; instead, after an apt start with Afrika Bambaata (1980), we find ourselves in the 1990s with Cannibal Ox, Eminem and Mobb Deep before doubling back to Run DMC (1984).

American journalists David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren fare better in Heartaches by the Number, though their choice to group the book’s 500 country singles partly by theme as well as status compromises the sport. On brevity, Wang and co. get it right: 80 albums make a better story than 500 singles. The country boys cover the most complex ground, but the head begins to swim long before you reach the depths of No. 481, Juice Newton’s Queen of Hearts.

As for Popoff, he’s required to wax eloquent about some 28 different Iron Maiden songs, which is so far beyond redundant that it might violate the Geneva Convention.

4. Gimme Context: Popoff positions his selections in the career of each band, including the book’s best feature, an interview quotation to accompany every song. Classic Material pulls back further, noting each album’s inspirations and heirs and, less often, its social causes and effects.

But only Heartaches blends chart info and studio anecdotes with thematic ideas — reflections on country’s ties to gospel, soul and rock, and its contradictory impulses around innovation and tradition as well as sin and redemption. That’s part of why its list should be shorter — to make room for more of the kind of complete anatomies it provides, for instance, for its unpredictable No. 1, Sammi Smith’s spicy 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night.

Heartaches builds a sturdy case for singles as the key Nashville product, while Popoff’s book would clearly have been better if it addressed albums rather than songs. (His next book, due in April, does just that.) Wang’s target is trickier — albums and tracks (and mixed tapes, as the cover image hints) matter about equally in hip-hop, a problem that might have been addressed by including more compilations.

3. Put Up Your Dukes: Lists are fighting words by nature, so the more polemic, the better. Every mini-essay in Heartaches makes a counterintuitive pass, whether claiming the Monkees for country history or that Charlie Rich’s seemingly schlocky The Most Beautiful Girl ranks alongside his honkytonk classics, not despite but because of the orchestra.

Too much of Classic Material is content to cheerlead, but there are deeper soundings, among them Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s challenges to Jay-Z and Eminem’s skillful cynicism, Jeff Chang’s take on the misunderstood Grandmaster Flash, or Hua Hsu on how the duo Black Star traced its generation’s path from idealism to disillusionment.

Popoff, meanwhile, is a fine describer (on Guns N’ Roses: “Paradise City’s seduction lies within its power surges, its pregnant pauses blown up by bursts of trepanning guitars, its actual jostling of correct time. Ends with a little Catskills soft-shoe”). But there’s hardly a point to be found.

2. Stretch the Limits: Great list writers warp canons by naming laureates no one even knew were nominated. Which is just one reason Popoff’s popularity poll pales next to 1991’s Stairway to Hell, in which critic Chuck Eddy makes a hilariously persuasive case that Miles Davis, Sonic Youth, Run DMC and Funkadelic count as heavy metal.

Heartaches is the stronger for ushering Chuck Berry, James Carr, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bing Crosby and (perhaps most controversially) Shania Twain into its big country tent, and not just for diversity’s sake: It’s part of the authors’ brief that there’s more country in pop and more pop (and soul) in country than either fans or detractors acknowledge. Listen closer, they show, and you’ll hear a richer story, not only about the music but about American culture, and human struggle.

Classic Material is understandably too self-conscious about its appointed role to be so daring, which just goes to show how stultifying canon-making can be.

1. “It’s a Book, Not a List”: Off the top, Cantwell and Friskics-Warren quote this motto from critic Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989), and it’s their trump. Both graceful stylists, they ensure that their shared train of thought makes a stop in each entry — not to crowd out funny stories and emotional insights, but to keep up the pressure on received wisdom. It ensures you’ll never hear the Carter Family, Glen Campbell or even Elvis quite the same way again, and in the process vaults itself up high on any list of books on country music.

Classic Material doesn’t leave such a unified impression, but it’s more discerning and up-to-date than most listeners’ guides. Its high stylistic standards can only lead to better hip-hop criticism in its wake.

But except for the most passionate metal fan, sadly, Popoff’s herculean effort won’t be much more than a goofy bathroom read. It's not a book, just a list as thick as a brick in the wall.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 17 at 4:58 PM | Linking Posts




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