Friday, September 21, 2012

Wealth of Choices

Even thought CD sales aren't what they used to be and music downloads are becoming more prominent, Shlomo Schwartzberg in this Critics at Large piece draws attention to the music magazines that are helping keep CDs alive and well.

So Much Richer: The Diversity and Variety of Modern Music

It arrived later than the other music magazines but the French cultural/political magazine Les inrockuptibless Best of the Year music issue is an illuminating read and listen, both because it’s so different than the Anglo-American annual music lists but also because it provides incontrovertible proof that when it comes to music, unlike other art forms, the critics are on so many different pages.

Charmingly titled Best of Musique 2011 (an apt mix of English and French) and accompanied by a CD of 16 of the mag’s favourite tracks, entitled La bande-son 2011(Soundtrack of 2011), Les inrockuptibles’ top 100 discs, 50 reissues and 100 tracks certainly offers a cornucopia of sonic richness. But I was especially intrigued by its deviations from Uncut and Mojos top of the year lists. Generally of the top 50 albums cited by those British music mags, about half or so of the CDs chosen differ from each other. They shared a common preference for such albums as Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest, Wilco'sThe Whole Love, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues,Tinariwen's Tassili and Radiohead's The King of Limbs but Mojo also picked Glen Campbell's Ghost on the Canvas and Nick Lowe's That Old Magic as among their best discs of the year whileUncut went for the likes of Ry Cooder's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX's We're New Here. But Les inrockuptibles went even further in charting its own path with some surprising choices on tap. I would expect them to choose some home-grown discs, from French artists François & the Atlas Mountains and Daniel Darc – the Brits tend to ignore most non-English music outside of Africa – but how did they come to focus on an Oklahoma group called Other Lives, which I don’t recall being mentioned by either Uncut or Mojo (who supposedly keep a close eye on the musical output of their Anglo cousins). Other Lives was not the only American band whose album (Tamer Animals) was mentioned by Les inrockuptibles as among the year’s best; other choices included both predictable ones from Bon Iver, Tom Waits and Fleet Foxes as well as left field choices, not picked by the Brits, like M83, Hanni El Khatib and Salem, American artists whom I’ve never heard of. Surprisingly, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So Whatthough featured on both Mojo and Uncut's best lists, was absent from Les inrockuptibles's chart They also focused on Canadian artists like Drake and Timber Timbre who were shut out of the British magazine lists. (Feist's Metals made both the French mag and Uncut's top list but was overlooked by Mojo.) And of course being neighbours and all, lots of British choices, including the releases from Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey, Gruff Rhys, The Horrors, James Blake and Cat’s Eyes, not all of whom placed high in their local lists. Interestingly, Harvey's (overrated to my mind) Let England Shake was Les inrockuptibles's eighth best disc but placed number one with both Mojo and Uncut.

The Black Keys
I should mention Les inrockuptibles’s number one choice, The Black Keys’ fine El Camino, which didn’t factor in the top 50 lists of Mojo orUncut at all. That’s likely because those magazines go to press earlier than the French magazine’s music year end issue does, in November and thus they don’t consider albums released in December for their lists. (El Camino was released in early December in the UK and North America). I’m betting it would have qualified though as The Black Keys’ previous album Brothers was in Mojo’s top ten of 2010 (number eight) and placed at number 28 in Uncut’s Top 50. To my mind that taints the British lists, though the album may end up on their best of 2012 lists as most of its sales and presence would be in 2012 calendar year. Back home in the U.S., El Camino did place highly in publications like The Village VoiceTime magazine,SpinRolling Stone and (online) Paste magazine.

What’s most apparent, and the point of this post, is the diversity and wide variety of the choices made by the music critics in Europe and, in fact, in North America, too. (I haven’t even mentioned the Canadian lists which featured other groups not mentioned by the Europeans or Americans.) Simply put, there is so much music out there, and of such high quality, that the music critics can’t help but be so opposed from each other. Compare them to film critics whose Best of the Year lists, in publications ranging from Film Comment to The New York Times to online outlets like Reverse Shot, generally fall into two slots. Either they’re a bit more populist, citing accessible films like The Descendants and Midnight in Paris on their lists (People magazine, Rolling Stone) or they stick to the art house end of the spectrum which means films like Meek’s Cutoff and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Reverse ShotThe Village Voice – Film Comment straddled both divides). There really isn’t much differentiation between most of the film critics’ lists, likely because there aren’t that many movies to choose from in the first place and also because film critics tend to think alike for the most part, which is why films (falsely) deemed failures like Steven Spielberg’s terrific War Horse rarely show up on their lists. To be fair, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to record an album than to make a film so there will be more of the former out there in the marketplace. But that also means music critics can range far and wide to explore new avenues of sounds instead of sitting back and simply watching and reviewing what gets released each year in their territories, as most film critics do. Music critics may also be naturally more open to different works that challenge them than the lemming-like film reviewers I see plying their trade. (Ironically, the actual quality of the music criticism on tap isn't the selling point here. The album reviews in Mojo and Uncut, with the exception of the odd write-up by Sylvie Simmons or Barney Hoskyns, are the weakest aspect of the magazines, which I purchase for their usually good historical overviews/profiles and for the accompanying CDs, which turn me on to new and old music with which I am likely not familiar. Music critics on the level of the late Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus are few and far between though Critics at Large is particularly lucky to have a music critic, John Corcelli, whose interests run more of a gamut than most of his fellow music reviewers.) The majority of film critics don’t have the wherewithal to regularly attend film festivals in order to consume the full panoply of available movies. Yet, even if they could, the other sad fact of the matter is what’s out there cinematically is overall of generally weak, even abysmal quality, as my posts from last year make quite clear.

I’ll admit to being jaded enough to dismiss most movies as not worthy of my time but I’d also bet that I haven’t missed too many good movies because of my prejudices in the process, either. Consider that I might have foolishly passed on three or four movies I should have seen, then add a couple of films that I never got to because they vanished from Toronto screens before I could check them out and then tally a handful of movies from 2011 that showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, which I no longer cover, and which didn’t get commercial release later. There’s also the odd movie like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which would have made my Best of 2011 list if I had seen it when it came out instead of early in 2012. But tops, maybe there were a dozen or so films that I would have written about favourably if I had caught them last year.

In comparative terms, I couldn’t even have heard to all the excellent music released in 2011. To do that, I would have had to go on a weekly basis to HMV and my local record shop Soundscapes and listened to the albums they feature on their listening posts each week – and who has time for that? It’s also a necessary thing to do since I never know if the fine tracks showcased on each month’s WORD CD (another British music magazine, but one whose written quality pales next to the aural delights contained in the monthly discs that come with each issue) is the best or only good track on the album or a harbinger of a comprehensive package worth purchasing. Yet if even only 20 per cent of the 180 annual WORDtracks featuring new music (15 on each monthly CD) and a percentage of the fine tracks on Uncut’s six or so new music discs and Mojo’s one or two new music discs, indicate an imperative buy, we’re talking about several dozen worthwhile new discs, minimum.

That’s not including artists not featured on magazine discs that I might discover on my own or be on the lookout for. Last year my favourite albums included strong follow ups to fine albums (The Black Key’s El Camino; Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver; Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs), a return to form after recent disappointments (Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What, Lucinda Williams’s Blessed, The Decemberists’s The King is Dead), fantastic reissues (Pink Floyd’s aurally brilliant editions of The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here), major compilations, such as the superb Late Night Tales series of modern jukeboxes (MidlakeMGMTTrentemøller) and reliable stalwarts like the World Music CD releases from the English Rough Guide label (The Rough Guide to African Guitar LegendsKlezmerEnglish Folk etc.). Then there were releases coming to CD for the first time such as the amazing Opika KendeAfrica at 78 RPM box set and other CDs featuring Cumbia music, Indonesian punk and numerous other world music compilations. If I didn’t discover any new artists or groups to fall in love with in 2011 (as I did with Bon Iver, Midlake, The National, Espers and others in the past), it’s because I didn’t have that time to check out the entire albums, whose single tracks, from Metronomy or Jonathan Richman, sounded so enticing. But my estimate is that there may be (each year) perhaps 100 worthwhile releases that I may or may not find out about. By any artistic standards, and more so in an age when we have access to more music than anyone in history, this is remarkable. Is it any wonder that I’d rather seek out new sounds then check out what’s playing at my local move house?

- originally published on April 13, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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