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We Are Worthy
Getting a Grip On Da Capo's Best Music Writing Series

By Scott Woods

A track record of three years hardly constitutes an annual event, but it's tempting nonetheless to imagine Da Capo's Best Music Writing series as a necessary yearly fix, a more "literary" counterpart if you will to the Pazz & Jop poll, the Hall of Fame inductions, and the goddamn Grammys. If Da Capo succeed in further legitimizing the prickly world of pop criticism, then so be it; as Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose once said, it's too late to turn back now. And on a purely practical level: as the person behind this web site, whose self-appointed (lately somewhat onerous) mission is to catalog all that's good and bad in this profession by mere process of quantification, it's nice to have someone else do all the truly hard work, to find only the "best" stuff out there and deliver it in a package that I can read on the subway.

So, yearly fix it is, and I look forward to many future editions in the series. Which is not to say that Da Capo had a winner out of the gate. The first volume, the Y2K edition edited by Peter Guralnick, was a bit of a letdown, though I gave my copy to my brother-in-law out West to review (which he did, positively), so I can't check back in to see if he was right and if I was in fact a little hasty in my judgment (highly possible, given that the folks at Da Capo didn't come to me for sage advice). I do remember at the time really only being persuaded by a couple pieces, most notably Sasha Frere-Jones's Run-D.M.C. essay, which accomplished something not enough feature length writing on music does: it taught me something about the subject (he vividly captured both the music and milieu of rap's first big breakout), and also something about the writer (his essay took the shape of a personal odyssey). There are no doubt some other good pieces in Volume 1, but overall there was something a bit dry about Guralnick's selection; I even had a difficult time wading through a previously unpublished Lester Bangs essay.

The 2001 edition, edited by Nick Hornby, was a noticeable improvement. Hornby was praised to the skies for his novel High Fidelity and stoned to the wall for crimes of criticism in his (presumably defunct) New Yorker column, but in his role as Da Capo Series Editor I thought he made some smart decisions. The second volume had more humour ("The Rock Snob's Dictionary"), more gusto (Metal Mike Saunders on Radio Disney, Meltzer on Cameron Crowe), and more, for lack of a better word, "controversy" (Eric Boehlert's anti-Eminem essay, the only piece of its type I've seen that actually came across as somewhat brave--as opposed to merely ridiculous--even if he is still dead wrong). There were pieces in the 2001 book that annoyed me (Jim DeRogatis's and Mike Doughty's, especially), but like Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine they were entertaining-in-spite-of-themselves annoyances, and they gave me license to toss the book across the room and indulge in a session of personal bitterness for an entire afternoon. Volume 2, in short, was more scattershot and less tidy than its predecessor. As it should've been.

And now comes Volume 3, this time edited by Jonathan Lethem, who I know very little about other than that he's written some widely acclaimed novels and that he penned what I thought was one of the best essays in Volume 2 ("Not a Go-Betweens Piece," a personal account of a group I know very little about other than that they released some widely acclaimed albums and were once the subject of a fine essay by Jonathan Lethem). I'm happy to say that Lethem (and co-editor Paul Bresnick--it's kind of unclear what all these credits mean) has upped the ante again. Not considerably, mind you, but enough to make me think that the series is still on an upswing and can only get better. (Assuming, of course, it doesn't just get worse.)

Before I single out some of the essays I like in Volume 3, let me chime in first with a small complaint, not about this edition but about the series in general. I'll probably come across as a chauvinist for saying so, but couldn't they just drop the premise of trying to cover (as per the series subtitle) "the year's finest writing on rock, pop, jazz, country, & more," and simply admit that what it really is is a series of books for fans of rock criticism (or "pop criticism," which I actually prefer)? Now hold on--I'm not suggesting that the editors should ignore worthy articles on bluegrass or world music or harpsichord hoedowns anymore than I would want to see them exclude Gary Giddins's Louis Armstrong essay in volume 3 because the subject matter is a dead guy with a trumpet and not some newbie with a pair of 1200s (though interestingly enough, Giddins's essay is as much about "pop" as it is about "jazz"). But I do detect a faint whiff of quota-fulfillment here, or even worse, a reflexive move towards (academic?) validation: you know, as in, this text you're holding in your hands is more than just another collection of a bunch of rock critics writing about that silly thing known as pop (so much for "the year of the rock critic" and getting it on with Kate Hudson, huh?). The fact is, pop music has a rich enough past, present, and presumably future to make it more than deserving of its own volume--surely jazz critics deserve their own yearly digest too?--and anyway, the word itself encompasses a multitude of meanings. So why the over-compensation? Maybe I just don't like wordy sub-titles.

As with the previous editions, the 2002 book can be divided into a multitude of forms, few of which adhere to the normal strictures of "record reviews"; those that do--like Kodwo Eshun on N*E*R*D and Luc Sante on the Round the Town box set--supersede the form with deeply insightful analysis. There are obituaries (both Carl Wilson and Lenny Kaye on Joey Ramone), superstar profiles (Kelefa Sanneh on Jay-Z), and exhaustive history lessons (RJ Smith on greyboy lounge lizard, Korla Pandit). There are genre summaries and genre macro-surveys (cf. Franklin Bruno's interesting piece on turntable sheet music). There's satire from The Onion and (ahem) poetry by Sasha Frere-Jones. And there's Greil Marcus, who makes yet another appearance--he's batting 1,000 in the series--with a post-9-11 Interview column on torch singer Kelly Hogan. At least one essay falls short of expectation (Nik Cohn on southern bounce), and two or three pieces I don't care for at all, though I suppose that's to be expected in a compilation of this sort. Still, I entered a few chapters in the book with no small amount of hesitation (I'll never understand the cult fascination with Roky Erickson), and I'm happy to report that the space between my ears is cleaner on the other side; i.e., I learned lots in places I didn't expect to. Finally, a handful of essays deserve special mention.

In "Walking on Thin Ice," Simon Reynolds manages to do something Greg Tate did in "Electric Miles," an essay he wrote for Downbeat on Miles Davis's fusion period (collected in Flyboy in the Buttermilk). Both writers make music I'm either not very familiar with (Davis) or even a little hostile towards (Radiohead) dance off the page, getting so deep into the sound and the ethos informing the sound it's hard not to want to get inside of it too. "Thin Ice" is an interview-profile, but it's a highly subjective and convincingly polemical one. This approach strikes me not as deceitful but as much more honest (certainly a lot more compelling) than the phony "objective observer" stances you normally get in musician profiles, while avoiding the other side of the fence, the look-at-who-I-got-to-hang-out-with-last-week school of rock reporting. Reynolds's piece also made me realize that one of the reasons I've probably disliked Radiohead so much since OK Computer is because they've been written about so badly: far-fetched, near-mystical twaddle from the pro side, cynical posturing from the cons. Lately, I've had a craving to give Kid A another shot.

Glancing through the 2001 edition, I note Monica Kendrick's byline on an essay about the Stooges' Fun House box set. I don't remember this essay leaving any huge impression at the time, but after reading Kendrick's essay, "Gimme Shelter," in Volume 3, I plan to go back to see if I missed anything. Kendrick's piece, like Marcus's, was written in the wake of 9-11, so there's actually a certain poignancy in the sentence, "When I sat down to write, all I could summon about Acid Mothers Temple was a mental picture of them stranded at O'Hare." What Kendrick gets at in this relatively short article about two or three bands is a whole peculiar strain of '90s alternative rock: gloriously tipped-over-the-edge-of-the-VU-meter psychedelic noise. She describes her White Light/White Heat epiphany thusly: "SCREEEEEEECH. Rupture as rapture."

Steve Erickson's "L.A.'s Top 100" is described by the author as "100 soundtracks for a city that has always liked to think of itself as utopia or 100 utopias." There's too much jazz on Erickson's list for my liking, and no disco (unless L.A. Style's near-forgotten "James Brown is Dead" counts), but lists like these are never wholly satisfying to a reader--it's the arguments they provoke that make them such fun--and this is a great reference piece and a worthy micro-companion to Marcus's Stranded discography. (The other night I heard Julie London's "Cry Me a River" in a movie theatre prior to the show, and immediately my mind turned to Erickson's perfect description: "Robert Johnson by way of Marilyn Monroe.")

Speaking of arguments, I'm glad Lethem stumbled upon I Love Music, the great chat board from which he reprints a Strokes thread. ("Does anybody know specifically where all this Strokes hype originated from?" asks David rather ominously in August 2001. "Is there a Ground Zero? Is there ever a Ground Zero?") Perhaps given that my own web-to-print music reading ratio is now something like 80-20, I have high hopes that future series Editors will look more to the Internet for source material. As I Love Music, Perfect Sound Forever, Pop Matters, and dozens upon dozens of blogs that run the gamut from crap to i n v a l u a b l e attest, this thing we call "rock writing" is radically shifting before our eyes (clichéd, but true), and in exactly 15 minutes from now everyone will be their own fanzine publisher.

All a pile of utopian malarkey? Maybe so, though I've certainly become something of an I Love Music junkie myself in the last year, especially during down time (or fake down time) at my real job. Like any chat board on the web, ILM, and its sister site, I Love Everything, can be pretty hit or miss at times, and the Strokes stuff reprinted here is not one of the best threads I've come across; in fact, it's not even one of the better Strokes threads I've seen there (though if you think I'm gonna do the leg work now and direct you to a better one, forget it). But it's one of the few pieces in the Da Capo series (actually, wouldn't you just know it, DeRogatis's piece in Volume 2 does this also) where people actually chat and argue with other people about music, and make up weird hypotheses and then try and back those hypotheses up while someone else tries to shoot them down with a better hypotheses, etc., etc. It's less like "writing" and more like talking--or rather, it blurs the distinction between the two--and that can only be a good thing.

In his introduction to the book, Lethem says of I Love Music that "much of the impromptu chatter is as good as the best magazine writing," but I think he could be a lot more generous; the "impromptu" chatter over there is often far better than almost all magazine or newspaper writing on music these days, and if Da Capo's next Editor decides to re-title the 2003 edition of the book, Da Capo's Best 'I Love Music' Arguments, 2003, I, for one, won't complain.