Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year
By Jason Gross
- Chris Anderson: "The Long Tail" (Wired, October 2004)
The online music revolution is going to change the business, not only in the way that music is bought and sold but in regards to what's available too. The good news for collectors is that they'll have a lot more choices thanks to low overhead. The good news for the record companies is that the amount of collectors out there will keep them afloat for years to come.
- Bob Arnold: "Patti Smith: The Art of Trampin" (Longhouse, April 24, 2004)
A very poignant and thoughtful reading of Ms. Smith: why her being a feminist (and a punk) is a misnomer, and why her last few albums are as meaningful to her art as her beloved early records.
- Michael Azerrad: "Punk's Earnest New Mission" (New York Times, January 4, 2004)
Important for a number of reasons, including the revelation that there's no research done on the positive effects of rock/punk music. "...Therapy rock claims to report from the front lines of suburbia. In other words, it's cool to be bummed out. And it sure sells records."
- James Best: "You Failed Hip-Hop" (East Bay Express, February 25, 2004)
Hip-hop has been around for almost thirty years now, so it would be pretty amazing if it didn't go through some cycles and lulls and such. Also, Jay-Z and André 3000 are two of its best-selling stars (who both said they want out), but they're still just two people in the biz--that doesn't mean it's a rapid exodus. André has been talking about all kinds of plans like going back to school and starting a jazz group, which probably means that he's still figuring out what he really wants to do with his life after making it big. That doesn't mean that he'll necessarily follow through with these things--he might just do a non-split Outkast record next time.
- Bill Borrows: "Just The Teeniest Brit Of Jealousy" (The Daily Mirror, September 25 2004)
For all of us who're wondering why Britney has lasted long after her appointed 15 minutes of fame. "Every man of a certain age...remembers where he was and what he was doing the first time he saw the video for 'Baby One More Time.' He might be more reticent when you ask him what he was doing the second time he watched it."
- Todd Boyd: "Hip-hop Till You Drop" (Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2004)
In the wake of Jay-Z's announced retirement, it's comforting to know that rap does have the potential to grow old gracefully. I don't know if we're ready yet for "Biggie Smalls With Strings," though.
- Dan Brown: "What Will the Music of the Future Sound Like?" (CBC News Online, March 11, 2004)
Here's a side of the download issue that doesn't get discussed: the music itself and what's going to be the effect of the latest technology.
- R. L. Burkhead: "The Short Stories and Lyrics of Two Contemporary Writers: Steve Earle & Rosanne Cash, Part One" (Pop Matters, Autumn 2004)
Though it plays up the romantic notion of Earle and Cash as commercial outsiders, this does a brilliant job of delving into their worldviews, via songs.
- Jeff Chang: "This Ain't No Party" (Alternet, June 25, 2004)
Even more than his righteous story that picks apart Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2003 book ("Return of the White Noise Supremacists"--The Guardian, January 8, 2004), this is what really makes Chang a hero. I could give a f-ck whether this is non-objective journalism or not as he's so involved in the subject he's reporting on. He still does a great job detailing the highs and lows of the Hip-hop convention and provides inspiration to anyone who's lost faith in the American political system in the face of Dubya's autocratic rule.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Crouching Stanley, Hidden Gangsta" (July 24, 2004, Village Voice)
Tracking Stanley Crouch's hypocritical stance of crying about gangsta thugs and then administering his own beat-downs of other writers. Actions do indeed speak louder than words.
- Richard Dyer: "Sometimes A Crossover Attempt Can Make A Good Voice Go Bad" (Boston Globe, January 25, 2004)
The vocal box trips up ambitious and hungry folks who try to jump from classical to pop and back. The Three Tenors, Bing Crosby, and Al Jolson have all been vexed by their gifts as such.
- Mary Eberstadt "Eminem Is Right" (Policy Review, December 2004)
Silly title for an article that should be called "The Kids Aren't Alright," examining the popular theme of the dysfunctional family in recent rock and rap music. Great decade-old quote that still hits home, from Eddie Vedder: "Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman--that must be a pretty f-ed up generation, don't you think?" To which Eberstadt adds, "As it turned out, Cobain and Vedder were only the beginning." A shame that she spends so much time vilifying rappers while using kid-gloves on all the rockers she notes. Also, have we forgotten the '70s sensitive folkies who played up the father/son split, i.e., Harry Chapin and Cat Stevens?
- Laila El-Haddad: "Music Amid the Din of War" (Al Jazeera, January 7, 2004)
In the middle of one of the most vicious civil wars in recent history (in the Gaza strip), a music teacher perseveres with music instruction, even though most of his people find it insulting for him to so in such circumstances. His response? "We hope for music to have a large role in society because it is the language of communication between societies and is the most expressive of all languages."
- Robert Everett-Green: "Don't Composers Know It's Christmas?" (Globe & Mail, December 21, 2004)
You thought Brother Ray was blasphemous? He just followed in a long tradition of dragging religious music out of the church and into the realm of us heathens. Also, it turns out that Christmas wasn't such a big idea in history until recently. In many parts of the world, it still isn't.
- Andrew Ferguson: "Radio Silence" (Weekly Standard, June 14, 2004)
A.K.A. "How NPR purged classical music from its airwaves." Fascinating that such a conservative publication would question the wisdom of the Gipper and the commercialization of public radio and the changing role of 'public service.' Consultant David Giovannoni makes the perfect villain here and he's totally unrepentant: "A lot of these people are living in the past. They see themselves as educators. They go back to that early tradition of educational radio, when the object was to teach people something about the music...That's not the way public radio understands public service today."
- Richard Florida: "Creative Class War" (Washington Monthly, January 15, 2004)
If the GOP was really concerned about economic growth, they’d drop their cultural war façade and heed this unfairly-reviled report which shows the importance of the artisan class they ignorantly fear.
- Patrick Goldstein: "The Zipping Point" (Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2004)
How is media consolidation related to the uproar over media indecency? Big conglomerates are less responsive to outcries, local needs, and concerns.
- Gloria Goodall: "Expect More 'Oops' on Live TV" (Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 2004)
Why the Janet/Justin incident wasn't just an accident but a sign of the times and a calculated move, orchestrated more by the network(s) than by the performers themselves. Not to mention those guardians of the American way, the FCC, who (as Moses Avalon pointed out) are going to help the U.S. government spend more on investigating the incident than the intelligence failures in the Middle East that have cost thousands of lives. Also see Kay McFadden's sharp article "CBS Fine Fires up Desires for Strict Federal Nanny" (Seattle Times, Sept 27, 2004), where we learn how politicians and pollsters are shamelessly exploiting "Nipplegate."
- Richard Harrington: "The Soul of a Genius" (Washington Post, June 11, 2004)
Probably the most touching, righteous tribute to Brother Ray. Close contenders include Mark Anthony Neal's "A Pillar of Soul" (Africana, June 15, 2004) and the Jon Pareles obit in the Times ("Ray Charles, Who Reshaped American Music, Dies at 73" (June 10, 2004): "Even in his early years he sounded like a voice of experience, someone who had seen all the hopes and follies of humanity. Leaping into falsetto, stretching a word and then breaking it off with a laugh or a sob, slipping into an intimate whisper and then letting loose a whoop, Mr. Charles could sound suave or raw, brash or hesitant, joyful or desolate, insouciant or tearful, earthy or devout."
- Robert Hilburn: "Rock's Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door" (Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004)
Surprisingly revealing (and lengthy) Dylan interview about his songwriting craft, and much better than his sit-down with 60 Minutes. "Blowin' in the Wind" was only written in 10 minutes? One of the most influential and covered songwriters of the last century also claims, "My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter family songs or variations of the blues form"? Well, at least he has good source material...
- Earl Ofari Hutchinson: "Rapper 50 Cent's Gay Problem" (AlterNet, March 18, 2004)
A stinging indictment of gangsta rap's homophobia and what might be at the root of it.
- Mark Jenkins: "Unhooked on the Classics" (Washington City Paper, August 6, 2004)
"Technical issues aside, the most provocative thing about the post-copyright era is how it will affect the rock canon. Yes, there is one, but now it's governed mostly by the performers themselves. Once control of the music slips to scholars, enthusiasts, and hucksters, things will change. Forgettable songs may vanish, concept albums could be cannibalized, and the legacies of lesser acts might be reduced to a single song. Then someday, a daring revisionist could reintroduce songs, forms, or performers that have been entirely forgotten, the way the 'early music' movement challenged the classical establishment's fixation on 18th and 19th-century symphonic and chamber music. And sometime around 2015, perhaps in Slovenia, a prankster will be able to compile legally a Sonny & Cher compilation and not pay a cent to Bono's heirs."
- Jeff Johnson: "The Hometown Blues" (Chicago Sun Times, April 6, 2004)
Fascinating portrait of the state of Chicago Blues today and how its appeal to white audiences has both nurtured and hurt it. It's a shame that there’s too little information about how blues was always an impure form and too much information about the Blues Brothers revival, though.
- Jim Kappes: "Boosters Are for Rocket Ships, Have No Place in Critics' World" (Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 2, 2004)
Knocking the myth that 'small town' papers do local arts a disservice by being critical of them and expecting certain standards. Also see Laurence A. Johnson's "Music Criticism Should Be Sharp, Not Flat" (Sun-Sentinel, July 25, 2004).
- Julia Keller: "The Great Divide" (Chicago Tribune, January 25, 2004)
Harold Bloom squares off against Stephen King in the dying gasp of elitist snobs everywhere, ready to man the barracks against the uncouth hoards. As Pogo once warned, "We have met the enemy and it is ourselves."
- Philip Kennicott: "Divided They Stand" (Washington Post, September 12, 2004)
Brilliant piece outlining the perils of old art (trying to please as many as possible but having no distinct form) and new art (drawing lines in the sand and threatening to alienate potential audiences) in politically fraught times, like now.
- Patrick J. Kiger: "The Golden Age of Mediocrity" (Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2004)
The word 'genius' is so overused today it's become meaningless. So what actually is a 'genius'? Britney? Eminem? Tarantino? Cobain? None of the above?
- Greg Kot: "Clubs and the City"
(Chicago Tribune, February 15, 2004)
The fallout from the E2 club fire/tragedy is that the rest of Chicago's clubs are getting clamped down by the city and its cultural nightlife is being slowly, painfully choked. Windy City residents shouldn't be the only ones who are alarmed because Chicago exports a lot of good music, and in the end, we all lose out. Excellent, detailed reporting about this problem from a writer who obviously cares deeply about his city's music scene.
- Kenneth LaFave "Will the Next Mozart Please Stand Up?" (The Arizona Republic, December 3, 2004)
Pondering the next big idea in classical music, LaFave asks, "Isn't it strangely irrelevant to wonder about what direction new classical music is going, when living composers are given so little attention?" Ultimately, he concludes that the next big idea will be no idea and that we are heading into a post-styles world that banishes barriers. Wishful thinking perhaps, but still intriguing. And where does he find the most articulate spokesman for his theory? Philip Glass? John Rockwell? Nope, it's movie star and martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
- Mark Lawson: "Has Swearing Lost Its Power to Shock?" (Guardian Unlimited, February 5, 2004)
Since Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi" back in the 1890s, it's been harder and harder to rile an audience with a naughty word. It isn't just that we're more tolerant, but also that we understand context better, as Lawson argues. A great bit of investigative semantics.
- Norman Lebrecht: "A Critical Gap" (La Scena Musicale, March 31, 2004)
As much as I love this article, I have to partially defer to Kyle Gann here: "Lebrecht's making a point that has been a frequent topic at Music Critic's Association panels, and made many, many times by American critics, including myself: that the one-newspaper-per-city system robs arts discourse of liveliness and grants too much power to the critic, who is then afraid to use it. And I'm sure Lebrecht has never read an American alternative newspaper from any city, and has no idea what role they play."
- Bob Lefsetz: "Led Zeppelin II" (Musicthoughts Mailing List, March 24, 2004)
Any editor probably would have tightened this up a lot (even people on the list complain about this), but the enthusiasm and detail in this entry are strong and persuasive enough to make you dig out the record and hear it again. Isn't that what great music scribing is supposed to do? Runners up include Lefsetz's lowdown on early Joni Mitchell and CSN, "Lay Me Down" (Musicthoughts, July 13, 2004) where he comes up with this extraordinary connection: "The first Crosby, Stills and Nash record was the Appetite For Destruction of its day. A snapshot of the life of twentysomethings in Los Angeles" (wonder if Axl would agree?). Also, "My Favorite Who Track" (Musicthoughts, November 16, 2004) where he goes on an extended tease about what it might be, leading us through a journey of wonderful, obscure Who tracks until we learn what a Quadrophenia fan he is.
- Lawrence Lessig: "Some Like it Hot" (Wired, March 2004)
Subtitle: "OK, P2P is 'piracy.' But so was the birth of Hollywood, radio, cable TV, and (yes) the music industry." Edison didn't 'invent' the phonograph or motion pictures--he just got rights to it after they had been developed by others. In essence, he pirated these inventions for himself and got the rights, credit, fame, and money. Also see Wallace Wang's modest proposal, "Let's Sue Everybody" (SC Magazine, December 1, 2004) and David Page's review of Lessig's new book ("Free Culture Vs. Big Media" (Reason, November 2004)).
- Catharine Lumby: "Pop Goes the Culture" (The Age, January 20, 2004)
Why popular culture isn't as crass as we've been led to believe, and why it's not necessarily bad for us.
- Mac Net V2 Staff: "The Music Man - King Of The Pirates Has A Goal: Own It All!" (Mac Net V2, November 11, 2004)
"Doug" (as he's called) is on a mission to collect all of the digital music out there. He's up to 900,000 songs so far and he's got a house full of connections and servers to aide him. Seems like a human interest story, but this virtual librarian has some complex, interesting, and noteworthy opinions on piracy and the industry. To start with, out of moral compulsion, he refuses to share his collection with anyone. Even his kids.
- Michaelangelo Matos "Restless Hello" (Seattle Weekly, November 17, 2004)
A sharp take not just on the recent flood of Dylan material in print and CD but the ever-growing cult that grows up around an elusive figure that intriguingly peels back the curtain of his life and work in ways that Madonna or Britney should take note of.
- Melinda Mattos and Nicole Cohen: "Your Voice in Print" (Toronto Star, June 15, 2004)
The editors of the fine publication Shameless ("for girls who get it") lay out the ways and means for any committed journalistic nut to do their own 'zine. In a time when so many national magazines are struggling, cutting back, and closing, Mattos and Cohen make it seem to easy to go the DIY route. Try this at home, kids...
- Edward Morris: "Rednecks On the Rebound--Gretchen Wilson Tapping Into Popular Stereotype" (CMT, June 25, 2004)
A very smart piece not only on the appeal of Wilson's hit but on the history and etymology of the 'redneck.' When you think about it, that word has a twisted history that almost rivals other abused phrases that are sometimes used as a badge of pride: 'nigger' or 'faggot' or 'dyke' for instance.
- William Osborne: "Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill" (Arts Journal, March 11, 2004)
Some eye-opening differences between how the U.S. government and European governments see the arts and how they effect the rest of society. Many of the conclusions deserve an ovation. But some of it definitely doesn't, hence its inclusion also in the "Ignobles" section below.
- Jon Pareles: "A Scrappy Underdog Challenges MTV" (New York Times, October 29, 2004)
An insightful look at how Fuse is trying to take on MTV on its own turf. Either network would be wise to take notes here. While it's implied that Fuse's problem is smaller resources (dough), you have to wonder what it would do if the playing field was more level.
- James Poniewozik: "The Age of iPod Politics" (Time, September 27, 2004)
It's a shame that American's varied and (mostly) laissez-faire listening habits don't match its not-so-varied and far-from laissez faire politics.
- Devon Powers: "Black Like Me" (Pop Matters, April 14 2004)
Not only why the band TV on the Radio is confusing some scribes by virtue of being a black alternative rock band but also why the field of music scribedom is skewed to misunderstand such niceties.
- Lucy Raven: "Death Wish Soundtrack" (Sound Collector Audio Review, No. 5, Spring/Summer 2004)
Reviews done as illustrations isn't exactly an original idea (the Savage Pencil has been doing the same for years) but writer/artist Raven ties Herbie Hancock's soundtrack well into the plot of the movie. This is made especially compelling by the drawings themselves, especially the final scene with Bronson's finger gun. You still might not dig Hancock's work here but just the fact that Raven could send you racing back to reconsider it speaks to the power of this piece.
- Daniel Rubin: "The Walkman Turns 25" (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 10, 2004)
How a little tape recorder changed our lives in many ways. We would never hear music the same and the MP3 player probably wouldn't have existed otherwise. Marshall McLuhan would definitely approve. For a kind of stuffy but poignant rebuttal, see "Sony Walkman--Music to Whose Ears?" by Norman Lebrecht (July 26, 2004, La Scena Musicale).
- Greg Sandow: "View from the East: How We Can Save the World" (NewMusicBox, February 2004)
One of the few people who works as an active print advocate for change in the classical world. Maybe it's a little too obvious that the folks who support the old European classics are trying to make a snobbish statement about how superior and refined they are. Still, I give Sandow a lot of credit for imagining and suggesting a better world where 20th and 21st century composers get their due in the concert hall.
- Beth Scalet: "Writing Protest Songs" (MusicThoughts, July 30, 2004)
Nothing short of a full-length book would do justice to the subject, but it's definitely useful and instructive to hear a perspective from a singer/songwriter, especially one who's willing to not just toast the style but also bring up some of its short-comings.
- David Segal: "Requiem for the Record Store" (Washington Post, February 7, 2004)
Downloading isn't the only thing killing off the mom-and-pop stores; you can thank Walmart and Best Buy for that honor as well.
- Dan Strachota: "Three Dirty Letters" (East Bay Express, July 7, 2004)
A neat explanation about how any speech might now be prosecuted thanks to the FCC's newest rules on radio. Also see Stephen Labaton's "Indecency on the Air, Evolution Atop the FCC" (New York Times, December 23, 2004) which picks apart all of the recent FCC flip-flops and self-righteous totalitarianism.
- Daniel Turek: "iPod vs. The Cassette" (No Name No Slogan, August 2004)
A very funny, poignant photo essay about the limits of music technology.
- Scott Timberg: "Middle Management" (Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2004)
"Take it to the bridge"? Not if the bridge is out, as it is in a lot of pop music today. Here's a celebration of this little-acknowledged section of great songs.
- Jim Walsh: "Ooh La La" (City Pages, May 26, 2004)
The touching tale of Soul Asylum's Karl Mueller and his losing battle with throat cancer. With a tracheotomy tube sticking out of his throat, he's only able to communicate with a note pad. After being helped onstage, he's able to join his bandmates for a few songs. He scribbles down some people to thank later and then insists, "Can we make those Thank You's not look like album credits?"
- Nicole White And Evelyn McDonnell: "Police Secretly Watching Hip-hop Artists" (Miami Herald, March 9, 2004)
Excellent gum-shoe work about a despicable subject. Since the feds are tracking rap stars, does that mean Will Smith, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and MC Hammer are in their crosshairs?
- Carl Wilson: "The Prince of Hip-hop Rolls His Eyes at Hip Pop" (Globe and Mail, January 15, 2004)
Prince Paul purposely flubs his latest concept album, and why that's good and bad news for the hip-hop nation. Great internal monologue here, too. Another contender would be Wilson's "Political Music Beyond the Protest Song" (Globe and Mail, July 15, 2004), where he wonders aloud about what makes a song truly political and when is or isn't a performer's ego overpowering the message.
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Jump to the section of your choice:
1. Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year
2. Superior Scribing Awards: Other Great Pieces of Music Journalism
3. Non-Music/Musical Stories: Great Writing About the Other Arts
4. Amazing Stories in and of Themselves
5. The Ignoble Prizes: Worst Music Writing of the Year