Project X Plays with Some Of “Our Favorite Things”

Michaelangelo Matos | June 20, 2008 12:00 pm

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. In this installment, he talks about the way experimental-music quarterly Signal To Noise broke free from the typical listicle template:

You’d have knocked over the teenager I used to be by saying so, but goddamn have I gotten sick of listicles. I buy the better-looking ones and spy in on those more obvious, the ones in the big music magazines. I’ve written and/or contributed to a number of them myself, not counting this column; my life was more or less changed by them. So feeling like I’m over them does not come lightly. But it seems more and more as if they’ve hit critical mass. Even Blender isn’t doing them much anymore (as our outed Anonodude has mentioned), which is sort of like Madonna not releasing singles. Maybe the listicle is finally finished.

Or maybe the formula just needs to be put to rest. At this point, listicles–most of them, anyway–have become numbingly predictable. Take Blender‘s 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums Ever list from a while back. The only surprising thing about that was that people were actually surprised by it. Of course No. 1 was Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted–let’s see, it placed 16th in the Spin Alternative Record Guide‘s Top 100 back in 1995, after it had only been out three years. Then it was fifth in Spin‘s Top 90 Albums of the ’90s, and fourth in its Top 100 Albums 1985-2005. (I contributed to the latter, though not the Pavement entry.) What were the chances that it wasn’t going to place highly on the Blender list? The listicle has become much the same as the pop charts themselves: mostly the same old shit, over and over again, without any real divergences, and lacking any real individual viewpoint.

That’s the major reason I like the cover package of Signal to Noise‘s 50th issue so much. I don’t always read this magazine closely: most of it is about improv and jazz, not styles I know much about, and its out-rock and electronica coverage tends to pass me by, though I’ll note the new issue has an interesting profile of East Orange, N.J., freeform radio station WFMU. (I’ll also note I’ve written one piece for STN, a jukebox feature with Jace Clayton, a.k.a. DJ /rupture, in 2002–the last time they ran one, as I recall. Too bad–I enjoy jukebox features wherever they run. I even like the Seattle Weekly‘s recent twist on it, in which artists respond to chunks of reviews of their own albums.) But publisher/editor Pete Gershon is an exceptionally warm guy in my limited email experience with him, and his commitment and enthusiasm are obvious and inspiring. And the Summer 2008 issue has a great premise: “Our Favorite Things: Signal to Noise writers and extended family throw open their closet doors and share 50 of their most-cherished musical possessions.” The Things are not presented in any special order, as far as I can tell, but they’re numbered, so here are the first 10 items chosen (writers in parentheses):

1. Duke Ellington Orchestra autographed photo (John Chacona) 2. Two free jazz posters (Martin Davidson, Emanem Records) 3. Muscle Shoals Sound tee-shirt (Kandia Crazy Horse) 4. Jimmy Giuffre interview cassettes (Alain Drouot) 5. 78 RPM record by unknown artist (Adam Lore, 50 Miles of Elbow Room) 6. Lead pipe left behind at Faust concert (Andrew Choate) 7. Misha Mengelberg’s piano stool leg (Dan Warburton) 8. “Graydog” (Kurt Gottschalk) 9. The Azusa Plane’s “For Claudia Cardinale” 7-inch (Ian Nagosk) 10. Tibetan thighbone trumpet (David Cotner)

You can see where this is going. A lot of the writing rambles–and it should. That’s that this kind of thing is made for. It’s favorites, not “greatest of all time,” and it’s stuff that means to these writers what it could to no one else. So they try to explain why, and in the process, they explain themselves.

This resonates, because much of what and why we love what we do as listeners depends on serendipity–of being in the right place at the right time, ready to have our expectations met or to be blindsided, however it happened. How it happens is the real story much of the time, especially if you’re dealing with stuff that isn’t poised for crossover. And STN‘s contributors write as if that’s the starting point, even if they were heading in this stuff’s direction before they knew how the rules were supposed to work. Take No. 38, Erik Davis’ “vintage copy of John Fahey’s The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party LP.” It belonged to his father, a Berkeley folkie whose Kingston Trio titles the eight-year-old Erik never cared for. But he flipped for Dad’s Faheys: “They seemed magisterial and lovely and strange, and the lack of wards let my mind ‘a wander.” Davis’s choice, though, stands in for a missing object, and he puts it in words that are funny, cutting, and jump off the page: “[T]he heirloom I would much rather be writing about here [is] Pop’s old banjo, jettisoned somewhere along the way because my step-mom said it smelled like a goat.”

Such regret is rare here, though. Much of it is unabashedly nostalgic: The Big Takeover editor/publisher Jack Rabid’s salute to his cherished issue of the punk ‘zine Search & Destroy (No. 13) is precisely what you’d expect (“Search & Destroy taught readers how liberating and fun it is to take part in culture, rather than absorbing it passively through endless electronic devices. I hope my own mag does, today”), and nice to read for precisely that reason. Then there’s Susan Archie’s 12-inch by Patti Smith: “I came in contact with Lenny Kaye … I sent him the Goodbye, Babylon box i designed for Dust-to-Digital and he asked what I would like in return. I asked, ‘By any chance, do you have any copies of “Hey Joe”?'”

In the spirit of election season, I’m going to give equal time here. The new Blender isn’t unusual, though I enjoyed more of it than usual, particularly Rob Sheffield’s Erasure column. What caught my eye was something written (without byline, as is increasingly the case throughout the magazine’s front of book) about No. 10 in the mag’s monthly 33 Most Wanted Songs in America:

1. Lil Wayne, “Lollipop” (Cash Money) 2. Danity Kane, “Damaged” (Bad Boy) 3. Mariah Carey, “Bye Bye” (Island Def Jam) 4. Clay Aiken, “On My Way Here” (RCA) 5. Vanessa Hudgens, “Sneakernight” (Hollywood) 6. Madonna, “4 Minutes” (Warner Bros.) 7. Three 6 Mafia, “Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)” (Columbia/Hypotize Minds) 8. Motley Crue, “Saints of Los Angeles” (Motley) 9. Chris Brown, “Take You Down” (Jive) 10. Taylor Swift, “Picture to Burn” (Big Machine)

Over a picture of Swift at a vintage mike clutching a rhinestone-studded acoustic, it says, “Dudes: Let Taylor Swift drive your truck, OK? If you don’t, she’ll write one of her signature breakup songs (like this one) about how she’s going to exact her revenge.”

Here’s what struck me: this is precisely the kind of thing you say about someone who’s been releasing singles from the same album for a year and a half. Which is to say, it’s an explication of how her persona has evolved, as much as on what we think of as its basic premise. You don’t get to write a “signature breakup song” unless you’re on your third one, at least; you don’t get a “signature” anything, usually, until your second album. That’s the difference between paying attention to singles versus paying attention to albums. With albums, you’re absorbing the work as a whole, thus precluding the need to see how its components play out in the public sphere.

This sort of happened to me last year. I bought Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad, played it a number of times, and picked “Don’t Stop the Music” as my favorite long before it had any traction outside of Billboard‘s Dance Club Play chart in terms of public recognition. By the time the song hit on the radio, etc., I was unmoved: What took everyone else so long?, I wondered. That wouldn’t be the case with Taylor Swift, were I of the same apparent mind and interests as the Blender blurb.

I’m not sure I am: I haven’t cared much for the little Taylor Swift I’ve heard. But the ongoing drama of pop as public discussion is a lot of its appeal. And I’d argue that a lot of people have gone back to being interested in it because, in part, of the way the diffused listening we’ve been hearing (and arguing) so much about lately. Certainly American Idol‘s popularity has helped as well. And it’s obviously in Blender‘s interest, as the magazine that most aggressively sells itself to the average pop fan, to discuss it in those terms. Which is fine with me, especially now that they’ve finally gotten rid of that stupid “Your music buddy” tag.