The Pitchfork 500 -- Edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber (Fireside)
I'm sure I'm not the only person who, upon hearing that Pitchfork was putting out a book of the top 500 songs since 1977, thought that those Pitchfork boys (and boys is appropriate -- only five women contribute to this tome) had gotten a little big for their collective britches. It's easy to take shots at Pitchfork, since it has become the dominate website for all things indie music. But this book, although flawed, reflects very well on the website.
It turns out that making this a top 500 songs book was a pretty ingenious idea. On the surface, it seemed like this would create more controversy than a list of the top 500 albums. In fact, it is a lot less controversial. This is primarily due to the inherent absurdity of identifying the top 500 songs out of the umpteen million released in the past 30 years. Might as well make the list the top 1000, or 2000, or...you get the point.
Anyway, what's great about the concept is that it lends itself to storytelling in a way that might not be as easy with albums. While this book could be considered a reference, it's really just the tale of punk and its indie aftermath. In choosing the songs, the Pitchfork folks cover a lot of ground as rock music exploded into seemingly hundreds upon hundreds of subgenres. Are there songs that are missing? Well, yes and no. It's silly to quibble over the songs, for the most part, and amongst the songs I knew, there are only a few really head scratching selections.
The book is divided into chapters which chronicle a slice of a few years. The songs are then discussed, but not in a strict chronology. Each chapter tends to group songs by style or genre, winding around a bit (from hip-hop to indie to electronic to reggae to pop to hip hop to death metal and so on). I like how they did this as it emphasizes the variety that became the norm in the post-punk era and is greater than ever today.
Every chapter has a sidebar that focuses on a genre or some other aspect of music (like songs where bands jump the shark or obscure genres). Most of these pieces are worthwhile, though it would have been helpful if the writers didn't presume that a reader would know what every subgenre is. A little description would help. A couple of these pieces try to be funny, and they aren't. Leave that for The Onion.
The writing is inconsistent, but if you read Pitchfork reviews regularly, that shouldn't be a big surprise. One problem is that there is no single approach to the entries. Do you talk about what the song sounds like? Or why it was influential? Or the background of the artist? Or something else? Admittedly, there's probably no one correct way to do this, but some entries certainly fail to explain why the song being written about is special.
That being said, the percentage of well written pieces is fairly high. In many respects, writing about an album is a lot easier than focusing a few hundred words on a song. It's the difference between summarizing twelve songs in a long paragraph, versus really going in depth on one track.
So this isn't the greatest piece of rock writing out there. Nevertheless, I really liked this book. While it's not a classic reference book, it is a great overview. While there may be some folks who know every type of music in this book in depth, for the vast majority of us rock fans, this provides a slew of recommendations to follow up on. After the holiday season is over, I'm going to be checking out a lot of the hip hop, electronic and dance tracks to add to my surface knowledge in those styles.
Any time a music book gets me interested in checking out new (to me) music, it's a success. I can't quite call The Pitchfork 500 essential, but if you want to expand your horizons, it's worth checking out.