The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present
Edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber
Simon & Schuster, 208 pages
Ryan Schreiber was barely out of high school in 1995 when he began publishing reviews of obscure independent music on this newfangled thing called the Internet. His creation, Pitchfork Media, has been instructing indie geeks about what to like ever since. Pitchfork's overwritten-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness reviews make the online publication an easy target (Music blog Idolator used to run a regular "Pick of the Fork" feature in which readers guessed which lines came from a real Pitchfork review and which didn't; "for every bold crescendo, an incongruous tangent can disrupt the music's linearity" was, unfortunately, real) but despite its haughty attitude, the website knows what it's doing. A glowing review from Pitchfork can launch a band onto the college radio charts and beyond a 9.7 (out of 10) review of Arcade Fire's 2004 The Funeral propelled the album onto the Billboard 200. It sold so many copies that the album went out of print for a week. Conversely, a devastating review can kill an album.
Pitchfork has been publishing "best-of" lists for years (their annual singles and album wrap-ups are especially popular) so it seems natural that they'd turn their penchant for classifying and cataloging music into a book. The Pitchfork 500 uses 42 critics to cover 30 years of music, from 1977 punk to 2006 crunk, and all the starry-eyed, acoustic acts in between.
1. Journey: "Don't Stop Believing," 1981
"You can tell something about a person's relationship to popular music as a whole by how they feel about this song. Generally, people fall into two camps. If they have at one time considered it a "guilty pleasure," a dim-witted power ballad made by guys with bad haircuts to be enjoyed despite its inherent cheesiness, they probably identify most with indie music of some stripe. If they just plain like it and always have, then they've probably spent their lives enjoying whatever was on the radio. You'll notice no consideration of those who don't care for the song at all, because, well are there people like that?"
2. Nirvana: "Smells like Teen Spirit," 1991
"It's the Song that Broke Punk, the very incantation about self-despising entertainment that turned a dead-end Aberdeen kid into a supernova, the very last rock song everyone could rally around. (Check out the video of its first public performance on the With the Lights Out DVD; as soon as the drums kick in, the whole room learns how to levitate.) But the closer you listen, the more it sounds like straight pop. That four-power-chord sequence that never ever changes? It's got the rhythm from Boston's "More Than a Feeling," but it's not a riff anyone had heard before. If you'd asked one hundred Sex Pistols/Ramones wannabes how F-Bb-Ab resolves, one hundred of them would've told you it goes to C, duh. Kurt knocked the world on its ass by choosing Db instead. Turn up "Teen Spirit" even louder and the noise goes fractal, exposing the overdubs and high production values, and revealing the apotheosis of punk-rock authenticity as a magnificent simulation better than the real thing could ever be."
3. OutKast: "Hey Ya," 2003
In 2003, Atlanta's OutKast decided to resolve their creative differences by releasing a double album one disc for Big Boi to make lush, solid hip-hop, and another for Andre 3000 to follow his muse into scattershot, genre-mixing pop experiments. Big Boi may have steered clearer of potential embarrassment, but it was Andre's "Hey Ya" that sold both halves. Pop fans, rock fans, rap fans, children, Mennonites, high-school principals, the elderly, terrorists everybody loved this song. Animals loved it. Silverware loved it. You could play it in a forest with nobody to hear it and have complete faith that the very trees would throw up their branches.
Pitchfork 500's reviews have been pleasantly stripped of their supercilious phrases (well, for the most part one critic sounds like a high school student thumbing through a thesaurus when he deems the 1983 hit "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood "Fellini-esque") and its tributes to popular songs are exquisite. The review of Brian Eno's "1/1," tells how the bedridden singer's inability to reach the volume knob on his stereo led to the creation of an entire genre of "ambient music," and provides eager but inexpert music fans with a greater understanding of pop music's evolution. But the problem with the book and indeed with many music reviews is that unless the song is familiar, it fails to inspire. It's one thing to read about Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," but quite another to read about German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. The Pitchfork 500 has some gems hidden within its pages (bonus points for giving The B-52's "Private Idaho" the respect it deserves), as well as some questionable decisions (The Stone Roses' "I Wanna Be Adored" is way better than the book's choice of "She Bangs the Drums,") that can be chocked up to a matter of taste. But for the most part, the project comes off like a personal message that High Fidelity's Rob Gordon might obsessively attach to a mix-tape.
Speaking of, where's the sample CD, Pitchfork?!
The Verdict: Skim