04 December 2007


or, stars of the burial field, and their untrue refinement of the sublime

i've got a question, it's serious as cancer. ok, it's not, but it's mildly interesting: why are the top three slots on metacritic's best-reviewed albums of 2007 list occupied by three obscure electronica albums? one german, one american, one british. all decidedly obscure to the general public, as compared to for instance current top-five runners-up robert plant and radiohead. and all relatively unheralded, at least until recently, even in online music circles; only one of the three even has an amg review yet. (whoa - it was a billboard #2 new age album.) (and, admittedly, i've only heard one, though i know essentially what the others sound like.) so what's going on here?

is 2007 a banner year for techno? has last year's impressive showing of support for the knife's silent shout blossomed into a full-on resurgence of interest in electronic music. possibly so - did i actually get around to trumpeting the return of big beat? (more vulgarly known as electro-house or blog house or, i guess, new rave - yknow, justice and simian and dgtlsm and that?) cuz i'm pretty sure nobody else did.

but this is something else anyway - atmospheric, minimalist, not really dancey at all. nobody uses the term IDM anymore (almost nobody?) - which is a good thing - but it used to be synonymous with "ambient." "minimal'"s become meaningless (and is something else again.) john schenk and the kölnizers call it pop ambient, bedbugs calls it naptime, and i've been taking a cue from lullatone and thinking of it as pajama pop. pajambient? [i really enjoy the notion that this kind of music could be "pop" despite not foregrounding melody, harmony, or even rhythm.]

apart from the motley reigning trio - and if you want to get specific, burial's technically dubstep; stars of the lid are truly minimalist drone artists; and the field could reasonably be called trance or some hipper modifier thereof - eluvium's copia (#21 on the metacritic list with a metascore of [84]), pole's steingarten ([82] - it recently fell off the top 30), and pantha du prince's this bliss all occupy this general genrescape. (copia's probably the least similar - it's essentially non-electronic music made by an electronic artist. on that note, susumu yokota and colleen also released records this year.) the boundaries are blurry, but then so is the music.

but i'd contend that these kinds of electronic or electro-acoustic mood music, ambient/drone/what-have-you, are always around, as it were, in the background - or have been for decades, anyway - albeit only occasionally attracting attention. they were never likely to find mass appeal - a trend of widespread popular interest in them would just be illogical, although i suppose "new age" had its heyday. and it's such personal, intimate music (almost always made by individuals), and so subjective anyway in terms of quality, that it's difficult to construe in the context of a movement or a socially significant scene. if there is a phenomenon afoot - which i'm definitely skeptical about, even though i have personally been taking more notice of this stuff recently myself - it's hard to imagine it as anything more than an incidental waxing of critical interest.

which is of course all that metacritic intends to represent anyway. after all music guide and wikipedia, meta (as my bookmark shortens it) is probably my third most frequently visited site in my insatiable quest for music-related knowledge, even if the actual information it contains is relatively limited. if the other two take their authority from self-declared expertise and the democratic process, respectively, metacritic's is founded on something close to science (with a side helping of the other two.) unlike that other mathematically-calibrated barometer of critical consensus, the more credible but less idiosyncratic pazz'n'jop poll (and its new doppelganger, the idolator critic's poll, nee jackin' pop), metacritic bases its aggregate rankings on actual reviews as they come out, rather than critics' pre-meditated, self-mediated year-end lists.

which makes it a lot more unpredictable, and generally less beholden to tastemaker consensus - it sometimes reads as less relevant, but who's defining that anyway? and it fluctuates constantly. my austinite erstwhile roommate and i will occasionally track and discuss the shifting rankings as if they were sports statistics - for a long time we were debating whether anything would manage to upset from here we go sublime, which a firm lock on the #1 spot for over six months, peaking at [95] if i remember correctly. gradually, additionally overwhelmingly positive reviews (in the 90 range) diluted that down a few points, and then and the refinement of their decline was added to the list, months after its april release, holding the top spot until untrue's unearthing a couple weeks ago. (incidentally, the only overtly dance-based electronica album i can remember even touching the top 30 is justice's opposite-of-ambient [81] - unless you count lcd soundsystem.)

my inkling at the time was that the metacritic method skews towards niche albums - records in genres with a supportive core audience but that are unlikely even to be reviewed by critics without a specific interest in the genre. it's a reasonable bias, and even a desirable one (vs. p'n'j's tendency to favor least common denominator), which helps to highlight forms with limited audiences, like underground electronica (is there any other kind left?) and world music (such as last year's #1, ali farka touré's savane.) but it also, maybe counterintuitively, favors more broadly palatable, "adult"-leaning selections of the sort i sometimes call ABM or dad-rock, which the hipper blogs and 'zines will often ignore - hence strong showings this year from patty griffin, richard thompson, suzanne vega, and nick lowe, among others. it's a narrow line - albums must be reviewed in a sufficient number of publications even to appear in the database, but once included, they're all on roughly equal footing regardless of the number of reviews - and fewer reviews can often be an advantage.

burial [92] and stars [91] have 11 reviews each, as did farka toure [94] last year; the field [90] still only has 14. radiohead [88] have 40 - obviously it's not always a disadvantage. there were no electronic albums on last year's top thirty - has the entrance policy consciously diversified to allow this crop in? - although '05 had isolée's wearemonster at #3 [89] with 12 reviews, and also kraftwerk, the books and konono no. 1, if any of them count.

based on the admittedly rough indicator of percentage overlap in their top tens, metacritic has become an increasingly accurate predictor for pazz'n'jop over the past seven years, possibly because the burgeoning blogosphere has helped to consolidate critical consensus - there were five overlapping picks last year and six in '05, but only four the two years before that, and three from '00-'02.

at this point, i'd say it's unlikely that more than three - maybe four - of the top ten overlap with pazz'n'jop, or jackin' pop (though those two will surely overlap substantially, especially since they're both calling for ballots early this year.) frankly, the metacritic top ten is a bit of a mess right now - the top three are causing a collective freakout in the user comments, les savy fav feels bizarrely fluky, and the upstart physical release of lcd soundsystem's 45:33 upstaging its own artist's actual '07 album by six places is simply poor form. it was much neater up until a month or so ago; more plausible when radiohead, the arcade fire, and sound of silver were among the top 3, and at least more interesting when patty griffin, miranda lambert, battles, and panda bear were.

but hey, a weird year for critical consensus could well indicate a great year for the critical community, and for music in general. i certainly have no complaints; even as i find myself looking farther and farther afield for contenders for my own list, i'm already sitting on a pile that it will be somewhat torturous to choose among. and i better get on it... it's getting to be that time. meanwhile though, i've been painstakingly polishing off reviews of many of my favorites c. 2005-06, for amg - hopefully i'll make it through that batch soon too and can start tossing things off with somewhat less excruciating care. see you soon.

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