For some 12 years, Pitchfork Media has churned out criticism, analysis, news and writing of the highest caliber about independent music. The popular website — popular, as in it has more than 1.6 million unique visitors a month — is well-respected: The New York Times advocates it, and both David Bowie and Pete Townsend read it. And while Pitchfork dabbles in the likes of Lil’ Wayne and Madonna, its emphasis from creation in 1995 up through today has been to cover “great music of all forms” and “[draw] focus to burgeoning underground artists.”
Now fans and newcomers alike can find the Pitchfork staff’s breakdown of what songs they like and think are artistically best. This list is packed as glorious orange printed splendor as “The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present.”
The title may seem overconfident and undoubtedly pretentious, but it’s unarguably a somewhat accurate statement. “The Pitchfork 500” comes from a professionally experienced body of writers who haven’t just done their homework; they live and breathe the music they write about — and it shows.
The book plays out in genre-jumping contrast to the mono-focus (but similarly conceived) magazine issue “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” It discusses and highlights tracks from a variety of genres and artists, including must-haves like Talking Heads and Prince as well as more obscure acts like The La’s.
Because many readers will never have heard (or even heard of) countless songs mentioned in the book’s 200 or so pages, its authors aim their essays and editorial quips at two types of readers who probably should have already heard of or read the book. First, those who don’t mind being told what to listen to — even though the book never once makes that blunt of a statement. Second, the music-criticism elite (or elitists) — those who try to be a part of the alternative (and chic) music culture Pitchfork Media expounds so often. But don’t worry. Even readers who don’t fit into either of those categories will find “The Pitchfork 500” to be both an intriguing read and a welcome addition to their library or living room.
“The Pitchfork 500” is broken into nine chapters bridging time periods from 1977 to 2006, the last two covering the new millennium. The 500 songs are listed with their year of recording and artist, along with a short essay about the song’s significance and why it’s so great. In between each of these chapters lie sidebars listing notables from various sub-genres and small-scale music movements that didn’t quite make the greater list for positive and negative reasons. All of this writing is highly specific, intellectual and detailed, considering sonic traits as well as history and social concerns.
And the book reads and constitutes one hell of a playlist. It includes generally outstanding songs of countless genres and these songs are listed loosely chronologically, despite jumps back and forth of a few years, to organize the list for reading. The first four entries are from “art-rock godfathers” David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Brian Eno and start the book off with a bang.
But because “The Pitchfork 500” covers so much musical ground it becomes hit-and-miss in its song selection towards the end, depending on the listener. Surely not every audiophile would put Panda Bear’s “Bros” as the final entry in a list of only 500 essential tracks.
Fortunately, Pitchfork’s flight through all manner of genres, especially alternative or indie musical stratospheres, makes this book a more exciting and informative niche read. The 500 songs are varied enough to include shoegaze, disco, ’70s rock ‘n’ roll, metal, hip-hop, reggae, electro and punk to name just a few, and the worthiness of every entry is justified in beautifully sculpted prose. These reviews consider sonic construction, production habits, lyrical content and cultural significance all at once — some briefly and others in length. The list does focus on British, American and western European music but does so in such an illuminating matter that this specificity doesn’t feel terribly negligent.
The Pitchfork crew recognizes vanilla hits next to more exotic tracks. For example, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” sits next to Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum.” That dynamic consideration is the beauty of “The Pitchfork 500” as it’s one part “what to listen to” and one part “what’s worth writing about.”
Whether or not this specific list of (generally incredible) tracks is worth the listen — or the individual comments on each are worth noting — the chapter-introducing essays in “The Pitchfork 500” are worth the soft cover’s cost. This is music criticism at a literary and vocabulary level far surpassing that of a typical periodical, which makes this writing uniquely informative and downright essential for someone whose tastes favor Ghostface Killah as much as the Pixies, Donna Summer or Madonna. And these forwards position each song in relation to the artists that came before it and the impact history and cultural changes had on their sound. These perspectives seem to breathe new life into some perennial favorites as it’s easy to forget the economic conditions that sparked hip-hop’s best and the many songs disco’s original producers’ creativity influenced.
But the final third of “The Pitchfork 500” does intensify the book’s minor — but forgivable — flaws.
Pitchfork’s tendency toward making pretentious comments and mockery surfaces throughout the book, and often this is quite funny. But it gets old during those moments when some can’t help but think, “Hey, I like that song!”
More importantly, such comprehensive yet hyper-specific lists often miss essential tracks, and this one is no different. Selecting songs from almost 30 years will likely miss a few gems, especially when accounting for personal taste. Further, a song like Sage Francis’ “Makeshift Patriot” feels essential to a hyper-topical set of notable post-Sept. 11 tracks whether or not it’s included in the general 500. (It’s not here.) Of course, with all the music out there, it’s hard not to miss something. No musical tome, critique or collection can be perfectly and completely comprehensive. But that isn’t going to prevent this particular title from missing somebody’s favorite band and hurting their feelings (this reviewer included).
And “The Pitchfork 500” shares its greatest fault with its parent website — it often crosses the fuzzy line between a challenging listen and an unpleasant one. Some of the book’s entries, especially some from the last 15 years, will feel this way for some readers because Pitchfork Media favors musical niches, specificity and (in some cases) weirdness. Norwegian black metal band Darkthrone’s “En �s I Dype Skogen” is a good example, as might be The Streets’ “Weak Become Heroes” or a couple recognized Animal Collective tracks. Many of these songs are smartly isolated — or quarantined depending on taste — to the sidebars minimizing this issue.
But as a whole, “The Pitchfork 500” points out so many good songs and discusses them so well that these few flaws don’t prevent it from being an outstanding read. Whether for purposes of discovery or gaining perspective, this thoughtful analysis of well over 500 songs is stunningly impressive at first glance and an exhaustive read. Pitchfork has gone and successfully shown why the music we love matters, where it came from and why we should be excited about where it’s going next.
4 stars out of 5