Critical Backlash: Simon Reynolds’ Notes On The Noughties

A brief counterpoint to Simon Reynolds’ basically good Notes on the Noughties piece today, which is right about the effects but not the cause: He argues that the proliferation of good music — boosted by the cheapness of new recording technology — and cool-hunting blogs has diminished the possibility of consensus on new albums. Well, yes and no.

There’s more music, yes, but the product itself plays a secondary role to its methods of distribution. The reason the latter half of the decade is fractious is because of access and technology, from the rise of Napster to DC++ and Soulseek to Bittorrent and OiNK and YouSendIt/Mediafire-style sites in conjunction with the critical engines of MySpace, blogs/Hypem and message boards (always woefully, and wrongly, ignored in these discussions) becoming the dominant driver of music accessibility and curation in further conjunction with 3) the iPod’s rise in 2003 as the dominant mode of listenership. The broadness of music has expanded to fill its listeners’ hard drives and iPods, not the other way around.

Reynolds thinks blogs are competing for cool; this is true for a select few blogs (the good ones) and the opposite is true for the majority of them — they’re racing to be first to post the same MP3, which is why buzz-driven, mass appeal bands like the xx and Florence and the Machine have been at the top of Hype Machine all year — nobody wants to be left out of the party. Taken in aggregate, there is a tremendous amount of overlap in the rock community, because we’ve all heard the same records — just within a larger pool. The same 10-15 albums will be on everyone’s top 50; it’s the diverging choices that make things interesting, and potentially support the “end of consensus” theory. But most blogs, frankly, are sheep, or at least like-minded. It’s hard to argue there’s less consensus now around an album like Merriweather Post Pavillion as there was around The Glow Pt. 2 in 2001; there are also more people, from more listening backgrounds, listening to this kind of music, which is another contributing factor. (Again: accessibility.)

He notes the best of lists he’s seen are drastically different. Which? All the ones I’ve seen basically nod to the same basic Stuff White People Like: The Strokes, Jay-Z, Kanye, Wilco, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, etc., with varying levels of indie cred and genre-pandering. Which is to say: Yes, there is more solid-to-good music being made and distributed than ever before. But that’s not why there’s more consensus for pre-2004 albums. Everybody likes Kid A not because there were less good albums that year, but because they heard less of them at the time and there were less critical outlets for people who care about music to read and base their opinions on.

One key point — I think he’s right about there being less great albums now and more good-to-excellent ones because of reduced expectations, but I think that’s also because there’s just less money in the business, which means less time/care/production value. Complex, labored-over albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and You Forgot It In People are really the ones that are the last of their kind, not Funeral or Kid A.