(This will eventually be published on Daily Dischord, so if it vanishes in a few days you know why!)
As 2011 draws to a close we find that many of our favourite music websites or magazines publish their end of year lists, vaguely detailing in less than 100 words per record why these albums deserve to be called the best of the year. It’s an interesting procedure, to distil the reasons one feels the way they do about a record into an orderly list. There’s something very clinical and calculating about it which is the contradicts everything music is about. We don’t experience music in a top 10 or top 20 lists. Even us reviewers find it hard to say anything of any real merit in less than a hundred words, so I’m asking why bother? I’m not sure we experience music in this way and here’s why.
At the start of November I was fortunate enough to persuade some person in some PR company to let me go see Rise Against, Polar Bear Club and Tom Morello for free. All I had to do in return was do a little write up about it and since that’s primarily what I do on this Daily Dischord, as well as being something I happen to enjoy, I was more than happy to oblige.
In many ways that concert summed up the reasons why I enjoy writing about music whilst paradoxically highlighting a few of the things which make writing about music difficult. The creation of rock music comes from a primal, emotional place, providing an experience which is difficult to convey in words. Similarly, the performance of music, even those which are highly choreographed, comes from that same place and by attending gigs we are expected to identify with what’s being felt on stage, usually because the band we’re saying create music which speaks to us in some way.
The best rock music is vitriolic and passionate, soaked in a miasma of emotions that resonates with the listener in a variety of ways. That’s what makes writing about rock music so difficult; be it a good album or a bad one, a great live performance or a shambles, we’re attempting to distil the cataclysm of feeling and intent into one space, trying our very best to articulate why we do or do not identify with what we’re hearing. As I’m sure you’re aware, the best write ups on records or concerts are ones which convey a nuanced sense of excitement about what the artist has tried to achieve with their performance, subsequently judging whether or not they were successful in getting that message across. Even a highly polished rock record has an energy about it which is unquantifiable and really quite unexplainable. Almost as if you can feel the electricity on the disc or music file leap off at you before you hit play. A good write up gives you just a hint at what kind of experience you’re missing out on. That’s why we music writers enjoy doing what we do. It’s a challenging thing but my god is it one we relish.
Rock n roll music and all of its exponents, from black metal to math rock and everything in between, is an all about an emotional connection. Some reviews articulate the importance of that connection pretty well and some of them don’t but all of them try.
This is what made the aforementioned Rise Against show an interesting experience for me. Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello is responsible for not only one of my favourite records of all time, but one of the most important records of all time and that rarest of things: a perfect debut album. Rise Against on the other hand, up until recently, were probably one of my favourite bands of all time, having released four records which really got me into punk music. Polar Bear Club have also just released one of my favourite records of 2011, a record which is filled with such pure melodic goodness that it demonstrates that one need not emulate Jimmy Eat World in order to craft brilliant earnest punk rock.
Three generations of music were represented that night, demonstrating just how important that emotional connection was to their legions of fans. After the show had finished, I realised that I’d lost that connection with Rise Against and truth be told, that was pretty sad thing no matter how inevitable it was going to be.
These days my tastes are squarely of the punk rock persuasion; very much a genre of music which is raggedy, shambolic, cathartic and often messy and directionless. It spits at you, it bleeds, it’s chaotic – it’s brilliant. Of course, mere words are not enough to express exactly what it is, but that’s about as close as I can get. You’d need to listen to the records to get an understanding about what it is.
So as the end of the year rolls around music publications of all shapes and forms start to compile and publish their end of year lists (or if you’re Q magazines you’ve probably just spent the past 12 months compiling magazines of lists about any number of things) and yet there is definitely is something undeniably scientific about this. Compiling a top 5, 10 or even a top 50 list is cold, analytical, and almost surgical. It demands a ranking of artistic quality in an empirical way. It is a process which is so restrained that it is the antithesis of everything rock music (in all forms) means.
Perhaps more fundamentally though, it is not the way we experience music. We do not experience music with a cold precision; it is an art form which kicks and screams at us. We experience music in an uncompromising way yet an end of year list tries to boil down a year’s worth of records into a couple of lines, giving us no sense of the passion or feelings of the individual who’s written it. No matter how well written the list is it tells us nothing about the way the writer has experienced the music they’ve categorised. The majority of us find music and experience it in a way which is important, impassioned and energetic. To attempt to quantify that any more than we have in reviews throughout the year is unnatural. We shouldn’t do it. So why do we feel we have to?