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Let's say someone has a Tumblr and writes an essay on it. The person's followers "like" and repost it, either in full or in fragments. One of the followers is someone who's followed by a prominent blogger. That person reads a repost of the essay and reposts it to 150,000 followers. Many of these Tumblrs have Facebook comments, so the comments on the piece appear on Facebook, where the essay is shared. Some people don't have Tumblr, but they tweet it, and within minutes it's being endlessly retweeted. The Atlantic Wire picks it up and provides some short commentary; columnists respond to it. The author is asked to do a webcam chat on a web TV series and interviewed on podcasts or NPR. And this is from one essay on a Tumblr that has, say 95 followers. When all's said and done, an essay that originally went out to an audience of 95 has reached millions of people.
I never would have guessed the power that social media bestows on not just the press, but the general public. Many music writers I follow have between 1,000 and 5,000 followers—some go into five or six digits. Individually, those signals may not register with much of an impact, but collectively, they're a powerful force. With Facebook commenting and Twitter tracking and Tumblr reblogging, the conversation surrounding pop music reaches out further than ever before. And now that artists and writers can engage each other directly and publicly on Twitter, writers on the Internet are on a more or less equal footing with the artists they're writing about. Granted, New Yorker pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones was the bassist in Ui, but he has slightly more Twitter followers than Prince Paul, who produced one of the greatest albums of all-time.
Social media has done wonderful things for music writing—it's created a platform for an increasing number of engaging, thoughtful voices to be heard. But there's also a lot of it. Being a music writer in the 2010s requires paying attention to a huge crowd of voices, keeping up with the Billboard charts, reading music news and its corresponding commentary, and listening to new releases, mixes, reissues, and podcasts constantly. It's more than a full-time job—it requires a 24-hour commitment to a cycle that no person can reasonably be expected to know comprehensively, even genre specialists.
The other byproduct of social media's prominence is that, in music writing at least, commentary is promoted at the expense of criticism and reporting. This has its virtues—it forces music writers to constantly rethink, question, and analyze the methods and tone of the pop-music conversation at large. But it's worth considering whether or not music writing has moved too far away from reporting and description and insight—which is journalism and criticism—and towards an excess of opinions, first-person reflection, promotion, and ad hominem attacks—which is Fox News.
By virtue of a professional obligation to read all of the work we do at the Reader, I was exposed to more music this year than ever before, and realized how much great stuff is out there. The new music I listened to was on my own time and when I felt like it—there was no sense of obligation. What I listened to the most this year—albums by deceased folk-blues-jazzbo growler John Martyn—sprung out of the euphoric rush of British folk music in Olivier Assayas's film Something in the Air, my favorite anything in 2013.
Perhaps I was less of a "music writer" this year than any year since my writing started getting published, but I was also the happiest I've been in a long time as a listener. 2013 was as fecund and memorable as ever, so much that outside of my five or so favorite albums, at least 20 or 30 albums have a shot at the bottom five spots. Here are ten of the latter that I haven't seen in too many other top-ten lists.
DJ Sprinkles — When Dancefloors Stand Still and Queerifications & Ruins (Mule Musiq)
I wrote about these for a recent In Rotation. Terre Thaemlitz's dance-music alias layers detail-rich ambient music over detail-rich deep-microhouse beats. The latter is a collection of remixes, which amply demonstrate Thaemlitz's style; the former is a mix in which Sprinkles showcases her aesthetic via other people's music.
Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)
OK, I have seen this elsewhere, but not with the enthusiasm that I seem to have for it. This is the best Yo La Tengo album since And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, which makes it the best YLT album in over a decade. Aside from its great songs, John McEntire's textural, colorful production is some of his richest work.
Clinic — Free Reign II (Domino)
Daniel Lopatin goes Lee Perry on one of the most overlooked bands out there. His mixing job makes Free Reign II stand out from the rest of the band's catalog, which was getting into the "always different, always the same" territory reserved for great bands like the Fall and innumberable minor bands. The other awesome Oneohtrix Point Never album released this year.
Dawn Richard - Goldenheart (Our Dawn)
For some reason people were really into Game of Thrones but not this, even though it's basically got the same vibe.
Matmos — The Marriage of True Minds (Thrill Jockey)
Nineties electronic duo are still making edgy, cerebral, danceable electronic music. Why was no one really paying attention?
Colin Stetson — New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (Constellation)
Touché Amoré — Is Survived By (Deathwish)
I've never been able to get into emo music, but found myself enjoying this. I'm basically including this for Leor and my friend Ian.
Black Dog — Tranklements (Dust Science)
Nineties electronic duo are still making edgy, cerebral, danceable electronic music. Maybe they should collaborate with Matmos!
Todd Terje — BBC Essential Mix
The three singles Norwegian artist Terje released this year are three of my ten favorites, but this mix might be his high point. It begins with a Wally Badarou track that John Hughes would love and manages to incorporate contemporary house, bass music, Jim Morrison, and Gerry Rafferty. Great for parties! Don't believe me? Here, listen for yourself:
Four Tet — Beautiful Rewind (Text)
Kieran Hebden brought it on this one, which is just as good as 2010's There Is Love in You. Years from now, I'll still be putting "Unicorn" on mixes.