13 December 2010

2010 Albums: Series Introduction

So, what's this?

On the phone the other day, Lin and I were discussing how difficult it is to forge the same sorts of connections with music that we used to back in college. Now, I don't want to be one of these guys who's nostalgic for college at 30, but the ages of 14-22 were a time in my life when I frequently had the opportunity to forge deep, permanent relationships with new albums on a pretty regular basis. It was easier back then to find a couple of hours to listen to something on repeat--to live inside of it, to memorize the lyrics and study the liner notes, to imagine what life was like for the band, and to have the record become part of who you were at that moment.

I've written before--really, a pretty long time ago--about how different my life was when I only had 300 albums, and I knew them all by heart. I wouldn't trade my knowledge of music now for what I had back then (or my life now, for that matter, for what I had back then). But back before Napster and file trading, before the blogs, and before we became adults who work and don't have time to go to that many shows any more, the sheer pleasure of discovering a new band, or a new record was so pure, so magical. It's so rare that I find that anymore, and I think it's not just because I'm older.

Part of it is, for me, the lack of community. The people I see everyday don't know me as a music fan. They know me as a college professor, as an African politics guy. That's alright with me, but I don't really talk music, except on the phone and on Facebook. It's not the same as getting some beers and going back to my apartment and listening to records for hours. I lack--I miss--that sense of community. But that's not an excuse.

I think, really, that it's because I don't take the time. I have friends, my age (who play in bands, not coincidentally), who seem to make time, and who seem to forge new, meaningful relationships with music. I'm jealous, and for that, there is only one cure: I'm going to publicly shame myself into listening to about 200 new records (with 2010 release dates) over the next 3 months or so, with Lin over here. We're going to post short, capsule-style reviews, complete with professor-style letter grades. And at the end, we're going to post a list of our top 40 for the year gone by. If we were smart, we'd have started in October. Hell, we'd have started in January 2010. But here we are. Wish us well, and here we go... -- Brandon

The Opening Bit:

Outside of an unfortunate bit of data loss in February, I had a pretty good music year, forcing myself to go back through some stuff I'd listened to once and forgot and then resetting my foundation with the classics, finally sitting down with some famous albums I'd never bothered with before. I re-thought through how I interacted with music and how I wanted to track my listening and make the stuff I like more accessible in the future.

Because the sad fact is that Brandon's absolutely right. Back in the day when I had 200 albums, it was easy to know which ones were the best and which tracks were best skipped, my fingers reflexively reaching for the "next" button on the CD player. A few albums later, and a fundamentally different way of approaching listening (primarily the switch to solely digital) and it's downright impossible. A new song has to seriously WOW for me to remember it a week later.

This is why I generally don't concern myself with much new music and instead try to focus on back catalogues of artists I love and other classics. I try to use time to my advantage, letting others do much of the whittling away of the superfluous.

But then December rolls around and I feel like I've failed in my duties of a music geek. I feel like I've missed out on something that might’ve enrich my life.

So, here's to 200 or so 2010 albums in three months or so, looking for the gems that would have been completely avoided or missed with just one introspectiveless pass. -- Lin

A note on grading...

Brandon: As I tell my students every semester, grading is far more subjective than either students or teachers often like to admit. We’re unable to offer any particular access to the universal, or the Platonic form of the “good” pop album, and so the only way to make the ratings we offer valuable is to be as specific as possible about how we constructed them. For me (Brandon) at least, I’ve pretty closely followed the old Robert Christgau Consumer Guide rubric, which can be found here.

In short, A/A- records are thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding listens, B+/B records will be appealing to people who like that sort of thing, but are (in our opinion) unlikely to move the uninitiated to rapture, and C and below are generally good hackwork or bad artistic statements.

Lin: To keep things sane, I'll also use Christgau's rubric. I like that it makes it as difficult to get a bad grade (I'm a fairly forgiving grader, though my former students may disagree) as the highest grades. Most modern music (I have a tendency to argue) isn’t particularly bad -- if anything, it’s usually just boring. My ratings will most likely reflect this. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the rating itself is just a single datapoint and that two albums may be awarded a “B” based on entirely different criteria. So, of course, I recommend also reading our blurbs for further justification or excuses. As always, comments are welcomed, especially if you disagree.

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