What It Is: There Is No More Best Album
(This article was originally published on Medium in 2013)
It’s a new day. 100%. And as Marshall McLuhan so aptly pointed out, people will ceaselessly proceed into the future with their eyes fixed exclusively on the rearview mirror. The result is new technologies and freedoms being used to replicate outmoded limits, like using a theremin to play Bach. While it may not always be cogently expressed, we are in a radically new era of social and cultural possibility. At times we catch glimpses of this, such as Run The Jewels, the free collaborative record between El-P and Killer Mike which is being used as the primary marketing tool by which to sell a variety of products. El-P and Killer Mike never could have worked together before the internet as they were part of two distinctly separate and mutually exclusive social and cultural musical spheres. The underground and the mainstream did not mix when or ”Whole World” were hitting. And those worlds weren’t even mixing when When You’re Dead and Pledge were hitting. Further, a major record label (Fool’s Gold isn’t a Major, but they’re big time) would never have released a record for free in hopes of selling physical goods in any previous era of the music industry.
So, in the midst of this new era, I’m pretty confounded at two things which persist: “The Best”, and album scores. Most of this has come to light in anticipation of the new Kanye West record. Invariably, this thing is gonna get all kinds of high scores, and explicit praise, and it’ll be touted as “The Best,” or “One Of The Best,” records this year. And everyone who will desrcibe it as such will do so without the slightest hint of contextualization. They’ll call it “The Best”, and do so based upon their subjective interactions with the cultural artifact created by Kanye West. People will not elucidate the inner grandeur of a work of art which is deeply connected to the infinitely complex and timeless process of existing as an object with subjective consciousness within this specific contemporary social matrix. Journalists will fail to point out the ways in which Kanye West’s Yeezus is merely differently articulated versions of the same things that every citizen of the United States does every day. Instead of showing us how much this record reflects us, most journalists are going to talk about about how this record reflects Kanye’s genius and greatness, which is different than the reader’s. And that’s just a crock of shit at the end of a rather repugnant rainbow.
Yeezus is just another album, and Kanye is just another guy. It’s solid music by a great artist, and the extent to which everyone likes it will vary. But the music press is gonna try to push the myth that Yeezus is better than Fools , and every other record released by some great unknown that the same music press failed to tell you about this year. Every album that comes out now is just another album though. Because Fools isn’t better than Yeezus either. We came from an era where you could only get a little bit of music. In the 50's, 60's, and 70's as music began to shape our social and cultural institutions in significant fashions the means of music and music journalism were very different. You didn’t get to hear much music, and when you made a music purchase you were doing it in order to get ahold of a rarified object. A record review helped you sort out which albums to buy, which albums to not buy, and which albums to consider buying. The idea of “The Best” album was a product of your music collection being an amalgmation of purchases which were either successes or failures. You buy a record because you think you’ll like it, which is largely informed by what music journalists have to say about it. Music journalists know about it because they have exclusive access to an endless stream of free music provided to them (sound familiar?) via PR companies and labels looking to win their praises. Until you buy the record you have no idea if you will like it because you don’t get music the way journalists do, you have to make a calculated purchase in order to gain acces to a rarified sliver of music. And thus, as the person spending money in order to acquire access to the sounds of music, not all of your attempts are as satisfying, and presumably, one of them is the utmost.
We are in an era where music is no longer rarified, yet the majority of our social and cultural musical institutions still treat it as if it is. You don’t buy a few albums in a month. You get all the albums you want to hear all the time. So, if there’s no need for discretion in the acquisition of music, if the value of music can be determined independent of an exchange, then why are we ranking music? If you can get every album that came out this year you wouldn’t decide what to get based on how it scored on a music journalists subjective scale, would you? I’d think your choices for which music to acquire would be driven by an entirely different set of premises which are likely more closely aligned to your life habits, your social circles, your desire to explore, a conversation you had, cover art, features, and so on. It’s much more akin to buying records at flea markets and yard sales, than it is to buying records at Tower or Virgin. But, more importantly, the dynamic of record industry and listener have flipped. The listener has exclusive access to an endless stream of music, and the record industry is paying to try and influence that.
The journalists are still at the crux of the relationship, but we’ve yet to really see their role evolve to reflect the present situation. They don’t relay rarified information anymore because everyone can hear the music. They don’t provide useful insight because most do not think critically about artistic practices and their connection to quotidian life, nor do they research the history of the art which they speak about. What most music journalists do is spin nebulous webs of adjectives which ensnare the reader in some proximation of emotional reaction or intellectual embarassment, which is intended to then influence the reader’s listening habits. Mind you, there are plenty of great journalists out there still. But, the field has been maligned by an endless hoard of know-nothings who are all vying for the chance to show how high they can pile their adjectives. Meanwhile they’re on twitter talking about how “Trap” is a word to describe music, and willfully denying the fact that the history of the Southeastern United States’ drug trafficking culture has come to define a significant portion of contemporary music. It’s dangerous because cultures and social behaviors are being appropriated ignorantly while the real humans who have originated these celebrated practices continue to be oppressed.