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During that sad week between Christmas and New Year’s, after considering 430 or so songs, music fans will settle on the perfect one: Death Cab for Cutie’s “The New Year.” The song’s melancholy sentiment, encapsulating the downbeat mood of histrionic friend or co-worker, will pierce the veil of indie rock listeners’ collective unconscious until it pops up in countless status messages and profiles. Then it is agreed: “The New Year” is the 431st best song of the decade. A little better than say, the English pop band Sugababes’ “Overload,” which we all know was the 432nd best. But at least we can all agree that neither quite matched up to what is clearly the 430th best song of the 2000s, Mastadon’s “Sleeping Giant.”
Nowhere were the arguments about critical irrelevance laid more bare than in Pitchfork’s recent P2K, the music-review site’s Häagen-Dazs-sponsored ranking of the last decade’s 500 best songs, 200 best albums, and 50 best music videos. Pitchfork is not, of course, the first entity to formulate authoritative lists to commemorate a specific year or decade’s music. Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly both wheezed out their decade-ending lists last week; a litany of less established publications and blogs will surely follow.
With their lists of the best songs of previous decades, Pitchfork’s critics were afforded the comfortable distance of post-hoc analysis. The 2000s, though, were not just the first decade Pitchfork, founded in 1995, was active throughout; they were also the years in which the site began to exert critical and commercial influence. A glance at the peak of its top album list shows a mix of obvious consensus (Radiohead, Jay-Z, Outkast) and bands Pitchfork is arguably responsible for breaking (Animal Collective, Broken Social Scene, the Hold Steady). It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The decade’s best music has taken the shape of the site’s biggest success stories. Sifting through the list, it is striking how many things Pitchfork believes it got right over the past 10 years. During his description of Arcade Fire’s Funeral, the site’s biggest “find,” coming in at No. 2 on its best albums list, Ian Cohen goes as far as to question whether “there will ever be another album like Funeral?”
Another telling instance among the weeds was LCD Soundystem’s “Losing My Edge.” The song, heralded as the 13th best song of the decade, is a surly hipster’s jeremiad enforcing his superior musical tastes and experiences bemoaning the next generation quickly nipping at his toes. The lingering beat pulsates and eventually builds as its deadpan singer, James Murphy, bemoans every shorthand stereotype (misguided pretension, incessant name dropping) of the culture surrounding those who feverishly read and write for an outlet like Pitchfork. What could be a better pick for the site than a song written about its readers?
Yet even with its self-selective bias, P2K still finds itself within the rank and file. Rolling Stone’s Top 10 of the decade has a 50 percent overlap with Pitchfork. This follows last year’s boomer-like shot at print-based respectability, a coffe-table book called The Pitchfork 500.
Pitchfork became a dominant force partly because music fans started looking at publications like Rolling Stone, Blender, and Spin as too timid, too beholden to their advertisers, too…irrelevant. The site now cannily makes use of the most attractive aspects of Web and print, with daily news updates and a static database of record reviews, interviews, and features. Yet, unlike the majority of its Web contemporaries, Pitchfork operates within a decidedly non-user friendly platform, allowing no comments. Playing by familiar rules, Pitchfork reaffirms its clout and critical authority by keeping its dialogue and opinions one-dimensional.
Around 2003, Pitchfork’s writers began to see their power grow. The site was suddenly in the position to launch careers and stymie the efforts of others. Positive coverage in Pitchfork could unspool into an opening spot for a Bowie world tour; negative coverage could send an artist back to the Huffington Post’s technical department. It’s been able to transform tours by fledgling or previously unknown local bands into national events by bestowing its Best New Music label on them.
But P2K’s humorless lists are intolerably lengthy and manage to erase any such distinction. Most of the fun of participating in such an exercise is the bickering about what got left out. P2K took pains to avoid any disagreement, and as a result reading it is a chore.