Best Music Writing 2007

Da Capo Press’s Best Music Writing 2007* just arrived — I mean seriously just arrived — in my inbox. This is one of my favorite book-arrival moments of the year: the quick perusal, the head-shaking, the nodding, the wondering why I haven’t gotten around to reading last year’s edition yet. This year, I think, I will read it. I will read it soon.

The ’07 tome’s guest editor is Robert Christgau, which is completely appropriate, especially following his abrupt dismissal from the Village Voice — to me it seems like a way to acknowledge how wrong that dismissal was, and how Christgau’s place in the music writers’ pantheon is a solid one. Not that the world’s about to forget him; he’s writing for Rolling Stone, and he’ll make his voice heard one way or another, the opinionated git (this is said admiringly, if my tone’s not clear yet). I often disagree with Christgau, or simply find that the things that stand out to him are exactly the opposite of what stand out to me, and I’m still put off that his entire argument at one of the EMP Pop Conference panels last April seemed to be based on the assumption that of course the Bob Dylan record was the best record of last year; if you didn’t agree, you were simply wrong, no questions asked or discussion encouraged. But I respect the guy, as music writers and listeners really should.

The Best Music Writing list, at first glance, looked like a Who’s Who of that Pop Conference, from keynote speaker Jonathan Lethem (“Being James Brown,” from Rolling Stone) to den mother Ann Powers (“Latinos Give New Life to Neil Diamond Anthem,” Los Angeles Times) to Carl Wilson (“If Music Is the Answer, What’s the Question?”) to Portland’s Douglas Wolk (“The Syncher, Not the Song: The Irresistable Rise of the Numa Numa Dance,” The Believer). It made me roll my eyes a little, I admit it. But that wasn’t quite fair: sure, the Pop Conference had a certain clubhouse feel for the great majority of the time, but if I’m forcing myself to be honest, many of those folks knew each other from previous years, from jobs, from everything else in life, and if I felt like a stranger there, it was at least partly my own fault. (Confession the second: I refused to wear my name badge because I didn’t like the way I’d see people’s eyes glide over the badges of attendees they didn’t know or recognize.) Plus, well, there’s a reason those folks were presenting papers at the conference, and it’s the same reason they’re in the damn book: They know their shit.

And beyond that, when you start digging a little deeper into BMW, you find some funny things. A handful of online pieces come from both names you know (David Byrne) and names you probably don’t (Jane Dark). The big papers and magazines are there, but smaller ones are too, and a couple of weeklies crop up as well. I have a particularly high level of respect for the alt-weekly folks simply because I never seem to have the time to think about music as much as I ought to, and clearly they’re making time in better and smarter ways.

So what’s my point? Well, firstly it’s just that this book is always interesting (it comes out in November; the complete list of selections should be online soon, but I can’t find it yet). And secondly it’s that music criticism is doing something that other forms and outlets for writing ought to be doing: broadening the circle. At the AAN (Association of Alternative Weeklies) conference in Portland in June, there was a disappointing smugness apparent in a discussion of food bloggers and how they might affect alt-weeklies’ own food coverage and commentary. All four panelists seemed to shrug off the very possibility that bloggers — a misleading term to begin with, since it encompasses everything from 12-year-olds with the hots for Britney to the likes of Sasha Frere-Jones and the insightful folks at film blog The House Next Door — could have something meaningful to add to the conversation.

But here we have Christgau — one of the most recognizable names in his field — picking from the old standards and the new pages on the block. He’s not the first to do so; it’s not the first time internet-based stories have appeared in the annual collection. But it makes me happy all the same to see it continue; to see that you can still get in the damn pool.

* Full disclosure: I know (from college) and admire series editor Daphne Carr. But I’d read the damn book anyway, were her name not on it.

Possibly to be continued…