Lists have received a lot of flack this year, some of it for obvious, warranted reasons, and some of it just because people love to find particular things to hate on. Honestly, lists are one of the best ways for people to delineate their varied levels of interest in different pieces of art, and to rank art based on its masterfulness. To say the propensity toward list-making has reached an all-time, absurd high is an understatement. But, to write lists off completely doesn’t make sense, as they remain the most effective way of distilling impact, ranking influence and organizing art within the world. To that end, the majority of lists at this time of year focus on the idea of “best,” which seems silly within any form of art, particularly one as subjective as music. Yet, whether it be the aristocracy in our past or the competition instilled in us by Darwin, the idea that one thing must supersede others unabashedly perseveres.
Some of my peers postulate that the world of music criticism is existentially similar to high school — that cliques and gossip populate the hallways of thought more ably than the pursuit of art or culture. I must voice a serious disagreement to this watering down of the career that music writing aims to be. The music writer, the music critic, the rock scribe, the puzzling gazer-in on the world of musicians and music, seeks to convey to culture and to themselves, why specific works of sound and lyric carry great meaning. The highest end of a critic with a truly sharp perspective is to glean the deeper leanings of music and thrust them into the light for everyone to see, and, on the opposite end of that spectrum, to shun the half-hearted efforts of fame hoppers or untalented capitalism machines. The line is a difficult one to walk and it takes an alarming amount of insight and an incisive wit to convey the highs and lows of music in a way that is meaningful and on-point. But, I would also argue that this role, the position of the music critic, is an essential one for a culture that becomes more and more immersed in music. Below I have ranked the writers that affected me this year, whose analysis moved me, whose perspective challenged me, and whose writing just plain made my heart beat faster. Please know that I am a very subjective human just like you, and this list is not an end-all-be-all or meant to hurt or unnecessarily hype anyone. It’s just a list of people that challenge me every time I read a piece, as I too strive to become the best possible music critic I can be.
10. Drew Millard – Noisey Music
Though he tries to hide it behind a frat-bro styled front, Drew Millard is quietly curating and producing some of the best rap and hip-hop writing currently on the internet. Previously, Brandon Soderberg of SPIN Magazine’s rap blog had the lock on incisive and often hilarious writing about this genre, but Vice is clearly working to expand their musical presence and it is working. Millard’s writing is equal parts exuberance and extravagance, a fact that is most accurately illustrated in his recent masterpiece, the Noisey Guide to Hip Hop in 2012. Though he is currently helping helm Noisey Music, for most of this year he freelanced his ass off. This led to gems like his Passionweiss puplished Riff Raff show review, an enormous, impeccable slideshow/list about Jay-Z and Brooklyn for Complex (oh really??), and a critique of Cruel Summer for Vice that ultimately revealed his love for Kanye even while dissing the album. Seriously, if you’re writing this kid off because you think you’re better than him don’t — because the thing is, he’s actually better than you he’s just not enough of a dick to tell you.
9. Claire Lobenfeld — Stereogum
While you were busy getting drunk at Fader events because they have the best open bars and usually pretty decent musical guests, Claire Lobenfeld was writing up the R&B, rap & hip-hop music news of the day for the online portion of the magazine. These posts might be mostly minute, but the minutia contained therewithin reveals a backlog of knowledge that rivals most computers. Seriously, I dare you to have one conversation with this girl without feeling like you may have never known what the R and the B in R&B really stands for until now (I think it’s rhythm and blues…). Lobenfeld pairs her knowledge of New York with an acute vision of the musical landscape — she doesn’t see in genres but in sounds and relationships. Though this shows through in her news blurbs for Fader, she was seriously overqualified for the gig. Thank god Stereogum had the fortuitousness to snap her up, I predict next year will see a major spike in their readership because of Claire’s knowledgeable and facetious charismatic writing style. As is often the case for writers these days, the place I uncovered her true voice was through her Tumblr, a veritable haven for pop culture references unwrapped with conviction and writing that reveals a heart buried in the music. Aside from her own space though, Claire has unveiled Odd Future affiliated The Internet’s sexuality for the Village Voice, discussed the gutter-genre-term of “rape gaze” with authority and even delved into the world of logo plagiarism for SPIN. Watch for her in 2013, this girl is on a warpath, and for all the right reasons.
8. Jeremy D. Larson – Consequence of Sound
For those who don’t keep at least one eye on Consequence of Sound at all times, the main reason this site rules is because of Jeremy Larson. Sorry to all the other contributors and editors, I love you guys too, but I found myself returning again and again to the compelling, crucial writing of Larson. Whether he is literally going through night-terror-like-diseases on account of his love for music, or delivering the most delectable end of year profile this year has seen (on Frank Ocean duh), Larson is in it to win it. His current position at Consequence of Sound has spilled over into a love affair with the long-form journalism site he founded called Aux Out, a great jumping off place for those of us who still like to, you know, read creative writing. Thing about Jeremy is he gets the music and why it matters and he can replicate its power and passion in his prose. His live reviews read like annotated diary entries and worshipful deconstructions in turn — revealing a writer & music-head who won’t soon be fading into the background.
7. Lindsay Zoladz – Pitchfork
If you haven’t yet read the magnificent missive that is Lindsay Zoladz entry into the Slate Music Club, please go read it now. Continuing on from that fledgling feature in the ever-worthy Slate circle, Zoladz has been offering a pristine, precise and pressing take on pop music and more throughout 2012. Her review of Icona Pop for Pitchfork utilized such an array of weapons that it felt like the short group of songs had been defended by an army rather than reviewed. Further reflection reveals a review of Beach House that strikes a chord just as haunting as the record, or there’s her address of ghosting folk across all ages in an excavation of Jessica Pratt’s debut album. Even as I send this list closer to its inevitable published status, a new essay from Zoladz on the cultural implications of pop-fandom blips onto the radar. This latest for Pitchfork’s Ordinary Machines feature draws the outward effects of music in toward the center of the noise, cementing Lindsay’s place as a foundational voice in music writing today.
6. Christopher Weingarten – SPIN Magazine
It is possible that there isn’t a more divisive voice in music writing today than that of Christopher Weingarten. While his project of reviewing 1,000 albums solely through tweets no doubt helped ensconce Twitter as a haven for music writers to promote their work today, there are many who want to scream 1,000 times “no” to his decidedly polarizing voice. I, however, am not one of those people. The sheer musicality that inhabits the language of Weingarten’s writing, to say nothing of his unwavering singular perspective on the past and present state of the industry, is a force to be reckoned with that will not abate in the face of a few haters. Despite living in an age where information is a fingertip slither away, deep cut understanding cannot be faked. For the artistic ilk, the writer, the artist or the historian, there is still almost nothing more important than bona-fide-sans-Google knowledge. Weingarten then, inhabits all three roles, illuminating musical projects with a nod to the past and a wink at the present, composing essays that become creative acts in their own right, and chronicling the changes of this industry with an insight that uppity young whippersnappers (guilty as charged!) will never fully possess.
5. Jessica Hopper – Freelance
Whether it be doling out advice via her “Ask Fan Landers” column for the Village Voice, or writing about the feminine persuasion in all manners and manifestations, Jessica Hopper is the type of woman that makes a girl feel like she can have it all. Wanna work in music as a woman? Hopper literally wrote the book on it. Wondering about the flag-bearing foremothers that came before you in terms of the girl “you can do it” movement? Look no further than Jessica’s intensive, take-no-prisoners approach to writing. With a clear emphasis on the so-called weaker sex, Hopper takes albums to task when need be, and praises them without the veiled sexual lens that women artists often unfairly are side-eyed through. Female readers are lucky to have a woman like this out in the ring fighting for us, female musicians are blessed with an unabashedly fresh perspective on their work and men are lucky too because she is just an outright great writer. Look up her stuff if you have somehow missed it in the Chicago Tribune, SPIN, Pitchfork and Village Voice — and her own hilariously named website — need I say more?
4. Jeff Weiss – Freelance
If, for some strange reason, you haven’t read Jeff Weiss’ take on the 2012 VMAs please do yourself a favor and go read his absurdly beautiful rendition of a meaningless award show. The fact that Weiss turned something as banal as the VMAs into a gorgeous piece of art about the current state of our culture is merely a small sign of his immense talent. I have rarely been more moved than when I read his review of Kendrick Lamar’s critically-batted-back-and-forth record good kid, m.a.a.d. city, or an equally elegant reflection on Nas’ near elegy, Life is Good. In addition, he runs Passion of the Weiss which has become one of my go-to sites for criticism large and small. Maybe it was the pun that got me there at first, but I kept returning because of content & tone — what else? Part of being a great music writer is being a good editor and in this day and age, that also means being a good curator and this guy has excellent dudes writing for him. But don’t think he only writes about rap (although that is certainly his forte), consider hisofferings for LA Weekly — an examination of the Light in the Attic label and a profile on George Duke that actually befits his highness the duke. Passion always shows.
3. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd – Freelance
It’s like this woman took the game, turned it upside down, shook all the pieces out and started playing with the empty box instead because she had better ideas. Full disclosure while I was interning at SPIN Magazine this summer, I read Julianne Escobedo Shepherd‘s cover story on Waka Flocka Flame and right then and there was when I finally said “Fuck it, I have to try to write.” This woman is awe-inspiring in her own right, not just for the way she seamlessly brings fashion into the crux of conversations about internet visual culture, nor simply for her excellent adoration-infused take-down of Nicki Minaj’s almost-feminism. There is something visceral about Shepherd’s writing, an unabashed embrace of the music and what it means in the context of life itself — an urgency than few critics can ever achieve, let alone master. When she speaks on a subject, the subject is closed. But, she also brings addendums to many topics that others considered finished, re-opening conservations that were shut by equally closed minds. Never prying but always using force, Julianne is slowly but surely altering the conversation about music — and hemlines — for the better.
2. Jon Caramanica – The New York Times
I like this guy’s writing so much for a long time I tried to convince myself that I hated it, that it wasn’t good. If it wasn’t good then I didn’t have to be jealous. But I am extremely jealous. The truth? Jon Caramanica is one of the best music writers we have now, he’s on our side, he’s one of the good guys. Though we possibly attended over twenty of the same shows over the course of the year, Caramanica recalled them with such a cool and coiled vocabulary that I would seek out his write-ups despite my own presence at the concerts. Whether it be his profile on a revamped Shania Twain and the gloaming gloss of Vegas residencies or the ways that boot-strap-pulling Brooklyn moss-rockers Woods deliver their fuzzed-out-Cadillac-rock, the man just gets it. In fact, it seems rather pointless to link to specific things or articles that he’s written. Just take my tack and read everything Caramanica writes, it’s all worth it.
1. Maura Johnston – Freelance
When someone loses a job due to editorial disagreements, and practically the entire community that read that publications revolts — that’s how you know a critic is important. Though this happened to Maura Johnston earlier this year when she left her position at the Village Voice, it also happened back in 2009 when she left Idolator. Where to begin then, with Maura? Perhaps with the piece she published just yesterday on NPR about the state of our sad, beloved and disease-ridden practice of music writing. I just sat down at the table as far as music writing goes and sometimes it feels like I showed up to a feast that was half-cooked and half-eaten when I arrived. At least then, someone is finally trying to head back into the kitchen instead of rearranging the leftovers in hopes that more guests will arrive to scavenge the carnage. Maura singlehandedly gives me hope that instead of basing our cultural production on advertising dollars, the nearly four-letter-word “click” and the even more dreaded King-Kong SEO practices, we can actually maybe get back to listening to music and writing about it in the best way possible. Maura wants us to make something new instead of re-heating leftovers. This is the woman who dissected both Miguel and Usher with dignity — who succinctly live reported on Bon Iver & Frank Ocean’s brand-related-teaming for teeming hipster hordes. The woman who gave us how to NOT write about women, who reflected on the downward spiral of cultural criticism back in March and why Carly Rae & crushes matter will surely be at the forefront of whatever new era is coming. Because it is coming, you can feel it — the clicks will not win. Here’s to Maura and to cooking up something good in 2013.