Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Popless - From the Outside

Rolling Stone and Spin were the twin pillars of music magazines as I hit my late teens and felt important enough to join the world of well-informed (and often hipper-than-thou) music fans. I subscribed to both for years and I've held onto that Rolling Stone subscription up to the present, but the stack of unread magazines on my coffee table proves that I've finally lost faith in the publication I started to sour on years ago. I'm letting my subscription lapse, after about 13 years.

As I got more serious about following music, and post-college had a bit more cash to aid the effort, I turned online more frequently and started following more and more publications (? though online isn't really publishing...). There's Pitchfork, and now the world of blogs, and an alt.weekly in any city worth supporting a music scene, but I years ago I set on The Onion's AV Club as the single source that seemed to hit the nail on the head more than any other.

The writers still strike me as more geekier than hip, more true fans than scenesters, and more thoughtful in their approach to criticism and commentary most others, sticking closer to the material at hand and not trying to play the role of tastemaker at the expense or on the coattails of the band of the week. The uggliest part of this indie-online-hipster-whathaveyou world is the backlash, and though it brings some snark, the AV Club stays by and large above the fray.

One AV Club writer, Noel Murray, is on an impressively extensive and for my tastes mind-numbingly regimented project: a 10-month marathon listening session of his entire music collection, alphabetically, to re-aquaint, re-orient, re-evaluate and re-embrace and certainly purge. It's the great step-back-and-take-it-all-in of music fandom history. This is the fictionalized Rob Gordon/Fleming "autobiographical" re-organization, but in real life and with a steady narration.

And, blogger or not, of course I tuned in from the start.

Murray has established "Popless" as a weekly column to document this process: after 17 years of professional music writing, he's taking the first 10 months of this year to abandon all new music and instead bore into his extensive collection (a collection that, as he makes clear, is even unlike most obsessive music fans, in that he's been the recipient of promos from everyone and anyone for almost two decades), going alphabetically through more than 30,000 songs. And while his columns are long, excessively detailed and depending on how well you're in tune with the various artists/bands can occasionally see-saw between maddeningly insider-ish and 'no-duh' amateurish, they're must-reads.

I've been through just about every word of the 28 weekly columns so far and I have no intention of jumping off the train. I actually sit with a pen and paper and as I listen to the song clips, jot down bands to check on. I've found easily a dozen bands or albums from Murray's column (and I don't doubt I could share as much with him. I was shocked that he seemed to gloss over Giant Sand/Howe Gelb entirely, despite praise for some early Meat Puppets records).

Popless isn't a project I could undertake. Like I said, it's too regimented, and my OCD only goes so far. I also don't have nearly enough of a background to tackle such an extensive music collection with the sort of authority and attention he gives it. And since I've neither written about music professionally or written about music for nearly two decades, I can't call up my earlier reviews as a parallel to any sort of a re-evaluation.

Since the iTunes/mp3 revolution that's made just about anything ever recorded readily available to the savvy Web searcher, I've been able to grab albums at a pace that really outstrips my listening capabilities. So I haven't forged such close personal associations with as much of the music I have Murray seems to have achieved. To put it another way: my "popless" would either take much less time, or as a process involve much more music that was new to me anyway.

But in a way, Murray's Popless "State of the Music Collection" endeavor is at the core of what every music blogger seeks. And I think that it's true that perhaps even moreso than the thrill of seeking and discovering new music, fans of this stripe are on the quest to find out what it all means. As obsessed as I am I could no doubt write thousands of words about what music means to me, but boil it down to a quicker answer and I'm in trouble. The truth is I don't really know what it means, but music drives my life and that's that. Same for Murray, I think.

My ripping-my-CD-collection-into-the-sweet-new-Macbook project (that's nearly complete, by the way, after only five months) shares a bit of the same goal: I want to know what I have, what I've listened to from my teens until now, to bore into my memories of why it all matters, and to try in some way to see MUSIC as some sort of a singular whole entity in my life. I've written about some of the crappier music that I've dragged along all this way, and here and there this blog has hit on what I've found most fulfilling.

But there's no way I could ever bring myself to attempt any sort of a project that hits on literally everything. Nor could I forgo new tunes for any significant period of time. But then again, I'm down to write 1,000 words on someone else's journey through his music collection. Cheers, Noel, you're a better man than I, and I'll be around for the next 16 (?) weeks for sure.

DOWNLOAD (the Popless-inspired version):
The Clean - Thumbs Off
The Detroit Cobras - Midnight Blues
Drive-by Truckers - The Living Bubba
Glossary - Only Time Will Tell

Glossary - The Better Angels of Our Nature (whole album download)


comoprozac said...

I can't even imagine such a project. I've considered several times...then I remember that I have a job and will be a parent soon. It's easier just to follow new music.

Noel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Catfish. When the year's over, if you have some recommendations, I'll gladly take them under consideration.

Catfish Vegas said...

Certainly. Shoot me an email anytime.