Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Music criticism ... via checklist
Ambient music sadly doesn't get a lot of attention in the press. Perhaps because it's not as sexy or glamorous as other forms of music. Perhaps the genre succeeded too well at soundtracking our lives, blending so well into the background that we've forgotten it's there (Satie would be so proud). But I spend a lot of time listening to this kind of music, so I'm always happy whenever I see an article talking about the sound, such as Fact Magazine's recent "20 best: ambient records ever made" article.
But reading through this list of "best" ambient records quickly left me feeling frustrated and annoyed. There's a distinct feeling of going through a checklist here, ticking off albums because they are "important" (a word used several times through the article) or because they represent a particular sub-genre of ambient.
Brian Eno? Check (several times). The Orb? Check. The KLF? Check. Aphex? Check. GAS? Check. Ash Ra Tempel? Check. Kraftwerk? Check. Dub ambient? Check. Dark ambient? Check. Field recordings? Check. Chill out room ambience? Check. (Hey, we're already over halfway to 20!)
It's all here, the artists and sub-genres that you would expect to see name-checked. (Well, okay, I raised an eyebrow at Kraftwerk.) But does it necessarily follow that because these artists and sub-genres are "important", the albums chosen are actually the very best of the ambient genre? Or have they been chosen because the collective wisdom dictates that these are the albums that "should" be chosen?
The omissions are, quite frankly, glaring. What about 'Together Is The New Alone' by Donnacha Costello? Or 'Anima' by Vladislav Delay? But there's no room for these guys when you're filling up the checklist and paying homage to the masters. (At least Vlad gets a mention, in relation to Pole. And while we're at it, why 'Pole 3' instead of 'Pole 1'?)
On top of this, the descriptions of the albums that have been chosen sometimes suggest only a cursory understanding. Eno's 'Ambient 1: Music For Airports' is described as owing something in sound to Arvo Pärt. While there is a touch of classical minimalism to Eno's ambient work, it's a far cry in sound from Pärt's sacred minimalism. Meanwhile, 'Pop,' the final GAS album, is described as, "Post-Basic Channel with tracks that sound like sheets of muted industrial texture." This is completely off-base, with the album sounding neither "industrial" nor "post-Basic Channel."
'Music For Airports' and 'Pop' are indeed both brilliant, and fully deserve to be on a list of "best ambient records ever made." But the descriptions suggest that the writer hasn't fully grasped the albums, and is listing them because everyone else says they're masterpieces and "should" be listed.
And this is what frustrates and annoys me about the article. I have no idea if the writer truly believes these are the 20 "best" ambient records ever made or not. ("Significant" or "important" ambient records? Perhaps, but that isn't what the article claims to be about.) The feeling of a checklist combined with some utterly off-target descriptions calls the whole piece into question.
This style of music criticism sits very uneasily with me. What's the point if all you're doing is just passing on the collective wisdom?