When Rolling Stone released its first album guide in 1979, it set a new trend of magazines trying to establish their importance by committing their aesthetic and musical choices to book form instead of the less permanent magazine medium. Rolling Stone’s guide (and subsequent updates) served mainly as a way to assuage older readers that even though guys like Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia weren’t on the cover of every issue any more, they were still “the best” musicians as far as Rolling Stone was concerned, and these new interlopers like Michael Jackson, Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain were only people they needed to sell magazines.
Pitchfork Media’s new guide, The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs From Punk to the Present is slightly different: Instead of assigning greatness to old albums and artists that they’ve helped make famous (although, there is a Panda Bear entry), the guide is more concerned with lionizing songs that influence the music Pitchfork covers today. The guide is more focused on how the music of old (and recent) frames new music instead of how more important old music is than today’s. So instead of Dylan, Lennon,and Jagger, we get Pop Group, Clipse and Kurtis Blow.
The methodology of Pitchfork’s guide is kind of suspect: They pick 500 singles instead of 500 albums because they say that the main musical movements of the last 30 years — punk and hip-hop — are singles-driven. Of course, except for jazz most types of music have always been singles-driven: Even bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin had their biggest sales on the backs of singles, it’s just that their albums have been held up as works of art as much as individual songs. The methodology allows for the inclusion of fleeting artists and bands that maybe never had a full-length out, but using full albums would have made equal sense.
The writing on Pitchfork’s site is nothing if not assertively authoritative, and the book follows suit. The blurbs (written by an array of Pitchfork contributors) present each song as an integral part of music even if the singles sold minor amounts, and most of the blurbs are illuminating and informative. The entries on big pop hits like “Billie Jean,” however, are obvious and expected (essentially, “Billie Jean” is awesome!).
If there’s an overall weakness to The Pitchfork 500, it’s the sidebars where contributors try to crack wise about musical movements like Yacht Rock, No Wave and Italo Disco. It’s during the section on Career Killers that brings out Pitchfork’s self-referencing streak, as Rob Mitchum takes canned shots at Travis Morrison, the former Dismemberment Plan singer whose solo career was all but killed by a particularly vicious Pitchfork review. Up until that section, the tone of the book was about the music; in that instance, it became all about Pitchfork.
The Pitchfork 500 is generally an entertaining read, providing a timeline of the evolution of punk and post-punk up to the present, and the validation of hip-hop from party music to street poetry. While not as self-validating (there is a moderate amount of that) as other similar music guides (Spin’s comes to mind), its focus is primarily to explain and outline the new music Pitchfork holds dear for the uninitiated, and it mostly succeeds.