Saturday, September 4, 2010

At Long Last, Pitchfork Announces the Best Songs of the Nineties

All week long, Pitchfork has been counting down its top 200 tracks of the 1990s. Putting the untimeliness of the effort aside (and the snarkiness of my post's title), it's a well- thought out and argued feature, and a good springboard for debate (as any "best of" ought to be). Predictably, it follows the willfully iconoclastic slant the tastemaking site is both respected and reviled for. Here are some points of interest:
  • "Smells Like Teen Spirit" didn't make the top ten. Nirvana's rank (or non-placement) on any 90s "best of" list is an almost ideological signal of taste. Rank the band too high and you're Rolling Stone or Spin, firmly grounded in the alternative mainstream. Ignore the band altogether, and you come off as irrelevant, or admittedly non-rock (like Jazziz or Urb). Pitchfork splits the difference. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lands at number thirteen on its list: reverent, but not fawning. The site offsets the ranking and recovers its cred by placing songs by Aphex Twin, Neutral Milk Hotel, and My Bloody Valentine ahead of it. All is well in indie-dom.
  • Where's Britney, bitch? While it may seem a given that pop music would get scant attention on a Pitchfork list, in the past the site has heaped loads of praise on pop-that's-so-good-it-transcends-its-lowly-genre. Think, Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone." In fact, Pitchfork included songs by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake on its list of the best songs of the 2000s. Yet here there are some glaring omissions, the most notable being Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time," a song so damned good it belongs on a greatest songs of all time list. Where's the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way?" Or even Madonna's "Vogue" (or "Ray of Light")? For as much as Pitchfork (sparingly) embraces pop, these omissions show how very too-cool-for-school and out of touch the site can be.
  • "It's the little differences." Throughout Pitchfork's list, an artist's less popular, more buzz-worthy work (to use MTV's parlance of the era) is substituted for the obvious choice. R.E.M. ranks at 72 with "Nightswimming." I love "Nightswimming." It's probably one of my three favorite R.E.M. songs, and I respect Pitchfork for calling it out. But it was chosen over "Losing My Religion." Weezer's "Say It Ain't So" is the site's number ten pick (ahead of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," natch). Weezer clearly belonged on the list, but "Buddy Holly" would have been the predictable choice, for all the right reasons. I think these taste-substitutions make Pitchfork's list interesting, and they reveal a high level of effort and deliberation on the part its writers, but they mar the list's "definitiveness." That said, it's easier to make a definitive list than it is to make an interesting one.
  • A high five to you, Pitchfork. For Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," Belle and Sebastian's "That State I Am In," Smashing Pumpkin's "1979," and Bjork's "Hyperballad." All confirm why I respect you in the first place.
  • Stray thoughts on the top ten. Unexpected and eclectic, Aaliyah's inclusion being the case in point. "Loser" is higher than I would've imagined, though not undeserving of its spot. Same goes for "Common People" as the runner-up. While there's a paucity of pop (see above), the hip hop pics are pitch perfect. Before the top 20 was revealed, I assumed "Paranoid Android" would top the list. Instead, the honor went to Pavement. So, it's a wash.