An ode to the tastemakers

Nostalgia for a period less than two decades in the rearview has set social media aflame this past week. I’m talking about VICE’s Top 50 Landfill Indie Songs list (a genre also covered comprehensively by our own Matt Paul in the past) – a list of ephemerally enjoyable songs from similar sounding bands in the mid 00s. Like many who grew up then, I’ve enjoyed reacquainting myself with these guilty pleasures I’d long since deleted from my iTunes library in the last decade (Bromheads Jacket, anyone?). It also brought to mind another Picky Bastards piece, James’ ‘Confessions of a Teenage NME Victim‘.

James’ tale of being swayed by the influence of the infamous music mag resonates with me even though I was never an avid NME reader. I found that even during peak ‘landfill’, it was easy to see through their sensationalist bluster and to distinguish the good bands (Maximo Park) from the bad (Little Man Tate). But the feeling of having one’s music discoveries shaped by a publication has felt familiar, ever since I stopped getting my music from the Top 40 and started finding stuff for myself. For me, the words of wisdom came from the hallowed writers of Q Magazine.

The front cover of the first Q I remember owning. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Keane were a worthy 2004 Band of the Year. (Image: Qthemusic.com)

See, in my early teens I needed a credible authority on what was good and what wasn’t. A tastemaker, if you will. You can only rely on word of mouth, Radio 1 and poorly ripped MySpace uploads for so long. I didn’t want to spend my pocket money on a dud (The Offspring’s Splinter: £9.99 I’ll never see again). Flicking through magazines in shops, I was always drawn to the review section of Q. They seemed to like the same kind of stuff I did, and seemed to address an older audience. No landfill here.

I became an avid reader, swearing by the ‘Q Recommended’ and ‘Q Classic’ stamps of approval. I gathered lists of classics to catch up with and new releases to purchase. Looking through my CD collection, Q was responsible for introducing me to a range of artists I love. 5 stars for TV On The Radio’s Dear Science. A glowing recommendation for Burial’s Untrue. Including ‘Fake Empire’ by The National on one of their many compilation CDs. And I’ve previously mentioned how their (questionable) 100 Greatest Albums Ever issue introduced me to Radiohead.

Q readers vote for their favourite albums of all time (yes, that is Coldplay’s Parachutes at #40). (Image: Qthemusic.com)

They were far from perfect. Their front covers were predominantly the domain of white men. A dearth of Black, Asian or (fully clothed) female artists gave the magazine a stale feel and meant I skipped through a lot of the non-review content. And some of the reviews were the biggest crimes of all, evidenced by some of the music I still own (see Razorlight’s second album, a 5-star ‘Q Classic’).

A combination of these factors, my changing tastes, and the changing times made me stop reading Q. The internet was the home of music criticism now and I headed to a new font of music wisdom: Pitchfork.

Pitchfork had plenty of pulling power. A compellingly absurd decimal point rating system for reviews (I still struggle with the difference between a 7.7/10 and a 7.8). A willingness to anoint my favourite albums as classics. The capability of dishing out cutting reviews that the big-business-owned UK press couldn’t (that Razorlight album that Q had awarded a perfect 5? Yeah? 2.8/10 mate.)

Reading Pitchfork’s back catalogue of reviews (like this one for The Antlers’ Hospice) instead of writing essays resulted in so-so grades but a wealth of music discoveries. (Image: Pitchfork.com)

At first I couldn’t decide if this site was stupid or worth listening to. But, coinciding with the start of my degree and endless hours of procrastination, I began to delve into their back catalogue of reviews and lists. We shared the fevered build-up to so many defining albums of the 00s – Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Drake’s Take Care, Frank Ocean’s Blonde. They’ve introduced me to countless artists, songs and albums (I wouldn’t have bothered with Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, one of my favourite albums ever, if I hadn’t read Pitchfork’s 9.5 review on a lunch break).

And like Q, they are ridiculous sometimes. Some ratings are overblown or played safe now that they’ve grown into a Condé Nast-owned behemoth (nearly everything seems to hover between 6.5 and 8.0). I can literally guess the rating of a record from their three line intros. And I have some stinkers in my collection because of them. (Did I like any of the songs on Merriweather Post Pavilion? No. Did I buy the CD anyway? What do you think? They gave it a 9.6 for god’s sake!)

But I’m hugely grateful for these outlets and the discoveries they’ve helped me make. They get their fair share of criticism, often justly, but ultimately music taste is one of the most subjective things in existence. It’s unsurprising that people have an issue with their writers. I happen to think they have some really great ones (and some they’ve shared over the years).

I was really sad to hear about the demise of Q magazine recently. With the rise of the AI-curated playlist and the shorter attention span, I hope we’re not seeing a decline of music writing, criticism or blogging. But hey, you’ve got this far – so maybe there’s still a place for a picky bastard or two.

Words by Tom Burrows.

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