At a time where the idea of "fake news" has become a sobering reality, what does it mean when "the most most trusted voice in music" misrepresents history to fit its own branded narrative? Following both the publication of Pitchfork's egregious "50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time" and a rebuttal list authored by Dave Segal and myself over at The Stranger, I take stock of the website's history to interrogate its SEO and content strategy's effect on historical accuracy and the dangers of musical canonization in the age of clickbait.
Crankiness tends to be a default mood for music nerds. Whether we're bemoaning the crappiness of the CD section at Wal-Mart or whinging about exorbitant prices on Discogs, we can be a cagey lot. And nothing provokes the ire of music fans like a "best of" list. It might be a tired example, but High Fidelity's recurring trope in which the different record store clerks (played by the likes of John Cusack and Jack Black, natch) list off the top five records of niche genre like it's a Pavlovian reflex does accurately capture music critics' and fans' need need to hierarcherize the history of music to create their own 'definitive' short-hand to a certain area of music. For the most part it's harmless as every music fan has "their list" and no single one is right, though we'll certainly argue about it with the passion of zealots.
A problem, for me at least, arises when a music publication like Pitchfork elevates itself to the status of "the most trusted voice in music" and starts declaring the best albums in genres in which it doesn't even have a strong history of exceptional criticism. When they released their list of The Best Indie Rock Albums in the Pacific Northwest, I thought it questionable that a national publication could accurately capture all the nuances of a geographically-specific scene, but also had to give them the benefit of the doubt seeing that indie rock is their bread and butter. Still, plenty of folk had qualms with it, so much so that Seattle's The Stranger offered a rebuttal/addendum to the list. It was when P4K tackled ambient music that I started to get annoyed when I realized nineteen of the available fifty spaces were occupied by two entries each from such Pitchfork-backed acts as Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Stars of the Lid with Terry Riley and Brian Eno taking up another six positions (and considering that Eno formally coined ambient as a genre, we'll give him a pass;) While I would never dispute that some people would consider these to be classic ambient albums, what's the point of making a comprehensive list if you give special attention to artists you regularly feature rather than trying to turn young listeners on to the likes Eliane Radigue (who was even mentioned in Keith Fullerton Whitman's wonderful introduction!), Tangerine Dream, Ellen Fullman, Thomas Köner, Cluster, and Vangelis.
But I remained merely annoyed until clicking on The 50 Greatest IDM Records of All Time and began working my way through a list that bore little resemblance to a genre of which I consider myself to be rather knowledgeable. I own and listen regularly to around half of these records (and have digital copies of the rest) and as I read the assorted blurbs, which ranged wildly in quality, I got the sense that I was likely far more familiar with many of the albums they were misidentifying as IDM than they clearly were. And not only were they simply picking albums that weren't IDM, they offered up no explanation why, when Simon Reynolds' bare-bones but historically accurate in its generalities introduction clearly set the time period from 1992 to the early 00s, they were picking records like FlyLo's 2008 Los Angeles and Jlin's 2015 Dark Energy.
So what's the big deal about? So some kid doesn't find out about the techno cum IDM of Dettinger and instead gets really into Flying Lotus' brand of IDM-inflected beats (we'll talk later about why this album is not IDM). That would have been my basic opinion had I not read "The Inexplicable Online Absence of Aaliyah's Best Music” by Complex's Stephen Witt last month. In the absorbing article, he analyzes the reasons behind the late R&B legend's two most popular albums not being available for streaming, laying the blame at the feet of her uncle Barry. As fascinating of a story as it was, what truly stood out for me was Witt's hand-wringing over the fact that the singer's absence from Spotify and Apple Music would eventually lead to her becoming unknown to a whole new generation relying on streaming services to learn about and listen to music. While at first I dismissed Witt's worries as millennial overreacting, I soon realized that Witt was a published author and an authority on internet culture and found myself agreeing with the writer the more I thought it over. People’s quest for information now begins and ends with the internet and if you’re not able to be easily found on the internet, do you even exist?
As hyperbolic as I would have once considered that somewhat-rhetorical question, at a time where fake news is likely one of the primary reasons why we are under the reign of Donald Trump, I have come to value veracity in all corner of online publishing, especially those pubs who glibly toss around phrases like "most trusted" and average four million visitors from search traffic per day. Yep, you read that right. And while it places P4K well behind Rolling Stone's 15.2 million daily visitors, it also means that is head-and-shoulders above pretty much all of its other competitors, including both one-time Rolling Stone competitor Spin Magazine, the longstanding NME, and perennial PItchfork competitor Sterogum, all of whom average under a million daily visitors via organic sarch (meaning not ads, but results Google and other sites organically generate). To give you a bit more context for just how big Pitchfork's slice of the traffic pie is for the music journalism market, Vice.com, which includes all of its many subdomains like the music-focused Noisey and the Dance/EDM-focused Thump, averages 4.1 million visitor per day. In short, P4K is the big kid on the playground.
An interesting thing starts to happen when you run a site in a certain sector where you're the white whale, so to speak. You start to show up for seemingly every search, even ones you haven't created pages for; if Google sees your site as being the authority, it will often list it for a search term your site might not even have covered yet (this happened to me all the time when I ran SEO for New York Film Academy, a company that understood its value early on and utilized every trick in the book to make its site ubiquitous in the film school sector.) While Pitchfork is not yet on page one for "IDM," it is already in the fourth position for the slightly-less generic "best IDM," which is lightning fast in the world of SEO. Therefore, it begs to reason that a curious music fan who types in some sequence of keywords related to IDM will see P4K near or at the top of the search results, with Fact's "100 Greatest IDM Tracks" not far ahead or behind it. And while Fact's list is far superior in its historical reconstruction of the quasi-provincial players and the dialogue that existed between them--after all, IDM did originate in an email group that counted several of the soon-to-be IDM elite amongst their ranks--the chances of it getting clicked over Pitchfork's are slim. Why? Whereas P4K has its 4.0 million average and nearly two decades of being indexed by Google as a trustworthy site, Fact has 140,000 and far less name recognition. All of which is to say, any future music fan who has gotten into Autechre or Aphex Twin and types "best IDM albums" will almost certainly see this pop up first and thus may never learn of such IDM mainstays as Jega, Monolake, B12, or that the "braindance" mentioned in the header of P4K's list is what Aphex Twin's Rephlex label referred to as what we generally consider IDM now.
I wouldn't be writing this piece if Pitchfork hadn't just boffed up its IDM list, but it instead became the last straw for me with a publication that has taken a renewed interest in establishing its role as an authority site, seemingly since its purchase by Condé Nast. And it has done this largely through its attemps at canonical-seeming lists, which often features a respected name and clear concept up front and a wide yet predictable selction of records. It's in the details, the individual blurbs written for each album, that things get increasingly muddled by P4K's varied coterie of staff and freelance writers, many of whose specialty lies elsewhere. Witt's piece perfectly illustrated to me the dangers of trying to establish a musical canon in an age where we have all the information we could ever want, but not necessarily the research skills or honestly the drive to wade through countless publications to find the information that isn’t on our Twitter or Facebook feeds. As the Pew Research Center found in a 2016 study, 62% of adults use social media to get news, an increase from 49% in 2012. And while the "fake history" cited in the title was certainly meant to be attention-grabbing, it was meant to be because it's something we are actually battling with as a society. We need to hold our online publications to the same standards that we would hold any print newspaper like the Times to if it were to flagrantly misrepresent an historical period in music and reduce it to something of a spectre that hovers over oddities from other genres when it had an incredibly vibrant, and totally white and male, scene in which competition and dialogues amongst its practitioners led to major developments in the sound of IDM.
Therefore, the “big deal” is the “most trusted voice in music” doubling down on lists to drive traffic, and treating the lists almost as objective truth. The danger this poses is that as most major sites scramble to create content that will earn them traffic and links, Pitchfork is pumping out lists on topics that they’ve never demonstrated a deep knowledge of and as a result, patricularly in the case of the IDM list, misrepresenting an entire genre. But first let's look at what got us here....
The List-ification of Music History
I adore best-of music lists. They're regularly a great place to both gauge what the general consensus about, say, 1970s jazz fusion is in terms of that period and genre's best records, especially when it's an era or genre I don't know a ton about. Even when I do know a lot about a genre, or think I do, over the course of 50 or 100 albums or songs, there's usually at least one I hadn't heard before that helps to expand my understanding of, say, British library music in the twentieth century. But I see music lists as an historical program rather than canonical prescription; when I release my "Best Albums/Singles of 2016" those are what I consider the best for my taste. If someone asked me what the best techno albums of all time were, I would tell them my favorites interspersed with other records that I know are highly regarded in a facile attempt to give a decent overview of what is generally considered to be "the best."
However, Jane Search Engine-User might not take such a long view on learning and instead search for the "best Weimar Period German novels" rather than seek out those that are "essential," "important," or "well-reviewed." I know this because my day job for the past decade has been in SEO. While I don't have the hard numbers at hand anymore, "best" is the most used qualifier in searches, which is the reason that every list out there of is the "best," or of the "top" to a lesser extent; users tend to be more likely to search for and click on those lists that purport to feature the best of anything that is regularly searched for, be it action movies, art museums, national parks, or compact cars.
Indeed, lists are the name of the game online, pure and simple; Buzzfeed proved this by becoming one of the most-visited websites in the world. Part of the appeal of lists for music publishers is that regardless of their quality, they almost always incite online debate, especially when a savvy publisher purposefully includes some controversial choices. Since P4K doesn't allow comments on their site, readers need to use social media to voice their opinion or share the piece with friends. Or some are even compelled to talk about it at length and link back to it, despite knowing that's what the goal was all along (and yes, I am talking about myself.) And while I'm sure your didn't come here for an SEO analysis, it's a great tool for deciphering companies' behavior online and deducing why P4K has changed for the worse since I fist started reading it in 2002 after reading their review eviscerating the first Andrew W.K. album, which I found via Google (and I still vehemntly disagree with P4K's review as I love that album, but it was the site's give-no-fucks swagger that drew me, although that sense of snark disappeared some time ago.)
Google has been essential to Pitchfork's rise and dominance in the search results. If you search for an indie band, singer, or producer, one of the top results will invariably be a Pitchfork review or article. And for a long time in the early 00s, if you wanted to read about the latest Deerhoof or Lightning Bolt album, you'd inevitably end up on the site, which was churning out a remarkable 20-25 reviews a week or around 1,040 500-word reviews a year. As its traffic and credibility was rising, Pitchfork introduced the "Best New Music" feature back in 2003 in which certain well-reviewed bands, though not of all of them of course, would be chosen by the site who would then publish a disproportionate number of news articles about the chosen act, in turn essentially giving careers to unknown bands such as The Books, The Unicorns, and Titus Andronicus, amongst many others. Today, the "Best New Music Effect" is less of a sure thing, meaning that Pitchfork's cultural capital appears to be in jeopardy as a new music site is born every day and sites that cover different acts and genres like Fact and RA continue to chip away at the site's tastemaker hegemony. But one content feature has always performed well for Pitchfork: its lists. Starting with it agenda-setting year-end lists, the site has gone on to cover the best albums of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the 00s, twice I believe. And believe me, a site doesn't just do this out of the pureness of its heart; lists are a major traffic-driver for the site and essential to their remaining a site that people talk about, even if it's negative. The haters are still reading it.
And voíla, we start getting a bevy of lists that will get shared, critiqued, and linked to, meaning that Pitchfork shows up for even more searches than its competitors. Though the history of Google's search engine algorithm is one of constant tweaking and changes that wiped out (removed from the search rankings) thousands of poor quality sites in favor of those producing fresh quality content that users actually read, which has always been the most surefire way to grow a site's traffic and earn backlinks--links that point back to a site and serve as the second most important ranking signal in the algorithm.
While Pitchfork's high volume of content was likely not part of a savvy content marketing strategy when it was first founded in 1995. But that's not to say the site hasn't been historically smart about SEO and actually quite bullish when it comes to assuring that they're number one for searches where the site might not actually be the best choice. One way Pitchfork has managed to achieve this considerable SEO feat--I should note that I worked for nearly three years at a company who employed similar strategies--was to "nofollow" any link pointing outside of their site to, say, the site of the band of whose record they were reviewing. Now, in SEO, backlinks are so valued because they pass on what is called "link juice" and while Google no longer employs its PageRank feature which would assess a site's quality on a scale from 0-10, Pitchfork has traditionally been around an eight. Although Google retired its PageRank feature several years ago, Domain Authority has become the dominant way to quantify the value of a domain (P4K's is 88, natch). Thus, a link from a site like Pitchfork to the many music acts, books, independent organizations, and so many other kinds of sites would get a serious boost in their rankings. And while it appears the site has ceased this practice in the past year (something I still need to verify), they still deprived thousands of other sites from the basic courtesy that comes from using another's site content for information, which P4K regularly does in its reviews, news articles, and features.
Between its bullish SEO practices and especially the site's long-term content strategy, P4K has long ensured that it appear for more search results than any other music site, generating serious ad revenue for the site and its owner Ryan Schreiber. And as seen in the SEMRush chart below, that largely holds true with only Rolling Stone having a larger search reach than Pitchfork due to it digitizing its archives (after all, they were sitting on several decades of mainstream content versus P4K's two decades of low-budget indie rock coverage).
P4K's SEO/Content Strategy is exactly what many non-publication businesses are trying to do now as a form of "soft" or "inbound marketing." Take Electronic Beats, which is an electronic music publication owned by T-Mobile that was created to attract electronic music fans to a site that they will visit continually to learn about their passion, music, while gradually forming an allegiance to or belief in the brand that will ideally result in a Roman Flügel fanboy switching his service to T-Mobile. And we're not even touching on sponsored or native content, which at least has the benefit of identifying corporate influence for the reader.
But while Pitchfork.com was ahead of the game in their publishing approach, Pitchfork Media has continued to unsuccessfully increase their market share beyond their flagship domain, launching failed sites like Altered Zones and the quite-good The Dissolve, which might have suffered from its quality as it was heads and shoulders above 95% of the existing film sites. Meanwhile, P4K entered a period of exponential growth at the start of this decade; where I remember their About Us page boasting back in 2003 of them having 300,000 unique visitors per month, in 2015 they were well over three million. After all, partially in part of Pitchfork's strict adherence to SEO best practice. they regularly updated the design of their site in keeping with best SEO practices. However, on same day they underwent their most sweeping redesign yet and updated their homepage title tag to its most trusted status, an error was likely made as overnight P4K's daily organic search traffic went from 3.5 million visitors per day to 1.9 million. As seen in the above traffic chart, P4K experienced a precipitous drop-off in March 2016, and while there may have been other factors in play, considering that it was the same month that they did redeisgn. And while this type of mistake is not uncommon for sites even of P4K's size, the fact that it happened soon after they were acquired by Condé Nast in October 2015 could not have boded well for their newly-installed managing editor Matthew Schipper, who came aboard in September of 2015 (another theory is that the purchase caused 1.6 million people to boycott the site, but I'm not buying it.)
Ambient Nightmares and Pretentious Dreams
Whereas such a severe traffic drop in the past might not have been the end-all-be-all when Pitchfork was its own company without a corporate parent, as the only music publication in Condé Nast's portfolio (and one reportedly purchased for a cool $50 million), I would wager that the pressure was intense and thus the pub's editors turned to a content strategy that had earned them serious traffic, press, backlinks, and most importantly, relevancy in the past: authoritative lists. They began last March with one covering the 30 best artist social media accounts before following that enlightening piece with their first genre list of note the 00s' best mixtapes. While my knowledge of mixtapes is not deep enough for me to feel confident critiquing their selection, seeing Rich Gang's The Tour on the top signaled to me that the editors might be more interested in validating past records that they had championed rather than present an accurate portrayal of the medium's finest moment (The Tour had topped several of P4K's best-of lists for 2015.) Soon it was onto the 200 Best Songs of the 1970s, a list that followed the formula established in the previous decades' best album lists: heavy on pop and rock with some but not enough black musicians featured and electronic and experimental music generally overlooked; one thing that stood out for me was that this was a staff raised on mixtapes as classics from the likes of Optimo and Harvey sets that I never would have expected to see in a Pitchfork list were there by the Mac and Talking Heads.
It wasn't until they released The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time that I started to sense things were amok. Things started out promising as it featured a thoughtful and probing introduction by Keith Fullerton Whitman introduction that not only took the listener through the genre's official history but also provided a much-needed and loosely defined conceptual rendering of what ambient music is that served as a perfect theoretical umbrella to unite all fifty selections.It’s actually quite illuminating to compare his closing definition with Pitchfork’s criteria for the albums they would classify as ambient. Whiman provides the following definiton:
Ambient is a great meeting point: not so much at the center of everything, but floating just above, in a perfect geosynchronous orbit, within reach. At its best, it casts enough shade to dampen the extraneous while causing a shift in our perceptions, enough to take us out of time and place, to wherever we need to be.
Pitchfork, on the other hand, provides a considerably more constrictive framework for what they consider to be ambient music:
For our exploration of the greatest ambient albums, we polled critics for their favorites, with the suggestion that “ambient” meant, in part, music that creates an environment, something like a cloud of sound, be it soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous. We also suggested that our take on ambient music shies away from heavy rhythms and tends more toward “drifting” than “driving,” which meant de-emphasizing ambient house.
This strikes me as both unnecessary and myopic on P4K’s part; I’m listening to Huerco S.’ 2013 album Colonial Patterns at the moment, which is a delightfully drifting ambient techno album and while his 2016 ambient-proper release is without a doubt a more fitting choice, I can’t help but feel that the publication is doing a serious disservice in presenting a genre that can include sound design pieces, art installations soundtracks and film soundtracks in general, and so much more. Newworldaquarium, a legendary ambient techno artist who is an absolute favorite of mine, is an artist whose music is already largely unknown to younger generations, why not use this is an opportunity to include as many diverse artists and groups as possible to present as broad and inclusive portrait of a genre as possible? And it was this list that really got me thinking about what had bugged me for so long about P4K’s treatment of electronic music in particular: they fail to truly acknowledge or understand the hybridization inherent in electronic music. While each year sees rock bands, Top 40 acts, and underground producers increasingly reappropriating dozens of genres within a single track at times, borrowing sonic signifiers like drum&bass’s muted foghorn or IDM’s skipping rhythms of curious sounds, there’s always a strand of “purist” thinking seeking to return to some idealized form of their beloved genre--and this is something found in every facet of musi.
By its nature, ambient is a timeless, amorphous music that can take the form of sound over traditional instrumentation. Or as Whitman asks early on, "What music isn't ambient in the 21st century?" Noting the "many roads" into the ambient realm, Whitman artfully lays the simple yet effective groundwork by which the far-reaching coterie of writers within Pitchfork's orbit could work in longtime Pitchfork favorites like Ekkehard Ehlers's Plays, Julianna Barwick's The Magic Place, Fennesz's Endless Summer, and Grouper's AIA: Alien Observer. While it's nothing new for Pitchfork to give priority to the artists they regularly champion, one can'thelp question squandering the opportunity to introduce a new ambient enthusiast to such a wide-ranging genre, And it wasn't just me who was left scratching their hair by a list that seemed to willfully exclude many of their most-glaring omissions, 67 of which were wonderfully chronicled by The Stranger. As I pointed out above, nearly 2/5 of the list was occupied by only 5 different artists and while I personally do not know the Brian Eno albums well enough to voice an opinion, I do think Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air would have sufficed for such an introductory list and I've never quite understood the hard-on Pitchfork gets for that Ehlers' album, raving about it when it first came out over a decade ago. Personally, I would have gone with the sad ambient of his Betrieb release, or you know, included more that one dark ambient album--Deathprod’s Morals and Dogma, which occupied the bottom slot, natch. Instead, P4K went the safe route to reify the one-dimensional characterization that ambient music is generally pleasant, unobtrusive, and beatless. By my count there were only three albums included in that list that had any discernible beats, where as there are literally countless ambient albums with "heavy rhythms." What about work like Philip Glass or Javanese Gamelan and their respective rhythm-melodies, where the two traditionally separate elements are inextricable. Have these people ever bothered listening to a Pop Ambient release?)
In addition, keeping in trend with the continued rise of video content--this year video content is believed to make up 74% of internet traffic and global consumer Internet video traffic will account for 80% of all consumer Internet traffic by 2019--P4K has also taken to providing video lists of the top ten results from their lists. And while the above stats come from marketing studies, it also bears worth noting that 51% of those video views comes from mobile devices, meaning amongst other things that even in a couple of years, most of the popular listicles we consume now will be in video format, a form even more didactic and one not likely to be questioned as to its overall factuality.
Considering that Pitchfork's passion has always been for indie rock, or lyric-focused music, they aren't necessarily the crack team I would assemble to really get at the heart of ambient or IDM, nor do they generally seem to employ writers who would take delight in parsing out the nuances of a sprawling discography of a genre with countless subgenres.There was an article on The Pitch, the site's blog, that was rather symbolic in regards to how the publication tends to view instrumental music called "10 Pitchfork Staffers on the Music that Helps Them Get Shit Done." As someone who has listened to instrumental music his whole life while reading, writing, or doing most other things, I've never encountered such a truly pretentions--a word I define as feigning intellect or cultural know-how--list where the majority seemed to pick the most esoteric album they could think of, picking albums that I would imagine the typical Pitchfork reader would not really enjoy.) And while I genuinely respect Philip Sherburne enough not to doubt that he listens to Merzbow while he works, come on, man! Isn't this supposed to be a list that your readers will want to use to discover new jams while they study in their dorm rooms, which y’all recognize in your intro and based on the fact that this was released at the start of the school year? The kid who gets into Merzbow is going to get into Merzbow with or without your help Philip, just let it be. Highlight something that will actually help someone discover a world of music, for example you could throw in Do Make Say Think’s & Yet & Yet, The Books’ Lemon of Pink, or either of Colleen’s first two albums, and those are just albums I listened to while writing papers my first year in college. More importantly, that such a seemingly simple list came out so unhelpful and scattershot in the worst way when I have no doubt each writer could have put forth a genuinely accessible, work-friendly article, just one that might be fairly well-known (the horror!) is exactly why I grew disenchanted with the site in the first place.
But in all seriousness, reading that piece I got frustrated like I do every time a piece of dance or experimental music criticism appears on Pitchfork, as it often conveys the tangible awkwardness being felt on both sides. It's a feeling I often got in my philosophy or more theory-heavy classes in college when the person who is just not an abstract thinker--believe me, not everyone is and I personally wish I thought more practically--would eat up twenty minutes of the hour-long discussion desperately attempting to contribute a point of interest to the group and just coming off as too proud to admit ignorance. There is so much music out there and no matter how well-listened someone might seem, there is always a large chunk that's going to fall through the cracks. And while I appreciate the fact that Pitchfork keeps writers like Sherburne, Andy Beta, and Kevin Lonzano on staff to cover non-indie rock releases, I've never been under the impression that the site was hiding a secret coterie of ambient or electronic music experts and that's cool; that's why I read other sites like Fact and Truants and magazines like The Wire. The writers at those publications, like myself, have seemingly been listening to instrumental music much of their lives and thus write about it in a way that truly conveys a sense of passion and expertise. Because when you write without those you get....
IDM as Defined by Pitchfork Media
...the reason I started writing this rant in the first place.
Pitchfork's IDM list is really just fifty adventurous, genre-hopping electronic music records with an IDM bent, with the obvious sonic trendsetters and genre pioneers (Autechre, Boards of Canada, Richard D. James, Squarepusher), a few concessions to the IDM diehards in the list’s bottom third (Blectum from Blechdom, Mira Calix, Arovane, Bola, The Black Dog, Anthony Manning), a few out-of-the-box selections I can get behind (especially Caribou/Manitoba's criminally overlooked Start Breaking My Heart); not mad at Four Test either, though I would have gone with his first album, Dialogue) and a lot of random shit thrown in between (Burger/Ink, Jlin, Pan Sonic, FlyLo, Jon Hopkins, Seefeel and I'm happy to debate that one, Carl Craig and same goes for that one, Urban Tribe, ad nauseum). Despite calling the big guns in to write the intro, Simon Reynolds, author of the electronic dance music history Energy Flash and prolonged meditation on nostalgia culture Retromania, sticks to historical facts where Whitman focused on the feels. To be fair, IDM as a genre is a music writer's nightmare as it at once refers to a particular set of musicians and locales making music in a disjointed manner--IDM can sound like a robot autopsy at times--but also applies to an aesthetic sensibility shaped by a technological future utopia that may or may not come. To put it more simply, IDM is electronic music that is a response to more mainstream, functional dance floor material; it not so much a deconstruction of established forms (though there is plenty of that) as it is an interrogation of and reckoning with the many latent potentialities in service of more experimental music that is better fitted for home listening than peak-hour raving. SND is a perfect example of a dominant approach with IDM, though also part of the glitch movement embodied by the Milles Plateaux labelIn fact, when you start reading music journalism from the 90s in places like The Wire you start to draw connections between IDM and another contemporaneous genre that saw a whole wave of musicians dispose with the traditional structure of rock music in search of a music that truly transported its listeners to whole other.
IDM is electronic music’s post-rock. That might sound over-simplistic or downright blasphemous, but at least to this writer, it makes total sense and is a useful way to simplify without reducing just what the genre was and is currently about. A genre term on par with IDM in terms of just how loathed it is, it “embraced uncertainty and indecision, and shied away from rallying statements, wary that any aesthetic rebellion can easily be co-opted and commercialised,” as Fact Magazine puts it. Now, place “IDM” at the start of that quote and it’s hard not to start thinking of the parallels, from Autechre’s descent into the digital rabbit hole to Boards of Canada’s reclusive profile and pastoral melodies to Kid606’s & Co.’s wholesale rejection of teutonic hegemony and capitalist incursion. Even Reynolds, yes him again, who conceptualized the term in 1994 to provide a theoretical framework through which to assess the work of bands like Tortoise drew parallels with the methodology of electronic music production and used the studio as an instrument, inverting traditional structures and disposing of them altogether to fold in new ideas from outside the world of rock in search of a whole new form of music.
And it’s fitting that post-rock is also, though not as much as traditional IDM, a genre largely run by white dudes. I don't know about you, but it just seriously disturbed me that the majority of the albums that I identified as being not-IDM were by black artists. At the same time, being deeply familiar with the majority of the aforementioned artists' catalogs, I sincerely doubt they would place their own music in a list of the "best IDM." Though it’s not nearly as much of an issue as the problems that come from naming a genre primarily made by a bunch of white guys in the UK “intelligent,”especially when weighed against the largely black producer-made "Jungle music," which also helped to expand the rhythmic language of the dancefloor and elsewhere. And while Reynolds notes that “some of the most fabulous electronic music of our era came into being" through the works of these British producers in the 90s, he cheekily adds that “You could even dance to some of it!.” All of which is to say that this was music made by dorky white guys for dorky white folk who eschewed dance floor immediacy for more open-ended and experimental material, but in the end, this wasn’t music you heard playing in the street or at the club--well, most clubs--but rather, as so cheesily yet effectively illustrated by the reclined, computer-generated robot smoking a spliff in comfort of their living room, this was “Electronic Listening Music.” A term coined by Warp for their Artificial Intelligence series that started in 1992, ground zero for IDM according to Reynolds’ introduction, I’ve always thought it perfectly captured what IDM truly is: electronic music informed in equal measures by the sounds and rhythms emanating from the dance floor combined with a mostly non-academic emphasis on experimentation and pushing the accepted boundaries.
But experimentation rarely happens in a vacuum and while Reynolds’ “Phase 1” of IDM emphasized “melody, atmosphere, and emotion,” Phase 2 emerged “largely in response to the emergence of jungle, with its complex but physically coercive rhythmic innovations” and “tended to be far more imposing and inventive with its drums; at the same time, the mood switched from misty-eyed reverie towards antic excess or whimsy.” And in reading such a statement, it’s hard not to think about the timeless tradition of white producers stealing from “urban” music, often made by persons of color. I think it’s important to note IDM’s relationship with jungle, hip-hop, house, and techno as being in some ways vampiric, white producers sucking the attention, ideas, and very music created by black producers and musicisn. Of course, while the artists will often convincingly argue that such cultural ransacking was not the intention, the music media were the ones who popularized the terms of IDM and Jungle, installing an unnecessary racial divide that’s insidious yet woefully predictable looking at the history of popular music from this temporal vantage point. Roni Size, Goldie, Source Direct, and frankly a whole cadre of jungle pioneers of whom I am not fully familiar with developed a whole brand of beat science as they utilized the MPC and early DAW software to dissect, twist, and pull apart the Amen Break, that hallmark of hip-hop and UK breakbeat hardcore, Reynolds’ starting point of his Hardcore Continuum, “a musical tradition/subcultural tribe that’s managed to hold it together for nearly 20 years now, negotiating drastic stylistic shifts and significant changes in technology, drugs, and the social/racial composition of its own population.” (I high recommend checking out this defense of sorts by the recently deceased and hugely influential music and cultural critic K-Punk wrote who rather bluntly addresses the general complaints about and frustration with Reynolds’ concept.)
Phase 3 finds us in the early 2000s when IDM basically became a simulacrum, or a copy of a copy, of itself. Artists like Kid606 and Blectum from Blechdom were instrumental in keeping the genre alive and fresh for a few more years as terminal genres like breakcore and glitch core came and went until all of a sudden it seemed like everyone had started making bloghouse. That's more my own personal perception of what happened around 2005-2006, but that was also when I was just getting into electronic music and was initially put off by IDM's almost meta-language of dance music tropes and sonic signifiers, most of which I was still unfamiliar with, but it wasn't too long before I was listening in awe to the otherworldly dance music of Aphex Twin, be it Selected Ambient Works 85-92, I Care Because You Do, or the entire Analord series. I was drawn to artists who made their own sounds, like Matmos or Fennesz, each constructing intricate yet free-flowing compositions that were at once comforting and overwhelming. In reading a lot of archived and recent reviews of classic IDM records, Over the next ten-plus years, I would come to realize that electronic music of all shapes and forms was my preferred listening material and dove headfirst into its countless genres, subgenres, movements, styles, and its entire history. I say this not to brag, but to establish some credibility for those who have not met me when I say that Pitchfork's list shows a fundamental non-understanding or willful ignorance of the historical development of IDM that Reynolds lays out in the introduction.
From the very first entry in the list, Jason Forrest's The Unrelenting Songs of the 1979 Post Disco Crash I knew I was in for a very different list from the exhaustingly specific and educational selection of the 100 Greatest IDM Songs over at Fact, which bears very little resemblance to the P4K list in terms of artists picked--I counted twelve artists both lists featured--and the overarching chronology, which largely sticks to the 1992 through the mid-00s timeline that I've always identified as IDM's primary period of activity. I do agree with P4K that there are a number of contemporary artists that can be classified as such, I just don't think any of the more contemporary albums or artists that they picked are IDM. Going back to Forrest, he got P4K's gold star (Best New Music) back in 2004 for Post Disco and even then it was an odd choice for Pitchfork, feeling like an obligatory nod to the constantly near-death genre of breakcore. And that thirteen years later they pick that album, which unlike, say, AtomTM's digitally mangled pastiche or an artist like Lesser who in 1998 was laying the foundation for what Forrest would later do. It's an album I've never seen mentioned anywhere other than P4K and one I even listened to back when I listened to pretty much anything with that BNM imprimatur. Sure enough, many of the other albums on this list that are decidedly not IDM like Jon Hopkins' love affair to Dial Records in Immunity and Jlin's confrontational brand of footwork as heard on her debut Dark Energy do have one thing in common and that's having been named best new music. Another BNM vet whose inclusion raised a lot of eyebrows was Flying Lotus' Los Angeles, which was his first major album statement about the city in which he was raised and its distinct beat scene, kind of a post-genre approach to making neck-snapping music by utilizing a far broader sound palette than their peers and predecessors. While FlyLo and his peers, whom I listened to religiously from around 2003 to 2005 on the online radio station Dublab, all cited Aphex Twin and other IDM artists as huge influences and whose sounds can be heard in many of the beat constructions, there were actual beatmakers who essentially doubled as IDM artists like the biomechanic and Dilla-diffused beats of Dabrye or Autechre affiliates Gescom whose 2011 EP Skull Snaps was the sound of hip-hop being put through the IDA assembly line.
I'd bet it all that Jorg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt were not attempting to write an IDM opus over the course of Las Vegas' three EPs of romantic Dub techno. What they did accomplish was making one of the best dance albums of all time as they streamlined House and Dub techno into a heady brew that owed more to Roxy Music than it did to anything released by Warp Records. What's so maddening to me about this recent spate of genre best lists from is not their that they don't seem particularly concerned with accurately representing a genre as it was envisioned by those creating it nor do they attempt to engage in the conversations that went on between IDM or ambient producers that ultimately helped to shape the sound as we know it. Instead they essentially practice reckless historical revisionism in service of historicizing the acts they have traditionally supported. More troubling than their failure to include Actress, whose entire body of work is a meditation on the structures of dance music, in the list is the general process of canonization on the part of Pitchfork in general. I've read that site on a daily basis since 2002, but I probably stopped enjoying it somewhere around 2004 or 2005 and I remember why: it was when they published a hard back book version of their year-end list. For me, this felt like taking a music nerd tradition a step to far by seeking to emphasize their authority on the matter, a feeling I got when going through both the ambient and IDM lists. And the fact of the matter is I sincerely love about two-thirds of the albums included in their IDM list and a similar number on the ambient list.
But at the same time, it's when reading the blurbs that I get the sense that many of them were written by rather young and inexperienced writers who don't quite grasp, or bother to parse out, the many different historical nuances that exist within a given genre--especially any form of electronic music with the constant development of new software, sounds, and new producers opening up new soundcloud accounts by the millisecond. As electronic music continues to grow in popularity in America, it will be interesting to see whether Pitchfork accepts some degree of humility and steps back from their apparent campaign to rank everything within its purview or continues on this current path that undermines their credibility. Because it's not just genuine IDM nerds like myself who got upset over this list. A day after it came out, I was talking to someone in the industry who is an unabashed fan of twee indie rock and she mentioned that despite not being too familiar with the music herself, she had heard a lot of grumbling amongst people who had worked on albums featured in the list that they were not in fact IDM. The question this of course raises is perhaps the most chilling: Does Pitchfork even care?
Now What? Music Journalism Enters the Post-Truth Era
Of course, when I began this piece as a pretty basic rant against the tyranny of listicles and their effect of people's understanding of history, I certainly didn't expect to draw a through line to the current panic over the proliferation of fake news. And while I doubt that P4K is part of some alt-right wing conspiracy, it being under the Condé Nast grants it a certain imprimatur of quality that would lead the publication to make as tone-deaf a proclamation as "the most trusted voice in music" is. And while this status was something both the site and its corporate overlords were likely looking to announce via a site redesign and new tag line, when the site lost nearly half of its organic traffic overnight following the launch of the redesign, this seemed to have created an environment where the publication needed to demonstrate their brand authority and regain the significant distance between them and their closest competitors.
And while the list strategy might have been in the cards long before the massive traffic drop-off, the two timelines match up a little too well for me to credit it all to coincidence. After all, considering that Pitchfork started their list campaign with a topic--the best musicians' social media accounts--that likely required going around the office and asking each writer to pick their fave before following it up with the considerably weightier and more-researched Best Mixtapes list again reinforces my hypothesis that the brand's doubling down on the list-making lines up with a point in the site's history when their back was very much against the wall and they need to demonstrate their value. The danger lies in when they go from offering a rock-heavy list of the best albums of the 1970s, a list that was a logical outgrowth from the type of contemporary acts they covered Pitchfork is in the canonization game, to genres like IDM and Ambient where their criticism has always been lacking in quality.
This is not all to say that all of a sudden Pitchfork has started caring about their traffic data and begun relying on clickbait articles to improve their click-through rates and overall site analytics. They've always done that and excelled at it more than most of their peers, save for Rolling Stone. After all, Pitchfork's own misreporting has garnered some of its most linked and visited content, and it reasons to stand that despite their statements to the contrary, trust is not something they're particularly interested in really earning on the part of readers. And as much as we bemoan the rise of questionable news sources, often financed by private interests, it's all too easy to give those sites who've been with us for decades something of a pass. Pitchfork has made a lot of careers and lot of money is tied up with both the publication and the acts it launches, and the labels and agents who in turn benefit. So it's easy to turn a blind eye to the overall shoddiness in reporting, but one thing is clear: the difference between HuffPo and Pitchfork has become far smaller than anyone could have expected as both are equally beholden to clicks and adjust their reporting to increase the overall numbers.