I read a lot of music criticism. Too much, probably; after reading review after review of a particular album my opinion of it might actually start to cater to what everybody else thinks of it. And as someone who would LIKE to have their own, original opinions on their favorite music, this is kind of a tough thing to admit.
But I can't help it - I am obsessed with music criticism. Some of it I love, some of it I hate. But I can't stop reading it. There are a lot of people who will tell you that artistic criticism - in any respect, be it film or video games or whatever - is written by a bunch of snobbish fussbudgets who can't relate to the real world and are just out to put everything down. While this can sometimes be the case, it's mostly untrue (Rolling Stone gave 4 stars to Linkin Park's newest album, didn't you hear?) and the people who say that kind of thing probably listen to... oh, I don't know, Staind or something. In my view, music criticism is written more out of a love of music than anything else, and can offer up a wealth of fascinating writing if you know who to read. So I'd like to offer some brief profiles of some of my personal favorite record reviewers.
I'll start with probably my favorite online music critic, Mark Prindle. Prindle has been maintaining Mark Prindle's Record Reviews for well over a decade now (his first reviews were posted back in 1996), and as far as I can tell, he's been working pretty diligently in that time - in fact, there are so many artist pages and interviews on his site, getting to the heart of his writing can be a daunting task. This isn't helped by Prindle's exhaustive artist reviews - when he profiles an artist, he will review not a meager selection of notable albums, but every single album in that artist's discography. And that's not just studio albums - that's live albums, compilations, bootlegs, and whatever else Prindle happens to own. Now, a common response to this could be "Oh, well, he must really love the bands he reviews if he's willing to review EVERYTHING they've EVER recorded! That's dedication!" Well, yeah. But the funny thing is, many a time, Prindle will not review a band/artist he actually likes - as such, he will review every album ever recorded for a band he hates. This leads to some fascinating review pages in which he tries to find the good in bands he doesn't care for (Linkin Park, The Jam, whoever) and it offers up some bizarre - but fascinating - results.
There's also his style of writing. I don't quite know how to describe it. The proper adjective here would be "mercurial," but a few other words come to mind: "loopy", "rough", "tangential", "unnecessarily angry", and (in some cases) "completely batshit insane." Unlike many other music critics out there, the reviews on Prindle's site are (for the most part) not printed in any sort of magazine or fanzine or whathaveyou; the website is there for him and him only. As such, Prindle takes full advantage of the space he has. While most of his reviews are pretty brief (he is reviewing every album in the artist's catalouge, after all), many will devolve into long, very personal tangents, in which Prindle tells a story, rattles off a series of silly, awful jokes, rants about someone or something, or turns to silly little gimmicks (like running his review of the Jam's "All Mod Cons" through Babelfish, rendering the review incomprehensible). All in all it makes for a one-of-the-kind reading experience, if you can manage to actually understand what he's trying to get across without being repulsed or annoyed by his off-the-cuff (and often somewhat juvenile) style.
Oh, did I also mention that Prindle is so dedicated to his readers that he will post every single e-mail response to his reviews below every single review, no matter how negative or fucked-up they might be? Yeah. That just makes things even more unusual.
So while Prindle's page is a very, very messy-looking affair, his writing shines through; like the great Lester Bangs before him (who Prindle has been compared to more than once), the quality of Prindle's writing comes from his unfaltering honesty and his genuine love of (most of the) music he's reviewing. Unlike many reviewers, he is unashamed of mentioning his favorite bands whenever he gets the chance, often name-dropping them in completely unrelated reviews (most notably The Ramones, The Fall, The Byrds, and - most notoriously - the obscure noise-punk band the Cows). He also has a severe vendetta against the alt-rock and electronica trends of the 90's (having started the site in 1996, he was neck-deep in it), a subject that he will rant about in somewhat unexpected places.
Prindle also has what could be called an obsession with trying to remove any and all influence from other music reviewers, most notably from the Allmusic.com guide, which he has lambasted on more than one occasion. He has no qualms about going back to read over his old reviews and change them if he feels he wasn't being honest or had cow-towed to universal critical opinion (such as his loving reviews of the critically lambasted late-80's Ramones, or the 10/10 he gave to the later-era Bowie album "Hours", the only perfect score he gave Bowie). While it makes for something of a haphazard experience at first, it makes for very entertaining reading, since it is very hard to anticipate how he will feel about almost any given album, popular or obscure. Prindle is very deft at making his reviews funny, entertaining, and - more often than not - surprisingly poignant.
I could keep describing Prindle, but I feel like I'd just be repeating myself; instead, I'll give a list of some notable Mark Prindle reviews, ranging from the genuine to the bizarre:
- Prindle's Miles Davis page, which begins with the tagline "I don't understand jazz really at all," is a perfect example of Prindle's tendency to exhaustively review an artist who he doesn't like - or, in this case, a genre he doesn't like. Almost every review consists of him reiterating about how he doesn't "get" jazz, and by the second review - just the SECOND - he goes so far as to say "Everybody who likes jazz is stupid." Needless to say, he received many negative responses.
- His Linkin Park review page claims that "the backing music is light and tinkly enough to sound EXACTLY like a Backstreet Boys ballad until the loud guitars come in during the chorus. It's so clearly fucking boy-band music!" This also happens to be one of the longest review pages on Prindle's site - not due to Prindle's reviews, but due to the hundreds upon hundreds of responses he received from... well, many angry fans.
- His Emerson Lake and Palmer page is probably one of the most entertaining pages he's done. Same goes for his Beach Boys page.
- His review of The Beatles' The Complete Rooftop Concert bootleg, in which he claims that "Although not a very listenable bootleg, The Complete Rooftop Sessions is an important one. It captures the very brief period of time during which The Beatles were a completely inadequate, dysfunctional piece of shit. If you're ever dissatisfied with the state of YOUR band, give this garbage a listen and you might just see things in a whole new light." It should be noted that the Beatles are one of his favorite bands.
- His Velvet Underground review page. Mark Prindle hates the Velvet Underground, but unusually enough, loves Lou Reed. He also loves Simon and Garfunkel but hates Paul Simon. Hmm.
- His Bee Gees page, which is totally guest-written by rock critic Gregg Turkington. In case you were wondering, Gregg Turkington also happens to be the legendary Neil Hamburger, the most wonderful terrible comedian ever (who Prindle has not only reviewed, but interviewed.)
- His constant lambasting of Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau, including his announcement that Christgau is "...a fuck. A worthless fuck... he's a fool. A pathetic old man. Ignore every word he says." This is in the middle of some Pere Ubu review.
- I'll end with maybe my favorite Prindle reviews, and probably some of the most genuine on the site: his scathing indictment of Madonna's American Life, the ONLY album on his site to receive a 0/10. Then there's his unabashedly glowing review of John Mellencamp's "Scarecrow": "I've been enjoying this album for 15 years. Even during my hardcore punker years when I made fun of the Coug for being such a mainstream dork rocker, I secretly sang all these tunes to myself on a regular basis. Yes, even when I had long hair with the sides of my head shaved like that guy in Faith No More!" And then there's his review of Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising", detailing his experiences during 9/11. It may be the most openly heartfelt review he has ever done, and of course, it ends with him mentioning Bruce Springsteen's ass.
The truth is, though, that these little excerpts are really only scratching the surface of what Prindle's site has to offer. Not only are there hundreds of artist review pages on his site, but a wonderful cache of of Prindle's interviews of key rock figures such as Pavement, Richard Hell, Tommy Ramone, Steve Albini, and many many others. If you have any passing interest in rock music and great writing simultaneously, dig into Mark Prindle's treasure trove of fractured rock 'n roll ramblings and never look back.