Critics’ Choice (And Lack Thereof)

Critical acclaim – it’s all that any can wish for. Praise from the immovable and hard-to-impress scholars who deem only a small margin of the plethora of recorded music laudable. Digesting it into bite size chunks in the form of short and snappy reviews and ‘Best of’ lists. Resulting in a collection of the biggest and best music of a generation that is reflected by the listeners… right?

Well perhaps not. Getting a ‘Best New Music’ stamp from Pitchfork or an 8/10 from NME for your new album doesn’t mean that you will be able to rival the likes of Lady Gaga or Beyonce. However, if you were to read any of these publications you could be forgiven for mistaking artists such as Animal Collective and Deerhunter as the prevalent artists of this generation. Front-man of Deerhunter, Bradford Cox, acknowledged that; “All young bands care about is getting a good review, and we got a good review; people think I’ve made it because of that and I haven’t.”

The evidence speaks for itself. According to the critics, acts such as Animal Collective should be able to sell out Rock City and even at a push, play a show at Trent FM arena. Yet, following the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009, an album critically agreed to be the best of the year, the band played a show at the Rescue Rooms. Something seems to be amiss here; surely the opinions of the critics should dictate (or reflect) peoples’ interest in music in some way, and in turn direct budding fans to those artists. This unfortunately isn’t always the case, a fact that Animal Collective are well aware of; “It’s really easy to look on the internet and think that you’re the biggest band in the world, and it’s pretty obvious that we’re not.”

Conversely, sometimes this is the case; take Arcade Fire for instance. They are a band adorned by critics and fans alike, they recently headlined Reading and Leeds Festivals and at the same time topped many ‘Best of’ lists. Admittedly, Arcade Fire is not the most popular band in the world, but in relation to their reviews and the size of their audiences, they seem to strike a balance pretty well. Elbow are another example of a band that moved from the fringe of mainstream to widespread popularity through the coveted and acclaimed Mercury Music Prize. In a way, people can identify acts like these as ‘the critic’s choice’, and as acts that bridge the gap between experimentation and accessibility. It would seem that artists like this are a way into the critical sphere without needing to scour every critic’s opinion to stay in the know.

Conversely, there are times when the critics and the readers come into collision. Most recently, this occurred when Kanye West’s latest album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was awarded a 10.0 from Pitchfork. There was uproar on the blogosphere, as this was the first perfect score from Pitchfork since Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back in 2002. Many have criticised Pitchfork, champions of indie/alternative rock, for attempting to embrace the mainstream. According to Pitchfork, M.B.D.T.F. is the best album in 8 and a half years, which many of the readership wholeheartedly contest.

Overall, critics’ opinions seem to be seen as a contributing factor – but not the prevailing one – in dictating musical trends. With every publication predicting the ‘next big thing’ for 2011 and the rise in ‘webzines’ such as Pitchfork and Stereogum, it seems that we are spoilt for choice in musical opinion. However, the feud that emerges between the critics themselves seems like one many should be wary of – to pick a side is futile, because no side can have prevalence over another. So my advice would be this: don’t ignore the critics, because their opinions are worth considering, but at the same time don’t drown yourself in the ocean of opinions that the internet is over brimming with. Merely get a balanced interpretation of critical opinion and then finally, and perhaps most importantly, make your own mind up about the new Indie/Dubstep/Folktronica album to be released and raved about. Ultimately, the critics aren’t infallible – but then again, who is?

Ben James


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