Critical Mass: Best Music Writing 2015

When we started Words & Guitars it was always our intention to spend a little bit of time talking around music criticism, books about music, and the crossover between writing and music, especially highlighting the good work we happened across as we wound our way around this thing called the internet. We’ve still to properly tackle that ambition, but it’s a subject we’re intent on exploring further over coming months as we settle into our first full calendar year.

Until then, while the supposed democratisation of the online world has undoubtedly deflated the role of the professional critic – and given many, many people the opportunity to write badly about music – there’s still a great deal of pleasure to be found in good music writing. The – hopefully now annual – Louder Than Words festival proves the form is not quite dead, and we still spend much more time than is probably wise reading and absorbing music reviews and features when we should be doing the dishes or mopping the floors. Good writing about music can enhance the listening experience, challenge your preconceptions and get you to try artists you might otherwise overlook. It’s a craft and an art in its own right, and we’d like to do something to promote those writers whose work we enjoy.

As a starter then, here’s a smattering of some of the best ‘writing about music’ we read across during 2015. We’ll be trying to bookmark the good stuff throughout 2016 and sharing what we find on a more regular basis.

Taylor Parkes interviews Sleaford Mods

… for The Quietus was the one thing you needed to read about this year’s most talked about (and divisive) British act. While our Twitter timeline suggests a hint of sniffiness about ‘music paper nostalgia’, there was a whiff of Melody Maker about Parkes’ piece in terms of its pacing and stylings. That’s the beauty of online of course: you don’t need to worry about word count too much – indeed, the ‘long read’ is defiantly coming back into fashion – so Parkes has time for scene-setting and putting SM into context.

It’s the prelude to giving Jason Williamson the space to lay out his desire not to get labelled, to “move along” and not need to do any more photoshoots in front of tower blocks. It’s defiant stuff on the part of Williamson, but also by Parkes (and by association The Quietus) – a belief that features such as these are still worth doing.

Favourite line(s): “The wife, she went fucking mad, it ruined the fucking evening, and in the end I put a message on Facebook saying, you know, ‘If you like this and you’re expecting some kind of fucking Gary Oldman film crossed with Twycross Zoo, then fuck off. That’s not what it’s about.’”

Dan Weiss reviews Kendrick Lamar

… for Spin.

The critical smash of the year (and perhaps decade) is an American album, and while British coverage was just as effusive as it was Stateside, it took Dan Weiss to properly capture To Pimp A Butterfly‘s melange of funk, jazz and rap in review form. A complex, conversational album, Weiss pulls out TPAB’s troubled back-and-forth – while not forgetting the technical and creative masterclass (“… Kendrick raps like an auctioneer and holds onto the beat like a mechanical bull.”) on show. A good review should have you reaching for the disc / scrolling through iTunes for another listen. Weiss’ breathless wordage did exactly that.

Laura Snapes reviews PINS

… for Pitchfork. Music criticism. It’s inherent in the term. And yet, aside from the occasional clickbait dismantling of a terribly obvious act, there’s much less formal criticism of popular music than might be imagined on most of the popular review sites.

It’s a trend that’s been fairly obvious in print for many years – the phenomenon where pretty much every album released is at worst a 7/10 or 3/5, suggesting a release worthy of your attention now (and for many years into the future) whereas the reality is usually much more mundane.

Here, Snapes is unafraid to unpick the weaknesses of an act that could, or should, do better. The album, Wild Nights, promised much in its title but turned out to be Sunblest garage rock of the corny and trite variety. The record label weren’t happy with the review but much of Snapes’ disillusion comes from the album’s “total passivity” and “fan-fic” characterisation rather than cheap snark. Maybe those shows with Sleater-Kinney will instil some ambition for an act that was so initially intriguing?

Simon Price interviews Marc Almond

… on The Quietus. Take one music legend and pair them up with a seasoned pro and just let them chat. Almond is open and honest about the realities of performing as the decades pass, while Price knows his subject well enough to make the connections between Soft Cell and more recent works, rather than simply rake over the olden daze. The simple Q&A format looks easy, but it’s testament to Price’s skill as an interviewer how easy it really does look.

Best line: “I’d always wanted to write a song about a leather jacket and how wearing it makes you feel.”

Nicole Atkins reviews Speedy Ortiz

… for The Talkhouse. Whether there’s any truth in the old adage that critics are just frustrated musicians, it’s still rare for the shoe to be on the other foot and for working musicians to be asked to formally review another artist’s work. In this piece, Atkins – a performer we have a lot of time for anyway – exhibits an empathy for a band still finding their way musically but who are already engaging many on a personal level. By peppering the text with ‘I”s and emotional responses she humanizes what is sometimes a dry art, proving that far from being a jaded professional, she’s still excited and moved by new music. If the songs ever dry up, we’d be happy to have her come aboard.

Corin Tucker speaks to Lauren Mayberry

… for Interview magazine. Older readers might have thought the musical gender wars were over, but it turns out much hasn’t changed at all. Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry has become an unwitting focal point (firstly as a target for often appalling online abuse, then as an articulate spokesperson) on the issue, meaning this piece is a must-read summary of what – sadly – remains one of music’s burning issues.

That said, it’s also a conversation between two peers and Tucker seems genuinely interested in her younger counterpart’s experience and creative drivers, and offers a fresh perspective on the whole ‘you’ve got a new album tell us about it’ media rollercoaster.

About Douglas Baptie (188 Articles)
Editor at Words & Guitars. Lives in Carlisle, far away from 'that London'.
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