I love a lot of bad music. Well maybe not bad, but definitely unspectacular. In the same way that the film world has its genre movies — pictures that aspire to nothing more than exhibiting certain characteristics particular to a certain style — music has genre albums, records that hardly evolve or add much to a sound, but perhaps slightly better or tighten its conventions.
In criticism, there's an understandable tendency to reward those who find a new way to make a dollar out of a nickel. Whether it be genre-collapsing, surprising vocal phrasings or a new guitar sound, critics always have an ear out for the new, the unfamiliar. Listening to hundreds of new songs everyday will do that to you. It's a noble goal.
But in the eternal quest for the new, the familiar sometimes gets shafted. Even if a song sounds like a hundred other songs, it's rarely exactly the same. It's far more likely that a weary listener will pick up on what's familiar rather than what isn't. The Strokes, to cite a prominent example, fell victim to this. (Even I was guilty of it.) There are signifiers in the Strokes' music that suggest a particular time and place, and for critics wary of the highly touted (which significantly ups the expectations), those similarities defined the band even though their songwriting allows them to surpass their aesthetic limitations. It's far easier to hear who they aren't than who they are.
One of my favorite records of all time is of little consequence: Tragedy by the Vehicle Birth. The Vehicle Birth were a quintet from Boston and D.C. who played post-hardcore/math-rock and released the one album on Crank! in 1998. If the band had released Tragedy in 1993, they would be legends. But instead of laying the groundwork for post-hardcore, the Vehicle Birth merely painted the window trimming and sanded a few banisters. They aren't important figures in the creation of the genre, yet they recorded one of its best albums. Shouldn't that count for something?
Well, yes and no. We critics prize the pioneers, the people who watched everyone else go left and went right instead. Which, when writing in a historical context, we should. But in terms of listening, what's more important, those who did it first or those who did it best? I'm reminded of an interview I did with the UK band Clinic a few years ago:
Strickler: With rock writers and serious fans there's definitely a hierarchy that places people who did something first over people who did it best. Do you think there should be that much importance placed on the originator?
Blackburn: Yeah, I'd say so. I'm sure there are exceptions, but doing music it's quite easy to take elements of the originator, what they've done, and add your own pieces to it. The true talent is to come up with something which people haven't heard before. That's where the imagination is. A pretty obvious example — take the Velvet Underground and then the Modern Lovers and Stooges, which is still really, really good. But you have to credit, within that line of bands, the Velvets as being the most worthy to listen to.
There's something to that, but if we set our standards that high, there's little to celebrate and we're left with things like Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums list, which is great for a historical crash course in the development of Anglo pop music, but maybe not to actually listen to. This is not to suggest killing the aura of the originator (though in certain cases I'm there), but to be more hesitant to damn an album solely because it fails to break new ground. Not everyone can be a shepherd.