17 min read

Got my friends to talk about music journalism this time

Got my friends to talk about music journalism this time

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of older album reviews for the laugh. In the last week I’ve read two 2004 Pitchfork reviews. One was Funeral by Arcade Fire and the other was Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain... by Joan of Arc. I laughed out loud both times. I posted a screenshot of the former and my dear friend Ivan guessed it right immediately and told me it changed their life.

I thought it would be really fun to see what reviews have stuck with some pals and talented people I know online who write about music and whose lives are baked into culture around music. It’s a fun exercise to see how people I admire have been formed by blogs in the way I have. I think sometimes it can feel kinda cringe to have been impacted by music writing and to think it matters, but if people can drone on about dead fanzines and the early 2000s blogosphere I can make younger people talk about bloggers and writers who impacted them.

Danielle Chelosky on Ian Cohen’s review of Charmer by Tigers Jaw for Pitchfork

In high school, I printed out a bunch of Pitchfork articles—mainly ones of emo albums—read them, marked them up, and treated them like English homework. Of course I read Ian Cohen, probably a lot of him, but it’s funny to think of now because at the time I had no preconceived notions of who he was, what his rep was, what Pitchfork was, or what Pitchfork’s rep was. I didn’t know Pitchfork was such a conversational topic; I didn’t know music criticism itself was such a controversial topic. I just liked music and I liked to write.

Balanced with that precious innocence was this intimidation. I was intimidated about music writing because I thought there was a right and wrong way to do it. I thought it was black and white. Ian Cohen’s review of Charmer opened up a door for me. I was worried that I couldn’t write about music because I didn’t play it, didn’t know about the technicalities of music, about the history of genres and influences, etc. And while that stuff is important also, all that’s really necessary to get into music writing is curiosity. In Cohen’s Charmer review, he makes the vocalist—Adam McIlwee—a character, and Cohen speculates on his motivations: “McIlwee is either conceding to cynicism as a natural state or reveling in it.” He explores the implications of the one-word title, he discusses the effect of McIlwee’s deadpan tone, he meditates on what to make of the apathetic lyrics. It came across to me like he was analyzing it the same way I analyzed novels in English class, which I was good at. It’s, in my opinion, a completely unpretentious dive into the album that helped me understand its purpose better and appreciate it more. And I thought: that’s exactly what music journalism should do. If a review changes/widens the reader’s perspective of a song or an album, it accomplished its goal.

There are plenty of other reviews that reinforce this idea—I just came across this one at the right time. And I have since been able to do more with that curiosity; I have put in an effort to understand technicalities of music and the history of genres. All I needed was the starting point.
Danielle Chelosky is a prolific music writer, poet, and dater of dudes not good enough for her. You can find her work at SPIN, MTV, and really anywhere else music writing is being published. Subscribe to her newsletter.

Michael Brooks on Tom Breihan’s review of Pilot Talk by Curren$y for Pitchfork.

As someone who’s been reading music criticism for as long as I can remember, I have to admit that for most of my life I never really cared too much about the actual writing itself. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and for a very long time, my only real exposure to new music came from whatever magazines I could convince my mom to buy. Rolling Stone and Spin were filled with writing that felt either too inaccessible or self-serving for me, so I would instead flip through them like I was browsing through stacks of records at a record store, more interested in whatever album covers looked cool than the reviews themselves.

At age 13 I discovered Pitchfork from a sketch on Human Giant (which my friend Keegan dubbed as my “I Become The Joker” moment) and my world was forever changed, for better or worse. Tom Breihan was probably the first writer to ever leave an impression on me—I was a huge fan of hip-hop and a budding indie snob so naturally, I gravitated towards his writing. His review of Pilot Talk by Curren$y, in particular, has stuck with me for over a decade now, I think because he talked about music in the same way that I would if I was talking about it with my friends.

The entire first paragraph of that review is practically imprinted in my brain, every time I think about Pilot Talk I think about the line "Xbox web browser / Download a updated NBA roster / Play a 82-game season / Condo full of snacks, Spitta not leaving" because to me that’s exactly what the album is. Even reading the review now the whole thing feels so effortless and natural, and I can’t help but wonder just how much it influenced the way I thought about music. I’ll forever be amazed by how Tom’s writing perfectly mirrors what it feels like to listen to Pilot Talk and I’m not sure if I would have ever wanted to write about music had I not discovered that review.
Michael Brooks is an Editor at The Alternative and also the person writing this bio. He has written for FLOOD Magazine, The Grey Estates, Merry-Go-Round Magazine, and does not know what else to put in this bio. He loves Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend, in stores now! (not sponsored, but i’m open to it. let me know, ezra. —ed.)

Ellie Kovach on Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad (among other things)

I was honestly struggling really badly trying to think of a specific "review" to write about here, mostly because back when I was first getting into "underground" music there just weren't a lot of places on the internet doing reviews except for Pitchfork, who were running pieces that were, alternately, genuinely funny, human and affecting, or the product of twentysomething white dudes engorged like a tick on creative writing classes and advance CD copies from Merge.

There was also Mark Prindle, who was doing a kind of trying-really-hard-to-be-Lester-Bangs-or-Hunter-Thompson thing that hasn't aged nearly as well as either of those influences. So basically, while I definitely read a lot of music reviews, a lot of the music writing that I found effective was biographies, particularly ones about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who I was completely obsessed with (and at the time didn't realize that I basically just had an enormous crush on). Reading Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are, however, led me to Our Band Could Be Your Life, which is a history of the 80s American indie scene as told through the lens of 13 specifically chosen bands (the unspoken premise of the book is basically "these are the bands that eventually led to Nirvana"), and that book was truly life-changing for me. I don't know if it necessarily counts as a "review," but in discussing the bands and their music, Azerrad also told the story of the underground scene of that time in a way that managed to feel both germane and historically accurate, as well as completely compelling, and seemed to speak to a broader theme about culture and the nature of people who were into Music Like That.

Around the time I discovered OBCYL, I was also getting really into Chuck Klosterman via his book Sex Drugs & Cocoa Puffs, and his essays, while much funnier and more idiosyncratically written, shared a similar curiosity for prodding at the undergrowth of American pop culture— especially 80s pop culture which, at the time I was a kid, everyone still seemed to be laboring beneath the haze of. my music writing is particularly essayistic and I often find more and more people referring to me as a "scene historian" rather than as a straightforward music journalist, so I would probably say that those two things, while perhaps not "reviews" in the strictest sense, really blew the doors open for me and made me realize that *I* could write about music. No longer was "Music Journalism" strictly the domain of pathetic pedants who used words like "searing" to describe guitar solos— instead it could be a method of storytelling, of making larger-than-life musicians seem human, of interrogating the type of culture that led to this music being made (or how that music and those musicians in turn impacted that selfsame culture). In that regard, I'd say that if the Minutemen's credo of "our band could be your life" inspired hundreds of people to do the same, so too did Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life inspire a successive generation of music journalists who no longer felt compelled to stick to the Rolling Stone Rock Review Format, and who aspired to do something more cogent and artistically demanding than the two-bit snark that passed for talent at Pitchfork at the time (Sorry Ian, you came later!).
Ellie Kovach is a fellow newsletter writer and knows more about most things than I ever could hope to. You can find their writing at youdontneedmaps.substack.com and support them on Patreon.

Wes Muilenberg on Caroline Rayner’s Review of “Celebration Rock” by Japandroids for Tiny Mix Tapes

The olde days of Pitchfork’s surreal, narrator-driven reviews, where you might not even realize you’re reading about music at first, have blessedly aged out for the most part. While I might argue that some of them catch a peculiar beauty, most are rightly mocked (i.e. The Kid A review). However, the review that has most purely and accurately captured the essence of the music it critiqued is a review done entirely in the first-person.

Caroline Rayner’s review of Japandroids’ 2012 opus Celebration Rock does not mention the name of the band, any of the songs, or the album’s title, outside of a preliminary quotation from the opening track. Japandroids are revered as a pinnacle of the “dudes rock!” brand of wholesome machismo, and while their target audience is 40-year old punks, their music is young. The raw hope of 18-year-old dreams flows through the veins of Brian King and Dave Prowse.

Much of Rayner’s piece consists of loosely connected mini-paragraphs, many of which could be read as Japandroids lyrics. It opens with “You and me, we’re leaving.” Those five words are the most concise summation of Celebration Rock’s mindset. Eight songs of fist-punching of glory are perfectly and equivalently transformed into 540 words of diaristic prose. It’s the rare instance where a piece of music criticism leaves me as agape as the music it discusses. These words are inextricably bound to the album’s experience.
Wes Muilenburg is a Minneapolis based writer and podcaster. Most of their work can be found on Ear Coffee, the blog they co-founded; they have contributed to Post Trash and Slumber Mag. Follow them on Twitter: @purity0lympics.

Ethan Gordon on Ian Cohen’s review of Fates Worse Than Deathby Short Fictions for Pitchfork

Last December, a co-worker of mine mentioned the band Short Fictions, a local Pittsburgh emo group that was building national buzz. I forgot about them for a few weeks, before noticing that their debut album Fates Worse Than Death got a review on Pitchfork. As embarrassing as it might be to admit, culture websites like Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, and Spin had an incredibly important influence on my taste in music, and they still – to some degree – dictate the kind of music that is “cool” to my brain. And for the first time ever, one of these cool bands sang about places in my backyard like South Oakland, Bigelow Blvd, or the turnpike going north to Erie.

Ian Cohen captures the sense of location well in his review, which pits Pittsburgh’s current iteration as a quickly gentrifying “meds-and-ed mecca” against the city’s cultural image of a rust-belt town. It’s a conflict I’ve grown up around, and it’s a conflict that’s detailed wonderfully on Fates Worse Than Death. Bare with me as I know what I’m about to say is corny, but as Sam Treber of Short Fictions sings about how “the kids in Oakland have such joie de vivre,” he could reasonably be talking about me on the half-days of high school. The album is “a love letter to Pittsburgh, the people in it and those getting pushed out, who can’t live here anymore but have nowhere else to go,” as Cohen explained so eloquently.

It’s weird to see a place, warts and all, you love reflected back at you in the music you love, but it’s something I have to thank Ian Cohen for. I viewed my beloved hometown as a cultureless city when it came to the things I cared about, but I’ve come to find that Pittsburgh is bursting with incredible art, from local labels like Crafted Sounds to groups like Calyx (who’s incredible debut album came out last Friday). It just took a review like this one to push me in the right direction.
Ethan Gordon is a teenager who somehow scammed editors into letting him write for them. His work is found at No Ripcord, Mic, Vice, and other semi-reputable places.

Cheyenne Bilderback on I Have A Strange Relationship With Music by Jessica Hopper

By the time I read Jessica Hopper’s “I Have A Strange Relationship With Music,” I’d already been reading music criticism and journalism for a while. I grew up with country music, and in early middle school, I subscribed to Country Weekly simply because of the “Story Behind The Song” column, where songwriters explain the life experiences that inspired one of their successful songs. Throughout 8th grade and high school, I picked up Substream and Alternative Press at bookstores. In college, I started reading Pitchfork and other music blogs. So by the time I had my hands on Hopper’s book, First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, I was a sophomore. So, I already liked music reviews and had read a lot. But Hopper’s “I Have A Strange Relationship with Music,” the first essay in her book, is the first piece of music writing that absolutely floored me.

Hopper uses Van Morrison’s album T.B. Sheets to center and expose her relationship with music. She describes the record in a way that makes you want to listen, and she doesn’t back away from her own emotions. “I can count on one hand the amount of times that I have made it through the entire album without crying,” Hopper writes. She describes Morrison as “drunk, a little-off key, hysterical,” but his lyrics and confessions as “deathbed desperations” and “unbearable love.” She calls the title track “an exquisite topography of bleak human expanse.” Hopper was so loving with T.B. Sheets that I wanted to hear it in the way that she heard it. So I listened. I hated it. But that didn’t change how much I loved her writing.

Hopper ends the essay with this quote: “Because all these records, they give me a language to decipher just how fucked I am. Because there is a void in my guts which can only be filled with songs.” That’s when I understood that other people felt the same I did about songs, and when I finally had the language to describe my own relationship with music. I felt like I, too, could write about the music that I loved.

Personally, there’s a handful of really memorable pieces written by music writers that come to mind off the top. Not because they’re all necessarily important, just because I remember them strongly. If you’re a frequent reader of the newsletter here, you may expect me to talk about something Dan Ozzi wrote. It’s a reasonable thought considering my identity as a shithead Menzingers fan and only half ironic self identity as his #1 fan. I actually started to write about his work, but then I spilled half a monster energy drink on my bed and took it as a sign from god to talk about literally anything else for once. Though, if you’re interested, the Dan Ozzi piece I remember best is when he spent all of 4/20 in Taco Bell. Do with that what you will.

Like Ellie, criticism and larger scale pieces are actually more what I prefer to read and what have had more of an impact on me. And like Chey, Jessica Hopper comes to mind before anybody else. The essay that comes to mind for me is, unsurprisingly I’m sure, Where The Girl’s Aren’t by Jessica Hopper. This is one that I don’t need to tell you the importance of. Nor do I have to be ironic about how important her work is to me and in general when it comes to emo and rock criticism. The piece is included in her book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, but I read it for the first time on Rookie as an excerpt. I’ve read it a thousand times. It never fails to evoke some new thought I’ll be stuck on for days. If or some reason you’ve never read that book, I can’t encourage you enough to do so.

At the end of the day, though, I want to talk about reviews because I talk I think it’s sort of the first entry point to music writing people find. In all reality, I struggle to enjoy reviews and that’s why I don’t try to write that many of them. When I was a teenager, though, I read a ton of them for all the bands I loved and would get seething mad about Pitchfork’s general ambivalence. But, in my teenage eye, Ian Cohen loomed above the rest. I realize this newsletter is starting just to be a love letter to Ian’s influence on the under 25 emos, but stick with me.

I have a ton respect for him as one of the few music writers I’ve read consistently for a very long time that I associate overwhelmingly with reviews instead of features or interviews or criticism. That said, I remember hate reading Ian’s reviews pretty young, nitpicking things I didn’t think he got and then pretending I simply did not see his praise of bands I loved. It was just virtue of my taste and the stuff he covered. Everyone needs an adversary and I’m a coward so I picked a music writer who would never know who I am.

There are several reviews of his I did not like that I distinctly remember. For some reason I convinced myself as a teenager I really liked Comedown Machine by The Strokes. Really I liked Slow Animals and actually preferred the alt version, Fast Animals. Regardless, I took issue with his review. It’s a fair review. I was not a fair person.

His review of The Things We Think We’re Missing didn’t bother me too much at the time except for one tiny little thing because I was a bore of a person at 16. At the very end of the review he calls Separation “pedestrian” and this word probably got a full tumblr post in my /tagged/personal. God, I loved Separation and I still do! I am prepared to admit maybe the things I loved at 15 aren’t infallible, though. C’est dommage.

Finally, and most memorably, Frightened Rabbit’s State Hospital EP. There’s a different FRabbit review that people take more passionate issue with, but this one hurt me personally. Outside of The Midnight Organ Fight, this EP is my favorite thing they did. Boxing Night is one of, if not definitively, my favorite Frightened Rabbit song. It’s definitely because for some reason that’s the first one I ever heard through a Spotify Discover Weekly and I’ve just always loved it. I didn’t read this review upon publication, but was, again, suitably outraged.

The last IC review I really disagreed with and found upsetting was in 2017, but I stand by that feeling in a way I won’t chalk up to teenage self seriousness. We’re keeping the tone light though so I’ll just leave that one be.

I think it’s a credit to him as a writer the way me and a lot of people around my age with emo sensibilities (or hip-hop, if you’re Michael Brooks) have looked to his writing and reviews, positively or otherwise. For the record, my favorite Ian Cohen Review is of the first 1975 record for Grantland (rip).

And last but not least, if someone was to prompt me to give them the review that impacted me most, it wouldn’t be a Pitchfork article. I also had to spend some time searching for it because, while I remember the words and I remember reading it in middle school, I didn’t remember what site it was on nor who wrote it.

When I was 11 I found Title and Registration by Death Cab For Cutie through a Mitchell Davis youtube video. And as soon as you find that one in 2008, you’re only a few clicks from I Will Follow You Into the Dark. My dad had more than a few Death Cab songs on his iTunes, but in my quest to download the whole album after learning all of the songs my dad had, I came across a review of Plans.

The words “a bucketload of self-assuredness” still stick in my mind. For the first time, I was getting context on this band that I felt was so special and that I found all on my own (though not before my dad, obviously..)

It’s an AV Club review by Josh Modell, who now works at Talkhouse. The review isn’t especially positive. No Plans review from the time is all that positive. They’re all incredibly comparative to The Postal Service record and Transatlanticism. And for good reason. A couple years out from two massive records is a tough spot to be in for a band, I expect. There’s also the obvious sort of disparaging O.C. references.

Reading it now it’s not, like, a special review, but it’s what I needed then. I needed to put the band in context. I didn’t know what The Postal Service was or the order of the records or that the album with the bird on it was beloved. It’s the first review I remember reading and registering that music was this huge thing beyond listening to it alone or clicking on random videos on youtube or talking about Alex Gaskarth’s hair in comments.

It meant so much to me then just to know that people are talking about this thing I was absolutely consumed by. I went on to read everything I could find on the band and read all their interviews. It felt so special, even when I had to look up the adjectives and go on gut feeling about whether the writer was trying to say something nice or not because it didn’t really make any sense.

Not to make this cute little article into a Grand Statement, but I think that’s why culture writing matters and why really good and fun music writing matters. There’s kids who won’t just want a blind recommendation. They want to know what other people think. They want to be given context and told stories about the music that consumes them. They should continue to be able to get mad at some guy’s opinions or critique their favorite genre’s norms or get their favorite albums placed in the greater world. There’s value there that exists as more than just convincing people to buy a record. Doing that is great, but understanding where things come from and how they come to be and live in the world is valuable, too.

I’ll never know what it’s like to see a site I spent years working at disintegrate and all my work effectively (or literally, sometimes) made inaccessible or destroyed because of shitty, unfeeling corporatization. I do know what it’s like to feel the ripples of that shift, though. I’ve read so much really, really bad music writing. I think that’s why I talk about it so much. Music writing informed so much of my experience with music when I was at a pretty vulnerable age as a nervous kid who was never close enough to anything cool to really have consistent DIY live experiences. Following writers online and piecing together scenes totally outside of their live context was huge for me. My perception of certain writers and the way I have perceived their taste (or personality) for so long is probably why I have certain musical blindspots just as much as it informed the stuff I love today.

I think content wise, and for me, a pivot to more individualized blogs, newsletters, zines, etc. is good, but a loss of digestible, centralized music writing bums me out. Using those avenues as an established writer sucks because it’s unstable, but it is so incredibly difficult to develop an audience and make them trust you within the same contexts like a lot of younger people have to do. It’s harder to create the same platform freelancing than if you have a staff position and those positions are few and far between.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I wanted to get my talented friends involved in this. Or maybe I just selfishly wanted to know something about their past with regard to writing. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just fun to get other people’s voices.


Thanks to everyone who wrote blurbs for this thing. Please be sure to check out all their wonderful work linked in their little bios and follow them on twitter dot com.

Until next time…

Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law student based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like when I get to be on the Endless Scroll Podcast: @mirandareinert. I also opened up a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! But as always, thanks for reading!