Strange Critical Behaviors, Case 120809a

Whenever I ask a question about the strange behaviors of critics and their tendency to write things that exalt their own discernment, I point that shotgun right at myself.

But I’m becoming increasingly aware that there’s a difference between making useful observations about art and making hysterical, premature, presumptuous claims about a work in an effort to Be the First to Recognize Greatness, or the First to Herald the Arrival of a New Era.

For example, as soon as the “Best ________ of the 2008” lists are published, you can count on critics to start heralding the arrival of the first arresting new thing of the next year with praise like, “We’ve probably just seen the arrival of the Best _______ of 2009.”

Case in point: The new album by Animal Collective. If a critic likes anything new he’s hearing right now, in order to be heard above the din of all fo the end-of-the-year celebrating, he’ll have to say something like this:

“…it’ll be surprising if we get a better record than Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009.” (Pitchfork)

Headline: “Merriweather Post Pavilion Already Best Album of 2009”  (Phoenix New Sun Times)

Seriously… do a Google search right now for “best album of 2009.” You’ll get about 6,700 results.

In a year when we have yet to hear about a zillion albums, including stuff from U2, The Decemberists, Sam Phillips, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and countless more inventive talents, what is this need that we critics have to make such pronouncements?

How hard would it be to come up with something useful or insightful, something like an interpretation or a creative description?

I recommend this New Year’s Resolution as a creative exercise for critics: Try to write reviews that abstain from these terms and phrases: “best,” “worst,” “most,” “of the year,” “to beat”…

Anybody want to add phrases to the list? Feel free to post those that I’m guilty of overusing. I love a challenge.

By the way, I’m listening to the new Animal Collective album right now. And I admit… I am enjoying it. Earlier this week, I enjoyed listening to the new Andrew Bird album. That’s two pleasant hours under the headphones with new music this week already. Could it be? Yes. It’s the Best Musical One-Two Punch of 2009. That I’ve experienced. So far. I think.

Like any honest music enthusiast, I am truly skeptical of all that I have claimed.

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  • Darryl A. Armstrong

    There’s too much good music, books and films to take those comments too seriously. I know novice critics like myself continue to find the “best of” albums from 2, 3, 5, even 10 years ago. Even, full-time critics experience this.

    But, at the same time, I think it’s just the critical “jargon” that one must come to expect when reading reviews. For me, it’s easy enough to tune out, but I commend your desire to hold yourself to higher standards in your own writing. Sometimes it’s really hard to complete an entire review, especially if your under deadline, without relying on at least a few cliches.

    Of course, I find myself reading more in-depth essays/journalism/discussion on art these days and less reviews. Most reviews, even if not rushed, are very much a “thing-of-the-moment,” quickly read and quickly forgotten.

  • A few years ago I started using the word “favorite” instead of “best”, explaining that taste, perspective & experience play so much into the equation. Once I had looked back on my own “best” lists of several years ago and wondered “what was I thinking?”, then I started being a little more careful about what I called my lists today. Speaking to myself here. I usually tend to like your “favorites” lists. But it never hurts for critics to be aware of how they’re coming across.

    a fellow list-maker & cinephile,


  • I know that Sam Phillips and Eric Gorfain have quite a bit of material already for their next, and seemed to think it was likely to be sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s out this year. Dylan’s next album, reportedly called Anchor, got some buzz a while back, but all is quiet now. I won’t be surprised, though, if it surfaces sometime next fall.

  • Here’s a twist– Peter Travers has already named the WORST movie of the year.

    (And do you have information about new Sam Phillips/Bob Dylan albums that the rest of us don’t have?)