Get Lit: The Pitchfork 500

At last, Pitchfork has laid bare its aesthetic in book form in this old-media attempt at pop music canonization. As the cover describes, The Pitchfork 500 is “Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present,” beginning with singles released in 1977.

That Pitchfork chieftains Scott Plagenhof and Ryan Schreiber chose that year is both telling and utterly predictable. Anyone familiar with the Web site knows its authors believe popular music was born that year, with the Velvet Underground serving as damn-near lone voice of cool in the wildernesses of hippiedom and dad-rock that came before.

You won’t be surprised to learn that there’s no country or Latin music in here, nor anything rooted in any tradition that dates beyond that all-important first year of the Carter Administration when disco, indie and punk Changed Everything Forever and Ever.

It will also come as no shock that the first pages consist of reviews of songs that everybody doesn’t know already by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, three of the four Big Boss Men of today’s trendoids. Kraftwerk, Eno and the Ramones have to wait until the second page; shockingly they don’t get around to Talking Heads (whose David Byrne is the fourth patriarch of modern cool-rock) and Patti Smith until the third page.

Another Pitchfork hero, Giorgio Moroder, is mentioned in the intro to the first chapter. He comes in where co-editor Plagenhoef is touting disco as a parallel to punk in black music; one that “cast aside supper-club soul and, increasingly, acid-fried funk and return[ed] soul to a more crucial, popular sound."

With white people, maybe. In fact, disco came about when the likes of Moroder discovered that if you accented each beat of a 4/4 time signature with a booming bass hit – just like they do in polka bands – Swedish and Dutch girls could dance again. P-Funk had left ‘em scratching their heads in the discos of Berlin and Ibiza, and with the beat dumbed down Munich beerhall-style, the floors filled again.

So yeah, disco was more popular, but more crucial than funk or soul? I’ll let James Brown take that one: in his autobiography, he called said disco was "lightweight," that it "didn't make any sense," it was "watered-down," and the songs sounded like a "lawyer's recording." Not that I agree totally with Brown. I really dig disco cuts like “Ring My Bell,” “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” “I Love the Night Life,”“Disco Inferno,” “More than a Woman,”“I’m Every Woman,” “Got to Be Real,” “Le Freak” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now."

A pity that none of them made The Pitchfork 500 cut, nor did anything by K.C. and the Sunshine Band or the freaking Bee Gees. All of that is swept aside and replaced by these representations of disco: Donna Summer's “I Feel Love,” Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Moroder’s “The Chase” and Chic’s “Good Times.”

As for funk, save for a bone thrown P-Funk's way (“Flashlight”) and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up,” the Pitchfork 500 shuns all late-‘70s funk, including vital tracks like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” the Commodores’ “Brick House,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” Brick’s “Dazz,” George Benson’s “On Broadway,” and Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” to name but one classic each from six artists.

Also everything Rick James, the Gap Band, the Dazz Band and Chaka Khan and Teena Marie released…and as for names lesser known but no less bright lights such as Lakeside, the Meters and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, forget it.

Funk was black guy dad-rock. And there’s nothing Pitchfork hates more than dad-rock, so anything you’ve ever heard in heavy rotation on classic-rock radio, it probably won’t be in here. So no Pink Floyd (okay, their best work was just behind them by '77), nothing from Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, no Queen (unless it’s with demi-god David Bowie), no Stevie Ray Vaughan, no Eagles, no Stones (still putting out albums like Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, and Tattoo You), no ZZ Top, no Elton John…

…Let’s interrupt the classic-rock list to say here that while there’s a sprinkling of reggae on the list, there’s nothing by Bob Marley, who released “Redemption Song,” “Waiting in Vain,” “Three Little Birds,” “Could You Be Loved,” “Is This Love” and “Sun is Shining” during this guide’s purview. But then again, those songs were all later collected on Legend, which is icky, ‘cause like, all those guys on the lacrosse team have it.

The Pitchfork school of criticism has always relied more on trendy perceptions than actual musical merit and song structure, which brings us back to the classic-rock thing. They do enshrine some: forwardly-dual-gendered Fleetwood Mac, the (forwardly electro) Cars, Cheap Trick, a few lesser hits by Bruce Springsteen, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil,” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” all of which they're probably being ironic with. I don’t know how to explain why they included Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” other than to agree that it is a great song, co-written by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.

What’s that, you say? Which Tom Petty songs made the cut? Well, none of them. Yoko Ono, the Fiery Furnaces, and Belle and Sebastian all did, though. Which is about all you need to know.

Sure, there are a couple hundred worthy choices in here, too many of them in the would-be snarky sidebars that dot the pages than I’m sure the editors intended. But I’m predicting that in ten years, nobody will remember the geniuses behind about 300 of these "great" songs of the last 32 years.

If you’re looking for a singles-based guide of much better musical quality and usefulness, pick up a copy of Sarah “Ultragrrl” Lewitinn’s playlist-based The Pocket DJ instead. - John Nova Lomax

Fireside Books, 208pp., $16

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray