Our Criticism Could Be Your Life: The Spin Alternative Record Guide, Twenty Years Later
by Jay Aquinas Thompson
“This may be the last moment in time when alternative rock can be summed up as a musical genre apart,” Eric Weisbard wrote twenty years ago, introducing the voluminous, era-summarizing, contrarian and contradictory Spin Alternative Record Guide. Starting with ‘60s artists—Captain Beefheart, the Stooges, especially the Velvet Underground—who stepped back from the mass appeal implicit in the original conceptions of rock ‘n roll, the Record Guide’s sixty-four contributors constructed a narrative of music and culture that threads through Can, Pere Ubu, Lee Perry, Nuggets, and the explosions of punk rock in the US and UK; New Wave-inspired groups like the Eurythmics, Massive Attack, and the Young Marble Giants; riot grrl and hip-hop; Madonna and Prince transforming pop and Half Japanese, Pussy Galore, and John Zorn digging deeper into noise. Contributors defy conventional taste and, sometimes, each other. Though the book represented, in part, Spin’s attempt to define a canon to bolster its unsuccessful charge at Rolling Stone’s cultural dominance, the Guide is a joyful read today in part because of the eclecticism that undermines that very attempt.
Its pivot, of course, is Nevermind, Nirvana’s commercial landmark that transformed mainstream rock but also destroyed American “indie” or “alternative” music as a distinct category. As it turned out, Weisbard’s prediction was more prescient than he realized. Not only was “alternative” subsumed as a category following Nevermind’s success, but the liberal-artsy and cosmopolitan sensibility of indie’s fans also became the template for liberal America’s new dominant class. But in the meantime, the Guide remained a lifeline and anchor for countless culturally isolated and curious kids (like me: I unearthed the Guide at the Barnes & Noble in my working-class suburb’s dying mall) imagining another world of culture.
I caught up with Weisbard at his home with wife and fellow-critic Ann Powers in Nashville, and we talked about the sausage-making secrets of guide writing, the transformation of “alternative” as a cultural signifier, and the role of the critic in an era of free and plentiful music.
What strikes you about the SPIN Alternative Record Guide twenty years later?
Well, the range of writers, and the fact that so many have gone on to do so many cool things, from Alex Ross and Colson Whitehead both winning MacArthur Genius Awards, to novelist James Hannaham who’s kind of the secret maverick presence in that book, to folks like Rob Sheffield becoming even better known as critics—so yeah, I guess one thing is just the range of who was writing in that book is pretty impressive in retrospect.
I had that thought re-reading it, the diversity of temperaments and backgrounds in it. It made me curious about what the behind-the-scenes process was like, between you and [other editor] Craig Marks and the writers who you were getting material from.
The way it went down was, Craig Marks, the executive editor at Spin, had been asked by Bob Guccione, Jr., the editor in chief and founder of Spin, to do a book—in fact, there was a three-book deal—but one book with Simon & Schuster, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the magazine. Initially it was going to be Rob Sheffield and I writing the whole book; that was taking us awhile, and Guccione got anxious about the book not appearing in the magazine’s tenth anniversary year, so he insisted that it all be sped up. Craig then had the idea of asking me to edit the book. I had done a little bit of editing before, but not much, and so we brainstormed the names of writers together. A lot of Spin and Village Voice people, people who were part of our world. Very few people said no. In some cases, they had to, because they were working for Details magazine which was a competitor of Spin’s, so that meant that people like Joe Levy and Rob Tannenbaum and maybe RJ Smith were left out of the book.
But a lot of people said yes, and some people did a ton, some people did a little bit—and if I’m remembering correctly, everybody got paid 70 dollars an entry, so in some cases you were doing quite a bit of work for very little money, but people were writing about performers they obviously cared for or subjects they were interested in, so that helped and made them interested in doing it. And I tried to make it clear to people that I didn’t want it to be a stuffy book; I wanted it to be a book that was open to people taking things in whatever direction they felt like.
So did you also match writers with artists? Did they propose artists to you, and you said yes to some, no to others? How did that work?
We had a list of, if I’m remembering correctly, maybe 475 entries, and so I think what we did was basically, in some cases ask people about individual ones, in other cases send them lists and them to pick who they wanted to do. In a few cases, people proposed things, so Neil Strauss, who at the time was a Village Voice writer and went on to be a New York Times critic and do a bunch of other kinds of books, he proposed a musique concrete entry; I don’t think that was in the initial list. I know Will Hermes wasn’t somebody who had written nationally before that book, but we reached out to him looking for more entries on world music. So yeah, it was mostly driven by Craig and I, as far as what was in the book; in some cases, it was writer-driven.
I’m curious about that aspect of it, because with someone like Michael Hurley where you’d have to send him a postcard to get cassette tapes of the original records to listen to and then assess, the work of even beginning seems huge.
Yeah, in cases like that, clearly it needs to be somebody who’s starting with knowledge; [among our contributors] there were definitely Byron Coley types, people who were starting with a pretty complete set of music. And also, Spin had the resources to reach out to someone and say, “we’re trying to make sure we have your catalog for a record guide,” so people were willing to help. It was definitely a fun feeling: suddenly, every album by the Clash would suddenly come into the Spin offices, so that was kind of fun, just the sheer number of old records. Because, as a rock critic, you’re often sent new records, but you’re not often sent catalogs.
I wonder—the Clash brings this up too—about the relationship between editors and contributors. One of the things I’ve appreciated about the book over the years is how strong some of the stands are against what you’d kind of consider general meta-critical assessment, like the entry for the Clash where they say, “Well the first record’s way better than London Calling, London Calling is an overrated ‘classic,” or for the Smiths: “The Queen Is Dead is their best record, but it’s almost a miracle because the rest of their records are so bad.” Was there much internal argument, where you as an editor were able to be like, “Well-l-l, I guess we can let that evaluation fly,” or “No, man, no way”?
I don’t remember messing too much with what writers said. I remember Byron Coley wanted to give every single thing he wrote about practically a 10 [laughs], and I thought that was a little excessive, so I remember taking all of his number scores down a couple of pegs—and that’s probably in some ways reflective of me not being as close to Byron Coley—but in most cases, I didn’t worry about it too much. I have a vague memory of arguing with Rob Sheffield about giving Madonna’s Immaculate Collection less than a 10 when we were going to put it in the Top 100 Alternative Albums [at the end of the book]. Rob is somebody who very much has his own vision of things, but has earned the right to have that. But so, if I remember correctly—and I might not, it’s been twenty years—we let that one go and it’s just a difference of opinion within the book.
Speaking of which, how do you see the passage of the twenty years since the book came out changing the role of something like the Guide, or of gatekeepers and critics generally? Besides the fact that it’s harder to get paying work.
[Laughs] I think when the Spin book came out, that was the moment for a certain cohort of writers to get the chance to collectively express a certain sort of sensibility. Subsequently, other cohorts of writers, notably the Pitchfork writers, have expressed a different sensibility. I think it’s natural at any given moment for there to be a kind of consensus—for example, the 33 1/3 book series could be seen in a way as a reading of what albums matter. So I think that at any given time, different things will emerge as possible ways in. And, you know, I don’t think it makes as much sense now to do guidebooks all that often—the last record guide I can think of looking at was Tom Moon’s 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, which is just one critic’s take but which also represents a very omnivorous take on the subject. So yeah, I never saw the Spin book as being one person’s sensibility. I obviously had a lot to do with it, but I always believe that you let smart people tell their own tale, and the closest we came to expressing a collective vision of things was just that list of a hundred alternative albums.
It’s interesting comparing that list to how things are canonized and talked about twenty years later. The sensibilities of those who appoint themselves as critics have changed strikingly. The most obvious thing is that the number-one album for your Guide was Ramones’ Ramones, whereas Pitchfork’s best album of the ’70s was David Bowie’s Low. So, I wonder what you think about how the, in your words, “highly contested” term “alternative” has migrated, changed, or been swallowed up by this thing that’s called “indie” in the last twenty years.
Yeah, I think that when the Spin book was being written, Nirvana had made the long period between the Sex Pistols not breaking in the US and this new moment—of new bands getting played and becoming commercially successful who felt a kinship with punk traditions—Nirvana had made it possible to think about this “alternative” rock period as being, in a certain kind of way, one. Even if people were dubious about the results, even if there was all sorts of dissension over what it all meant, you can still see a kind of victory there. And of course that resonated with Spin, as a magazine hoping that it would win against Rolling Stone. Now, it didn’t; but that didn’t mean that a sense of wanting to win, and a sense of the tenth anniversary driving the thing, didn’t, in a sense, drive the book.
So, where Pitchfork, as an indie publication, celebrates progenitors that represent an experimental tradition, Spin was inclined to celebrate people who represented a possible new era of rock music, who could be seen as having an underground appeal with a possibility of turning into mainstream appeal. So that becomes a very big difference. I think a second difference is that Spin was still connected to notions of singer-songwriter music more than Pitchfork is, and it was connected more to world music.
Looking back on the Guide, do you see anything you wish you could have gone into in greater detail? Or, using the book as a reference, do you see things that are worth more conversation and critical attention than they get now? A thing that struck me reading the book is that you included quite a bit about women country singers, and there’s very little about that in contemporary indie writing. I mean, if you like Laura Cantrell or Brandy Clark, you’re not going to see folks like that getting covered in Pitchfork. But the Guide covered, for example, Rosanne Cash, and treated her as an alternative artist.
Right, that’s very much part of the whole singer-songwriter thing. I think that another way to put that is Bob Christgau’s vision of “semipop” music: performers in the vein of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, you mentioned Michael Hurley. We were still very much connected to that. And I think that, in a certain way, even though someone like Rosanne Cash was bigger than that, she resonated with that notion.
The other thing that resonated was looking for alternatives within existing genres of music. You could see Lucinda Williams or Rosanne Cash as having been what eventually would be called alt-country—and maybe even at the time was starting to be called alt-country. So we wanted people who would help us define “alternative” in many ways: alternative rock, alt-country, “alternative” to canonical history, as with certain jazz figures—things like that.
It makes me think about the tension that exists between “indie” or “alternative” as a sensibility and “indie” as a sound. I’m a Seattleite; in Seattle we have a couple of interesting examples of this kind of compartmentalization. We have a radio station, KEXP, which is “indie-as-sound” during the day, the kind of indie you hear at a workplace or coffee shop, and “indie-as-sensibility” in the evening, with genre-specialty shows that are about deep digging and artists from the crate. And also, just speaking of transforming categories of taste, sound, and audience, we have a hip-hop-as-oldies radio station now, HOT 103.7. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.
When I was working on the Spin Alternative Record Guide, I was still very much in the mindset of somebody who had been on college radio, was now starting to write nationally, and felt connected to a cultural moment that was entering maturity. I think that, all these years later, we’ve come to see that cultural conjuncture from a pretty different perspective. At the time, we felt like underdogs who were fighting to be recognized. Now—you mentioned Seattle, and I think that the Seattle tech industry is a part of this—we look at the same cultural conjuncture and see a kind of elite formation. We see the same exact sensibility now much less from the perspective of a generation fighting to be heard, an underground fighting to conquer the mainstream, and more from the perspective of an elite congratulating themselves on having taste outside the boundaries of convention. That is definitely a perspective that, twenty years later, makes a lot of sense, but is not a perspective that I would have had in 1995. Although, even back then, I had my battles over thinking about what “alternative” meant and knowing that it was a contested term.
I just recently read Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love, where he writes quite a bit about how he came to see how much questions of cultural capital came to underlie his own assessments of what he liked and didn’t, when he was forced to confront what he called a “guilty displeasure,” music that was beloved by people he knew he considered lower-status than him. Since the Guide came out, the power balance really has changed. So I wonder if your perspective on the critic’s job has changed since 1995 when the Guide came out.
Yeah, that’s a good question. Before the internet era transformed music, the main cultural capital possessed by the critic was access to free records—especially at the moment when the Spin Guide was written, when those records were now CDs and they cost quite a bit of money. When your ability to rummage and check things out was very limited if you didn’t get things for free, the critic became an intermediary for the public and in particular had a real role in helping lift someone from obscurity to semi-obscurity [laughs].
One thing we haven’t talked about was that the Spin Guide covered far fewer artists than the Trouser Press Record Guides had previously. The Trouser Press Guides, Ira Robbins’s baby, had covered probably thousands of bands. We were covering hundreds; we were being more selective, in much the same way that Spin was selective in who it put on its cover, who it did features on, who it gave a lead record review to. So I think that Spin and the critics, even if they were being playful, were still embracing the role of tastemaker.
These days, obviously a critic never influences a purchase, really—that’s not super-relevant. What a critic does now is much more akin to what Pauline Kael’s movie reviews used to be: she would write about movies that people knew they wanted to see, and they read her much like they wanted to talk after seeing the movie; they read her in the spirit of keeping a conversation going about something, not about the decision whether or not to have an experience. These days—and I think my wife, Ann Powers, is very much a prominent example of this—the ability of the critic to be the conduit of conversation for an audience that wants to have a conversation matters at least as much as being a force for the discovery of new artists, or the defining of new genres, or the celebrating of particular undergrounds.
It makes me think that that’s the trade-off, in the ease of access to music on the internet having led to what seems to me to be a decline of regionalism and regional loyalties in indie music—to the sense that the community you’re a part of, and in conversation with, can now include the person who used to be the tastemaker.
I think it really depends. I think that questions of the regional and the national are more back-and-forth than a decisive move in one direction or another. Ten years ago, people felt like every band came out of Brooklyn; I’m much less convinced that’s the case at this moment. I think that in a lot of ways, there’s more different conversation happening now than there was then—and nonetheless, I still think, as I’ve mentioned, there are different kinds of ways that some of those voices get distilled into “takes” on things. The EMP Pop Conference, in some ways, is probably the thing closest to continuing what the Spin Record Guide was doing.
But I don’t know that I think that it’s very easy to talk about fewer scenes—because everywhere I go seems to have a scene. I’m living in Nashville now most of the year, and Nashville has an incredibly devoted music scene. In Seattle, as you know, there’s no end of people who see the local as being at the heart of what they love. I really never lived anywhere that didn’t have some of that. So I don’t know; I’m not sure I’ve got a really strong comment on that.
To me, what’s been more striking is that, what didn’t happen is that alternative rock didn’t become a giant successful category unto itself. What did happen was some of things Richard Lloyd writes about, for example, in his book Neo-Bohemia: the sensibility that connected alternative rock to indie to a broader elite reconfiguration has ended up shaping city after city. And so there’s a way in which the kind of stuff we were playing with, in thinking about what “alternative” meant in 1995, is now very much a neighborhood in almost every city, and, in some cities, almost the essence of that city. It’s as much about the John Varvatos boutique where CBGB used to stand as it is about the question of where the Ramones rate on an album list.
The last thing I want to ask has to do with how the end of the “alternative” period you write about is remembered historically. It struck me as you were talking that, six years after the Spin Guide came out, Michael Azerrad’s history of American indie, Our Band Could Be Your Life, came out. And that book is also very selective—it’s mostly about punk rock, so there’s nothing in there about the Paisley Underground, for example—but it also represented the “official recognition” of that decade [1981-1991], produced one decade later, as a historical moment. So I wonder how you see that time of the 1980s and 1990s being remembered now: if you have any thoughts about that musical era at this distance.
Azerrad is very much a true believer where certain kinds of music are concerned. He identifies with certain musicians, he loves to hear their stories; he went on to start the Talkhouse, a place where musicians write about culture. My sensibility—and I think the sensibility of the Spin Record Guide—was a critic’s sensibility. It wasn’t particularly devoted to celebrating musicians; it was interested in playing with cultural category. It’s the difference between loving some vision of music as rebellious and struggling and needing a champion, which I think Azerrad feels, and loving the idea of music that screws with some prior definition of rock, that’s the negation of a negation of a negation, that can be read upside down and backwards, that can be celebrated the way Rob Sheffield celebrates the Cure, or James Hannaham celebrates the Cocteau Twins, or I celebrate Tori Amos in that book, just as versions of paint splattered on the wall, people whose moms dress them funny, goofy sounds. It’s very much a book that wants to define a sensibility by offering a lot of sensibility itself; by playing with taste, by being aesthetic, by being casual in places and earnest in other places.
If you were starting a band, and were thinking about what it might mean to go out on the road and try to make it from the bottom, you’d read Azerrad’s book. But the people who’ve come to me over the years having read the Spin Record Guide are more the ones who’d go on to be critics, the ones who are interested in going to grad school, the ones who like things that are a little more convoluted, because they enjoy the buried stuff when they get to it. It’s a different kind of book, and I’m glad that it’s remained rewarding to some people.
My palate-cleanser question is: what is your daughter having to listen to you and your wife put on these days? What are you guys listening to around the home and in the car?
Well, today’s listening included Deafheaven, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and Janet Jackson, since it’s Streaming Friday—every Friday now, new albums are available for streaming, and those were three that came out today. Earlier this week, I was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and Fetty Wap. The stuff my daughter insists we play includes a whole lot of Beyond the Horizon, Black Veil Brides and Three Days’ Grace. Ann is covering a lot more Americana than she used to, though it was something that was always a part of her taste, and often puts on things that connect to the book she’s writing about music and sex. My daughter has said to me, “Dad, you like to play an album once and go on to the next thing. I want to hear the same thing over and over and over again.” So I’m definitely still a voracious listener, and someone who argues with the people close to him about what to listen to.
About the Author:
Jay Aquinas Thompson is a poet, teacher, essayist and activist. He has poems and critical writing in (and forthcoming in) THEthe_poetry, Volt, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online and Poetry Northwest. He lives in Seattle, where he plays in the band Princess Seismograph and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.