- Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine.” by Daphne Carr, and: Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” by Susan Fast, and: Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music.” by Jonathan Lethem, and: Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique.” by Dan LeRoy, and: Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson, and: James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo.” by Douglas Wolk
Over the course of more than a decade and a hundred releases, the Bloomsbury (formerly Continuum) 33⅓ series has established itself as a familiar and respected presence within the growing field of critical publications devoted to popular music. The concept behind these distinctive pocket-sized books is simple. Each one takes as its focus a single album and, in the space of approximately thirty to fifty thousand words, delves into its significance and meaning. The series has featured a wide range of contributing authors: music journalists, critics, bloggers, academics, musicians, creative writers, novelists, and many who straddle the lines between these categories. Crucially, the editors have encouraged these authors to write about the subjects of their choice and to approach the format of the album critique however they see fit. Academics can loosen their collars in moments of raw confession, while music critics can delve more fully into the scholarly studies normally relegated to the margins of their essays. Some contributors have even approached their albums through works of fiction.
One of the keys to 33⅓’s longevity undoubtedly has been its willingness to take chances, but its choice of albums has not always been so risky. As the series was establishing itself, most of its titles were drawn from rock’s most foundational and canonical decade of 1966–76 and included such perennial FM rock radio favorites as Electric Ladyland, Pet Sounds, Led Zeppelin IV, Exile on Main St., and The Ramones. Gradually, however, this began to change. In recent years, the authors’ choices have increasingly reflected an alternative, even antihegemonic, canon better suited to a younger generation of readers more conversant with Pitchfork than Rolling Stone. As such, 33⅓ has become a series that especially reveres nineties indie and alternative rock and iconic titles like Slint’s Spiderland and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea. It is also a series that recognizes the deep influence of hip-hop and electronic dance music in contemporary culture, with recent titles devoted to J Dilla’s Donuts, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Aphex Twins’ Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. A forthcoming entry on Koji Kondo’s 1985 video game composition for Super Mario Bros. hints at some exploratory directions that may lie ahead. [End Page 481]
For all of 33⅓’s eclecticism, the series is not without borders. Country and jazz, two album-oriented styles that have thrived in scholarly American music studies, are particularly conspicuous by their absence. The only representatives are two releases notable for their crossover appeal to rock fans: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and an entry on Miles Davis’s Bitches’ Brew (slated for publication in 2016). In many respects, this simply reflects an audience and a marketplace reality that have long separated country from rock along lines of class, region, and cultural value. As for jazz, the neoclassical...