A quick recap!

This is a series of posts “liveblogging” the Pitchfork 500, reflecting the book’s dual purpose as criticism and playlist. The ground rule is that I do the writing in real time as I listen to the music: no edits after that (except of typos). Posts in this series are intermittent, because I don’t have a lot of uninterrupted writing time.

Disclaimer: I write regularly for Pitchfork and contributed a dozen pieces to the book. I have no insider knowledge of how tracks were selected, had no say in the selection, and any commentary on the book’s purpose etc. is purely speculative.

In this episode: Reggae gets its first look in, and the awkward squad of post-punk gives way to mutant disco…

Kicking off the Jamaican coverage with Althea and Donna’s gorgeously blithe “Uptown Top Ranking” makes a welcome statement of intent: while the book’s tour or the island’s music is going to be a brief one, it’s not going to confine itself to the significant and smoke-fuelled. Not that “Uptown” is any less canonised than Lee Perry these days, but Stephen Trousse’s write-up still offers a great potted history of the song and its riddim and a snapshot of why it matters (insouciance, in a word).

This is also, the book is maybe suggesting, the kind of song Pitchfork might have included in its year-end round-ups had such a thing existed at the time, like Estelle in this year’s Top 10: its pop conversion is not only genuine, but rooted (and backdated!).

Lee Perry himself now, whose “Roast Fish And Cornbread” turns lowing cows into ghost cries for obscure but glorious purposes. This is a recurrent theme in the book – tracks which ask you to take their apparently clashing decisions on trust: a trust which can occasionally seem abused. Though not here, and not on the Perry-produced “Fisherman” – oceanic reggae, rhythms and echoes emerging from the swell and counter-eddy of waves, turning the song more abstract than the lyrics might suggest. (Dave Stelfox’ entries on this set of songs are excellent). [The Congos]

From Althea to Willie Williams’ “Armagideon Time” the songs have arced down through the reggae canon until it reaches its point of contact with the book’s main thread – the patronage of punkers, especially The Clash. “Armagideon Time” is good, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that its covered-ness is the main point here: a representative of the apocalyptic strand in reggae that the Clash et al picked up on. It’s oddly positioned in a way, since we’ve already seen Joe Strummer (on “Hammersmith Palais”) wriggling with his expectations of reggae.

I’ve never heard This Heat’s “24 Track Loop” before – it’s positioning here is surely down to its use of space and echo, a bridge between the electronic pop experiments of the late 60s (Silver Apples et al), future IDM (those bouncing-ball sounds!), and the “dub virus” which avant-dance ideologues like Kevin Martin will eulogise as they do their edgy thing. When what sound like treated horns shiver in it stops sounding like a curio and becomes something more vital, an intense skeleton dance.

When I first heard The Slits’ Cut, years ago, I couldn’t deal with its shifting and switching at all – now “Typical Girls” has become one of those songs that resolves itself into pop in your imagination when you’re not actually listening to it. Love the intersection of sweet pub piano and deep bass bounce, and the tricksy way the vocals swoop off then coalesce gang-style.

I am not sure if I should find The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” as funny as I do. For every awesome line – “my lover was born on a RAY OF SOUND” – there’s a bit of finger-wagging (“she’s one thing that you cannot BUY”) and the crack-up culmination: “Western values mean NOTHING TO HER” sung in stern club-singer style fashion by Mark Stewart. There’s enough fire in the music for me to think an instrumental version would be pretty much perfect (and indeed the B-Side, “3 38”, fits that bill nicely).

I also can’t take “The Guns Of Brixton” particularly seriously, because Beats International’s re-use of it is so fabulous, and because the Zebedee sproing! Noises on the Clash original seem to anticipate that more playful version. I don’t think The Clash are wholly unaware of this, since the song’s at least partly about projecting yourself onto rebel film stars (“Ivan” in The Harder They Come).

“The Guns Of Brixton” tries to resolve fun and threat and can’t quite get there; “Contort Yourself” does it naturally – speed helps them melt together, and James Chance makes a more convincing madman/preacher than Mark Stewart – on the strangled croak-scream near the end I’m wincing at what he must be doing to his poor throat.

“Dream Baby Dream” makes me think that maybe the theme of this section is songs which are secretly (or openly!) put-ons, the sounds of bands pushing on absurdity until it becomes a kind of sincerity. You could lose track of the bands who’ve wandered into Suicide’s po-faced churchy half-pop and either found a seriousness there (Spiritualized) or tried to raise the are-they aren’t-they stakes (A.R.E. Weapons’ “Hey World”). No surprise that, according to the blurb, Springsteen’s a fan of “Dream Baby Dream” – he pretty much invented this so-corny-it-must-be-true move. Unless Lou Reed did on “Berlin”. This parade of influences and inheritors might suggest to you that “Dream Baby Dream” is actually a pretty hard song to concentrate on.

A potential issue: early drum machines (like the ones Cabaret Voltaire used) sound so cheap they make ANYTHING sound like it might be a put-on. Try not to smile at the bibbly-bobbly drum run that’s “Nag Nag Nag”’s rhythmic hook! Not that you’d have the song without it, it offsets the scouring feedback very nicely.

Throbbing Gristle’s “Hot On The Heels Of Love” is also new to me – it reminds me of Cristina’s late 70s art-disco outings. Or maybe of Sarah Brightman’s “I Fell In Love With A Starship Trooper”. I love the synths on this – a bridge between Cluster and space disco.

It’s so easy to just churn out endless references when you can’t get much emotional or physical grip on a track, isn’t it? But no, this is good. Does it do more than be impressively ahead of its time? I’m not totally sure.

[Nothing to say about Devo – “Mongoloid”]

Grand weird synth sounds are the bridge between Devo and Candido’s magnificent “Jingo” – Nate Patrin in his write-up is correct to make special mention of the “Huh!” (picked up later in the book by Frankie Goes To Hollywood!). The version of this I’m familiar with is lusher and longer – but less sci-fi and starkly funky, which means this probably has the edge. The sheer ease with which a good groove can synthesise disparate abstract elements in a track is a source of embarrassment, almost, given how effortful some of the previous songs have been. But effort is its own reward and it’s not that those tracks were bad – they were probably more “interesting” than “Jingo”, more to write about.

But this is the critic’s dilemma – we’re attracted to music that’s incomplete, that needs explaining. Dancing generally doesn’t, so it’s harder to write about. Helps if you’ve got someone like Arthur Russell to hang the description on. Dinosaur’s “Kiss Me Again” rules because it’s a great song that keeps digressing, hinting at unexplored other great songs within its 13-minute bulk. Some of those songs would be realised by the house and handbag tracks that stripmined “Kiss Me Again” for hooks and samples; others are still implicate. The devilish jam at the end, Russell’s cello a spirit guide, remains quite its own thing.