Sometimes I do blatantly useless things so I can flaunt my rejection of the often unhealthy “always optimize” pressures within the effective altruism community. So today, I’m going to write about rock music criticism.
Specifically, I would like to introduce you to the wonder of the world that is Piero Scaruffi. Or, better, I’ll let Holden Karnofsky introduce him:
We can start with his writings on music, since that seems to be what he is known for. He has helpfully ranked the best 100 rock albums of all time in order…
If that’s too broad for you, he also provides his top albums year by year … every single year from 1967 to 2012. He also gives genre-specific rankings for psychedelic music, Canterbury, glam-rock, punk-rock, dream-pop, triphop, jungle … 32 genres in all. Try punching “scaruffi [band]” into Google; I defy you to find a major musician he hasn’t written a review of. These are all just part of the massive online appendix to his self-published two-volume history of rock music. But he’s not just into rock; he’s also written a history of popular music specifically prior to rock-n-roll and a history of jazz music, and he has a similarly deep set of rankings for jazz (best albums, best jazz music for each of 17 different instrument categories, best jazz from each decade). While he hasn’t written a book about classical music, he has put out a timeline of classical music from 1098 to the present day and lists his essential classical music selections in each of ~10 categories…
So who is this guy, a music critic? Nope, he is some sort of mostly retired software consultant and I want you to know that his interests go far beyond music. Take literature, for example. He has given both a chronological timeline and a best-novel-ever ranking for each of 36 languages. No I’m serious. Have you been wanting this fellow’s opinion of the 37 best works of Albanian literature, in order? Here you go. Turkish? Right here. Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopian, ancient Egyptian, and Finnish? Got those too.
Naturally, Mr. Scaruffi has not neglected film (he’s given his top 40 films and favorites for each decade starting with the 1910s, along with a history of cinema written in Italian) or visual art (see his 3-part visual history of the visual arts, his list of the greatest paintings of all time and his own collages and photographs) but let’s move on from this fluffy stuff. Because it’s important for you to know about his:
- Political analysis – separate sections on Europe, Africa, North America, Latin America, Middle East, Asia, Far East, Oceania and “Terrorism”; a pretty comprehensive “statistics” page that he seems to have assembled himself
- World history – timelines of the USA, “black Africa,” Britain, Tibet, Russia, and ~40 more; a rather extensive history of knowledge; a self-published book-length history of Silicon Valley, starting in 1900 yes 1900; a 200-slide History of Women; and much more.
- Philosophy – he’s compiled a personal database of philosophers, a history of philosophy (of course) and much more (of course).
- Nonfiction book reviews and science book reviews (“several hundreds”)
- Thymos, his website on “consciousness, cognition and life,” including a set of essays…
- Demystifying Machine Intelligence, yet another self-published book, this one on AI
- His favorite formulas
Does this guy just like sit inside and read and write 24 hours a day? Not to hear his travel page tell it: he’s visited 159 countries and is happy to give you guides to several of them along with his “greatest places in the world” rankings. He also has an entirely separate “hiking” section of his website that I haven’t clicked on and am determined not to.
But let’s focus on his rock music criticism, which I think is alternately silly, wrong, and brilliant.
… he composed string quartets, symphonies and operas, but mainly surreal vignettes for orchestra and home-made instruments. His works encompass everything that was known and a lot of what was still unknown. He virtually invented every single genre of rock, electronic and world music.
The apparently unassuming [“Defocus”] is actually a new kind of symphony. Tobin warps the distinctive tone of an instrument to produce a new kind of instrument, and then weaves a few of them (a bee-like violin, a distorted bass, UFO-sounding flutes) into an organic flow of sound. It is, in fact, one of the most significant innovations since Beethoven added a choir to a symphony.
Also, this isn’t about music, but… I once asked Scaruffi why there is a chipmunk on the cover of his AI book. He said he was hiking and saw the chipmunk so he took a picture.
“Yes, but why did you put it on the cover of a book about artificial intelligence?”
“Well, I liked the picture.”
Scaruffi’s most infamous music page is his Beatles profile. Here’s the gist of it:
The Beatles sold a lot of records not because they were the greatest musicians but simply because their music was easy to sell to the masses: it had no difficult content, it had no technical innovations, it had no creative depth. They wrote a bunch of catchy 3-minute ditties and they were photogenic…
While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avantgarde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three-minute songs built around a chorus.
In broad strokes, I agree with Scaruffi about the Beatles. They wrote some good albums, but it wouldn’t occur to me to list any of them in the top 100 albums of rock music.
Today Beatles songs are played mostly in supermarkets.
Uh, no. I checked the last.fm most-listened artists worldwide chart for the week I wrote this sentence, and the Beatles came in at 37th most-listened, the most-heard artist whose most popular work was released in the 1960s, and ahead of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Rihanna, U2, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Elvis, Drake, etc. When I check the same week the previous year, the Beatles were 20th most-listened. The year before that? 7th. In 2005, the earliest year I can check? 3rd.
The Beatles’ lyrics were tied to the tradition of pop music, while [other] rock music found space… for psychological narration, anti-establishment satire, political denunciation, drugs, sex and death.
A Day in the Life. Nowhere Man. Happiness is a Warm Gun. Eleanor Rigby. Piggies. Revolution. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Lots more.
The influence of the Beatles cannot be considered musical.
Sure, other artists of the time were more progressive and experimental.2 But the Beatles’ musical influence was still huge. Specifically, they developed a language for incorporating progressive and experimental elements into short pop songs through clever arrangement and studio effects, and this has been the M.O. of many talented artists after the Beatles. (Sure, Pet Sounds came before Sgt. Pepper, but some artists were more influenced by the Beatles than by Brian Wilson.)
Anyway, we don’t have to speculate about the Beatles’ musical influence. We have quotes from many other musicians of the time.
See here for more Scaruffi musical inaccuracies.
Basically, I call Scaruffi’s rock criticism “brilliant” because he shares my biases and interests. In particular, he’s an intellectual historian of rock, rather than a fan or a journalist.
Most rock critics are journalists. Their job is to write entertaining pieces about music in the popular discussion. That’s a fine thing to do, but it’s not what I care about. I want to learn about and experience an evolving intellectual art form. I want to learn about new musical ideas, new fusions, new timbres. Read a piece by Lester Bangs or a piece in Pitchfork and you’ll barely know anything about what the music sounds like, or where it fits in the history of musical ideas. Instead you’ll learn about the artist’s drug habits and what their music says about the political topics of the day.
Scaruffi is primarily an intellectual historian. He’s not a “fan” of this genre or that. He’s not trying to keep up with what’s current; he usually doesn’t bother to review albums until more than a year after they’re released. He rarely writes about an artist’s social context or personal life, and instead writes about how their work fits into the intellectual history of music. He writes quickly and succinctly, rather than carefully crafting riveting, literary articles about a much smaller number of artists and albums. He doesn’t need to hail every 50th album a masterpiece so he can sell albums.
He’s also not a historian of musicians or the music business. Nearly all musical biographies and histories are about the lives of musicians, which of their tracks hit the charts, which albums sold the most, etc.
I like to imagine that Scaruffi’s intended audience is a small group of classical music historians and composers, who know musical theory deeply and know which musical innovations were introduced by specific works of Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Berlioz, Stockhausen, etc., and who asked him the question “So, I guess in the last 60 years there’s been this ‘rock music’ thing going on. What innovations has it produced? What should we listen to?”
Hence in the preface to his History of Rock Music, Scaruffi writes:
Anyone who is into Beethoven’s symphonies or Wagner’s operas and is told that the Beatles’ catchy three-minute tunes are the masterpieces of rock music will simply smile and politely nod, but never listen to rock music again; and will thus never learn that rock music has also produced 20-minute avantgarde suites and hour-long electronic poems that are easily as complex and as futuristic as contemporary classical music.
Scaruffi mostly ignores lyrics, too. Vanishingly few rock lyrics make good poetry anyway. This fits my own bias because for some reason my brain can’t pay attention to lyrics for more than 10 seconds at a time.
Another reason I’m a huge Scaruffi fan is that his opinions are the most browsable of all the critics I know.
What are Robert Christgau‘s favorite albums of all time? I’d have to browse through his 50+ pages of his online consumer guides and check which ones got an A+ rating. Dave Marsh has a few lists, but they’re mostly about pop singles. Meanwhile, Scaruffi has yearly lists for albums and tracks, decade lists, genre lists, lists of greatest musicians by instrument, and of course his “best albums of all time” list.
Scaruffi’s other great advantage is that his database of reviews is the most comprehensive I know of for a single music critic. He has profiles for just about any artist you can name, except for brand new artists. But he also has profiles for loads of super-obscure but also fascinating artists like, say, Abu Lahab.
The result of all this is that, in my experience, I am 90% likely to strongly appreciate an album that Scaruffi rates 8/10 or higher, but only 40% or less likely to like an album that another rock critic rates equivalently high. And nobody else has introduced me to more obscure albums that I think are great.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to some Sandy Bull.
- Thanks to this post for doing some of my research for me. Though that post also has errors. For example, every song it lists as not having a refrain (chorus) does in fact have a chorus. [↩]
- The Beatles released at least one straightforwardly experimental track: “Revolution 9” from the White Album (1968). They also recorded “Carnival of Light” in 1967 but it wasn’t released at the time. [↩]