How to Be a Music Critic (or Just Think a Little Deeper About Popular Music)

From Ann Powers, NPR:

Birthdays come but once a year, but for music lovers, what I like to call “that birthday feeling” is a semi-regular thing. I’m talking about the rush, tinged by anxiety, greeting the first download click on an album you’ve been longing to hear for months. It’s a complicated wash of emotions, boosted by conflicting hopes and assumptions. You’re about to get exactly what you’ve wanted; but what if it’s not exactly what you want? And boy, that bike Mom promised to buy had better be cherry red.

For fans of adventurous indie pop, July birthdays have been coming fast and furious. First Swing Lo Magellan arrived — the latest from the Dirty Projectors, a prolific outfit who’d gained new renown after 2009’s Bitte Orca grabbed the attention of not just hipsters but movers/shakers like Jay-Z. Then Frank Ocean, whose blog-worshipped redefinitions of R&B gained mainstream attention after he made a groundbreaking public statement about his sexuality, dropped his official debut album, Channel ORANGE, Monday night. Anticipation — or call it hype — bathed these albums in a strong light.

Expectations frame every listening experience, even those that feel accidental. When I start listening to these two albums, the associations start tumbling forth immediately. Beats and guitar lines unleashed earworms. A groove took over my body and carried me somewhere. The stories told by Ocean and DP’s songwriter David Longstreth surprised me, made me laugh, made me mad. Music is language, and like everyone, I came to these recordings with a vocabulary built over a lifetime.

As a professional listener, I try to maintain a strong awareness about what I bring to the process. Maintaining clarity is much more difficult when that birthday feeling is involved. Releases like Channel ORANGE or Swing Lo Magellan — there’s just no way that I can hear them in isolation. Instead of fooling myself, I try to keep a few questions in mind, designed to expose myself to my own prejudices. Call it an expectations checklist. I offer it below, illustrated with examples from this month’s fine music. Maybe you’ll find it useful, too, the next time that birthday feeling comes along.

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