Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
William: "So Russell ... what do you love about music?"
Russell: "To begin with: everything."
—"Almost Famous" (2000)
The deep music heads are out there.
You might know them. They're the ones who casually speak in lyrics, who can somehow shoehorn music factoids into conversations about lawn care or preschool choices, and who still woo potential paramours with mixtapes. In my circle, it's not uncommon for me to opine about a semi-obscure record, have that statement corrected (er, "refined") by Friend A and then further refined by Friend B in the space of 20 seconds. It's what we do when we're not obsessively making playlists for every specific mini-mood or current event.
For these people, my people, the "33 1/3" book series exists.
"33 1/3" debuted in 2003 from an academic publishing group named Continuum (it's now published by Bloomsbury), and the concept is a simple one: Each volume is devoted to a single album. These books are not about an artist or a band. They are not rock biographies. They utterly dissect and unearth the minutiae that make up one album. Currently, the series covers 115 albums. Music heads, do I have your attention now? One hundred and fifteen albums. Let's continue.
Maybe you achingly loved Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" back in 1993, which professed to be a track-by-track answer to the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street." Pick up Vol. 96 of the series for a full-on scholarly analysis that not only addresses each track, but places the whole album in feminist historical context — feminist context writ large, but also specific to the male-dominated Chicago indie scene of the early 1990s. After barely 100 pages, writer Gina Arnold gave me a mental metric ton of new angles to ponder other than the album's shocking-for-the-times blue lyrics.
While I am objectively interested in the facts and history, that's ultimately not what shines through in the best "33 1/3" books. It's the fandom. Even while using the most scholarly of tones to describe Phair's "Exile in Guyville," Arnold unabashedly and openly loves this album; it's meaningful to her on a visceral level:
"There is no longer any doubt about why 'Exile in Guyville' speaks so eloquently to me: it's because when I was coming of age in San Francisco in the 1990s I lived in a little corner of Guyville without even knowing its name. ... That is why today, if I hear "Divorce Song" or "Stratford-on-Guy" or "Strange Loop," I am completely overcome with nostalgia for those days, whether in San Francisco or Chicago — for walking down Valencia Street on a hot summer night, or heading for the El for a late-night cab ride through the snow, half drunk, with my ears ringing, for getting all dressed up with my girlfriends to go to a gig, for the sense we had, always, of absolutely owning that town."
Reaching a little further back, Vol. 21 thoroughly chronicles the history and hoopla surrounding Elvis Costello's 1979 classic "Armed Forces." Standing alone and devoid of context, the urgency and energy of "Armed Forces" would undoubtedly grab the attention of most 2016 listeners, but writer Franklin Bruno ups the ante considerably by sandwiching the album between crucial events of that time — historically, politically and in Costello's career, making "Armed Forces" even richer and ultimately more approachable in retrospect.
To be clear, the "33 1/3" series clearly does not aim to be a "best of" collection that stodgily chronicles the Greatest Albums Ever Made. This is not The Canon. Now that "33 1/3" has more than a decade of publication in the rearview mirror, a review of its titles shows the selections moving away from widely accepted classics to those far more niche and diverse in genre. The first 10 volumes include choices like Dusty Springfield's "Dusty in Memphis," Neil Young's "Harvest," Pink Floyd's "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," and The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Electric Ladyland," but flash-forward to the present and you'll find obscure offerings from Beat Happening, Geto Boys, Sleater-Kinney, and even Koji Kondo's "Super Mario Bros." soundtrack. Mirroring recent American history itself, conventional ideas of "classic" and "important" are being challenged and rewritten as more voices and generations are invited to the table.
Maybe the most thrilling part of this series? You can be part of it. So can I. The voices are fresh and diverse because Bloomsbury has opened up the process to everyone. Think of your favorite album, the one to which you know every lyric, note, scream and grunt, the one that speaks to you and just utterly defines that one year for you. Want to write about it? Hop on over to 333sound.com for details on how to pitch your own proposal for a book in the series.
That's what "33 1/3" is. It's being invited in to one person's head as they talk about one album that is important — sure, they wrap it all in facts and information, but it feels more like a seminar course on great music with that one cool professor who didn't really believe in "grades" or "taking attendance" and insisted that we all call her "Stella" instead of "Dr. Funkenstein."
You'll want to go to class. You'll want to do the assigned reading. And, by god, you'll want to participate fully in class discussion.