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The Third Ear


The Dean drops his favorites.

Last year, a friend introduced me as a "music writer" to acclaimed author Jonathan Lethem ("Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude") during a party in New York. The first thing I said to him was, "I really liked your James Brown piece" -- a cover story he wrote for Rolling Stone months earlier. Lethem blushed a little, possibly because he had a current cover on stands interviewing Bob Dylan, or maybe because he's one of those MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant" guys, and that kind of praise is beneath him. But I now feel somewhat vindicated: The so-called dean of rock critics, Bob Christgau, has chosen Lethem's "Being James Brown" as a centerpiece for "Best Music Writing 2007" (in stores Oct. 22). The lengthy profile follows the Godfather of Soul from hometown recording studio to stage during his twilight days — you can almost feel the cold sweat. With sparkling detail, Lethem rediscovers and defines his own sense of appreciation for this pivotal figure of 20th-century popular music.

As someone who devours this stuff regularly and recognized pieces from the pages of The New Yorker, "The Believer," Arthur (now defunct) and The Village Voice, everything in this year's "Best Music Writing" collection is worth a read. An interesting range of music is represented (although there is no classical music writing, sadly, and little jazz), from pop queen Mariah Carey and Jewish reggae star Matisyahu to cocaine rap, a personalized history of the Supremes song "Love Child" and a hard-nosed piece on bipolar cult musician Daniel Johnston. Most of the stories grab the reader from the get-go and then depart into unexpected directions.

In his introduction, Christgau admits the erosion of writing space has strangled music criticism, and he laments not including any of the small CD reviews that are most critics' bread and butter. What he doesn't mention is that many upcoming music writers (most of whom toil for glorified leisure guides) seem to know less and less about technical aspects of music. Many write solely from the perspective of a listener or fan — which can be OK if done well, since many readers are not musically versed either. But in the age of the blogger, trustworthy voices are increasingly hard to come by.

Interestingly, Christgau has chosen several pieces written by musicians, including a surreal live review of metal droners SunnO))) by David Byrne and an insightful memorial for the legendary CBGB club from old-school punker Richard Hell. The best pop music writers today, such as Sasha Frere-Jones of the The New Yorker and Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times, know how to stylishly balance their knowledge and reporting, creating work that appeals to experts and casual listeners alike, while always uncovering new layers of the subject.

Although it may be governed by Christgau's hip-leaning tastes, this well-written collection exposes the current multicultural state of music writing in all its exuberantly expressive, geeky, detail-obsessed glory. Today's critics may no longer think pop music can change the world, but they know life is much richer because of it — and the good ones show us why. S

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