Welcome Back: Internet criticism makes or breaks legacies of Swans, Pallett

Thirty years ago, Georgia State University’s 88.5 WRAS introduced the world to R.E.M. Twenty years ago, it was OutKast. Ten years ago, it was Deerhunter. Then, earlier this year, its airtime was surrendered to Georgia Public Broadcasting.

The idealist in me wants to think that listeners are still capable of standing slack-jawed and rapt in awe of a particular song, as I’m sure WRAS’s listeners did without having any idea who or what was responsible for the sound that poured out of their FM receivers.

But that’s not how music is popularized anymore.

We see the album art, we read the reviews and we get a sense of the public and critical consensus. Then we listen to 30 seconds of a 128-kbps stream on SoundCloud to solidify our judgment. It’s not an inherently bad system, in the same way that college radio tastemaking was not inherently good, but it has produced an unfortunate side-effect: bands that are plagued by preconceptions and expectations that deny them the success they often deserve.

The Internet does a great job of homogenizing opinion, so that a canon of each year’s “great albums” is constantly constructed and set in stone without retrospection. Instant classics have never been so instant. And the albums that are wrongfully excluded from this canon are often the ones whose backstory, aesthetic or contemporaries get in their way, even though their music is worthy. They are relegated to the shadows of their collaborators, contemporaries and public images. Take two albums released this year. 

Swans’ 2014 album To Be Kind has everything going for it. For one, the band has been basking in critical acclaim and cult success since the ‘80s, so it’s perfectly safe to laud them. For another, they take themselves very seriously — Swans sets out to make massive works of meaningful art with each album. And for all its academic, avant-garde appeal, it was apparently a record straightforward enough to break the Billboard’s Top 40 Albums chart.

It’s smart without being fussy and brutal without being unlistenable. Snobs and newcomers can agree that it’s “great.” It’s no wonder that Rate Your Music, the most respected website when it comes to standardizing opinion and regulating people’s visceral responses to music, gave it the No. 1 spot on its list of the best albums of the year thus far.

Meanwhile, at No. 74 lies Owen Pallett’s gently acclaimed album In Conflict. Pallett is a multi-instrumentalist and composer whose contributions — mostly his sought-after string arrangements, heard on everything from the music of F*cked Up to the music of Taylor Swift — have helped eight separate albums to earn Pitchfork’s coveted, all-powerful “Best New Music” designation. He’s even got one himself, for 2010’s Heartland, plus a Grammy win and an Oscar nomination, thanks to his collaborations with Arcade Fire.

This year, he released a beautiful, rich album recorded with the assistance of the legendary Brian Eno at Montreal’s famous Hotel2Tango studios. His album had none of the ham-fisted extravagance of Swans’ To Be Kind, which was released at around the same time. And yet, on average, his album was Googled with a mere 19 percent of the frequency of To Be Kind. It won the hearts of its listeners, but it lost the popularity contest. 

Pallett just isn’t a safe bet. His music pushes boundaries instead of reinforcing them with the 20-minute behemoths of unimaginative guitar rock that Swans have become known for. His music is fastidious and brainy, yet delightfully transparent while the music of Swans is stony-faced, arrogant and impressive in scope, but lacking in detail.

Pallett is living proof that it’s not people’s favorite albums, but the albums people feel most comfortable celebrating that are considered landmarks. 

I once heard someone say, “I haven’t listened to it a ton and I’m not, like, in love with it, but I do understand that it’s a great album.”

How can anyone make such a distinction? No one says, “I don’t like sauerkraut but I understand that it’s delicious and I’m wrong for not liking it.” And you’d be just as hard-pressed to hear someone accuse a friend of having bad taste in food. Opinions about food are not as easily homogenized as those about music — they still allow for camps of both supporters and detractors to coexist. But you’re not allowed to dislike To Be Kind. You’re still allowed to like In Conflict, too — just not as much. After all, 2,942 Rate Your Music users can’t be wrong.