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Spin Alternative Record Guide

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Spin Alternative Record Guide
Spin Alternative Record Guide.jpg
Author Eric Weisbard and Craig Marks (editors)
Country United States
Language English
Subject Alternative music, discography, music journalism, review
Published 1995 by Vintage Books
Media type Print
Pages 468
ISBN 0-679-75574-8

Spin Alternative Record Guide is a music reference book compiled by the American music magazine Spin and published in 1995 by Vintage Books. It was edited by rock critic Eric Weisbard and Craig Marks, who was the magazine's editor-in-chief at the time. The book features essays and reviews from a number of prominent critics on albums, artists, and genres considered relevant to the alternative music movement. Contributors who were consulted for the book include Ann Powers, Rob Sheffield, Simon Reynolds, Michael Azerrad, and Robert Christgau.

When Spin Alternative Record Guide was first published, it did not sell particularly well and received a mixed reaction from reviewers. The quality and relevance of the contributors' writing were praised, while the editors' concept and comprehensiveness of alternative music were seen as ill-defined. Nonetheless, it inspired a number of future music critics and helped revive the career of 1960s folk artist John Fahey, whose entry in the book helped renew interest in his music at the time of its publication.

Content and scope[edit]

Music critics Robert Christgau (left) and Ann Powers (right) contributed to the book.

Spanning 468 pages, Spin Alternative Record Guide compiles essays by 64 music critics on recording artists and bands who either predated, were involved in, or developed from the alternative music movement. In the book, each artist's entry is accompanied by their discography, with albums rated a score between one and ten.[1] The book's editors, critic Eric Weisbard and Spin editor-in-chief Craig Marks, consulted journalists such as Simon Reynolds, Alex Ross, Charles Aaron, Michael Azerrad, Ann Powers, and Rob Sheffield, who wrote most of the complete discography reviews.[2] The artist entries are also accompanied by song lyrics and album artwork.[3]

Although "alternative" had been used as a catchall term for rock bands outside the mainstream, Spin Alternative Record Guide covers approximately 500 artists from a variety of genres considered relevant to alternative music's development.[4] These include 1970s punk rock, 1980s college rock, 1990s indie rock, noise music, reggae, electronic, new wave, heavy metal, krautrock, synthpop, disco, alternative country, hip hop, grunge, worldbeat, and avant-garde jazz.[5] Most artists associated with classic rock are not covered, while some mainstream pop artists are given entries, including Madonna and ABBA.[6] Other non-rock artists reviewed in the book include jazz composer Sun Ra, country singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, and Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.[7] Weisbard and Marks have said the book was meant to be "suggestive", rather than "comprehensive", of alternative music.[3]

An introductory essay on alternative rock and "alternative sensibilities" was written by Weisbard.[8] In it, he explains alternative music as a category whose principles are "antigenerationally dystopian, subculturally presuming fragmentation", and "built on an often neurotic discomfort over massified and commodified culture".[9] He and Marks consulted a number of artists for their top-ten record lists, which were interspersed throughout the book. They also curated a "Top 100 Alternative Albums" list for the appendix, ranking the Ramones' 1976 self-titled debut album at number one.[10]

Reception and impact[edit]

The first edition of Spin Alternative Record Guide was published on October 10, 1995, by Vintage Books.[11] It was the first book compiled by Spin.[12] Having edited their book, Weisbard put his pursuit of a PhD at UC Berkeley on hold and accepted a job offer from the magazine, which marked the beginning of his career as a rock critic.[13] Although the book did not sell well, its entry on 1960s folk artist John Fahey, written by Byron Coley, helped renew interest in Fahey's music.[14] According to Ben Ratliff from The New York Times, this led to substantial interest in Fahey from record labels and the alternative music scene, helping revive his career.[15]

In a contemporary review, Adam Mazmanian from Library Journal recommended Spin Alternative Record Guide to "both public and academic libraries" and said that while The Rolling Stone Album Guide (1992) also offers complete discographies of artists ranging from Jonathan Richman to Throbbing Gristle, this book's reviews are superior in "length and scope". Mazmanian argued that "this guide fills a gap in the literature of modern music" at a time when "alternative" has developed a ubiquitous presence in the marketing of popular music.[9] In New York magazine, Kim France called it "a well-edited, unpretentious, and comprehensive look at all the crazy stuff the kids are listening to these days".[16] In a less enthusiastic review, Booklist critic Gordon Flagg was impressed by the accuracy of the artist entries and the quality of the contributors' reviews, but found Weisbard's idea of alternative ill-defined and recommended The Trouser Press Record Guide (1991) as a more comprehensive alternative.[7] Billboard magazine's Beth Renaud was more critical of the book, calling much of the writing biased and the organization unencyclopedic. She said Weisbard's "obligatory" essay is outdated and vague in defining alternative rock and that the contributors "gush" over artists usually covered by Spin, with many relevant artists omitted in place of more perplexing additions.[3]

Personally, the book introduced me to a wide range of artists, gave me historical perspective, and got me hooked on a style of criticism that is extremely knowledgeable but also conversational and funny.

— Matthew Perpetua, Pitchfork[6]

American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman later cited Spin Alternative Record Guide as one of his five favorite books, saying in 2011, "I fear this might be out of print, but it's probably my favorite music book of all time. Since its 1995 publication, I doubt a year has passed when I didn't reread at least part of it."[17] Robert Christgau, who contributed to the book, wrote that while most music guides and encyclopedia books he has consulted were unremarkable, Spin Alternative Record Guide was one of the few "useful exceptions" because of what he felt was the "sharpest writing" from contributors such as Weisbard and Sheffield.[18] Maura Johnston, on the other hand, said in retrospect that the book's list of the 100 best albums catered to "hipper, Gen-Xier tastes".[12]

In 2011, Spin Alternative Record Guide was included in Pitchfork's list of their staff's favorite music books. Contributing writer Matthew Perpetua said the book's writers—either top critics at the time or those who have since become important figures in music journalism—outline the "alternative sensibility" by recognizing and connecting music from disparate genres in "an inclusive, open-minded survey, but it's defined as much by what's left out—pretty much all Boomer-oriented rock—as what it includes." According to Perpetua, the "number of young readers [who] pursued music criticism" because of the book was far greater than the copies it sold.[6] Matthew Schnipper, editor of The Fader, bought the book after it was published and said he used it as a consumer guide for 10 years.[19] Along with its influence on future critics, the book was cited by guitarist William Tyler as his only source of music education growing up, having found it in a bookstore around the time it was published: "They had entries for all these different people that I had never heard of: Can, John Zorn, [John] Fahey, whatever ... That was before any sort of Internet presence".[20]

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