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Spin Alternative Record Guide

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Spin Alternative Record Guide
Spin Alternative Record Guide.jpg
AuthorEric Weisbard and Craig Marks (editors)
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
SubjectAlternative music, discography, music journalism, review
Published1995 by Vintage Books
Media typePrint
Pages468
ISBN0-679-75574-8

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 guide include Ann Powers, Rob Sheffield, Simon Reynolds, Michael Azerrad, and Robert Christgau.

The book did not sell particularly well and received a mixed reaction from reviewers in 1995. 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 music was covered in the guide.

Content and scope[edit]

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]

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

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]

Publication and reception[edit]

Spin Alternative Record Guide was published by Vintage Books on October 10, 1995, and was the first book compiled by Spin magazine.[11] According to Matthew Perpetua, the guide was "not a huge seller".[6]

Reviewing the book in 1995, Adam Mazmanian from Library Journal recommended Spin Alternative Record Guide to "both public and academic libraries". He found its reviews superior in "length and scope" to The Rolling Stone Album Guide (1992), which also offered complete discographies of artists ranging from Jonathan Richman to Throbbing Gristle. Mazmanian further 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".[12]

Booklist critic Gordon Flagg was more qualified in his praise. He applauded the accuracy of the artist entries and the quality of the contributors' reviews, but found Weisbard's conception of "alternative" ill-defined and recommended The Trouser Press Record Guide (1991) as a more comprehensive option.[7] Even more critical was Billboard magazine's Beth Renaud, who called 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's magazine publication, with many relevant artists omitted in place of more perplexing additions.[3]

Legacy[edit]

Having edited the book, Weisbard put his pursuit of a PhD at UC Berkeley on hold and accepted a job offer from Spin, which marked the beginning of his career as a rock critic.[13] Meanwhile, the guide's entry on 1960s folk guitarist 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 the guitarist from record labels and the alternative music scene, helping revive his career.[15]

"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[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."[16] 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.[17] 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".[18]

In 2011, Spin Alternative Record Guide was included in Pitchfork's list of their staff's favorite music books. In an essay accompanying the list, 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 in the pre-Internet age, 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."[20]

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