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Justin Farrar

Confessions of a Curator: How a Longtime Music Critic Gets the Job Done

This post was originally published on June 1, 2016, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

“Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.” — Lester Bangs, Village Voice, 1979

I love writing about music, even when I don’t dig the music I’m writing about. After 22 years of cranking out album reviews, artist features, curated playlists, and everything else you can think of, my mind still races and my stomach still fills with butterflies whenever I tackle a new assignment. If a few days pass without writing about music, I get anxious — tense, even. It’s a feeling I can only describe as a cross between acute caffeine withdrawal and existential woe.

When I tell folks that I write about music for a living they invariably assume it’s wild and romantic. Either I’m chilling at home, blasting my favorite records at all hours of the day (and night). Or, I’m partying backstage with cool musicians. The reality, however, is way less glamorous. Most of the time I’m glued to my laptop, writing about music I don’t even like. I mean, I don’t not like it; it’s just that I wouldn’t listen to it for enjoyment, and that’s a crucial distinction.

Here is the music I do like: the weirder the better. My collection is packed with obscure vinyl and tapes that sound as though they were created in another dimension by freaktastic aliens. As I type these words, Laser Temple of Bon Matin’s Bullet In2 Mesmer’s Brain! soaks my noggin in lo-fi psych-noise that teeters on the edge of gooey chaos and higher-level form. So yeah, that’s what I’m into, as a civilian.

Now here is the music I spend 80 percent of my working life covering: testosterone-drenched rock and metal. I’m talking about all those commercial riff-ragers who climb Billboard’s Top Hard Rock Albums chart week in and week out. These include older bros Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, Linkin Park, etc., but also younger metalcore and post-hardcore acts like Asking Alexandria and Falling in Reverse who incorporate hair metal and EDM into their tunes.

But despite the fact that my relationship to the latter is about as clinically professional as a doctor’s is to his stethoscope, there is a very real chance that you have been super stoked when reading one of my reviews of Linkin Park or rocking out to one of my post-grunge playlists on one of the streaming services. And if this is the case, which again it likely is, then you may be wondering how I can get you so enthused for music that I would never play for myself when off the clock.

Let’s dive into that.


I knew music writing was the thing for me as soon as I began working on my first assignment in January of 1994. A couple weeks before, I had walked into the offices of the Western Herald, the student daily at Western Michigan University, and introduced myself to A&E Editor Shirley Clemens, who promptly asked me to write an article on the then-controversial used CD marketplace (ah, the ‘90s). And just like that, I began driving around Kalamazoo, from record store to record store, interviewing owners (including Flipside Records’ Neil Juhl, a local legend who would play a pivotal role in turning me onto Detroit proto-punk and free jazz) for what would eventually become “The Great Used CD Debate.” It was an astonishingly terrible piece, yet I was hooked.

My experiences at the Western Herald helped me snag bylines in a handful of dailies and alt weeklies, as well as an internship at The Boston Phoenix in the summer of ’96. But the bulk of my writing between 1995 and around 2003 actually appeared in punk and indie zines. These included Jeff Bale’s Hit List, Copper Press, Sound Collector, Badaboom Gramophone and my personal favorite Your Flesh, which along with Touch and Go was the Midwest’s go-to zine for hardcore punk, scum, noise-rock and proto-grunge.

Zines were (and still are) my favorite outlets: You can curse (underrated perk), be willfully eccentric with story structure and write about extreme underground music without sacrificing its essential undergroundedness, all of which appeals to me because, well, that’s the stuff nearest and dearest to my heart. Writing about an obscure and utterly fascinating weirdo like the late Mikey Wild (a.k.a. The Mayor of South Street) is way more fun than jockeying for an interview with whatever flavor-of-the-year tops Pazz & Jop.

On the flipside, zines don’t pay. And that was a problem for someone who desperately wanted to make a living from music writing as opposed to a normal desk job. So, by 2004 I chose to double down on writing for outlets that paid, including alt weeklies like SF Weekly, The Village Voice and Seattle Weekly. As with many music journalists of my generation, this path eventually led to curatorial work for the growing number of streaming music companies, which — surprise, surprise — can be weird about me even mentioning their names (google “NDA”), but suffice it to say you’ve used at least one of these services, if not multiple.

Actually making a living off music writing and curation had a critical side effect, however: In the words of the Meat Puppets, I split myself in two. The more I found myself working for outlets for actual money, the more I found myself writing about stuff beyond the underground music that was my first love. I began covering mainstream rock, blues, country, EDM, folk, chart pop, jazz, reggae, and even Warped-approved post-hardcore. The list goes on and on, really.

It turns out that developing these two different headspaces is fairly common among music journalists and curators. Many of us write about commercial music, while the vinyl that makes it onto our turntables after work is significantly less mainstream. But because so few of my peers don’t particularly enjoy acknowledging this reality, much less offering in depth examination on the subject (generally speaking, no one pays you for that either), it’s something of an elephant in the room. I can only speak to my personal experiences, and they look something like this…


Writing about and curating music I listen to only as a professional can be both more difficult and easier than writing about stuff that appeals to me on a personal level. It’s harder when the music is bland — no unintentional weirdness, no good backstories, just utter blandness. Virtually all indie beyond 1996 fits this mold. It’s mediocre to the point of hideousness and should be banned by Congress (just joking, but not). In contrast, covering metalcore (as well as post-hardcore of the Warped Tour variety) is far easier. Sure, the music can oftentimes be borderline unlistenable, but there’s no denying that it’s packed with character (however absurd). Crank I Prevail’s version of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” off Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 6. It’s so stupid, but stupid in a way that makes me want to know why these guys would actually want to create such a bizarre chunk of sound. It takes real effort to make something so audaciously loud and dumb and that marries mosh-pit breakdowns to plastic teen pop in such a hamfisted way.

Whenever I’m in professional mode (and it doesn’t matter if the assignment in question is harder or easier) my mantra always is “this isn’t for me.” There’s a part of me that believes all music comprises one giant universe, but there’s another part of me that believes it contains multiple universes. The former me believes I should rail against everything that I don’t dig no matter the cost, while the latter says, “Not so fast. Some stuff simply isn’t meant for your ears.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: In the spring of 2010, an editor at Spin asked if I was up for reviewing Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes’ debut album. I snagged the assignment because it was decent pay, and I know a thing or two about the history and evolution of Southern soul, blues, and rock ’n’ roll, thus it would be a fairly easy assignment. (Bang it out and move on to the next thing.) Now, if I had allowed the universalist in me anywhere near that review, he would’ve insisted on writing, “Seem like nice kids, but don’t waste your time. Go buy an old Eddie Hinton record instead.” But that approach doesn’t work. My editor would’ve made me rewrite it anyway. Plus, I probably wouldn’t have gotten more work had I dismissed the record outright, and those are things I have to consider.

So, I let the other me, the one who believes in many universes, handle the review. This entailed writing a piece geared toward who I thought would even be curious enough to read about the Alabama Shakes. I came up with an imaginary twentysomething who digs The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and maybe some Fat Possum garage rock, but who lacks the knowledge about Southern music to know that the Shakes aren’t totally original. Basically, I created what social media types like to call a “persona” and went about weighing the pluses and minuses of the music while keeping in mind the expectations of this persona.

This is the very mindset I’ve used to become a know-it-all in modern hard rock, alt metal,  metalcore, post-hardcore, and beyond. I’ve put together in-depth playlists on virtually every aspect of grunge, from proto- to post- to neo- to stripper- (yup). I’ve created sprawling album collections that offer consumers the full breadth of the nu metal movement, both the landmarks and obscurities. I’ve written reviews of every Linkin Park album, twice.

The sheer amount of research and listening I’ve devoted to these genres is bonkers. I can list five electronic producers who have remixed Korn tracks off the top of my head. I can explain the minute sonic differences between all three of Creed’s key spin-offs: Alter Bridge, Projected and Tremonti. I can even go into great detail on precisely why PVRVIS and Blaqk Audio are harbingers of the forthcoming Goth/industrial revival that will sweep through mainstream post-hardcore.

I initially claimed this turf out of professional survival. It’s hugely popular music both in terms of sales and streaming, yet the number of my peers willing to even acknowledge it is incredibly small. Finding writers, curators, and digital merchandisers with the knowledge and desire to craft content in hip-hop, pop, indie pop, and even classic rock is easy. They’re a dime a dozen. But not so when it comes to modern hard rock. Chew on this: Nickelback never made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone despite selling in excess of 22,000,000 records between 2000 and 2011. The freakin’ Boston Bomber made the cover, but not one of the biggest selling and most influential rock acts of their generation — which isn’t an endorsement of their music; it’s just a fact.

So yeah, it was a no-brainer move to begin covering this stuff, but after a while I actually began to grow an attachment to it. Strange, I know. But I figured that if I was going to be the content producing guru for the modern hard rock demographic, then I was going to own my work. I even developed a persona for myself when crafting this content, and it’s one that’s best captured by the line quoted above: “Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.”

Rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that in his 1979 review of Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town album for the Village Voice. We don’t need to cite a lot of statistics to more or less agree that the average fan of this music clearly isn’t living in Williamsburg or the Mission or Silver Lake; they’re living in flyover country, in the Rust Belt and in the South. They’re the very kids who back in the late ’70s popped a Seger eight track into their car, only nowadays they’re texting while earbuds fill their ears with Asking Alexandria or whatever. There certainly exist varying shades, like between those who are more Warped/alternative inclined and those who go for more of a 3 Doors Down/meat-and-potatoes sound. But the point is: The audience for my curator persona was the kids and young adults of what they call Middle America. That’s who I write and curate for.

This persona is not an abstract concept for me. I draw from personal experience. I myself am working class and from the Rust Belt (Syracuse, New York). And while I logged numerous years in New York City and San Francisco, the bulk of my life has been spent living in medium-sized cities in Middle America, including my present residence in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the adopted home of Sleeping with Sirens (see what I mean?)). I grew up in a shabby neighborhood flanked by factories, all of them slowly dying. The kids in my neighborhood were working class troublemakers whose walkmans always blasted some mixture of hard rock, thrash, and hip-hop in the years directly before all three merged into nu metal. Not only that, but Syracuse was an early breeding ground for metalcore, including one of the genre’s pioneering acts, Earth Crisis.

To this very day, some of my nearest and dearest friends are hard rocking bros. One hauls trash for a living and worships groove metal. Another is a former skater turned drummer turned massive bodybuilder. So, whenever my work takes me to the land of Kroeger, Chino and Weiland, I imagine a composite of all my childhood friends. If I’m creating a playlist of alt-metal anthems, then I craft it as though my goal is to give one of them the absolute best listening experience. I ask myself, Would they want to make the windows in their cars rattle with these jams? Would they hit the weights while cranking them? Would the tracks I’ve selected stand up to hours of repeated listening as they indulge their video game addictions? My sincere hope is that they do, because it’s not likely that Laser Temple of Bon Matin is gonna do the trick anytime soon.


Third Bridge contributor Justin Farrar has written for Spin, Village Voice…actually, his resume is outlined pretty extensively above. Follow him here: @JustinFarrar

The Beatles’ Outer Limits

This post was originally published on August 2, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here

Kudos to Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music for their reissues of Yoko Ono’s early albums. Though I don’t think any one of them is an outright masterpiece (Ono is too Fluxus-inspired to achieve, or desire, perfection), each contains a clutch of brain-twisting pieces that rank as some of the most boldly experimental freak-rock of the ’70s. “Mindtrain,” from 1971’s Fly, is 17 minutes of her freely improvised shrieks and ululations puncturing muddy, hypno-blues riffs that have more in common with Krautrock than classic rock. Then there’s “Mrs. Lennon,” an atmospheric piano ballad so sublime in its bleakness that Alex Chilton felt compelled to use it as a template for Big Star’s downer plea “Holocaust.” These reissues continue to spark endless, combative debates between the anti- and pro-Ono contingencies.

The former largely are rock dudes (though not always) who dismiss her as a talentless, caterwauling hanger-on; the latter, meanwhile, are underground heads who hail Ono as an avant-garde visionary and The Beatles as a silly over-hyped band for dads. It’s a battle in which I’ve never partook, and I have my mom to thank.

When I started exploring The Beatles’ universe in high school, she instilled in me two opinions: (1) Ono is unique, strong artist to be taken seriously, and (2) The Beatles were at their most interesting on 1968’s self-titled release (a.k.a. “The White Album”), a strange, 30-track beast riddled with heavy metal, atonal blues, electronic music, lo-fi, and acid folk.

Because I’ve never harbored prejudices one way or another, I don’t hear a gulf separating The Beatles’ eccentric late-’60s work from Ono’s own. Rather, I hear a natural progression in sonic radicalism, one that begins with the all-over-the-map “White Album,” winds its way through the earliest solo efforts from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and reaches peak intensity on Ono first few full-lengths.

Let’s take the aforementioned “Mindtrain”: It’s far out, no doubt, yet it also feels of a piece with a whole clutch of bluesy, experimental rock songs. In addition to Lennon’s primal-scream scorcher “Cold Turkey,” there’s the Abbey Road epic “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” whose final three minutes is proto-doom metal soaked in Moog-generated white noise; the intentionally shattered “Yer Blues”; and, of course, McCartney’s “Helter Skelter,” which very nearly matches Ono in terms of sheer bludgeoning cacophony.

As for her barbed vocal acrobatics—of which the proto-no waver “Why” and plodding “Dont Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)” are prime examples—it should be noted that Harrison himself tried out a similarly shrill approach on the closing 30 seconds of his ghostly, ambient lament “Long, Long, Long.” Over violently rattling percussion that sounds like it belongs on a free-jazz record, he wails and moans like a mortally wounded cat. So yeah, if you don’t dig Ono, then you probably don’t dig the chilling finale to one of the most striking ballads in The Beatles’ entire catalog.

As any Beatles fanatic will tell you, this represents just the tip of the iceberg. The 1968-1972 stretch contains a wealth of interconnected experiments that push rock and pop into music’s outer limits. When the musique concrète composition “Revolution 9” appeared on “The White Album,” it marked the beginning of a whole slew of electronic-based exploration. Lennon and Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions submerges listeners in grainy field recordings and sound collage on par with William S. Burroughs’ own tape experiments (recorded around the same time, in fact). Harrison also got into the act, releasing Electronic Sound, which consists of a pair of forays into longform synthesizer music. Also not to be overlooked is McCartney’s “Kreen-Akrore," a Brazilian-inspired percussion track that sounds like the spiritual ancestor to Animal Collective’s psychedelic tribalism.

If you’re an anti-Ono classic rocker, please approach my playlist with open ears. Who knows? You may hear a searing guitar jam that will surprise you. (“Don’t Worry Kyoko” features Eric Clapton, as a matter of fact.) And if you’re a pro-Ono Beatles disser, kindly do the same. You, too, may discover that the band unleashed some wonderfully challenging music. The rhythm track alone on the phantasmagoric “It’s All Too Much” is sure to give you a contact buzz. In the name of great music, it’s time to make peace, folks.

The Best of Post-Smile Beach Boys

This post was originally published on August 1, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

1967 - Sunshine Tomorrow documents one of the all-time paradoxes of rock history: the sound of a band taking a major creative turn at the exact moment pop culture dooms them to obsolescence.” It’s a key point made in Pitchfork writer Jesse Jarnow’s review of The Beach Boys’ compilation, a grab bag of stereo mixes, outtakes, and live recordings that shed further light on the months immediately following the Smile project’s dissolution and Brian Wilson’s subsequent abdication of his role as de facto creative leader.

I’ll go one step further and say this major creative turn resulted in a run of albums—Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, et al.—that represent the band’s zenith as a recording unit. And while just about every one of these records was greeted with a mixture of indifference (from the music-buying public) and ridicule (from the pop press), the sheer number of brilliant tunes littered across them represent, in total, one of the most expansive visions in the history of American pop and rock.

The earliest gems from this run, the throbbing, Theremin-lined “Wild Honey” and the waltzing meditation “Let the Wind Blow” among them, find The Beach Boys (now operating as what Jarnow calls a “fully democratic band”) articulating a homespun, R&B-kissed brand of pop that stands right alongside Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (recorded mere months earlier) as the first expressions of rock’s post-psychedelic turn towards earthy simplicity.

In this newfound democracy (one as easily contentious as our own), it frequently falls on the shoulders of Carl and Dennis Wilson to pick up Brian’s slack by developing their own unique voices. The first to blossom is Carl, who produces and sings the otherworldly lead on 1969’s “I Can Hear Music,” a slice of Phil Spector-inspired gloriousness.

When the band make the leap to Reprise Records in 1970, it’s Dennis’ turn, and boy does he ever deliver. Among the handful of his stellar contributions to Sunflower is “Forever,” a ballad Brian once declared the “most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard."

Arguably The Beach Boys’ most confident-sounding album after Pet Sounds, Sunflower also contains the dreamily hypnotic “Cool, Cool Water,” a piece of Smile detritus transformed into bubbling ambient pop that sets the stage for both Kosmische Musik explorers like Cluster, as well as Brian Eno’s mid-’70s avant-pop.

With the addition of guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar in 1972 they pivot once again, cranking out raw, punchy rockers like “Sail on Sailor” and “Funky Pretty,” all the while maintaining a link to their roots in harmony-rich, AM pop (see the gorgeous “Marcella”). The era finally grinds to a halt when the 1974 greatest hits package, Endless Summer, goes triple platinum and forces the group, concerned with commercial survival, to become an oldies act. Though they would release one more great album in 1977’s extremely eccentric Love You, The Beach Boys as creatively potent, contemporary entity basically ceased to exist sometime during the Carter administration. (And, no, “Kokomo” doesn’t count.)

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