New 33 1/3 Books on Devo, Dead Kennedys, and Super Mario Bros Are Criticism Done Right

There’s an old, dismissive joke about music criticism: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture–it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

That’s funny, sure, but good music critics can dance like motherfuckers. Dancing is fun, it’s stimulating, it’s potentially generative. When people can dance as well as they do in the 33 1/3 series, that’s something that should be celebrated. (Here I am, dancing about dancing.)

The 33 1/3 series began publishing pocket-sized books of music criticism in 2003, each focused on a single album, each a sustained work of long-form criticism. The best entries in the series are exceptional culture writing. Some of the standouts include Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk, David Bowie’s Low by Hugo Wilcken, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Christopher R. Weingarten, and Television’s Marquee Moon by Bryan Waterman. (Waiting on my shelf to be read: Big Star’s Radio City by Bruce Eaton and a novella about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality by Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle.)

Three of the recent 33 1/3 books focus on seminal works of the early ’80s: Devo’s Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy, Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Michael Stewart Foley, and, the first entry on videogame music in the series, Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. by Andrew Schartmann. Each of the books are fine additions to 33 1/3. In other words, they dance like motherfuckers.

Form and content are the most basic aspects of aesthetic criticism, and while that’s part of the discussion in each of these three new books, the authors also find ways of exploring the time and the place that gave birth to each album. If it’s questions of form and content that determine the relative success of individual works of art, it’s questions of time and place that help fashion the form and the content, and it’s the intersection between the elements of form, content, time, and place that help determine the enduring legacy of the art.

Let’s give each of these new 33 1/3 books a quick look. For more information on the books and the series, visit the 33 1/3 site.

Hubert Vigilla

Hubert Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely indistinguishable from four-fifths of people living in Brooklyn.

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