Rough Trade Counter Culture 11: V.A. Review

There’s a great deal of great music to be found on the latest version of Rough Trade’s annual two-disc trawl through the finest independent music of the last year. From Hype Williams’ hypnagogic, brain-melting Untitled, to the primal and raw minimal techno of VCMG’s Spock by way of Real Estate’s clean cut jangle of It’s Real and Kurt Vile’s fugged-out slacker-folk anthem Peeping Tomboy.

As a snapshot of a music world in which the mainstream seems content to plaster wordless chants over dead-eyed Eurohouse and trashy synth-stabs, and the alternative seems to be a grab-bag of backwards looking re-modulations of the past, Rough Trade’s Counter Culture compilation works just fine.

The great stuff on here such as John Maus’ academic synthpop Quantum Leap and the ebulliently lo-fi punk of You’re Blessed by Iceage outweighs the mediocre six minute White Hills’ trudge on The Condition of Nothing, the bad of Ghostpoet’s Us Against Whatever Ever and the monotonous pseudo-Gothic Americana of The Decemberists, Josh T Pearson and Richmond Fontaine.

The problem I have is does it have a reason to exist at all? This isn’t a high-minded refutation of the necessity of recorded music on my part, rather a questioning of the simple need for collections of this kind in the age of Spotify.

Rough Trade might be saving us the hassle of searching for these songs and ordering them in a playlist, but you’re being charged for the privilege. More damagingly, you’re voluntarily making yourself complicit in an ideology of coolness; viewing the words “Rough Trade” as a signifier of musical assurance and quality control, rather than an empty appellation of a bygone era.

This compilation infers a sense of authenticity to the selected tracks, and an inescapably commoditised sense of authenticity at that, which must be good music because those cool guys and girls over at Rough Trade chose them, right?

Wrong.

The music on here that’s good is so for that simple reason alone, not because the girl you fancy behind the till who talks about Carsten Nicolai and Alva Noto helped pick it. The internet has made compilation makers of us all, so record shop clerk compiled albums now feel like a kick in the face to our collective musical tastes.

But what about the pleasure that comes with ownership of a physical object; of being able to read liner notes and unhooking a CD from the plastic teeth of its jewel case, rather than coldly pressing play on a piece of software?

Well I say piffle. Valid points they may be, but Rough Trade’s Counter Culture 2011 is effectively just a paid-for playlist.

Josh Baines

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