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Mapping the musical landscape of Gaga, Simone, Moon and more

Today's new word on "Sesame Street" is "superculture."

It comes to us from ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin via Alex Ross' brilliant introduction to his stint as guest editor of Da Capo Press' annual high-energy "Best Music Writing" series.

A "superculture," according to Ross, is what Slobin called "a ubiquitous but nebulous zone that he associated with the "the usual, the accepted, the statistically lopsided, the commercially successful, the statutory, the regulated, the most visible." Slobin postulated its existence "almost 20 years ago," according to Ross, in a "brilliant book titled 'Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West.' "

It was about the ways in which "myriad subcultures vie for position, rise to popularity, define themselves in opposition, or fuse with other forms. Slobin's analysis is even more pertinent in the fractured, late-digital age than it was in the early '90s, which now look vaguely Amish in retrospect. With the rise of the Internet and the decline of the record business, the superculture has lost some of its mojo."

So here's Ross, in this anthology, giving us a quietly spectacular -- and I use the word advisedly -- "map" of the "micromusical landscape."

Because, to some extent, all of us could easily get hopelessly lost on our new digital Sesame Street, let's remember that once upon a time cars had giant tailfins, gasoline had lead additives and cigarette ads were ubiquitous.

But rock had no critics worthy of the name. As Leiber and Stoller put it in their co-written "autobiography," the best the primordial rock and rollers could hope for was a review of a few lines in Billboard or Cashbox magazine. Music critics had existed for centuries (Berlioz and Debussy, famously, were two of the best who ever lived), but when rock was busy being born, only insulted general assignment journalists were busy paying attention -- and even then mostly to the screams.

And then the deluge.

The new music of Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Doors, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds and Joni Mitchell had no business being covered as a fad on the order of the hula hoop and pet rock. And so suddenly rock critics were everywhere, many in competition to be every bit as unbuttoned, unshaven and unwashed as the musicians soon came to be and twice as stoned besides. But, at the same time, just as many erupted in Satanic glee with all manner of arcane knowledge utterly foreign to the "superculture" (Greil Marcus, one of the most brilliant, wrote a "secret history of the 20th century" called "Lipstick Traces").

It was, quite literally, an incredible generation of American critics: Marcus, Robert Christgau, Robert Palmer, Paul Williams, Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, James Wolcott, Peter Guralnick, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh, Chet Flippo, Jon Landau, Richard Goldstein, Ellen Willis (carefully note her gender singularity), James Miller, Billy Altman, Anthony de Curtis (across the pond were Nick Hornby, Nik Cohn and an equivalently large platoon).

And, up to now, they and their survivors and living descendants form the nucleus of this fine annual series of books that began in 2000 (and whose guest editors have included former rock critic Matt Groening, Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby, Mary Gaitskill and Mickey Hart).

Alex Ross is the classical music critic of the New Yorker. He's the first indentured classical critic to edit one of these annual beauties and he's responsible for this one being the most brilliant and far-ranging and revelatory that the series is ever likely to have.

Which only proves that in an era where the Internet is blowing the "supercultural" to smithereens and commentary on culture is more atomized than the thing itself, great critics have never been more important. When the rate of technological change has relocated most of us to Sesame Street, it has never been more important to do what this book, for one, does and that is sift through a near-Babel of material to find the best and most seductive and most meaningful for us all.

Which is why if you read only one music book in 2012, you ought to make it this one.

Of course, you will find hugely informative and close to definitive pieces on prevailing figures in the "superculture." Vanessa Grigoriadis' near-definitive piece on Lady Gaga from New York magazine is about as sound and grounding a piece on the woman born Stefani Joanne Germanotta as any American might need (and that includes all of us who care at all about either music or culture). We learn of her debt to the influence of Madonna and Andy Warhol as well as Prince.

Chris Norris' piece on in Rolling Stone has this to say about the brain-center of the Black Eyed Peas: "As a songwriter ascribes to Moore's law (he means subscribes), the software principle whereby increasingly smaller devices hold more information. 'Right now, every chorus is getting shorter and shorter,' he says. 'Soon, we'll be listening to blips. Nowadays, the more complex things sound, when you break them down, all the veils and sheets are just disguises.' "

Nancy Griffin's Vanity Fair piece on Michael Jackson remembers his "Thriller" in historic creative detail as "the last time everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing."

But there are microcultures galore here -- explored in Jonathan Bogart's antic scholarship on the subject of Ke$ha, David Hajdu's piece on jazz pianist Fred Hersch, who became an AIDS Lazarus and turned it into art, literary critic James Wood imagining himself as the Who's late Keith Moon (complete with off-hand references to Georges Bataille and Gogol) and Joe Hagan's shattering piece on "The Secret Diary of Nina Simone."

There's even -- courtesy of Ross' well-developed New Yorker wit -- an excerpt from the tweets of the operaplot 2010 contest winners "in which entrants are challenged to summarize the plot of an opera in 140 characters."

My two favorites: From Stephen Llewylyn of Portland, Ore., this synopsis of Mozart's "Don Giovanni": "Kissed the girls and made them cry. Stabbed one's dad and watched him die. Offered chances to repent, he opted to be Hades sent. Men!"

Even shorter is Ralph Graves of Orange, Va., and his tweet encapsulating "Orfeo ed Euridice": "Greek musician goes to hell and back. Wife only makes it halfway."

Ross' anthology makes it the whole way -- several times over.

Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books editor.


Best Music Writing 2011

Guest editor Alex Ross, series editor Daphne Carr

Da Capo Press

311 pages, $16 paperback original