Ally Jane Grossan:
The TVD Interview with the 33 1/3 Series Editor

Everyone has a favorite album. Whether it’s that one from high school and you still know every single word to every single song on it, or one of the Top 50 of all time by Rolling Stone, everyone has that one album that they will always love. But do you know the story behind that album? That’s where the 33 1/3 series comes in. 

For the past decade, the series has released 100 volumes, each on a different albums. Readers are taken through deep, thorough journeys of influential albums. Writers compile hours upon hours of work and countless interviews and research down into a single book that can almost fit in your back pocket. 

Written for music junkies who just cannot get enough, each book makes reading through the liner notes on albums look like child’s play. What could be better than taking out your copy of Meat is Murder or Highway 61 Revisited? Getting a full history lesson on them thanks to a fellow fan and devoted music critic. 

This week, the 33 1/3 series will celebrate their winter launch with the release of Serge Gainsbourg’s Historie de Melody Nelson by Darran Anderson. Prior to the release, I was able to catch up with series editor Ally Jane Grossan about the past, present, and future of the series. 

As you look through the list of the records already covered, there are a lot of classic ones. For you, what makes an album a “classic” ?

Classic is a strange term. It was added before the work “rock” to mean a certain set of groups from the ’60s and ’70s, as in AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The term classic rock was invented for radio stations to define their format, and that’s where a lot of the thinking behind making an album “classic” comes from.

Are all of the albums covered in the 33 1/3 series “classic” ? Certainly not. I think a “classic” album is usually defined as the most well-known or influential album by a group. Actually the 33 1/3 format is often an invitation for authors to move away from “classic” albums.

How does an album get selected to be a part of the series?

Currently, I’m working from the open call model. Which means that every 18 months or so, we post some guidelines for submitting a proposal on the blog. The best proposals are selected from that pool.

The books selected for the series are not necessarily based on the album choice. I evaluate proposals based on a number of different things. Most important is the actual writing. Is the short 2,000 word introduction a pleasure to read? No one wants to read 30,000 words on Daft Punk if the writing is lackluster. Then there’s the “approach,” where the author details how they will deal with the album. Then of course there’s the artist choice and the album choice. A combination of these three things determines which proposals make it into the series.

Each book looks to be an exploration into an album that was generally well-received. Why is it important to revisit albums that have already been praised years later?

Sometimes it’s important to let the album simmer a while before analyzing it critically. When the subject is still alive, things can get sticky, especially if an author is relying on input and interviews from the surviving band members.

For a brilliant book on one of the most well-received (in terms of record sales) albums of all time, see Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love. Wilson basically rips apart the mega-popular Celine Dion album and debunks the concept of “taste.” The book was so popular that we’re bringing out a second edition in March 2014 with new essays from the likes of Nick Hornby, James Franco, Mary Gaitskill, Krist Novoselic, and many more.

Despite each book written from the perspective of one author, every release seems to be popular. Why do fans, who might have their own separate opinions that differ, connect so well with each of the authors?

33 1/3 is so unique in that it basically offers a soap box for long format gushing. Unless you are Sasha Frere-Jones writing a feature for the New Yorker, chances are you won’t get a platform to write so much about an artist you love. I think the apparatus of the series provides a unique “close reading” if you will, of bands and albums that wouldn’t necessarily warrant a big bestselling biography.

In a sense, most of the books are written with diehard fans in mind because at the end of the day those are the people who will buy the book. Which is why it boggles my mind that there haven’t been more proposals for books on groups with extremely devoted fans like Phish (okay okay, they don’t really do “albums”), the Grateful Dead, or Insane Clown Posse.

How has the devoted fan base helped shape the 33 1/3 series?

When word started to get out about the series in the early 2000s, it was the fans that wrote about the series for newspapers, magazines, and websites. Without the fans spreading news via word of mouth, the 33 1/3 series would be a bunch of sad little books sitting in a warehouse outside Richmond, Virginia. What makes the series unlike any other publishing imprint is that the fans actually have a realistic shot (through the open call process) at writing a book for the series.

How important are classic albums, like the ones that have been covered so far, on the current music scene?

Very important, especially with record companies constantly re-releasing these classic albums all the time. So, these albums essentially get a second life and are reviewed by a younger generation on sites like Pitchfork and Spin.

This fall marks 10 years from the start of the 33 1/3 series. How far has it come since it’s beginning in 2003? Where do you see it going?

It’s come so far! 100 volumes in 10 years for what can sort of be relegated as obscure music criticism is quite a feat. The series was originally published by Continuum, and just before we hit the first decade of the twenty first century, it was decided that the series should wind down because it wasn’t in line with the more serious, academic publishing Continuum chose to focusing on. Then along came Bloomsbury who (brilliantly) saw the value and importance of the series and gave us the green light to re-vamp it.

Where do I see it going? Well, by this time next year we’ll have covered about 105 albums, and I can, off the top of my head, think of 105 more that we’re missing. One of the biggest criticisms I hear about the series is that it’s very male-centric, both in artist choice and author. I’d love to see more proposals from women.

What book are you most excited about?

I think the I Get Wet book by Phillip Crandall (due out Jan 2, 2014) sort of perfectly embodies the original vision of 33 1/3. It tells the complete, untold story of Andrew W.K.’s bizarre party anthem-filled album. No one seems to know how to deal with I Get Wet. Is it a joke? Is Andrew W.K. a genius? Should it be taken seriously? Why is he bleeding? Crandall pretty much clears up most of these questions and even delves into the internet conspiracy theories surround the album (if you don’t know what I’m taking about, read the book!)

Phillip Crandall did hours and hours of interviews with record execs, producers, collaborators and Andrew W.K. himself to give the complete picture. In short, I think it’s one of the most successful 33 1/3 books ever and may even change the music world’s perception of Andrew W.K. as an artist.

What albums would you like to see covered that have not been already submitted?

It may be that during the next open call I’ll post a list of “wish list albums,” but until then….

What albums released in the last year or two (if any) do you see as being influential enough to be included as part of the series in the future?

That’s tough. The last round of proposals that were selected definitely delved into the recent past. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released in November 2010, and we’ll publish Kirk Walker Grave’s book on the album in early 2014. Similarly, Björk’s Biophilia was released in 2011, and Nicola Dibben’s book for the 33 1/3 series will come out just 3 years later.

In terms of what’s come out in 2013 so far, there has been so much written about Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, so that’s certainly influential. But I think a 33 1/3 on Discovery would actually be more interesting to look back on 10+ years later. To return to your earlier question, it’s more of a “classic.”

Where do you see the series going in the next few years?

International! I’m currently working on a Brazilian off-shoot of the series and I’d like to start similar series on popular music in seldom-covered music scenes outside the Anglosphere. Continuum published a fantastic book on the underground rock scene in Tehran, Iran called Reverberations of Dissent, I’d like to do more of that sort of thing. We’re also working with independent record stores to get the 33 1/3rds into shops next to the albums that the books investigate.

You can explore the complete full list of albums already covered in the 33 1/3 series or peruse the list of books on the way if you’re interested in seeing what will be covered next.

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