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Pitch Perfect: The History and Influence of the Pitchfork 10.0

Last month, Fiona Apple joined an exclusive club when her album ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ received a real-time perfect score on the most vital and polarizing music publication of its era. How did the distinction come to mean so much? And what does it mean in 2020?

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“Ah, fuck, shit, ahhhhh,” groans Fiona Apple, flubbing a line amid the hypnotic junk-drawer clatter of “On I Go,” and maybe it’s here, with only 70 seconds to go on the last song, where her first new album in eight years finally achieves perfection. Apple is an immensely beloved figure, and an avatar for turning self-quarantined unease into ferocious transcendence, and the mid-April release of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, only her fifth full-length in a nearly 25-year career, was bound to trigger a critical rapture so intense that it has already inspired at least one think piece about the profound alienation of not liking it. But the record, in all its chaotic focus and feral tenderness, still got one unexpected reaction: It inspired the first real-time Pitchfork 10.0 review in almost a decade.

“The very sound of Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” wrote contributing editor Jenn Pelly on the album’s April 15 release day, “dismantles patriarchal ideas: professionalism, smoothness, competition, perfection—aesthetic standards that are tools of capitalism, used to warp our senses of self.” Pitchfork, the most vital and polarizing rock-critic publication of its era, itself dates back to the mid-’90s, and has mutated a solid half-dozen times at least, from one-man online zine to multimillion-dollar Condé Nast publication, from disruptor to standard-bearer, its base of operations shifting from Minnesota to Chicago to its current NYC offices in One World Trade Center. But that 10.0 scale—which at the high end carries all the historical weight of five stars in Rolling Stone or five mics in The Source—remains one of the site’s signature flourishes, with its maddening and theoretically precise approach to decimal places, such that an ocean of feeling separates an 8.1 from an 8.9.

The last album to earn a quote-unquote perfect 10.0 upon initial release was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, reviewed by longtime features editor Ryan Dombal in 2010, and praised as “a blast of surreal pop excess that few artists are capable of creating, or even willing to attempt.” The nearly 10-year drought that followed gives you some sense of the momentousness of this occasion, and how bizarre and vexing and fascinating this pantheon—which now bonds Apple to the likes of Radiohead, Wilco, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Will Oldham, and a few luminaries from the late-’90s Minneapolis rock scene—has become.

I spoke to various authors of Pitchfork 10.0 reviews throughout the site’s history, in part to track how their own deeply personal feelings helped fuel the site’s ever-volatile public canon. In the mid-2000s, Pelly tried to use Apple’s famous declaration that “This world is bullshit” as her high school yearbook quote, and settled for “Go with yourself,” from that same notorious MTV VMAs speech, instead. In her opinion, two previous Apple records, 1999’s When the Pawn… and 2012’s The Idler Wheel..., are 10.0s, as well. As always, her editors at Pitchfork made the call on the Fetch the Bolt Cutters score, which she found out about only a few hours before the review ran. But “I wrote it thinking, ‘This is a 10,’” she says now, “and tried to make the case for that as I was writing it.”

Because that rating scale, flagrantly subjective and objectively silly as it might be, still matters. “Sometimes people think that the points go up and down because, like, ‘Ah, there was a really good beat on this track’ or ‘This lyric earned it another tenth of a point,’ and breaking it down really granularly like that,” Pelly says, chatting on the phone in late April. “But I think there’s something to be said for something that’s bigger-picture than that.”

The site regularly tackles major reissues, and through its Sunday Reviews feature returns each week to a classic album, and thus has now doled out a 10.0 to more than 50 records altogether, most of them in retrospect. (Shout-out to late April’s Talking Heads Day.) But a real-time 10.0 still qualifies as a seismic event for the rock-critic universe as a whole.

“I would say that it’s not a once-a-decade thing,” says Puja Patel, Pitchfork’s editor-in-chief since 2018. (Patel and I are friends and former colleagues at various other publications.) “I do think that its significance is lost if we overuse it, obviously. But I think that if anything, it’s a challenge for us to find music that is perfect. I think that we should be using the higher end of the scale more frequently than we have, and the lower end of the scale more frequently than we have.”

The baton pass from West to Apple is fraught with symbolism all on its own, and the classic idea of perfection, as anyone who has recently slogged through the interminable Chris Rock bit on the deep cut “Blame Game” can attest, does not readily apply to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, either. But that only binds that record tighter, in indomitable spirit, to Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “There are plenty of imperfections on the album, which is why it sounds so authentic, and that’s what we want from Fiona,” Patel says. “What we crave from her is the brazen tell-offs and the very intimate, confessional-style songwriting, and what we crave from Kanye is, like, nonsense. We care about his ego, and if that’s not present, then it’s not interesting. So, I would say it’s not that the idea of using the word perfect is for us. It’s perfect to her.”

Which is why Fetch the Bolt Cutters might qualify as a dazzling evolutionary leap for both Apple and the website once again lavishly praising her. It’s the first real-time 10.0 for a female artist, and the first such review written by a woman. “If you would’ve asked me in high school if Fiona Apple’s a genius, I would say yes, unequivocally,” Pelly says. “And if you would’ve asked the staff of Pitchfork in 2005 if they would’ve said, ‘Fiona Apple’s an unequivocal genius—she’s narrating teenage girl pain across the world,’ I don’t know if they would’ve agreed with that. And I’m glad to be participating in culture at a time when people understand that Fiona Apple is a genius.” And her fellow geniuses, presumably, are glad to finally have some company.

“I liked that it felt kind of scientific without any actual science to it,” is how Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber explains the 10.0 scale to me now. “That kind of absurdity was really funny to me.”

Schreiber, who left Pitchfork in early 2019 three years after selling it to Condé Nast, started the site as a teenager in mid-’90s Minneapolis, though he initially called it Turntable and used an even more byzantine review scale. “There were ratings from day one, but they started out as percentages, like instead of 6.7, the score would be 67 percent,” he writes in an email. “A year later, I realized that metric was too abstract to be very useful.”

But by then his fledgling publication had already doled out its first two, uh, 100 percents—to 12 Rods’s Gay? and Walt Mink’s El Producto, both from 1996, both noisy and ambitious local rock bands made good. “Walt Mink and 12 Rods were probably the two best bands in Minneapolis, and to see these normal kids in my town putting out records I loved, playing packed rooms, and getting played on college radio—it was kind of the coolest thing in the world to me,” Schreiber says. “I was really struck by the idea that there was this whole subculture in music that was kind of for misfits, and those guys made it feel real because it was happening right around the corner from me. That gave me the push to carve out my own space.”

Like much of Pitchfork’s earliest writings from Schreiber and others—including 10.0 reviews for the likes of the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and Amon Tobin’s Bricolage—those reviews have since been scrubbed from the official site, though they live on via the Wayback Machine, and reflect the site’s initial identity as more of a labor-of-love personal blog than a voice-of-god institution. “I have stumbled, quite absentmindedly, upon one of the best albums I’ve ever heard,” is how Schreiber’s El Producto review begins.

“A lot of zines from those years read like early Pitchfork—reviews were a paragraph long, interviews were directionless chats, no one took anything at all seriously,” Schreiber says now. “It was totally effortless, and that was part of what made it so fun. I was writing for a hyper-niche audience on a platform nobody understood yet. That this stuff would ever be widely read wasn’t even a thought.”

Nonetheless, early Pitchfork got a few kids into El Producto, and also got a few El Producto fans into Pitchfork, including a college-radio music director named Brent DiCrescenzo. “So yeah, there was just this kid in Minnesota, and he did an interview with the Wrens, and he had a 10.0 review of Walt Mink,” he recalls to me now. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy totally fits my profile, fits my vibe.’”

By 2000, DiCrescenzo, by then one of Pitchfork’s most prominent writers, had relocated from Atlanta to join Schreiber in Chicago, and found himself painstakingly downloading, via “Limewire or Napster or whatever,” each individual track off Radiohead’s Kid A. And then he sat on a futon and wrote what is still very likely Pitchfork’s single most famous review, a 10.0 rave (“Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper”) that in March got its own Billboard 20th-anniversary retrospective that credited it with changing rock criticism forever. Specifically, in Billboard’s view, he “managed to capture the historical awe of that moment with some of the most flamboyantly earnest, absurdly effusive, and borderline nonsensical bits of prose to ever be published in a legitimate music publication.”

Indeed, what was revolutionary about that Kid A review was not so much the scoring system, which DiCrescenzo cheerfully found absurd, too: “The nuance between a 7.4 and 7.5 is obviously—it’s just a joke, it’s stupid.” Nor was it the praise for Radiohead specifically: Starting with 1997’s OK Computer—another early, archived Pitchfork 10.0 from Schreiber—worshipping the band was by then an international pastime. But the intensity of DiCrescenzo’s writing is as close as anyone’s ever gotten to the loopy, unembarrassed rapture of being an intense young person communing, intensely, with Radiohead.

“I wanted to make someone feel, when they read my review, the way the record would make me feel when I listened to it,” says DiCrescenzo, now an editor at Weigel Broadcasting. And from a startled reader’s perspective, a line like, “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax” still holds up two decades later precisely because of how outlandish it’s willing to be.

Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, officially released in April 2002 after an infamous deluge of music-industry bullshit, was another instance of a critically adored band dropping an instantly mythic record. And the Pitchfork 10.0 that greeted it, written by Brent S. Sirota, likewise rose to the momentousness of the occasion. “And as anyone who’s seen the mixed-bag crowd at Wilco shows knows,” Sirota wrote, “it will find a home in the collections of hippies, frat boys, acid-eating prep schoolers, and the record store apparatchiks of the indiocracy. No one is too good for this album; it is better than all of us.”

“It wasn’t something that we had to sell or endorse or give a big platform to,” says Sirota, now a history professor at NC State. “But we did it to say, like, ‘Yes, these are great stories, and there’s a kind of mythology to this. But by the way, this is a fantastic fucking record.’”

At this point in Pitchfork’s history, a 10.0 was not yet a hallowed historical mile marker that involved a lot of internal debate. (“I can’t remember if it was email—maybe it was Instant Messenger, Jesus Christ,” Sirota says with a laugh, recalling his conversations with Schreiber at the time. “I probably just said, ‘I’m giving it a 10.0,’ and he probably said, ‘That’s fine.’”) But that era—the rise of Pitchfork as a cultural force, a hypothetical indie-rock kingmaker, the host of an annual three-day Chicago music festival, and the center of the larger rock-critic universe—was coming soon.

“We were definitely trying to entertain people, we wanted to be funny, and we wanted to be a little irreverent,” DiCrescenzo says. “Because everything else was establishment. There was Spin, and I loved it—any of us would’ve killed to write for them, of course. But we were just these nobodies trying to be something on a pretty nascent format. And because of that, it was just a lot snottier. And as it got bigger and bigger and bigger, it became the establishment.” And soon even that objectively silly 10.0 scale would be freighted with significance, and something very much like consequence.

“I saw them play a show at the Knitting Factory where they trashed everything and yelled at us,” is how Matt LeMay, a New York City teenager in the early 2000s, now describes a formative experience with the Austin garage-rock band ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. “And I knew precious little about rock music history for somebody who was writing for Pitchfork at the time. And to me, that still felt so cool and exciting and dangerous to whatever extent.”

For the record, neither DiCrescenzo nor Sirota regrets their respective 10.0 reviews 20 years or so later, nor has Pelly reconsidered her feelings for Fetch the Bolt Cutters after a few weeks to reflect. (“My love of it has only grown,” she says. “I still feel pretty overwhelmed by it, in the best way.”) As for Schreiber, “The only thing I might change is that there aren’t more of them,” he says now. “We considered the rating for a lot of albums over the years, and I think we’d have been on the right side of history with most of them.”

But LeMay, now an author and tech-world consultant, has a more complicated relationship with Trail of Dead and his 10.0 review for the band’s brash and cacophonous 2002 major-label debut, Source Tags & Codes, which “will take you in, rip you to shreds, piece you together, lick your wounds clean, and send you back into the world with a concurrent sense of loss and hope,” he wrote at the time. “And you will never, ever be the same.”

That last part is the truest. “If you look at a 10.0 as a personal evaluation of quality in the moment, then yes, I gave it the score that I felt it deserved at the time,” LeMay says now. “If you look at it as a marker of cultural significance that one would expect to extend beyond the moment of evaluation, I think it’s fair to say that it was not a great call.”

This is, of course, debatable; that debate, both in the heat of the moment and in retrospect, is the whole point of assigning albums random numbers in the first place. (Full disclosure: In 2002, I got a speeding ticket on an Ohio freeway whilst rocking out too hard to Source Tags & Codes. It must’ve been either “How Near, How Far” or “Days of Being Wild.” I regret basically nothing.)

But the Source Tags & Codes review was one among a dramatic series of turning points in the site’s influence. Trail of Dead had parlayed the notoriety of their instrument-trashing live show and the underground success of their 1999 Merge Records album Madonna into a deal with Interscope, still a fraught leap for a young rock band in the early 2000s. No publication ever truly “discovers” any artist, but it was a big deal for Pitchfork to hail a band far less established than Radiohead with Radiohead-type extravagance, just as Trail of Dead themselves, with their string sections and interludes and audacious bombast, were reaching for Radiohead-type significance.

In 2003, LeMay wrote a scathing 0.0 denouncement of Liz Phair’s self-titled pivot toward mainstream pop, itself a famous review that he later dismissed, in a thoughtful 2019 Twitter thread, as “condescending and cringey.” (Pitchfork’s meanest and most career-devastating reviews constitute their own separate, terrifying pantheon.) At the time, among critics, Phair and Trail of Dead and all other artists of their prominence were relentlessly plotted and replotted on that fraught spectrum: indie vs. major, rock vs. pop, “good” ambition vs. “bad” ambition.

“Because this was February of 2002, I was a senior in high school, so also, nobody should have taken anything I said seriously, least of all myself,” LeMay tells me. “But I think if you look at my two most notorious reviews, which were this 10.0 and the 0.0 that ran the following year, I think it really speaks to this pre-poptimism moment when there was a culture war of sorts between indie rock as an aesthetic and as a vaguely connected cultural thing, and pop music that was the evil lowbrow force that I think was—it’s hard to even describe that moment, how different this moment is.”

Another vexing question is what a 10.0 Pitchfork review means, at any given moment, to the lucky artist involved. “I mean, in 2002, it was still kind of a fringe website,” says founding Trail of Dead member Jason Reece, chatting on the phone amid self-quarantine home-schooling, the tour for the band’s 2020 album X: The Godless Void and Other Stories long since postponed. “If we got a 10, whatever, 10 years ago or whatever, in 2010, yeah, it would definitely greatly affect the band. But we were kind of too early for Pitchfork’s influence.”

In the early 2000s, then, a rave from the site was more of a curiosity, albeit a flattering one. “A lot of music nerds were definitely—that’s where they went to go find, I guess, whatever was cool at the time,” Reece says. “So my opinion was generally more like,”—he breaks into a deadpan—“‘Well, it’s cool. Thanks a lot, Pitchfork.’”

He might’ve been far less comically nonchalant a few years later when the site greeted the band’s next album, Worlds Apart, with a dismissive and disappointed review whose exact score, 4.0, Reece can still recite, unprompted, from memory. “Pitchfork wasn’t, I don’t think, anywhere as huge or as influential as they were like maybe in 2005, when Worlds Apart came out and they totally dogged it,” he says. “And then, that had more of an impression, because that fucked everything up for us in the States. … We saw the effect. I mean, people listen to Pitchfork, so they were like, ‘Yeah, these guys suck.’ Whereas in Europe that actually opened more doors for us. People were more receptive to that album—we were traveling to more places and playing bigger shows than ever. In Europe. Whereas in America, it went the opposite direction.”

Reece has long since made his peace with that, of course. “I mean, I try not to care,” he says. “I guess that’s the best way to make music, and not let it get you down when certain albums aren’t perceived well. But again, if Pitchfork writes something about Trail of Dead, we always hear about it.”

For the record, the site liked this year’s The Godless Void quite a bit. (It got a 7.8!) Also for the record, Schreiber wonders now whether the 10.0 for Source Tags & Codes accidentally did the album a disservice.

“We started to understand the gravity of the 10.0 beyond what it meant just to us,” he tells me. “A lot of the conversation around those albums became more about the score than about the music. That rating can mean a lot of things to different people, so if the conditions aren’t exactly right, you might be starting the dialogue from a place of incredulity or saddling the record with expectations it may not be able to live up to. I found it often had a negative effect on how these records were perceived by readers, and I thought in the case of Source Tags & Codes, maybe it wasn’t given a chance to come into its own because people were so put off by that statement.”

There was no concern, in 2010, with overburdening Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with expectation. His G.O.O.D. Fridays promo strategy of doling out one free track a week (shout-out to the “Power” remix) stands now as quite possibly the last tolerable album rollout in history, from anybody, but for West especially. “It’s just, kind of, ‘We’re all figuring this out together,’” Pitchfork’s Dombal recalls now. “He’s using social media to have fun. I guess there was this kind of innocence about the whole thing that really quickly calcified to what we know now. It’s even hard to imagine that Twitter could’ve been a fun place.”

What’s most impressive about Dombal’s 10.0 review of the album in retrospect is that both the critical analysis and the pop psychology hold up well regardless of what you think of West’s various antics, sonic and otherwise, in the decade since. “Over the past few months, Kanye has intermittently tried to flush away his rep as a boorish egoist in interviews and on Twitter, which is, fortunately, impossible,” he wrote, soon adding, “In his public life, he exhibits vulnerability and invincibility in equal measure, but he’s just as apt at villainy—especially here.”

The result is vigorous praise for the Kanye West of that exact moment that does not attempt to predict, or for that matter sanction, anything Kanye West might do in the very next moment. And it was Pitchfork’s first real-time 10.0 in the better part of a decade. As Trail of Dead’s Reece points out, the site’s influence exploded as the 2000s went on, and the records and artists it championed, from Broken Social Scene to Arcade Fire to Animal Collective, often plotted along that Ambitious Indie Rock axis. But all of those bands’ most beloved albums stalled out somewhere in the 9.0 range, and by the dawn of the 2010s, rap and/or R&B and/or pop stars from West to Beyoncé to Kendrick Lamar to Frank Ocean started sucking up most of the critical oxygen.

That hesitance to dole out another perfect score, meanwhile, only grows with time. “As Pitchfork got bigger, just like with anything, once you get bigger, it’s a little scarier to take those big swings, because you feel like you have more to lose, right?” Dombal says. “But by the time it’s 2010, there’s just a lot more people reading the site. I think you get a little bit gun-shy. Then once you do let that time elapse without pulling out the 10, it does just mentally get a little bit harder to do.” But there’s a danger in that stasis, too: “We’re always making efforts to use more of the scale, as far as the point system. Just because, if you don’t, it kind of loses some of its meaning if everything is around the same score.”

Published in October, the site’s 200 Best Albums of the 2010s list thusly consists of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (at no. 2) and 199 other records that in many cases almost, but did not quite, merit a 10.0, including Lana Del Rey’s 2019 phenomenon Norman Fucking Rockwell!, which got a 9.4 review written by Pelly herself. There is not, nor has there ever been, any particular science to what cost LDR that six tenths of a point.

But there’s nonetheless an acute awareness of the pantheon, and what it means for Fiona Apple to enter it. “We had the existential Pitchfork conversation,” Patel explains, “where it was like, ‘Let’s take a look at everything that’s gotten a 10. What does it mean for Pitchfork to make this a 10? What does it mean for the future of our lists? When we do our Best Albums of the 2020s, do we feel like this will age well? Will we care about this a year down the line? What does this mean for the rest of her discography? Do we think that this is her best album ever?’ So, it’s a lot of kind of contextualizing it against itself.”

Which sounds exhausting, but it’s worth it, especially when the end result is a puncturing of the dudeliness of the 10.0 club as it has historically stood. (“I think that you would very easily, naturally puncture the dudeliness of it,” Patel says, “if you were being open-minded.”) It is critically useful, and if you’re so inclined maybe even fun, to muse as to how Fetch the Bolt Cutters will hold up a year or even a decade from now. But it’s enough for the moment to know that Fiona Apple, for many, is the perfect artist for this misbegotten spring of 2020, and that she deserves her enshrinement whatever your opinions of the shine, and that all further raucous debates about the past are best left, for now, to the future.

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