OFF THE RECORD David Barker says that his series of books about pop albums isn't meant as a "Greatest Hits" collection: "Some of them aren't even very good records."
David Barker does not know exactly how many proposals he has read since he started 331/3, the esteemed series of small, somewhat flimsy, uniformly sized books about records. He doesn't know how he wants to commemorate its 10-year anniversary next spring. "I don't even know what the boundaries of the series are," he said. "We just make it up as we go along."
This boundlessness becomes apparent when glancing through the series' 86 published titles. Some offer fairly standard explanations of the making of a record. But 331/3 has also published cultural analysis, novels, and diatribes. One of this year's submissions was formatted in the style of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.
I visited Barker two weeks ago in his Manhattan office: an unassuming, neutral-hued space filled with half cubicles and about half a dozen people. Barker seemed harried — that morning, he had fielded calls from Barbara Walters and Geraldo Rivera. They weren't calling about 331/3; Barker also serves as publishing director of Continuum Books, which published Sister Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God, recently condemned by the Vatican for endorsing masturbation. Now he's running interference for her.
"She doesn't want to talk to anyone," he said. "She's just sad about the whole thing."
Like Sister Elizabeth, Barker has been very busy. Just before the Vatican dustup, he looked over 471 book proposals from 331/3's most recent call for submissions. He spent weeks reading through each of them and announced a long list of 94 finalists earlier this month.
Each year has its clear favorites. "We got inundated with Slint proposals three years ago," he said, as well as six Mountain Goats pitches. "It's widely known that the best-selling book in the series is [about] Neutral Milk Hotel," Barker explained. "If people are being smart about their pitching, they're trying to think of the record closest to that — a cult band that has a rabid following but not a definitive book about them." This year's crop is no different: it includes four pitches for Manic Street Preachers, four for They Might Be Giants, and far more hip-hop than he's seen before.
Still, some aspiring contributors persist in sticking to the standards. "We still get a lot of Beatles, a lot of Dylan," he said. Unlike nearly every other music editor alive, Barker is completely uninterested in canon formation. "It's never, ever been about [saying], 'These are the best records ever made,' " he said. "Some of them aren't even very good records."