When I was growing up, Rolling Stone was my favorite magazine by a very, very wide margin. Ever since it devolved into Us Weekly with a faintly pulsing backbeat, however, I've been looking for something to take its place. As best as I can tell, there are two valid contenders to the sophisticated rock-mag throne: Tracks* and Harp.
This isn't to diminish Blender's smart amalgam of pop icons and wiseassery, nor Paste's more culture-inflected take on the music scene. Tracks and Harp just seem the obvious heirs to the old Rolling Stone, similarly sincere in their passion for all things plucked and picked and borderline militant about what's good and what's not.
I chose the April/May issue of Tracks for a closer look simply because of its cover: I dig Lucinda Williams more than I dig Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who occupies the Harp cover slot. What I learned is that Tracks is the meat-and-potatoes title of the two: it offers few surprises but a wealth of what music snobs (looking around sheepishly) have grown accustomed to in their publications.
Maybe that's the problem: Tracks seems somewhat mired in the past. The mag chooses its story topics smartly and employs some of the most esteemed music journos on the planet (former Rolling Stone-r Anthony DeCurtis, J.D. Considine). But to read the April/May issue, you'd think that the digital music revolution had never taken place. For a mag that supposedly caters to aficionados, completely ignoring the intersection of music and technology is an inexplicable lapse.
As expected, Tracks offers a metric ton of music reviews. The writers clearly know what they're talking about, though the actual prose varies wildly between stale ("this record is a sure-fire cure for insomnia"... helllloooo, Pulitzer committee) and sharp ("[Aimee] Mann's lyrics make sweet poetry of an extended bad trip"). To the mag's credit, it doesn't pull any punches, despite the glut of CD ads that line its pages.
The features are a similarly mixed bag. A report on "Jam Cruise 3" boasts considerably less color than one would expect from a U-R-there report, while the featurette on Lynyrd Skynyrd heirs Kings of Leon arrives about eighteen months after progressive-minded rock fans (read: me) discovered the band. A Buddy Guy primer also feels dated; it's a shame that the plugged-in music media needed a contrived event - his recent Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame induction - to spur them into heaping praise upon him.
On the other hand, Considine's examination of a wave of up-and-coming Canadian bands delivers on Tracks' promise. And ironically enough, the issue's best moment is a look at the benefits and drawbacks of licensing pop songs for use in commercials, TV shows, and video games. As much as it might angry up the blood to hear Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" in an ad for Carnival Cruise Lines, the art-versus-commerce debate isn't as clear-cut as one might expect. Separately, I wonder how flabby, daiquiri-soaked vacationers would have responded to Iggy's '70s act of rolling around in shards of glass.
Tracks shines from a design perspective, especially in its "Opening Act" photo portfolio, and scores points for devoting more than token column inches to jazz, country, roots, and hip-hop reviews. But overall, Harp seems the slightly more progressive and - to use an unforgivable cliché - plugged-in title. Assuming there's room in the marketplace for more than one title for music dorks (which might not be a smart assumption, come to think of it), you could do a lot worse than devote prime coffee-table real estate to Tracks.
* On Wednesday, after this story was written, Tracks was put on an 'indefinite hiatus' as its founders try to raise some cash.