Thursday, November 16, 2006

Trying to Play Nice 1:The All-TIME 100 Albums

by Ken Houghton

With Drek on DL and Kim confusing tits and ass, I'm trying to delay my threatened "Real Economists Are Complete Idiots" post and be distracted (for now) by The All-TIME 100 Albums.

There's no Pink Floyd on it, the authors boast. Which is probably a good thing, since it would have been Dark Side of the Moon and not the far-superior Wish You Were Here, or even Animals. At least that's what one must conclude when they list Raising Hell instead of King of Rock or their spare, eponymous first album, or Stop Making Sense (not even their best live album) instead of either Talking Heads 77 or More Songs about Buildings and Food*, or Songs in the Key of Life over Innervisions (though they do, at least, include the weaker Talking Book as well). (I'd argue Hearts and Bones over Graceland (as evidence Simon agrees, one need look no further than Negotiations and Love Songs) and Off the Wall over Thriller as well, but the populace has spoken.)

A few things are obvious, if we assume their list is reasonable:

  1. The album really is dead. Only one disc since 2000 (Kanye West's The College Dropout is not just a collection of tracks/hits/singles.
  2. There are very few musicians or groups that actually produced great albums in the plural. Here is a list of the entities with more than one album listed:
    1. Radiohead
    2. Prince
    3. R.E.M.
    4. Bob Dylan (but nothing between 1966 and 1997. Uh, guys?)
    5. U2
    6. the aforementioned Stevie Wonder
    7. The Rolling Stones (nothing after 1972)
    8. Davie Bowie (Hunky Dory as the second choice, over Diamond Dogs [a true concept album] or even Aladdin Sane?)
    9. Van Morrison
    10. Miles Davis
    11. The Beatles
    12. Aretha Franklin, and
    13. Frank Sinatra (the two oldest albums on the list)
    14. James Brown, but the second is the Star Time box set)

  3. There are several outright-weird single selections. In addition to those mentioned above, strange sole entries:
    1. The Clash, London Calling
    2. Led Zepplein, IV
    3. Madonna, Like a Prayer

  4. Noting that they specifically call the list "the greatest and most influential records ever"—no reference to rock, and enough jazz (Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Bitches Brew) and country (Red Headed Stranger, certainly, Coat of Many Colors maybe, but Ropin' the Wind?) on the list that they seem to be serious, why is there absolutely no classical album? Not Bernstein conducting Shostakovich's 5th (1959), or either the history (1955) or the parody (1990) Glenn Gould recording of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations? Or the Bolcoms and Birtwhistles and Bryars, conducted by Slatkin or Rattle or even Tilson-Thomas (though specifically not Boulez).
  5. Same complaint about country. They seem to know it exists, but neglect, say, Songs of Kristofferson (which Willie re-recorded and released, minus one song). Or Roses in the Snow? Or, even if you're only limiting to crossover, the quintessence of all, Sweethearts of the Rodeo?
  6. Modern jazz is also underrepresented. The waves of amazement that greet that statement make listing albums (e.g., the original (still OOP, which is one of the primary reasons I still own an 8-track player) VSOP album or either the follow-up or the live disc)
  7. I own (or have owned; see VSOP comment above) far too many of the albums on this list for it to be viable. Breakdown by decade:
    1. 1950s - 1/4 (Miles)
    2. 1960s - 14/22
    3. 1970s - 18/29
    4. 1980s - 8/18
    5. 1990s - 4/18
    6. 2000s - 0/9

    So I own 45 of the top 100. Some of the dropoff in the 1990s is related to taste. (I feel even less of a need to own Hole's Live Through This now than I did in 1994.) Some in the 90s and almost all in the Noughts is due to TIME's strange delusion (as a friend just noted via e-mail) that "compilations of dead artists count as great albums."
  8. Sadly—and this may be a corollary of the above, there are no Great Surprises on this. This is a safe list, the MOR of "influential" albums (of course it includes The Velvet Underground and Nico, but not White Light/White Heat).

For those who think of rock as wild and rebellious, this is the list that eliminates that delusion.

But at least I'm not picking on Greg Mankiw. Yet.
What I find striking about the list is the overwhelming preponderance of 70s albums that I own and 80s-2000s albums that I don't. This wouldn't necessarily be surprising except that my formative album-listening years didn't begin until I got my first regular job, which was around 1986.

Assuming there isn't some biological predisposition for a certain type of music, I have two hypotheses:
1) It's an older brother effect.
2) It's an effect of the Alaska cultural lag, which I suspect was around 5 years, at least in the "urban" area (pop 60K) where I grew up. I distinctly remember pastel palmetto jeans being all the rage in Alaska at least 4 years after the rest of the country's adolescents had moved on to Levi's 501s.

Regardless, I am truly crushed that Blondie's Parallel Lines isn't on the list, nor is anything by ABBA. Snobs. (And, judging from the list, probably male snobs at that.)
For ABBA, you apparently need to be British. (Thank you, Tim.)

I'll admit being one of those who (1) wouldn't rank Blondie as a great band, let alone a great album band and (2) would tend to argue that Blondie and Plastic Letters are both better albums (though not nearly so popular, so the Hearts and Bones rule probably applies). Parallel Lines is more a selection of tracks; think any Janet Jackson album of the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis era. ("Fade Away and Radiate" is a Robert Fripp solo track with some vocals that is almost as out of place as "Radio Song" on R.E.M.s Out of Time.)

If you're looking for sadly-overlooked influential female vocalists who fit the TIME crieria, this is the album that should have been there, as demonstrated by the simple reality that this is one of the only listenable cover discs around.

Are women underappreciated, or just not clearly influential? Aretha and Patti Smith, no question. But if I were forced to name the next influential woman, I'm probably going with Laura Nyro or Dusty Springfield (who at least gets an also-ran nod along with Elvis C).
Kim: My formative years were around the same time, and my collection is very heavy in albums from around '85-'90 -- without an older brother, the effect was from involvement in college radio, which led to a constant pressure to invest in new music (though much of that was in the great recording format of the era, the 12" single).

There's something to geographically-driven cultural lag, which helps explain why in the eighties the best '70s rock was performed by Australian bands and the best '60s neo-psychedelia was performed by New Zealanders. Regarding lags from cultural geography, don't get my mother started on punk rockers on the streets of SLC.

Ken: The point on the MOR nature of the list is right on. Putting U2 and R.E.M. on the list is defensible if not adventurous, but the specific album selections are biased toward sales over influence. The couple of indies they selected (Pavement, the Stone Roses) are late, too. Also, choosing the Sex Pistols over Wire's "Pink Flag," puts something people may have heard of over a key source for almost all subsequent punk rock, and hence speed-metalloids a la Metallica.

The likes of Decemberists fans might argue with you on whether the album is dead as of this millennium. I just haven't been following things to a sufficient extent to judge whether the problem is that mainstream stuff is total crap vs. a broader collapse.

Classical is tough. Some "albums" just reflect the coincidence between the length of a symphony and the capacity of an LP. But that doesn't completely absolve them -- for good and influential (though not to pop-music levels), I'd nominate something by the Tallis Scholars and/or Anonymous 4 for their contributions to unearthing early vocal music.
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