Five-Hundred Reasons to...
Having only recently returned from London - where I was knighted by the Queen and now must be addressed as "Sir MusiCurmudgeon" - I just now have finished Rolling Stone Magazine's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," and don't know whether to laugh, cry, vomit or punch a nun. In an attempt to drum up attention (and boost sagging sales) through controversy - the once proud rag (now reduced to featuring cutting edge musical artists like the Olsen Twins in recent issues) polled 273 music industry insiders (judging from the results consisting mainly of Bruce Springsteen's manager, Bruce's manager's friends, Bruce's lovely wife, and perhaps even Bruce himself) to come up with the vaguely themed "Greatest" (not most important, biggest selling, influential, etc...) albums of all time.
It is a confusing, frustrating, and (not unlike watching the towers fall) fascinating mix. Skewed heavily to recordings of the 70s and 80s (I suspect the years most of the voters reached adolescence), the democratic voting effect itself naturally leads to the promotion of a mediocre middle ground, although a surprising number of obscure recordings made the grade. Who, for example, would have believed more than a handful of voters would be familiar with Professor Longhair's "New Orleans Piano" album, yet here it is at number 220 - ahead of U2's "War"(221), Bob Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" (301), and The Police's "Ghost in the Machine" (322), among many other better known releases! Right or wrong - at least it is nothing if not quirky.
The top-rated album in the voters' eyes is (no surprise) The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper" - which I (being in a minority) am not even sure is their best. The production is indeed "fab," and "A Day in the Life" may be the most "gear" song they ever recorded, but does "greatest" really mean "best produced"? In my own mind, it should be best collection of songs - and I'm not sure the goofy "When I'm Sixty-Four," the maudlin and dreary "She's Leaving Home," the excretory cornflake "Good Morning," or even the less-than-his-best (albeit pleasant enough) Lennon contributions like "Mr. Kite" or "Fixing a Hole" make it complete enough for me.
Good to see both the Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye make the top-10; the MusiCurmudgeon pats himself on the back for his recent timely columns on said artists. However, great as it is, even I have some qualms about putting "Pet Sounds" at #2. And "London Calling" at #8? In my humble opinion, The Clash represent the last gasp of the punkers to hold onto their tenuous control over music that has been thankfully receding through the years since they staged their palace coup (the bastards unfairly striking while we were busy changing the bongwater) those many years ago. Note how "Never Mind the Bollocks" has fallen to 41: ten years ago it probably would have been #1. Now it has dropped, along with its companion in undeserved spotlight hogging: "Thriller" into the category of novelty has-beens. Meanwhile, The Clash temporarily ascend into the unholy trinity of the over-rated, along with Clapton and Springsteen (the Patron Saint of the Easily Impressed).
Number 12 - and the first utter shocker: Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." Wait a minute! - Jazz is included in the tally? - yet only one makes the top 45? I'm confused - thrown for a loop. Nearly unlistenable "A Love Supreme" at 47 - what next - horrid "Bitches Brew"? Sure enough at #94. (Why not the superior "Tribute to Jack Johnson"? or if you are going to include fusion at all - Return to Forever's "Romantic Warrior" and Weather Report's "Heavy Weather," "Black Market," "Mysterious Traveler") Coltrane's "Giant Steps" at 102 (okay - I give them that one), then a long void (Ornette Coleman's "The Shape of Jazz to Come" at 246 - interesting?, "Sketches of Spain" at 356) until Getz just slips in 454 with his "Getz/Gilberto" bossa nova album. There you go - the entire history of jazz in approximately seven easy albums (I might have missed one - my eyes and brain were blurring by the end) as revealed by the geniuses of Rolling Stone. No Satchmo, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Bix, Django, Benny, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins... But hey, if you're going to include jazz - why not blues and country? What - they did? Sure enough - here and there are scattered Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters... but are the great artists of jazz, country and blues really represented and in proper accordance? I think not. And I'm sure those folks who really know these genre would agree. And then, what about classical? - Hey if we are going to be fair - where are Bernstein's Mahler recordings (to just touch the tip of the berg)? For folk - they had to use "The Anthology of American Folk Music" to cover their lack of knowledge. And that leads to another digression - a number of greatest hit compilations made the grade: if that's the case shouldn't a Beatles greatest hits compilations be #1?
I could go on forever with complaints: Stones "Let it Bleed" too low at #28 - could be top ten - at least if we are talking rock (I rate it higher than "Exile" - less filler); "Tattoo You"(211) ahead of "Some Girls" (269) - utter insanity! Led Zeppelin's first (and least of the first 6 anyway) album way too high (29) and their best - "Houses of the Holy" way, way too low at 149 (and where is "III" anyway?); Gang of Four's "Entertainment!" far too low at 490 (now there's the real punk, boys!); "Remain in Light" too low; Bowie - too low and underrepresented; Steely Dan - ditto; Queen's bloated "Night at the Opera" made the list (230), whereas their superior previous album - the pop gem "Sheer Heart Attack" didn't? Nearly everything Big Star did made the list - yet nothing by Guided by Voices did? Liz Phair at #328? Sorry, but one or two decent songs, low-grade production and bad singing do not a masterpiece make. Add that to the insult that Joni Mitchell's "Hissing of Summer Lawns" didn't make the cut and...The Strokes on the list already? A nice album, but we'll see how well it ages.
The inanity continues: Aerosmith's "Rocks" higher than "Toys in the Attic"? Bassackward - Do they even listen to these things? And no Zappa, except for his early work with The Mothers? Like him or not "One Size Fits All" and "Joe's Garage" (at least) belong. But of course the Kiss Army was out voting in full force ensuring those painted flamers full representation (hmmm... maybe a worthy replacement for the Clash in the trinity?). AC/DC too, but no Joan Jett? Outright sexism. Good to see Mott the Hoople's "Mott" and "All the Young Dudes" made it, but where is their best (and darkest) album: "The Hoople?" Sorry, but "I Wish I Was Your Mother" just doesn't compare to "Marionette." "Who's Next"(28) is a top ten album (in a rock poll anyway - every song good - shouldn't that be an important criteria? - too low at 28), but ranking perhaps the greatest double album in rock history ("Quadrophenia" - a double album with nearly no filler) at 266 is a crime. No Doubt is here (I would say undeservedly, but the Curmudgeon will magnanimously allow the kids to have somebody on the list), along with Madonna - no complaint, but where are the great popsters like The Chills, and (especially) XTC - whose "Skylarking" is the best pop album since the Beatles, and whose "Black Sea" and "English Settlement" belong as well - you hear!
Finally, what about prog rock? (I can hear the gasp as I have mentioned the unmentionable - that which should not be spoken) Are we hoping to ignore it and maybe it will go away? Sorry - it really happened and there were some good recordings: King Crimson's "In the Court of the Crimson King," "Lark's Tongue in Aspic" and "Discipline;" Jethro Tull - "Thick as Brick" (one half anyway)- "Aqualung" (Hank Hill's favorite - is the lone prog representative on the list), Genesis (once were good - pre-Phil Collins sell-out - believe it or not) "Selling England by the Pound" and "Nursery Cryme;" Yes' "Close to the Edge" and "Relayer;" even bizzaro Gentle Giant had some beauties: "Interview," "Free Hand," "Power and the Glory." You're telling me that The Egos and Blanda Rondstadt are better? What were a good half of the voters (the non-Springsteen worshippers) West Coast FOJBs (friends of Jackson Browne) and engaging in a little bong related imbibing while voting?
And I don't even want to get into the race issue - the fact that only one black artist made the top ten - the token rap and hip-hop albums salted here and there (deserved or undeserved - I pass no judgment here). That's a whole 'nother column - 'nother time, Maynard. At least Stevie Wonder is finally getting some props for his output - the man is a national treasure and should be bronzed and mounted next to the Liberty Bell or something.
I know that defining the greatest in anything (especially music) is as impossible as achieving Nirvana (the state of mind, people) or Utopia (not Todd Rundgren's), but I once had a dream that a scale could be devised that would determine music quality by strictly scientific means. The MusiCurmudgeon Sliding Scale assigned a number between zero and ten (with ten being the highest) to a specific set of musical components and musical elements. For example - the "rhythm" scale would give a one (at best) to Perry Como and a ten to James Brown - see how it works? I rated music based on melodies, harmonies, arrangements, musicianship, but also took into account originality, message, lyrics, emotion, etc... Unfortunately, I found myself coming up with ratings that seemed skewed - so I added a "so what" column to the list (also known as the Guns and Roses factor) - as in: "I know those guys (GnR/Van Halen) are better (musically) and I SHOULD like them better, but SO WHAT - I still like these guys (Dolls, Velvets) better." The ratings moved back to their proper (in my mind) configuration and the old MC learned an important and irrefutable lesson: music is emotion based. No amount of logic can overcome human emotion. If you get your kicks from ear-splitting, blood-spitting, laser lights, flames and explosions - you really aren't going to care much if all the songs sound the same or the songs use chords a drunken monkey could play. Your genes, your jeans (self-image), your interests, character and upbringing all play into it. If the crowd you pass through puberty with loves reggae - you probably will too. If your father loves barbershop quartets - you will probably rebel and gravitate toward speed metal. (I suspect the sons and daughters of today's headbangers may seek refuge in quiet lounge ballads or gentle polkas). If your father hates all music (as mine did) - you will no doubt grow up loving all styles (as I did). If you first got laid to Bread and Cat Stevens (as I reluctantly admit I did) - you will always have a soft spot for them - no matter what later developments of logic try to teach you. Even now as I rant against this nebulous list, I find myself transported back to when I was a teenager alone in my room late at night thrilling as I listened to "The Hoople" debut on FM radio - the dark sounds reaching out into the shadows of my lonely soul. The voters are guilty of nothing more than the same.
And it isn't all bad - at least it gets people thinking and talking about music. And if by bringing Dr. John's "Gris Gris," or My Bloody Valentine's "Bloodless," or a overlooked group like The Meters to the forefront for a brief time; and keeping those low-selling Bobby Blue Bland, Pogues, New York Dolls, Howlin' Wolf, Al Green and The Smith's albums alive for a new generation to discover - I guess I'll let it slide. This time.
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misguided ramblings of the MusiCurmudgeon
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