Tuesday, June 28, 2011
All You Need is Lists
Rock music magazines dote on lists. We have seen, in any number of different places, “The 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time,” “The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time,” “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” etc. Though they often amount to a cheap way to fill up space, these lists are instructive, because they lead us to another corpus, and how the rock master narrative structures the hierarchies of what’s deemed the best rock music. What, for instance, is generally deemed the greatest album of all time? It used to be Sgt. Pepper, but the master narrative shifted from Pepper to Revolver by the 90s. Some lists might put the Stones “Exile on Main Street” or Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” at the top. The top 20, beyond more Beatles, Stones, and Dylan, will generally include the following— “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and (sometimes) Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” This creates some discrepancies with the master narrative itself; a perceived heavyweight like Neil Young, because he has produced no definitive albums, can’t get anywhere near the top. You’re more likely to see Nirvana’s “Nevermind” or Radiohead’s “OK Computer.”
The funny part happens after the top 20, once all the requisite classic/classicist spaces have been filled in. Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Uncut and the rest still have 80 spaces to fill in. You can bet they’ll shovel on “Rubber Soul,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “Let it Bleed,” etc— but most of the choices that do something other than consolidate the top 20 seem arbitrary enough to be amusing. At #24, we have Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Model”; at #46, David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory.” What is the logic behind this? Why does Bowie need to be precisely 22 spaces behind Elvis Costello? Is there a special criteria for 20s, 30s, 40s? Let’s say Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” is at #35; does Hendrix form a kind of talent wedge between Costello and Bowie? The guys that put these lists together are the guys that do interviews themselves; it would be interesting to have someone speak about how these lists are coordinated. From 50s back, “cult classics” become de rigueur— you might actually see Big Star’s “Radio City” or Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter.” Who will you never see? Ironically, many of the Titans of the classic rock radio corpus will seldom show up here— Boston, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Supertramp, Heart, the Moody Blues, Yes, ELP, Journey, Kansas, John Cougar Mellencamp, Billy Joel, and others.
There are also some discrepancies between American and English publications— English mags will emphasize, not only the Kinks and the Who but the Small Faces and the Zombies. American mags tend to lean more on repeats of Dylan and Springsteen, and perhaps even “Hotel California.” Beyond Nirvana and Radiohead, there have been few decisive movements towards Alternative Revolution albums. The English press will bend over backwards to include Oasis, Pulp, Blur, etc— but the American press remains hostile to them. However, this is all still “100s talk.” When an expanded list is built (500s), brakes are taken off and we see a sudden and generous egalitarianism on display. The goal, of course, is to fill up space (especially during slow seasons), so “500s talk” includes not only Big Star but Badfinger, not only Syd Barrett but Skip Spence, not only the Kinks but Culture Club. The New Romantics generation is funny with rock consonance; dismissed but also cherished as kitsch. The Boomers laughed but hyped them for the requisite amount of time. Now, they are space-fillers for special occasions.
Yet, there is a modicum of integrity at work here. Some sub-genres are so low as to be untouchable. Even with “500s thinking” at work, you won’t find hair metal invited to the party. Bon Jovi, Poison, Motley Crue, Dokken, Europe, and the rest are all carefully avoided. Yet what makes Poison’s “Every Rose Has its’ Thorn” that materially different than the Beatles “Good Day Sunshine” from the greatest album of all time? Is “Yellow Submarine” that much better than Duran Duran? What does “I Want to Tell You” have on Tommy Tutone? Little differences are blown up big to create a larger chasm than is actually there. And few, especially at these magazines, have the balls to thwart the master narrative. The master narrative is, itself, much more intimidating than the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan actually are. People subscribe to notions because they feel they have to. These lists wind up being pure (if redundant) reflections of the master narrative. Eventually, it may be seen that this narrative is a kind of paper dragon. It can’t breathe any real fire because there’s little high thought behind it. All of us have the choice to be dupes or not before it. The choice is yours, don’t be late.