So, the past couple of months I have been on this Romanian site, listening to their collection of the 1001 Albums one is supposed to listen to before they die. One could listen to them alphabetically by band or by album name as well, which would produce some interesting juxtapositions, no doubt. But I decided on a chronological approach. This way, I can listen to them in the context of their times. It lets me compare and contrast and see how certain albums truly broke from their peers, or were the perfect embodiment of a particular musical zeitgeist. Or, I would be able to judge for myself if an album was overrated and did not deserve a place on the list.
Now, with any list, there are going to be problems. A list of the greatest movies or greatest books, as well as greatest albums will always be open to subjective interpretation. However, having a list of 1001 albums does offer the advantage of a wide net being cast, allowing many more artists and styles to be included. Those who compiled the list clearly are diverse in their interests, there have been inclusions of not just British and American albums, but Brazilian, French, and German ones as well. Of course, more international work could be included, but it was not fully excluded from the list.
Anyone looking over who was include and who wasn’t will see the three major limitations of the writers’ approach. The first is that the list is only for albums. Why this is a problem may not seem apparent, until one realizes how many musicians and artists are missing from the list because all they released were singles. Indeed, music released before the 1960s is at a disadvantage because the single was the primary vehicle for music sales. Consequently, the list underrepresents many African-American musicians and genres such as soul, R&B, and funk. It is not a question of these artists producing good music, but spending their careers focusing mainly on singles instead. This is why, for instance Chuck Berry, without whom most of the music on this listed would never have been recorded, is not present.
Another problem is that the list is biased in favor of Pop music, of course this makes sense, the list is part of a book series that has to appeal to a wide audience to be sold. Most of the albums, or at least the bands that made them, need to be familiar to readers, even if they never listened to them. This slant does mean that certain works are left out if they do not fall within the parameters of popular music. Jazz, along with Indian and Brazilian music seem to be the main exceptions to this rule. Some of the music might be called experimental, but much is missing from post1950 classical music and folk. Two figures I wished the list included are Philip Glass and John Fahey. Even though Glass is part of the list of classical albums to listen to, much of his early work is in the same vein as someone like Brian Eno (whom he later collaborated with) and his album “Songs for Liquid Days” involved figures from pop music such as Paul Simon. The more publicity Koyanisqaatsi gets, the better. I think Fahey deserved to be added to showcase his unique approach to the American folk tradition.
The final issue is the time frame. I am not scholar of early 20th century music, but I wonder if influential albums were missed from the pre-World War II era, especially those for swing, jazz, and bluegrass. I cannot think of any off the top of my head, but they might be out there and I think the arbitrary start for the list unfairly disqualifies them. Right now, I have not yet listened to the whole list. These are only my thoughts having listened up to early 1980. Only the fifties, sixties, and seventies have been completely listened to. Despite this, I know enough to be able to point out the above mentioned problems. I am not sure the exact number album I am on, but I have roughly completed and heard half the list. Strange that there is still so much more to go despite having experienced the birth of rock, the British Invasion, psychedelia and the Summer of Love, the rise of glam rock, the folk revival, the eruption of punk, the disco era, and electronic music’s genesis. Hip-Hop has yet to take off, as does techno music, grunge, and a host of hybrids between punk, hard rock, and rap, but I will be surprised if I find myself liking the next 500 or so albums as much as the first.
Let’s get down to the albums themselves. Do they belong? Most, yes, though there are some real curious inclusions and serious omissions. However, there are also some gems by people I had either not heard of before, or were only vaguely familiar with. What works did I find to be less than stellar? Well, (and I know this will raise my Aunt Donna’s ire) I wasn’t that impressed with Elvis’ work. I understand his value as an entertainer who acted as a point of transmission for Black culture into White, as well as a figure who tapped into the repressed libidos of White teenagers. That said, his works does not hold up well, even compared with his contemporaries, let alone the musicians that came after him. Buddy Holly is a better songwriter, while Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard could perform just as well as him.
“Beach Samba” by Astrud Gilberto was also not a strong work. Captain Beefheart was no special attraction despite his perennial high rankings. Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum hardly made an impression. I like Dr. John but “Gris Gris” was uneven. Tim Buckley was good, but he only needed one album on the list. “Space Ritual” by Hawkwind was too campy and maudlin. Joan Armatrading self-titled debut lacked any stand-out material. “Slayed?” and “New Boots & Panties!!” were too amateurish. “DOA: Third & Final Report” was dull and pretentious. “Stardust” by Willie Nelson, as much as I like the guy, doesn’t belong here. “GI” by the Germs just sucks as an album. My test for evaluating the work the late 1970s has been, if I could have done it, it’s not that good.
What albums should have been included? I can think of a few. There are some by Bob Dylan, especially “The Times They Are a-Changin.” I really don’t understand why this album was not included, since it has some of his most famous work and is pretty solid all around. More work from The Who needed to be included. The Beatles deserved more mention. I imagine there was probably a fear of the editors in letting these bands dominate the list for 60s and 70s, but the truth is, they did and for a very good reason. “Help!” “Magical Mystery Tour,” and “Let it Be” should have been included. Heck, I would even make a case for the first half of “Yellow Submarine,” but that energy is better spent elsewhere on this blog. Seriously though, give them a listen.
But, a list of the greatest albums is only as good as those works which it introduces to the listener for the first time and that the listener enjoys thoroughly. The purpose of these lists is not just to be an intellectual exercise, but to also expand the musical horizons of people who are not music critics and have listened to every album under the sun. The music of the 1960s and 1970s is probably my favorite, so I went into this era with a strong footing, yet there were new albums that I really enjoyed, in many cases by artists I never heard before. There were also many artists I had heard of and liked, but I received a deeper understanding of through the list. These included Nick Drake, the Velvet Underground, Parliament, T. Rex, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, and the Kinks (though Lola vs. Powerman should have been on the list).
The following were gems I found exclusively through the list, that is they were new to me:
Spector, Phil & Various Artists – A Christmas Gift for You (Worth it alone for Phil Spector coming on at the end wishing everyone a Merry Christmas)
Monks – Black Monk Time (If there ever was a band before its time)
Mothers of Invention – Freak Out!
Incredible String Band – Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
Nyro, Laura – Eli & the Thirteenth Confession
United States of America – United States of America
Small Faces – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (You either love or hate the second half, if you like the way they speak in A Clockwork Orange, then you may enjoy it)
Fairport Convention – Unhalfbricking
Derek & the Dominos – Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (The only song my father cares about)
Shankar, Ananda – Ananda Shankar (1970)
Gainsbourg, Serge – Histoire de Melody Nelson (Boy did I feel hip when I recognized it in the movie Greenberg!)
Nilsson, Harry – Nilsson Schmilsson (More than just "Coconut")
Flamin' Groovies - Teenage Head
Ackles, David – American Gothic
Newman, Randy – Sail Away
Big Star – # 1 Record (Who doesn't wish they had listened to “Thirteen” when I was thirteen)
Faust – IV
Cale, John – Paris 1919 (The title track makes the album all by itself)
Sparks – Kimono My House (Declaring this a guilty pleasure)
Dion – Born to Be With You (If you took the sound of the late 50s/early60s and added a crippling heroin addiction, this is what you would get)
Penguin Café Orchestra – Music from the Penguin Café (If this can make the list, why not Songs from Liquid Days?)
Television – Marquee Moon
Eno, Brian – Ambient 1: Music for Airports (All his albums from the list are good)
Numan, Gary – Pleasure Principle (He actually knew how to use a synthesizer)