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Tuesday, February 22, 2011
1001 Albums I’m Trying to Hear Before I Get Bored, Part 2
Well, I have finally finished my aural Odyssey (but alas, it involved no Oracle). In case you are new to the blog and missed my last post on the topic, I have been making my way through the collection 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, which was made possible due to the wonderful folks over at Radio 3 Net, probably the best thing to come out of Romania since Vampires and Nadia Comaneci. They have been kind enough to post the albums up on the Internet as streaming audio. Gentlemen and ladies, Mulţumesc! I am much obliged to you, without your disregard for copyright law, my knowledge of popular music would be seriously stunted.
This has been a project that I began seriously in the fall of 2009. Ah, how far have I come since then (from Arlington to Montclair, New Jersey), but farther still has come music. The first album on the list (the original 2005 edition) is Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, released in 1955. The last album on the list is the White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan, which came out in 2005. In between was the rise of rock and roll, the British Invasion, psychedelia, funk, glam rock, the coming of the Nashville Sound, heavy metal, disco, punk and post-punk, rap, hip-hop, alternative, grunge, house, nu metal, electronica, and a hundred other smaller movements in music, some lasting no longer than a single year, band, or album.
This has been a real learning experience for me, listening to not just songs, but whole albums, and doing so chronologically. It really helps to put different bands and their work in perspective. One comes to understand the why of a specific genre of music and not just the what and when. Except for a few music lovers, I don't think there are many people out there who have listened to more than a hundred or two hundred complete albums. They may know thousands of songs by heart and understand their nuances, but knowledge of albums (i.e. LPs), especially in this age of downloads, probably leaves much to be desired. Go ahead, try and make a list of every album you have listen through completely.
I was the same way. I knew plenty of songs that I had picked up through burned CDs that mixed them together, or that I had downloaded through various channels. But when it came to whole albums, there were gaps in my knowledge. I had listened to most of the Beatles' work, and I had a few of the other greats like Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin IV, along with various "best of" collections. I also had plenty of disco and old funk to listen to as well, but this was also in the form of single songs and compilations. So I had only scratched the surface of popular music, even for those acts that I claimed to love (except for the Beatles). I also had a good store of classical music, but this is not a form that lends itself to the album age particularly well. It exists beyond the limmits of all discs, tapes, cylinders, and files. It was paper and ink that constrained Mozart and Mahler.
Not only were there deficiencies in my knowledge when it came to the classical period of rock and roll, but I knew very little of music from the 1950s and the music that came out from the late 1970s to the current time. I still don't know enough about world music as a whole, but at least through this project I became a little bit better acquainted with Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Miles Davis and at the same time came to know the Sex Pistols, NWA, Radiohead, and the White Stripes for the first or second time. Before listening to these albums, many genres had not been explored at all by me. My knowledge of the punk era was largely limited to the Clash, rap and hip-hop were represented by Blackalicious, who I now realize probably should have been on the list, and a few scattered singles from the Sugar Hill Gang to Jay-Z. My exposure to the various forms of synthetic/electronic/mixed/remixed music was also less than I desired.
Since September, I have been listening to music that came out after 1980. Having been born in 1985, this is music that arguably I should have known better than the classic rock I had made the staple listening of my teenage years. However, this was not the case. When it comes to music made between 1980 and 2004 (roughly when the list ends) I was largely in the dark. After 2004, I went to college and was exposed directly to what was coming out. Before then, I was in a bit of a cocoon. The advantage of this isolation is that I do not have a stack of CDs that I regret purchasing or dozens of songs that I wish I had never downloaded. Nor did I waste time going to concerts for acts I find repugnant now in my more mature years. I went for quality over quantity, classic over contemporary, and I was content with what I listened to.
When I began to really start listening to music, in the later half of the 1990s, what I heard on the radio or saw on MTV (fun fact kids: the M used to stand for music!) did not appeal to me. It was either too slick or too in my face and offered nothing substantial to me. Since my parents did not have much music around the house and I had no older sibling to guide me, I had to educate myself about music, the same as I did about philosophy, eastern religions, poetry, writing, radical politics, and world history. This resulted in a knowledge that was incomplete, but nevertheless treasured because I had come to it on my own terms. So when I realized I had an opportunity to try and fill the gaps of what I had listened to, the audio autodidact in me eagerly jumped at it.
So listening to this quarter century, 1980 to 2005, of music has been educational because I came to it knowing so little. When I listened to those albums that were released between 1955 and 1980, it was less of an ear opening experience. I did find out about many new bands and artists I had never heard of, but I could place these within a familiar context of those albums I had already listened to. I could not do that with this era. Almost everything I heard was a discovery and was new to me. I supposed this puts me in a unique position to be a music critic, as I did not grow up with an immediate connection to either early rock n'roll, classic rock, old school hip-hop, punk, grunge, techno, or alternative music. Until 2004, there was nothing that I liked to listen to that I could defend by saying, "you had to be there."
It was interesting to see the same sort of peaks and valleys in music after 1980 that existed before it. What I mean by that is how a spate of really good albums would be released together in one or two years, and then nothing substantial would come out the next. For instance, the mid-1970s were bracketed by two very productive periods of music, but it produced less that was memorable. I found that the middle of the 1980s was the same way. I admit I once held the stubborn view that little good came out after 1980, or that the music somehow did not speak to me, this I realize now was a wrong opinion for me to hold. However, most of what I uncovered that I liked was not in circulation on the radio or television and without the Internet, how was I going to be exposed to any of the music?
Overall, I think the list of albums was too heavily weighted towards this period, a reaction against over-emphasizing the sixties and seventies in music history, no doubt. Older Baby Boomer critics are being replaced by younger ones who grew up in the eighties and nineties. They want to makes the case that these eras are just as glorious and revolutionary and have tried to elevate bands like Nirvana to the pantheon with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. A reaction against this reaction is probably going to be needed in the future, perhaps lead by members of the Internet generation, who have grown up with all music simultaneously streaming into their ears. The accolades given to many artists for supplying raw presence and shock value may disappear, to be replaced by more of an appreciation for craft and skill.
But, who knows which bands and musicians will see their star rise or fall? Who could have predicted Nick Drake would be rescued from near-oblivion? The Internet will only make these cases all the more common. This is why I feel the list of 1001 albums should have refrained from passing judgement on the music released in the last ten years or so. It is still too fresh and recent to be given proper critical consideration. Contemporary music rests in that odd middle ground between being new and in need of immediate comment, and being old enough to be savored because of its age. It is hard to write about music that is five or six years old. A critic can do it, of course, but the task is difficult. Debating whether or not it belongs in the canon seems premature.
Yes, I found music in this period that I liked. No, none of it was by Yes. Here were some of my favorites:
Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching for the Young Soul Rebels
Talking Heads – Remain in Light
Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
Tom Tom Club – Tom Tom Club
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – The Message
Orange Juice – Rip it Up
U2 – War
Cocteau Twins – Treasure
Billy Bragg – Talking with the Taxman About Poetry
Paul Simon – Graceland
U2 – Joshua Tree
Nirvana – Nevermind
U2 – Achtung Baby
Wu Tang Clan – Enter the Wu Tang
Morrissey – Vauxhall & I
Jeff Buckley – Grace
Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
Wilco – Being There
Radiohead – OK Computer
Smith, Elliott – Either/Or
Manu Chao – Clandestino
Lauryn Hill – Miseducation of…
Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun
Air – Virgin Suicides: Original Motion Picture Score
Le Tigre – Le Tigre
Coldplay – Parachutes
Strokes – Is This It
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Gillian Welch – Time
Gorillaz – Gorillaz
Ugh, writing this list out and trying to find space for everything is difficult. That's how much enjoyable music came out of this era which I had previously written off, although there were a lot of albums that I sort of passed over without remembering at all. There are probably twenty or thirty more albums I could add to the list. This is just what immediately comes to me. I am a pretty eclectic guy as you can see from the artists above.
Were there any albums that I didn't think belonged? Sure. There were plenty of them. A hundred or so probably could have been cut out from this period and the spots given to music from before 1980. I still have a lingering feeling, though unsupported, that the fifties could have used more love from the critics. On the whole there were too many electronic albums on the list. Each time one came on I had a Pavlovian reaction, the taste of an overpriced martini suddenly filling my mouth. There is plenty of good electronic music out there, the genre has really evolved from just being dance music in the past couple of years, but the albums the editors chose all blend together. I also would not have put Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, or A Grand Don’t Come for Free by Streets. Those are the only ones I can recall by name right now.
A few acts from this period could have been added and I am sure in future editions of the book (there is already a second edition with Ys by Joanna Newsom in it) they will find a way in. Besides her and the above mentioned Blackalicious, some possible inclusions are: Philip Glass (if the Virgin Suicides soundtrack can make it, why not one of the ones he wrote?), Rilo Kiley, Sufjan Stevens, Ratatat, Of Montreal, and Dr. Dog. Yes, the list is biased in favor of recent artists, but only because I know these are missing and I have listened to them. I can't think of anyone from the 1980s who deserves to be on the list or a missing album, since my knowledge of the period has largely come from the list itself.
Well, now I need a new project. Perhaps finding a job?