Friday, May 25, 2012

The Greatest "Rolling Stone Greatest Albums of All Time" Issues

Rolling Stone magazine has put out a new collector’s issue (or what is apparently called a “bookazine”) of the top 500 albums of all time. Being a true collector, I bought this new one for 11.99 even though I had the virtually identical one that they put out in 2003. After all, isn’t the old mantra “collect them all?”

In fact, my years as a rabid collector (some would say pack-rat) began when I found a copy of Rolling Stone’s "The Top 100: The Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years"(issued in 1987 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the magazine’s founding). When I bought this issue (off a junk sale table, probably in 1989, a couple of years after the initial pressing) it inaugurated my years of collecting not only records, but also collecting Rolling Stone greatest albums lists collector’s issues.

I am aware of how silly this behavior is, but it fits with my rather compulsive character. Also, at the tender age of twelve, that first magazine helped to broaden my musical tastes, give me a solid grounding in classic music, and expose me to artists who were slightly outside of the classic rock radio canon. It also helped to keep me completely stuck in the past. That first magazine came to be a check list of records that I needed to own (I am missing four, and one of those is because I have been slow about replacing my scratched old copy of The Doors’ first album. I mean, it’s a great album but Jim Morrison just puts me off), and by and large, it served me well, turning me onto artists like the Modern Lovers, Graham Parker, and Captain Beefheart, years before I might have heard about them otherwise.

The newer lists have been notably less useful to me (I never did actually pick of a copy of the top 100 album of the 80s which came out a couple of years after the 67-87 issue , and checking the list now, I found to my chagrin that had only 49 of them). Mostly they’re just a reason to argue about music. When each new list comes out, it enables me to carry on about old stuff, but somehow still be current. For example, the soundtrack album to the film The Harder They Come may be an old album, but its placement at number 122 for the top albums of all time is new, right (it ranked at #119 in the 2003 issue)?

Well, as new as anything in Rolling Stone can be I suppose. Perhaps I am making unfair statements about Rolling Stone, as I have not subscribed in years (Although a little while back, I did get a few months for free for some reason. This was around the time that it changed from its classic large magazine format to its current incarnation, looking like Entertainment Weekly’s aging auntie who just got a face lift and is trying to pick up college boys.), but my basic impression is that we are a lot alike. We both idealize a time long since past, but attempt to remain “hip” (is that term even used anymore?) through somewhat half-hearted attempts to find out what the young people are listening to.

The new list has on it 15 albums that had not been released when the last Top 500 issue was put out eight and a half years (some of the other new entries had already been released, but were too new in 2003 to attain such stature). I did find myself breathing a sigh of relief that I had at least three of the new ones. I also noticed that three other of the new entries were by Kanye West. Now, I know I am not as up on my hip-hop as I’d like to be. I realize that it is a hole in my musical knowledge, and maybe even a flaw in my character. That said, I refuse to believe that 20% of the best albums of the last eight and a half years came from Kanye. (An interesting side note: Kanye did appear in the 2003 issue. Not on the list, but in the "New Faces" section on page 52.)

But, as I said, these lists are made to be debated. Pontificating in a bar to a baby-boomer who had the misfortune of pulling out this issue in my presence, I proceeded to argue that a good amount of the entries should be invalidated. Most of the dubious entries were for one of three reasons:

1. They were compilations.

2. They were live albums with a questionable place in the artist’s discography.

3. They were made by Kiss.

The list seemed rife with greatest hits albums (some assembled long after the artist or group became inactive) that secured a presence on the list to bands and artists whose output was primarily singles, or whose best songs were strewn about on a series of mediocre albums. There could be mitigating circumstances, however. If a compilation was made with the involvement of the artist during that artist’s period of activity, and contained material unavailable on other LPs, it might be okay. For example, I objected to the Temptations Anthology, which was just one of a series of 2 CD sets put out by Motown in the mid-nineties to repackage their old acts. However, Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits, assembled by Sly Stone himself at the peak of his popularity in order to make his best non-LP singles available with his best album cuts, was okay with me… kind of.

The live albums thing is pretty straightforward. James Brown Live at the Apollo and The Who Live at Leeds are quintessential live albums capturing, and released by, the acts at their respective peaks. Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963 may be an unearthed gem, but released 20 years after his death it falls into the category of an archive item.

Finally, how the hell did Kiss get two albums on there?

I was a bit perturbed when Elvis’ Sun Sessions LP was replaced by the 2 CD set, Sunrise, which covered the same ground more extensively, but was compiled and issued long after the deaths of both Elvis and producer Sam Phillips. I was tickled when I saw both albums that No Doubt had landed on the 2003 list were absent from the 2012 edition. I was confused when Creedence Clearwater Revival’s albums Cosmo’s Factory and Green River were ditched and replaced by the corporate-made compilation Chronicle Vol. 1, while Willy and the Poor Boys, which chartered lower than the previous albums, remained. Also, I wondered how they could open the list to Jazz records when they could only let in a few (or do they really believe that Def Leppard’s Hysteria is a better album than Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus or Dave Brubeck’s Time Out?).

All said, though, I think I was less perturbed by what had changed and more by what had stayed the same. Sure, deep down I was glad that Rolling Stone did not have the temerity to introduce any new albums into the top 20 since the 2003 issue. In 2003, I did raise an eyebrow when Nirvana’s Nevermind was placed at number 17, but even though I was not even making an attempt to listen to current music when that album came out, I couldn't deny its influence on music and culture at the time (however, with cultural impact being clearly a important criterion, it does make me wonder why hip-hop didn’t appear on the list until Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back squeaked into the top 50, landing at 48). More or less, the list that was decided upon was orthodox, respectful of tradition, and argued tacitly that our culture has become so much broader and more fragmented that it would much harder, if not impossible to find albums that had as wide ranging cultural impact as the albums of the 1960s before music audiences became largely divided along racial, ethnic and economic lines in the early 70s (a phenomenon from which it would take decades to recover). Essentially, the top ten was dominated by Beatles and Dylan with entries by the Clash and Nirvana so as not to appear stuck in the 60s, and entries by Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye so as not to appear racist.

Yes, I certainly would be among the millions of people (mostly older than I) who would argue that Sgt. Pepper is the most important album ever made in spite of the fact that it is not my favorite album or even my favorite Beatles album. However, I acknowledge that its inventiveness, its artistic breakthroughs in recording, songwriting, and presentation resonate and continue to inform music making today. In fact, the relative stability of the list would not bother me tremendously if it were not for the fact that the whole issue has a cut and paste feel to it. While I was secretly happy that the top 20 had not changed, I was less amused that the accompanying blurbs had not changed either. For twelve bucks, I would have hoped for some new writing, some new appraisal of the album and where it fits into our culture and musical landscape today. Even if things have not changed that much in eight and a half years (which, incidentally, was a year longer than the time between the first and last Beatles albums), at least make an effort if you want me to keep collecting your Greatest Albums issues.

To conclude, I am going to make my top 5 list of the best Rolling Stone’s Best albums issues:

5. The 2012 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” bookazine- Rehashed blurbs and plethora of dubious entries make this one a loser.

4. The 2003 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” issue. The issue that first contained the blurbs contained the in book and bookazine to follow and the blueprint for the lists, put together by a huge panel of judges ranging from critics to artists. A little better, but still, who decided to give Britney Spears a vote?

3. The 1989 “100 Best Albums of the Eighties” issue. Since it only covered 100 albums, the blurbs were able to be more than two sentences. Even though it had the misfortune of being about the 80s, it brilliantly contextualized the music from that decade in the greater scheme of popular music.

2. The 2005 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” hardcover book. Removed a few compilations from the 2003 list and made room for Boz Scaggs’ self titled album.

1. The 1987 “The Top 100: The Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years” issue. Okay, the scope is oddly limited (banning anything before 1967), and there are glaring omissions (“If Kinks boosters, for instance, happen to split their votes among such eligible LPs and ‘Something Else,’ ‘Arthur’ and ‘Lola,’ the result is likely to be a list with no Kinks albums on it.” This is indeed what happened.), but it was a great period for music and with intelligent voters and good writers, it looked like Rolling Stone
could be the people to do these kind of lists properly. And being the first one I bought, it’s a sentimental favorite too. Also, even though it covered the 70s, there is not a Kiss record to be found.

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