I had this great dream the other night.
I dreamed that there were five (count ‘em, five) new flavors of Trix, and that they were these indescribable, intergalactic-sounding fruity flavors, and that I could try each one, and the world was a much better place. Then I woke up to find that I was still stuck with generic, boring old one-variety Trix. Life has just been like that lately.
I had two things to talk about this time, and each feels like a large enough topic to fill a column by itself. One is controversial, one is not, and as much as I’d like to think I’ll get to one this week and one next week, I know that the new Jonatha Brooke album is coming out next Tuesday (2/13), and I’m sure I’ll want to wax something or other on that. For some reason, I’m not feeling all that controversial tonight, so I’m going to discuss VH-1’s latest exercise in debate-starting, the 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As I’ve said previously, I like lists. I like the idea of rating one artist against another, and I also like seeing how people view their art. Everything’s subjective, and no one’s opinion matters any more than anyone else’s. (In fact, one could make a strong case that in matters of art, no one’s opinion matters at all, but for obvious reasons, I’m not going down that road.) When a semi-official source claims to have ranked the top 100 anything, though, a certain weight is added to that opinion. Take, for instance, the American Film Institute’s naming of Citizen Kane as the best film ever made. That film is 60 years old at this point, and the idea that no one’s topped it is debatable, but people for some reason paid attention to the AFI list as if it were gospel.
Here’s something I learned in Dr. Kasper’s religion class: even the Gospel is debatable.
These lists, nifty as they are, should in no way substitute for your own opinion based on your experience. If you watch Citizen Kane and all you see is murky black-and-white images acting out a boring plot about some newspaper guy, you’re entitled to that. If you think Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo is a finer film overall, you’re entitled to that, too. Many people (myself included) would tell you that you don’t know shit, but if that’s what you like, you shouldn’t let us culture snobs sway you.
That said, we culture snobs love artistic debate. An argument over music, film or any other form of artistic expression usually consists of one-upmanship in terms of knowledge and ideas. For instance, if you know that Citizen Kane was the first film to use deep-angle lenses to keep the foreground and the background in focus at the same time, you’ll likely be off to a decent start in the above debate. The merits of any given art form are, at this very moment, being dissected and argued relentlessly by lovers of that art form everywhere, right now, and will continue to be dissected and argued about until art is banned by the government, and even then we’ll do it in whispers in back alleys where they can’t find us.
There’s nothing like an “official” list of the best of anything to start such debate, and the first step down that road is realizing that VH-1’s opinion is worth no more than yours. Or, for that matter, mine. To prove that, I have a few issues with their list. Feel free to jump in at any time with your own gripes. (If you haven’t seen the list, it’s available at vh1.com, and can be seen, oh, like ALL THE TIME on their channel.)
Gripe number one is obvious, but glaring: OK Computer deserved to be higher on the list. In fact, any slot below 40 or so is too low for the best album produced in the last 20 years. Yeah, I mean that. The ‘80s and ‘90s have been surprisingly low on the creativity meter, except for Radiohead’s masterpiece. It’s a compositional and emotional stunner that pisses on everything after 1979. If we’re rating the absolute best, as opposed to the most popular or the highest selling, Radiohead needs to be ranked higher.
All in all, VH-1 did a decent job of not falling into the popularity trap. You’ll see no Elvis Presley on their list, thank Jesus, and some critical favorites made the list that on some lists get overlooked. The Velvet Underground and Nico is a good example, as is the Stooges’ Raw Power. They even did the service of including Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the first jazz album to incorporate rock styles and to acknowledge rock ‘n’ roll as a musical force.
It’s also telling that the Beatles don’t show up until the top 10. I can’t exactly argue with Revolver’s place at number one. It’s a terrific album, and every song on it can still be heard regularly on radio stations everywhere. I think they’re wrong, though. In my humble opinion, the best album of rock ‘n’ roll can be found six slots down on their list: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Here’s my argument. Revolver is a great group of songs, no question. In fact, up until that point, albums were just that: groups of songs. Even the wonderland of brilliance that’s at number three, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is just a group of songs. Sgt. Pepper, released in 1967, was the first album of the rock era that was meant to be heard from beginning to end. Sgt. Pepper introduced the album concept, songs linked thematically and sonically to form something greater than the sum of its parts. The Beatles not only rewrote the rules of pop and rock songwriting, they also created the rulebook for album sequencing, a book that people are still stealing from to this day.
With Sgt. Pepper, the Fab Four presented the studio record as a work of art to the general public for the first time, refusing to tour and release singles so that the focus would be squarely on the album as a whole. If Citizen Kane is the best film ever made because filmmakers have been pinching ideas from it for 60 years, then Sgt. Pepper more than deserves top honors in the rock album category. Not only have artists been stealing from it for more than 30 years, they still have yet to catch up to it. Revolver is marvelous, but it’s definitely a prelude to the three albums that came after it, starting with Sgt. Pepper. (The other two, by the way, are also on the list: the “white album” and Abbey Road.)
Still, I can’t really complain about Revolver hitting the top spot. No, my big (and I mean big) complaint lies with the number two choice. If you’re gonna call your list the Top 100 Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll, people are going to assume you mean the 100 best. By “best,” people are also going to assume you mean the albums that stand out in terms of composition, delivery and production. In fact, most of VH-1’s list bears this out. So what the bloody blue hell is Nirvana’s Nevermind doing at second-best?
Nirvana was a sensation, no doubt. They threw the doors open for heavy, guitar-based music on the charts, no question. At best, though, they were a typical three-piece grunge-pop group, and one that fell far behind their peers (Soundgarden, Alice in Chains) in terms of ability. Nevermind is largely accepted (even by the band members) as the group’s worst effort, it being far glossier than Bleach and far less musically advanced than In Utero. No, it just happened to be the most popular. Listen up, folks: the voice of a generation can’t necessarily carry a tune.
Its presence on the list would be bad enough, but at number two? Think about that. VH-1’s panel of judges thinks Nevermind is a better album than Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Exile on Main Street, and (yes, I have to say it again) OK Computer. As John Travolta says in Pulp Fiction, that’s a bold statement. If eight million of you hadn’t bought the album and Saint Cobain hadn’t ventilated his own head, I promise you, you would not see Nevermind on this list. That’s a lot like the above example of rating Deuce Bigalow above Citizen Kane. Sure, you’re entitled to that opinion, but good luck backing it up.
Of course, that’s just what I think.
I love these debates, and I love the big, stupid lists that often spark them. Kudos to VH-1 for even undertaking this project, and for doing a decent job at it all around. Of course, they forgot Frank Zappa entirely…
Okay, I’m all out. Next week, Jonatha or controversy, depending on how I feel.
See you in line Tuesday morning.