Surprised it took me so long, I recently came up with the idea of using my almost-everything-ever-recorded music subscription to run through Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” starting with number 1. As I type, number 86, Bruce Sprinsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., is playing in the background. (Bruce topped out at 18, with Born to Run.)
These lists are tough to critique. It’s fair to assess that this or that album ought to be in the top 100 or 100–200 or something, but that leaves a lot of margin for preference. For one thing, I always want to like Bob Dylan more than I do, so the top 50 of Rolling Stone’s list is a bit Dylan-heavy for my tastes, but I can understand why. One can define “greatest” in a number of ways, and different people will apply different weightings to the historic importance of an artistic work versus its timelessness versus its actual listenability. (The inclusion of greatest hits albums and even boxed sets seems more than a little like cheating.)
The ranking is also a product of its time, posted in 2012. For one thing, the dozens of people who voted on the list will change in their makeup. Believe it or not, someday, the ’60s and ’70s won’t loom so large. The importance of the Beatles will be whittled down to two or three albums, rather than every single one, to make room for later revolutions and the test-of-time factor’s application to later works. One can see the process to some degree with the Clash’s London Calling at #8, Nirvana’s Nevermind at #17, and U2’s Joshua Tree at #27. (On the other side of that trend, I can’t believe Miles Davis only hit #12 with Kind of Blue.)
One suspects a 2018 edition would also put more weight on political correctness. As it is, Marvin Gaye is the first black artist, with What’s Going On at #6, and the first estrogen makes its appearance with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours at #26. Clearly history must be rewritten for the sake of balance. The fact that there were more male artists on the charts during rock’s formative years is no excuse for celebrating their products disproportionately.
My musical preference may provide the solution. My greatest musical joy of recent years has been the ability to put hundreds of albums on shuffle. Why shouldn’t the day’s soundtrack jump from Bach to Liz Phair to Kamasi Washington to a run of my white-male-rocker favorites, followed by Paul Robeson and then some Christian rock, followed by something from Rosin Coven?
When I was a carpenter, I drove more than a few of my fellow blue collar workers crazy with that sort of mix. I was intrigued to find that soothing classical induced in some the same surge of aggravation that I experience with most kinds of rap. My objection is mainly to the fact that the words are so central in rap, and the message is very often not attractive. Maybe the others’ objection to classical was that it left them to their own thoughts, which were perhaps less attractive, still.
My most surprising finding, with the 500 Greatest, has been how much my attitude toward music has changed. When I was younger, this stuff was so important. The interplay of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (#1) and Revolver (#3) with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (#2) once carried cosmic significance. Now, the significance is just a mix of aesthetics and nostalgia, with some clever words and tricks and maybe impressive technique.
Surveying the musical landscape of the last century, as compiled by a magazine most recently recognized for glamorizing a child-killing terrorist and slandering a fraternity, brings me back to younger times and draws my attention to music I somehow missed, but one shouldn’t look to it for meaning. Let it be the background as you produce your own legacy in keeping with the things that truly matter in life.