September 30, 2020
This week, Rolling Stone published a new and revamped edition of “The Greatest 500 Albums of All Time.” The music magazine had initially printed a catalogue of what they described as a compilation of the greatest records of all time in 2003 and, with the exception of scant revisions in 2012, they left the list untouched – until now. While most entries and rankings boil down to matter of subjective taste, there remain some egregious decisions made by the Rolling Stone voting panel for which they deserve to be called out.
New Albums Are Far Too Young to Be Classics
The first and biggest problem with this ostensibly authoritative catalogue is that it does not adequately define which albums are eligible for a spot, and which are still too new. The overhauled list features dozens of new and younger artists – some of whom had barely even been born when the original list was made. Explaining the extensive changes and additions, Rolling Stone writes, “no list is definitive — tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten.”
The problem with this approach is that as new genres emerge – while they emerge – there is no way of telling which genres are doomed to be ephemeral fads and which will endure, and live to inspire new artists, and give birth to musical revolutions of their own. Only this latter clique of albums have earned their stripes by shaping and molding the mainstay of our contemporary musical canon.
Unfortunately, there is no way to envisage which albums will withstand the weathering and weeding out of time and which will be cast by the wayside. Music history is so rife with out of touch and aloof journalism that it had initially disregarded such illustrious classics as Led Zeppelin’s titular debut (1969), Neil Young’s Harvest (1972), The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (1972), and even Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991).
The only safe and sure way to know which album – or any form of art – will disseminate through generations and remain enshrined in the high halls of public opinion is through the passage of time.
To qualify for any “Greatest Albums of All Time” list, an artist ought to be well over a decade into their career – a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction demands 25 years. An album released last year by Taylor Swift may be the darling of contemporary critics, but whether it will be remembered decades on is a different story.
Today, we remember great records from the 1970s like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1976) or Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) or the Clash’s London Calling (1979). But for each of these classics we still cherish, there were at least 50 records that have long since been forgotten.
This point is even more prescient in an era where technology has broken down nearly every barrier to creating music. In the 1970s, artists who wanted to record anything needed to convince record labels to rent them studios and invest in their craft. Today, entire albums can be recorded, mixed, and produced from the comfort of one’s own bedroom – and they are! Billie Eilish and her brother conceived When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? a Grammy-winning record, entirely on their home computer. As a result, the market is consistently flooded with a deluge of new music, and the only way to separate the good from the true masterpieces is to let time to the sifting.
As a (likely intended) result of ushering in a whole host of new artists from the post-2000 era, many previously top-ranking classics have dropped, either disappearing from the ranking entirely, or ranking below newer, contemporary hip-hop artists. The new list is – to use the woke and progressive parlance of our times – no longer a collection of “old white guys.”
Most notably, the Beatles’ 1967 concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band lost its previously held number 1 spot, plummeting down to number 24 – below both Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The Rolling Stones’ cultural bookend to the 1960s, Let It Bleed, jarringly dropped ten points from 32nd down to 41st. The first double-LP in the history of rock music, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (1966), dropped from the top-ten down to a measly 38th place — lower than both Amy Winehouse’ 2006 Motown pastiche Back to Black and a Beyonce album from 2016, Lemonade.
Even Chuck Berry’s collection of singles that heavily inspired both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles dropped 30 points from 21st to 51st – now ranking below a new entrant: Jay-Z’s 2001 album, The Blueprint’ Roc-A-Fella.
Among other sins, we have a 2011 Drake album, as well as Frank Ocean’s critically acclaimed 2016 record in the top 100, while The Who’s 1979 rock opera epic and creative zenith, Quadrophenia, is nowhere to be found.
In his essay titled The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde wrote “A critic should be taught to criticise a work of art without making any reference to the personality of the author.” In other words, the artist’s personal traits – such as age, race, gender, or creed – should not dictate or influence how their art is perceived, or the objective qualities it possesses.
Rolling Stone and their panel of voters clearly disagree, as revealed by the dozens of indelible classics from the magazine’s first list replaced by a much younger, more diverse and less tenured crowd.
In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards provides a vivid brace of Wilde’s argument as he reminisces on his early days listening to imported American blues as a budding English musician. “I didn’t know Chuck Berry was black for two years after I first heard his music, and obviously long before I saw the film… And for ages I didn’t know Jerry Lee Lewis was white. You didn’t see their pictures if they had something in the top ten in America. The only faces I knew were Elvis, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino. It was hardly important. It was the sound that was important.”
One must ask whether the sound is still important to Rolling Stone.
Stick to a Genre – Or At Least, Comparable Genres
Yet another puzzling decision from Rolling Stone is their inclusion of just one jazz album in the top 50: Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind of Blue at 31st, and far below its original ranking of 12th. Only two other jazz records, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme from 1965 (ranked 66th) and Davis’ Bitches Brew from 1970 (ranked 87th) appear later in the compilation.
Rolling Stone tried to explain their placement of Kind of Blue writing, “Turning his back on standard chord progressions, trumpeter Miles Davis used modal scales as a starting point for composition and improvisation — breaking new ground with warmth, subtlety, and understatement in the thick of hard bop.” However, modal scales were not even a concept pioneered by Davis. They had first been published in a book by jazz composer George Russel in 1953 (6 years prior to the Kind of Blue sessions) and employed by Charles Mingus in his 1956 record, Pithecanthropus Erectus (3 years prior to the Kind of Blue sessions).
The far more convincing explanation for sandwiching three token jazz records amid a sea of rock and hip-hop – somewhere between Drake and Beyonce – is that those are the only jazz albums most people have ever heard of. At that point, why not include a symphonic recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? While Kind of Blue is indeed the jazz album that has pierced through the impenetrable wall of velvety cigarette smoke that separates the austere jazz listeners from the rest of the world, it is by no means the pinnacle of the genre. Kind of Blue invites with it an entire litany of diverse and eclectic jazz albums from Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come to Coleman Hawkins’ Body And Soul, each rife with musical innovation and improvisation at a level far beyond anything offered by the four-chord pop progression cliches churned out by the music industry.
If any catalogue claiming to present some arbitrary number of greatest albums (or books, films, etc.) hopes to be taken seriously, it needs to be useful. At the very least, it ought to be something we could give anyone entirely unfamiliar with popular western art to introduce them to the best we have to offer. But Rolling Stone’s revamped list of 500 Greatest Albums fails to achieve this, instead blending veritable classics with a dizzying array of disposable, modern chart-toppers, many of which will be forgotten by the time Rolling Stone decides to re-re-issue their list yet again.
Originally Published at The Daily Wire