Once Again, Old Records Top The List

A couple weeks ago, I went down to the local drug store to get my prescription filled. There was a line – I saw no sign of Mr. Jimmy – and then the pharmacist said that it would take at least twenty minutes to fill my order. So I headed to the magazines to see if there was something I wanted to buy; that way I could at least have something to read as I waited for my pills.

And there was a Rolling Stone special: The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. I thought: Didn’t they just do that not so long ago? But the copyright date was 2012, which meant I didn’t yet have it, so I pulled the publication off the rack and looked at the foreword from Elton John as I waited for my prescription. And when I got home, I went to the bookshelf.

I was right. It truly was not that long ago that RS compiled a similar list: For its edition of December 11, 2003, the magazine put together a list of five hundred albums after polling a pretty wide-ranging group: writers and critics, working musicians and folks from record companies and the world of radio. The publication I picked up the other day has the exact same cover art and mostly the same copy as the 2003 list, offering historical and critical commentary about each of the five hundred albums – ranging from a couple of pages for the big guns to a paragraph for most of them – with lots of photos and some sidebars thrown in here and there. As for updating, the new edition is a combined version of that original 2003 survey and a 2009 survey that looked at the best albums since 2000.

And the results are pretty much the same as in 2003, at least at the top of the list. Here are the albums that RS says are the top twenty-five of all time:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles [1967]
Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys [1966]
Revolver by the Beatles [1966]
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan [1965]
Rubber Soul by the Beatles [1965]
What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye [1971]
Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones [1972]
London Calling by the Clash [1980]
Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan [1966]
The White Album by the Beatles [1968]
Sunrise by Elvis Presley [1999]
Kind of Blue by Miles Davis [1959]
The Velvet Underground and Neco [1967]
Abbey Road by the Beatles [1969]
Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience [1967]
Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan [1975]
Nevermind by Nirvana [1991]
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen [1975]
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison [1968]
Thriller by Michael Jackson [1982]
The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry [1982]
The Complete Recordings by Robert Johnson [1990]
Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon [1970]
Innervisions by Stevie Wonder [1973]
Live At The Apollo by James Brown [1963]

With the most recent album – Nirvana’s Nevermind – having come out twenty-one years ago, that’s an old bunch, to be honest, and it’s made even older when one recognizes that three of those albums are compilations of music recorded during even earlier years: Sunrise is a collection of the work Elvis Presley did at Sun Records in the 1950s, The Great Twenty-Eight is made up of recordings Berry made from 1955 to 1965, and The Complete Robert Johnson presents recordings from 1936 and 1937.

That kind of temporal dislocation is prevalent in both the 2012 and 2003 lists: A quick glance at portions of both found many compilations listed with issue dates falling long after the original recordings. They included albums from Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Linda Ronstadt, ABBA and Sam Cooke, among many others.

Comparing the two lists, the top twenty-five are almost identical. The only change in the 2012 list is the presence of the Robert Johnson collection; it displaced Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which fell to No. 26.

Oddly, the 1990 Robert Johnson collection wasn’t included in the 2003 ranking. Instead, two separate albums of Johnson’s work were mentioned: King of the Delta Blues Singers, a 1961 release, was ranked at No. 27, and King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, a 1970 release, was ranked at No. 424. I’m guessing that the editors of Rolling Stone decided to combine the votes for the two and consider those as votes for the 1990 set of complete recordings, a decision that is at least a little dubious and should be explained somewhere. But if there’s an explanation anywhere in the new book, I can’t find it. (A note at Wikipedia states that the substitution of The Complete Recordings for the two earlier albums took place and was explained when the 2003 list was published in book form in 2005.)

Something similar took place with Sunrise, the Presley collection from Sun Records. It wasn’t mentioned in the 2003 poll. In that survey, the 1976 collection The Sun Sessions sat at No. 11, and the RS editors replaced it with Sunrise, although this substitution – also dubious to my mind – was at least noted.

I mentioned earlier that the list was revised to include more albums from 2000 on than were present in the 2003 package. So where did the albums from the 2000s end up? Well, the highest ranked album of newly recorded material from those years was Radiohead’s 2000 album, Kid A, which landed at No. 67. Why do I specify “newly recorded material”? Because in another case of temporal displacement, The Anthology, a 2001 collection of Muddy Waters’ recordings from the years 1948 to 1972, was ranked at No. 38, and that was the highest ranking given to an album released in 2000 or later years.

For a historian, the many cases of compilations being credited to years far removed from the time of the original recordings skew things when one looks at the decades that birthed the five hundred albums listed in the new book (and in the 2003 magazine as well, for that matter).  Nevertheless, here are those counts as RS presents them in the back of the new book:

1950s: Eleven albums; highest ranked is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

1960s: One hundred and five albums; highest ranked is the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

1970s: One hundred and eighty-seven albums; highest ranked is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

1980s: Eighty-two albums; highest ranked is the Clash’s London Calling.

1990s: Seventy-five albums; highest ranked is Nirvana’s Nevermind.

2000s: Thirty-eight albums; highest ranked is Muddy Waters’ The Anthology.

2010s: Two albums; higher ranked is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

So what is it about the 1960s and 1970s? Was the music truly that much better then? Are those who were polled weighted down by the mythologies of those decades?

I really don’t know the answers. I do know that the audience for pop/rock/soul music in the 1960s and 1970s was more unified. There were outliers, yes (like the kid who listened to John Barry and Al Hirt), but for the most part we all listened to the same things on the radio and on the stereo. Today, there is no mass audience, and that’s something that’s been increasingly so for, oh, at least twenty years if not more. So I would guess that, year by year, there would be fewer and fewer albums that would catch the critical ear of enough of those polled to be included on a list like this. And then, historic assessment takes time. Listeners have had roughly forty and fifty years to consider stuff released in the 1960s and a shorter twenty to thirty years to assess the music of the 1980s. I think that matters.

Beyond those points, there may be some generational blindness. When I looked at the names of those who were polled, however, they seemed to cut wide generational swaths, and none of those who were polled – as far as I know – have reputations for fuddy-duddy-ism. So maybe these rankings are a relatively accurate picture of the critical merits of the greatest albums in rock, pop, soul, R&B, jazz, blues and all the rest. Or it might all be commercially inspired hogwash. I don’t know.

I do know that I’m a little baffled by the continued presence of Sgt. Pepper atop the heap. I think that every major survey of pop-rock albums I’ve ever seen has that 1967 album at No. 1. Is it great? Yes. Is it that great? I tend to think not. I’ve written at least once in this space that Sgt. Pepper isn’t even the Beatles’ best album, much less the best of all time. I’d put Revolver and Abbey Road and possibly Rubber Soul higher among the Beatles’ work, and over the past few years, I’ve concluded that the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is the best album ever. (And I think those statements are congruent with others I’ve made over the years here.)

I would guess that Sgt. Pepper gets votes for the top spot at least as much for how it affected its audience and how it influenced the making of albums as for its musical quality. And that may be a fair assessment. It’s a great album, and the fact that its place in history is a topic worthy of discussion almost forty-five years after its release underlines that greatness. And my opinion that six other albums are greater – the four mentioned above, Blonde on Blonde and Born to Run – does nothing to negate either the album’s greatness or the usefulness of the discussion.

And there I ultimately find the value of books like the one I bought the other week and the one from 2003 that I pulled from my shelves for comparison: discussion. Those of us who love music – who listen to it, write about it and read about it as much as we do – might never resolve the questions raised by The Five Hundred Greatest Albums of All Time and similar lists. But it’s worthwhile, I think, to spend time trying to – in effect – separate myth from music. That gets harder to do as the years pass, whether we’re talking about the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams or Robert Johnson (and maybe ten or twenty or fifty others).

Along the way, I learn. I know the top twenty-five albums – maybe even the top hundred albums – pretty well. Beyond there, in any list of this magnitude, there are records I don’t know that I probably should. I might not like them all, but I should check them out. That should keep me busy for a while. And all of that newly focused listening should bring me at least a few insights into the development and direction of the various types of music I love.

To close, I decided to let the RealPlayer find a tune from one of the five hundred albums listed in the 2012 list. I did veto a few that seemed too obvious, so it took some time, but eventually, the player settled on “Don’t Forget About Me” from Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album Dusty in Memphis, which wound up ranked at No. 89.

Something kept nagging at me as I edited this post this morning and then again when I was out running errands. As I left the Ace Bar & Grill after lunch, I realized what it was. The 2012 edition of The Five Hundred Greatest Albums of All Time clearly says that the listing was compiled from polls of experts in 2003 and 2009. How, then, can two albums from 2011 be included? They are the Beach Boys’ Smile (2011 Version) at No. 381 and Kanye West’s previously mentioned My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at No. 353. I find no explanation in the book, and that bothers me.


6 Responses to “Once Again, Old Records Top The List”

  1. David Says:

    I can say that, growing up in the internet-free early 1990s, I found Rolling Stone’s 1967-1987 Top 100 issue to be invaluable, directing me to albums in my teens by acts such as The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, and Richard/Linda Thompson that I would have overlooked. That said, I’m not sure what purpose this list–and the continued updating–serves in the internet era where one can sample/download anything (and find corresponding reviews) other than, as you say, “discussion.” (Speaking of discussion, has an album fallen farther than “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”? It was #2 in the 1987 chart, and now sits at #41, surpassed by albums almost entirely of an earlier vintage).

    I now find it strange, and incredibly presumptuous, to group disparate types of music together and attempt to definitively construct a list of “The Greatest of All Time.” As my tastes and consumption of music have expanded, I’m not really sure how you can compare country to rap to soul to pop to rock n’ roll to rock to disco to jazz to blues etc…. And once you include 60+ years of stylistic progression and divergence in each genre (and sub-genre), the comparison and the attendant global rating becomes even more meaningless. Moreover, this list is basically confined to U.S./English acts, barely acknowledging amazing music from South America, Africa, and other regions.

    To me, the current list is reflective of the worst, most “rockist” tendencies and prejudices of Rolling Stone, and its founder Jann Wenner. I seriously doubt the contributors know much about most of the genres beyond rock/classic rock. When your consumption and understanding of jazz is limited to Miles, Coltrane, and Ornette, or your taste in country is simply Willie, Dolly, and Steve Earle, throwing those genres in with the ones that you do know dilutes the authority of your list. Ultimately, this list is really “500 Albums That Matter A Lot to the Baby Boom Generation, and Are Quite Good.”

    I also expect that the post-1991 stagnation that you have noted is the result of a number of intermingling factors: (1) the internet-era decline of the music industry in general, and common taste in particular; (2) the rise of an “everything available” culture so that one’s individual taste need not be confined to the current/now, and instead one can indulge in older recordings; (3) the calcification of rock/pop as it has aged and ultimately explored most of the available stylistic innovations/digressions, which has pushed real progress out of the mainstream and into the margins, where it is less recognized by most consumers and the mainstream media; (4) the reduced importance of music in most people’s lives, as other available entertainment options have multiplied; (5) the dominance of media such as Rolling Stone by a generation that venerates its youth, and has grown out of touch with the current music scene as it has aged; (6) the self-perpetuating tendency of such lists (e.g., once you rank “Sgt. Pepper #1, you keep it there); and (7) in many cases, yes, music was just better in the 1970s.

    I’m not sure how to end this long-winded note other than to say that I’d rather listen to almost any Beatles album other than “Sgt. Pepper,” which starts out with 3 good songs and ends with one great one, forever causing reviewers to overlook all the crap in between. Count me in as a “Rubber Soul” man.

  2. Yah Shure Says:

    In view of the enormous amount of media moss Rolling Stone gathers whenever they unveil these “greatest albums of all time” lists, I half wonder whether they might become the rag’s equivalent of SI’s annual swimsuit edition. Hey, whatever grabs the most eyeballs.

    Both the album format and the concept album as we’ve known them over the decades have pretty much gone by the wayside in today’s digital age. As an artist, it can’t be easy to find the artistic or commercial enthusiasm and motivation needed to create epic masterpieces, knowing that the majority of customers would be inclined to cherry pick their own highlights. We’ve effectively gone back to a singles-driven market, only this time, it holds no sway over the majority of the population.

    When ‘Sgt. Pepper’ ruled, there were few, if any, instances of popular recording acts attempting to come up with eighty minutes’ worth of genius at a shot, two or three times a year. These days, an album containing twenty-five or thirty minutes of material would be viewed as a comparative rip-off. Did the introduction of the compact disc format result in too much quantity at the expense of quality? And even if the quality was there, do we possess the attention spans necessary to fully absorb modern album releases? What about box sets? I’ll admit that more often than not, I’ll listen to a set once or twice, then file it away and never get back to it.

    David raised a good point about the reduction in the importance of music in most people’s lives. Is “important” music – as reflected by the Rolling Stone lists – actually important any more? Will significant numbers of casual music fans be inspired to investigate the music, itself or do the lists merely serve as “what’s trending” topics until the next hot item comes along?

    I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but have recently decided to investigate a handful of the “classic” albums or acts I’ve never heard over the years, the most recent being Velvet Underground. I’d heard the single version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” not that long ago and decided to see what all the VU fuss was about by checking out disc 2 of the ‘Peel Slowly And See’ box set just a few days ago. About two-thirds of the way through, I’d heard enough. Must be an acquired taste.

    As for ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ one would probably assume that it’s my all-time favorite piece of music, based on the Franklin Mint globe thingy and 1987 “now on compact disc” wall poster adorning my studio. To be sure, it’s up there on the list, but, to my ears, it hasn’t aged all that well as a complete album (“Within You Without You,” in particular.) Bastardized as it may have been, the U.S. Capitol ‘Rubber Soul’ still leads the pack for me.

  3. Saturday Single No. 292 « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] Echoes In The Wind Hear that music in the distance? So do I. « Once Again, Old Records Top The List […]

  4. Paco Malo Says:

    Compilation “best of” albums have no place on this list. Those are not real albums.

    Where is “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”

    From about 1963 on, bands started making real albums, not just putting out singles with filler. I thing it’s a function of the technology. In the 50’s, 45s ruled, in the sixties, LPs. Now, with CDs, records like Jack White’s are both longer and also cohesive. The MP3 is gonna be the death of real albums. Personally, I’m fighting this progression away from “albums” at Gold Coast Bluenote (my blog).

    I need a Chelsea drug store in my neighborhood. You meet the best people in line.

    Great post, whiteray. This is what I come to Echoes in the Wind to find. Keep it up. And thanks.

  5. porky Says:

    my friend (a true boomer, born in the 1940’s) unwittingly cleared one of his parties by playing Astral Weeks. He put the record on and everyone started grabbing their coats.

    I would swap any of the jazz records on the list for “Pharaohization-the Best of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.” You want jazz? Read Down Beat.

  6. whiteray Says:

    @Paco Malo: “Layla” was ranked at No. 117. No comment.

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