Jonathan Bogart: Welcome, folks, to a few weeks of a rountable discussion of Entertainment Weekly’s Bullshit List Of The Top 100 Albums From The Past 25 Years. I’m Jonathan Bogart. I like all kinds of music, and have said so at length (see the rest of my blog), but somehow I’ve managed to miss most of the albums on this list. Partly this is because the album isn’t my preferred method of consuming music, especially albums made in a post-LP world, partly it’s because I’ve been too busy listening to music made well before my lifetime — but mostly it’s because the vast majority of them haven’t struck me as being worth the effort. But I’m a big believer in listening with an open mind, and I’m going to be listening to every record on the list and letting you know what I think about it. Mark, how about yourself? This whole roundtable was your brainchild, so what made you want to talk about the list — and what do you think are the five worst things about it?
MarkAndrew: Well, fellow Bacardi Johnny Bacardi linked to the list, and I wrote a four hundred work comment and realized I had a lot of stuff still to say: About the idea of a pop music canon, about list-making as vehicle for historical narrative, and about the albums themselves, individually and in context. Most “best of” music lists are narrower in scope, but express a clear and fairly myopic view of “Good.” The EW list has two fairly myopic views of Good. There are albums that are important in the fairly small pool of musical generes the magazine’s staff listens too (Rakim, R.E.M), and there are albums that sold well. I can imagine there was a lot of bitterness and lost friendships among the people that cobbled this together, I can just imagine the Spoon fans going “Alright! Alright! We’ll put Shania Twain on! Please put the gun down.”
So I was kind of fascinated with the process of making this list, and wanted to see what kind of narrative it creates if we take it at face value as the history of quality music over the last twenty-five years. It’s an interesting “Let’s Pretend.” Plus I thought it would be an interesting intellectual exercise to find some kind of common reviewing grounds that would work for Britney Spears, Johnny Cash and Tupac all at once. And I want to dog on the Postal Service in public.
- Lack of diversity beyond top forty and college radio standards. No jazz, blues, only two maginally folksy albums very little electronica or dance music, nothing classical or remotely avante garde, no spoken word of musical theatre nothing that isn’t in English, and, like, 98% of the albums are from American or European artists. It’s just really limited in scope.
- 1983 is a horrible year to start if the list makers wanted to thoroughly explore their favorite genres. For a list with so much interest in pop, hip-hop, and indy-rock, it seems bizarre to make your parameters so that Michael Jackson’ Thriller, R.E.M.’s Murmur and the early Sugarhill recordings are left off. Go back to ’80 or so, stick those three albums on the list and you have a much more complete musical history.
- Some strangely clueless picks about which albums should represent which artists, even deserving artists. Mariah Carey is a scary talented singer, but you wouldn’t know it from Emancipation of Mimi. Crooked Rain is a fine, fine, Pavement album, but Slanted and Enchanted was the low-fi shot heard ’round the world.
- Not to be all music-nerdy, but there’s too much pop crap. If your greatest albums list starts with George Michael. Well, that’s just NOT a good sign.
- 29. Breakaway Kelly Clarkson (2004)
30. Appetite for Destruction Guns N’ Roses (1987)
Note than 29 is supposedly better than 30. I rest my case.
JB: I’m not sure we can fault Entertainment Weekly for being what it is; if the list went more avant-garde or outside of the English-speaking world, it wouldn’t be EW. What puzzles me more is the lack of recognition
And finally, a disclaimer: I reserve the right to change my opinion at any time about any or all of these albums, the songs therein, or the people who made them. Except for those few albums I already know well, this is all based on a single listen, and who the hell listens to an album once?
Anyway, let’s go!
100. George Michael, Faith
MA: I’m pretty much using Youtube to track down the cuts on the album and while I generally agree with you that watching the videos forces some unwanted context onto the music, but you need to see this.
Well, lemme see if I can get this to embed.
[JB: ’Fraid not.]
Look at what the camera is doing to his bottom. It’s lingering. It’s caressing.It’s indecent. It’s… it’s kind of hypnotic. And it does change the context, by showing us who’s the real star here.
GEORGE MICHAEL’S ASS! guest starring George Michael.
The, wait, what? The music? I’m hearing (and seeing) a lot Elvis here. Faith is all mildly risqué (for the time) lyrics and King style hip shakes, reconstituted black music (funk here, instead of Gospel) and low Elvis moans –Except when Michael tries to “Uh-Haw” he ends up grunting like he’s lifting a refrigerator. But we’ll forgive him for not meeting an untouchable standard. The music is vocal dominated lightweight jazz-funk which isn’t my most favorite thing, but it’s cleanly executed and never even remotely wankery, making for some smooth, easily digestable pop. Best of all, there’s a kind of winking irony and sense of fun to the album. There’s a kind of downright joyfulness to the first titular cut that’s really rare in the extremely cynical “Ok, guys, take 79” pop landscape. Sadly, it doesn’t last, and George ends up going all ”In the Ghetto” on us. The album starts with a couple of Playful Songs about Screwing (I Want Your Sex, as it turns out, is a trilogy) a couple of Torch Songs, (Father Figure, One More Try) and then right around the mid-point it’s all DEAD BABIES DEADBABIES BATTERED WOMEN SUICIDE DEAD BABIES AHHH DEAD BABIES! (Hand to Mouth.) This is, needless to say, highly distracting: It’s like he stuck three different albums in a cage and told them to fight for dominance. G. M.’s talented enough to pull any of them off, I think, but not all of them at once. There’s real fun to be had, but lyrics like
“That the gods believe in nothing
So with empty hands i pray
And from day to hopeless day
They still don’t see me.”
Kinda ruin the party. It’s even weirder when he combines the “party” and “socially conscious” strains, like in Monkey. “Here’s an upbeat little dance rocker about heroin addiction! Whooo!” And, geez, Look at Your Hands would probably be my favorite track except for the whole “You left me and now your husband beats you Nyah! Nyah!” theme of the tune, which is fairly morally repugnant. This album is better than I thought it was gonna be goin’ in, but Faith’s reach seriously exceeds it’s grasp. Still, I’m not insulted that it’s in the top 100 or anything.
JB: Being neither British, a caricature of a gay man, nor someone who lost his virginity in the late 1980s, I don’t have much reason to love this record beyond its ordinary pop value, which I’d place somewhere just above Paula Abdul’s best work and somewhere well below the Pet Shop Boys’ worst. (They, of course, didn’t make the list, even though Very is a better club record, a better gay record, and a better wtf record than this.) I like the first few songs well enough, but that produced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life late 80s electro-funk sound is wearying over the course of an album, and the lyrics get steadily worse as it drags on. (Exception: “Kissing A Fool,” which is a great album closer on the vinyl; fuck CD versions and their extra tracks.)
99. Hole, Live Through This
JB: It’s unfortunate that Courtney Love the self-destructive paparazzi target has by now largely drowned out Courtney Love the one-time rock & roll feminist. She’s not terribly good at being either, but a rock & roll feminist is at least something worth being.
I’d consider myself a feminist to the degree that I find a lot of the kneejerk reaction to Love’s music repulsively misogynistic, composed mainly of complaints that a) she’s a slut or b) she’s not fuckable enough. (The faction that hold her morally responsible for Kurt Cobain’s death can be entirely ignored: Kurt may have been a hero to most but he never meant shit to me, and besides that’s got nothing to do with the music she made.) There are better reasons to criticize her music.
First, this record is no damn fun. (The last song is again an exception, but then I like in-the-studio goofs more than most.) It’s aurally monochromatic to a punishing degree, and I’ve never been of the mindset that rejoices in loud guitars for the sake of loud guitars. Then the lyrics aren’t any relief, switching humorlessly between sneering evocations of institutionalized sexism and portraits of self-loathing body-image psychoses. I’m not fond of the self-seriousness of the 90s Pacific Northwest scene in general, and this record, composed mainly of anger and scorn (however justified, and I’m on the side that says “very”), stands out as taking itself too seriously even in that crowded field. I know part of the point of the record is to push back against societal stereotypes that demand that girls be fun and empty-headed, but in my eyes a lack of humor is a human failing, not a gendered one. (At least Love’s got a repressive patriarchy to piss her off; what’s Eddie Vedder’s excuse?) (And I notice that Pearl Jam’s not on the list. Thank heaven for small mercies.) (Damn. Spoke too soon.)
Second, Love’s voice isn’t really up to the challenge she sets herself as a lyricist and composer. (Well, user-of-random-minor-chords.) She has two settings: a quite nice ordinary singing voice, girlish but with depth; and flat-out screaming. She’s not much good at the screaming, and she spends most of the record doing it. (This could be chalked up to production: if she got some reverb on that scream, or even double-tracked it, it could at least be a harrowing experience; as it is, it sounds like a temper tantrum in a suburban duplex.) I’ll cop to preferring pretty sounds to violent ones — I like the Beach Boys more than Slayer — but even though Hole follows the by-now traditional quiet-loud dynamics of an alternative rock record, there’s no space in the record, and eventually all that outrage and passion just numb.
Most fatally, all the songs sound the same and it’s not even an invidual sound. There is no “Hole sound,” as there should be for every great band: the album sounds like off-the-rack Pacific Northwest Generica, interesting (if it is) for Courtney Love’s slash-and-burn feminism and in a wider cultural context for prompting the response “oh, that’s what she’s famous for.” As someone whose listening tastes run way more eclectic, I need something more than that if I’m not going to hit skip on my iPod.
Having come of listening age mostly after the 90s, I’m suspicious of alt-rock in general and of grunge in particular; though I’m willing to give Love the benefit of the doubt because I sympathize with her politics, I don’t want to ever have to listen to this record all the way through again. Individual songs are okay: “Doll Parts,” “Plump,” and “Rock Star” can go in my stockpile, but the album as a whole suffers from the usual post-LP rock attributes: a bloated running time, a lack of variety, and an air of self-importance too pervasive to let me find my own way into the record.
MA: I’m a big fan of both (A) this album, and (B) public crazy people in general, so I’m gonna take some umbrage with Jon’s comments. Firstly, the songs do not all sound the same. Sometimes the quiet part is first and then the part with the screaming, and sometimes (OK, in one song) the part with the screaming is first then the quiet part.
Maybe it’s because I do like ugly noises but I think the album works. I’m right with you against the overly-conservative production, but Courtney and company set out to express DEEP frustration at the limiting and self-conflicting ideas of femininity in Western Culture, and did what they set out to do. I’m not disagreeing with you on the lack ofhumor, but Live Through This it is what it is, and in pop music, at least, it’s a unique artifact I can’t help but think that there’s a decently large sub-set of the teen girl diagram that NEEDS to hear stuff like this,smartly expressed and really fucking angry.
What do the poor youth of today have? Avril? If we don’t find a new Courtney Love,stat, someone needs to invent her.
98. Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism
These guys were big in Seattle when I lived there, so I’m kind of glad they’re all famous and getting played during montages of teen-age led soap operas (I bet) but still… I don’t think this is going to be my kind of thing. Still, I’ll give it a shot. I’m gonna live-blog this one.
Herm. I’m in the middle of Track Four Expo ’86 now. The CHORUS of this damn song, repeated over and over is,
“The squeaking of our skin against the steel has gotten worse”
Dude. I don’t expect meaningful insight into the complex intertwining of human relationships from EVERY song, but this… this doesn’t MEAN anything. Talk sense, boy!
Four songs in, and I think I can safely classify this album in the genre of “Stuff I hate.” This temptation is double compounded ’cause I had that damn When Soul Meets Bodeee song lodged in my head for the better part of a year,and I certainly hated THAT. But I persevere.
Track Five. I don’t think blah-pah is the Sound of Settling at all. Settling goes shplerch. Fact.
Track Six. Called Tiny Vessels.
“There was a girl with light brown streaks,
And she was beautiful but she didn’t mean a thing to me.”
(A)Light brown streaks of what, now?
And (B) awww… he’s so isolated and sad and incapable of appreciating beauty and MAN do I not care at all.
Ah God. Now he’s singing about dark clouds in the distance and his failure to communicate properly. Hello mister skip button. Next track…
Track Seven: Transatlantacism We’ll just see how long it’s gonna… Eight Minutes.
Apparently there is no God.
OK, I DO like how this track starts. One shimerry piano note with some very light, almost inaudible, percussion pulsing in the background and…
Ben Gibbard is singing, and this song turned to shit real fast. Maybe this’ll get better around minutes six.
…Nope. But on the upside, now it’s almost over. (And, as an aside, the percussion’s simple, subtle, and methodical, but it’s understated (something) is working really well here. Kudos to the drummer.)
Track Eight: I swear to God I’m not a violent man, but if I have kids and they go all emo on me they’re getting the belt. “Dammit Junior! Rap tunes about sellin’ the crack and shootin’ the cops were good enough for me when I was your age! You WILL turn this crap off, and you WILL spend the next couple hours listening to Ice Cube and N.W.A or no allowance for a month! Good day,sir or madam!” (whichever.)
There is some interesting, Kinski-an sound-scape building going on here, and I sort of like how they’re doing the Pixies softness/cacophony thing without ever getting really loud. But the singer. Just. Bugs. Me.
Track Nine: Death of an Interior Decorator. Maybe I’m building a tolerance or I’m hemorrhaging testosterone at my advanced age, but I liked this one OK. It told alittle story. About death. Hooray. And now Track Ten….
We Looked Like Giants. Well, dang. I genuinely like this one. I mean, dude is basically over-analyzing his sex life. And rock music is all about not over-thinking and especially not over-thinking the libido, but this one’sgot a slow burning intensity to it that, well, is a hell of a lot more interesting than mope, mope, mope, mope mope. As One more track to go…. But why ruin my chance to go out on a happy note? Next record!
JB: I recognize this as Ben Gibbard’s first post-Postal Service album with Death Cab — I like “Such Great Heights” quite a bit — but that’s the extent of my expertise; I’ve never sought out anything else he’s done. I’d dispute Mark’s characterization of this as “emo,” though; at least compared to crap like Dashboard Confessional, it’s far more melodic and interested in sonic details that emo tends to bury under layers of “passionate” guitars, and Gibbard’s lyrics are less self-pitying than oblique (which is a triumph, in my book). In fact, there’s a family resemblance to the Shins (and why the fuck isn’t Chutes Too Narrow on the list? Sure, I’d make fun of the
All of which doesn’t necessarily mean that I love this record to death. I feel like I’m maybe too old, or too jaded, to fall prey to its charms in the way that people like my brother (a big modern-indie fan) have done — I don’t need this record either in the “oh my God someone else feels this way too” or in the “nothing else presses these buttons for me” senses. A lot else presses these buttons — Eno-era U2, mid-period Radiohead, the mature Wilco — and I’m well past the age when the needlepoint analysis of young-adult relationships is compelling in itself. So I can enjoy it, but it’s not essential for me.
97. Britney Spears, Britney
JB: And here we come to one of the major intellectual failures of any list such as this. Entertainment Weekly’s false premise is that the album is the primary unit of musical endeavor, and so confronted with a figure like Spears, who is undoubtedly one of the central pop-music personalities of our era, they have to scramble to find an album which best sums up her importance — but of course there isn’t one. She, like the vast majority of pop artists before her, is a singles act, and lives or dies by the virtues of the individual song — and by the narrative which all her popular songs, taken together, tell us about her.
That narrative, of course, is that Britney Spears is a blank slate, a plastic doll which various producers, critics, and the fascinated, gluttonous, self-righteous public can dress up in whatever costume they wish — and only her complete vaccuum of personality has enabled her to successfully embody the spirit of the age. As the dot-coms boomed but only pornography made money, Max Martin sold her to us as the schoolgirl we wanted to fuck; four years later, Timbaland recast her as an agent of American imperialism as we plunged into Iraq, heavy with Arabic samples and a metaphor from chemical weaponry; her most recent singles, more reflexively, have all been about her lack of existence except as a figment of the pop-culture imagination, and there have been appropriate doubts voiced as to whether she even sang on Blackout.
In that overarching narrative, Britney is more or less a low point: released two months after September 11, it was an attempt to present a “grown-up” Britney, with the overt sexualization of “I’m A Slave 4 U” and the stupid-as-shit Dido-written ballad “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman.” It was hard to care, though — not only was it nearly impossible to tell the difference between the “newly” sexualized Britney and the old jailbait Britney, but the national mood was not exactly such as could find any kind of cathartic release in the obviously-scripted posturing of a brainless pop-tart.
(Speaking of which: a few months later she also failed to ignite the big screen in Crossroads. Thereby proving herself very nearly the first exception to the rule, established by Elvis and continued by Bowie, Jagger, Prince, Madonna, and even Jon Bon Jovi, that popstar magnetism can be an effective substitute for acting talent: without her producers, writers, choreographers, and makeup staff, she’s just an awkward, oblivious heiress to a long line of Florida Louisiana trailer-trash, unable to make the most basic of good decisions or present herself in anything like an effective manner. But that Britney isn’t part of the musical narrative, except insofar as it contributes to my “blank slate” thesis.)
But what about the album itself? It may not fit well into the larger Britney picture or have much to do with what’s made her fascinating over the past nine years, but is it a coherent, evocative slice of pop in its own right?
I have nothing against dance-pop; in fact I think it’s one of the most glorious genres of music in existence, the fundamental font and origin of all music, and the point at which music has always most directly affected the vast majority of humanity (as a tool for dance, a shot at physical-emotional transcendence, and a prelude to sex). And while my preferences in the dance-pop field may lean more towards disco, swing, funk, and salsa, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the synthesized, hip-hop inflected Eurofunk which was Britney’s bread-and-butter for the first several years of her career. Unfortunately, while it can make for amazing songs, it doesn’t (unless directed by a mastermind) tend to hold up over the course of an album, especially one as scattershot and rote as this.
The opener, “I’m A Slave 4 U,” is a
“Anticipating” is a okay slice of glittery disco (though Jessica Simpson would trump it with the Diana Ross/Janet Jackson/Madonna imitation “A Public Affair”), and closer “What It’s Like To Be Me” edges into the proper zone of ridiculousness that a great Britney Spears song requires, but otherwise the record is characterless, vapid, and unbelievable, with one show-stopping caveat: her absurd cover of “I Love Rock ’N’ Roll,” the most implausible statement ever heard on a Britney album. She doesn’t love rock & roll; it’s questionable whether she even knows what rock & roll is. The robotic, scratch-heavy backing music certainly isn’t it, no matter how many guitars her producer tries to pump up the riff with. Yet the song works as splashy teen-pop camp, as much on the anti-rock level of Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction” as on any other. Of course it wasn’t remotely a hit, any more than a David Cassidy song about the joys of Dixieland would have been: nods to old-fogey culture are never the way to capture the teen market.
So. I can’t imagine anyone who wasn’t thirteen when this record came out loving it today, and I certainly can’t imagine giving two shits about a Britney Spears album in 2008. It’s not a diss, it’s a category error.
MA: I don’t have much to add. I’ve enjoyed Ms. (Mrs? So hard to keep track) Spears’ oeuvre in the past (Well, … Baby One More Time and Toxic) and I certainly appreciate the entertainment value of rockstars all crazy on pills performing antics…
But, yeah, this is dogshit.
96. PJ Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
MA: Whhhoooo! P! J! P! J! P! J! I’m listening to the even numbered albums tonight, and this more than (crossed out) almost (crossed out) EXACTLY makes upfor Death Cab back at # 98. It’s nice to see someone who’s recorded work I’m intimately familiar with, and also am kind of in love with a lot.
I tend to rate music in terms of emotional textures, and what makes P.J. work SO well is the conflicting emotions at work in her stuff. She unloads an anamalistic howl of despair like no British person has ever done but there’s a vulnerable, almost soft side to her voice, too and there’s just a soupcon of irony in the mix, s’well. She really has carved out her own vocal niche, and nobody’s really equaled her in the scary/hurt/funny category.
On the downside, of the Peej albums this is my least favorite, or very close to it. (Possibly the list-maker’s criteria was “most entertaining” rather than most “kick you in the teeth with awesome!”) Her public/artistic persona is, to put it mildly, not generally happy camper-esque but this is her I’m (relatively) happy, everything’s (tenuously) great, I’m in love (for the moment), I’m getting laid (and it’s a bit of alright) album, with songs titled Beautiful Feeling, and This Is Love, and A Place Like Home, and, OK, the Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore. Thank God. It feels STRANGE to this long-time fan. Still, much of this album has a Metallica singing nursery rhymes, or Mister Rogers getting all drunk and beating his dog vibe to it. It’s not what I expect, and change makes me very nervous. Even the guests are weirdly out of character (Thom Yorke of Radiohead sings:
“Night and day
I dream of
To you now baby”
What the? That’s not right! You should be singing about test-tube created souls and flowers tenuously in front of a nuclear plant and stuff. C’mon!)
The thing of it is: PeeJayz strength is pure vocal intensity, and it’s easier to convey that when you’re not all Pollyanna. Basically, her vocal gifts are perfectly suited for relaying horrible fucked-upitedness, and the general good feeling works against her strengths, which also made other weaknesses more apparent. Like, um, some of her lyrics are.. not… all… that good. Which has ALWAYS been true, but I listened to Down By The Water off To Bring You My Love a hundred times just totally caught up in the delivery, going, “Man! The fish took her daughter! Spooky!” before going “fish? Daughter? WTH?” But here lines like
“And it’s the best thing
It’s the best thing
It’s the best thing
A beautiful feeling”
I mean, it’s not a BAD album. It’s stripped down’n and not always happy and since I LIKE Polly so much, once I’m over the shock, it’s kind of nice to hear
“This is love, this is love
That I’m feeling
I can’t believe that life’s so complex
When I just want to sit here and watch you undress”
Awwww… she’s happy. And I totally give Polly Jean props for broadening her emotional range, but it works against her God Given gifts for howling like the devil was on her tail. And I love We Float, all 26 minutes (or whatever) of it, from the growled “Blow your Goddamn brains out” to the soaring “Weee… Float.” But if I were on editor of Entertainment Weekly, I’d have picked Dry, or To Bring You My Love or White Chalk instead of SFTCSFTS. Or all three.
And as a postscript: Quite a few of these songs work much better live than they do on wax. I tagged after Ms. Harvey’s ’04 tour, and some of the songs that splerched with a Thud on CD took up wings and flew. (The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore had more bite, even Beautiful Feeling had a groundedly ecstatic, ethereal/dreamy quality to it.)
JB: Now see, this I can dig. Like Patti Smith, only not boring. I’ve been kind of avoiding looking into PJ Harvey because when I first started getting into music I sampled some stuff off Dry and found it way too dark and harsh for me; but that was ten years ago and I was just becoming okay with “Sympathy For The Devil.” Time to give her another shot, I can see.
And even at that, I can tell that this isn’t anything like a peak. It’s maybe as far as EW is willing to go to meet her, but it ain’t her. Still, even at her most sedate and cheerful here, she impresses as a lyricist, as a composer, and as a vocalist. The only thing I can’t really goodwill my way past is the mostly dull-as-ditchwater instrumentation: I’ve been completely sick of guitar-bass-drums, especially with that dry, funkless indie production, for several years now. I know that places me well outside the normal white-guy music-nerd spectrum — some people seem to get antsy if a frickin’ piano shows up — but I can’t help thinking the onus is on the indie-rockers to stand out, not on me to find a way to be interested.