27/01/2013

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Robert Dimery (editor)
2008

You could argue that the best writing about music - whether your preference is for the academic analysis of Ian MacDonald (Revolution In The Head), the cultural collation of Charles Shaar Murray (Crosstown Traffic) or the scattershot impressionism of Lester Bangs (Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) - transcends its source and becomes valid art in itself. Irrelevant, I say; if I am not inspired to listen to the song, album or artist described, then it can only be deemed a failure.

This book has many flaws but it has unquestionably brought new music to me, and so can only be judged a success. It has taken me over a year to finish, but it has been worth it. I already owned about 350 of the albums in here, but clearly that has left many more waiting to be heard, and for every one of these for which the description was off-putting, there were five that I was keen to find. I've already made a start, albeit a slow one.

That said, it's not perfect. I'm not going to criticise the album choices; this is subjective and therefore argument is pointless. Of course I would have included some and discarded others. I also think that you need to leave at least ten years before you can really judge an album place in history, so all inclusions after 1998 are suspect (Klaxons? purlease). But that's just my opinion.

No, there are other issues with the book. For one thing, the lavish illustrations and quality printing come at a price, and that price is a weight that means I'm constantly worrying about the damage it would do if I dropped it on my foot. I would have swapped the full colour album covers for something that was easier to actually lift.

Clearly a massive undertaking like this is too much for one man, but having almost one hundred contributors leads inevitably to a woeful inconsistency. I consider myself reasonably well-read in the field of music journalism and criticism, but I have only heard of three of these writers. That doesn't bode well, and so it proves. The real problem with this book is the quality of the writing. There are silly proofing errors, like billing Fever To Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs as Forever To Tell. There are illiterate mistakes, like the dogs on the front of Blur's Parklife being described as "toothsome" (which doesn't actually mean "possessing lots of teeth", I'm afraid). There are factual mistakes, like crediting Richard Oakes with the guitar on Suede's Dog Man Star (he joined after the album had been recorded).

Worst of all, there are reams of low-grade inkie-speak, the kind I thought I'd left behind when I discarded NME and Melody Maker. Here's the first paragraph from the piece about U2's The Joshua Tree:
The Joshua Tree marks the point in U2's long and gloriously inconsistent career at which they woke up to the possibilities of studio technology, expanded their sounds from a post-punk chug and found grandeur, abstraction and finesse. Many in U2's enormous fanbase were converted to the cause by the arch wit of their post-Achtung Baby reawakening, but an older, possibly less sophisticated stratum of followers were grabbed by the landscaped songs of The Joshua Tree.
Bear in mind that, given its inclusion in the book, this is supposed to be explaining why this is a good album. Witness the classic third-rate music writer's tricks:

  • random impressive-sounding adjectives - music can be abstract, but this isn't;
  • implicit elevation of one's self above the hoi polloi - pity those poor "less sophisticated" losers who were dumb enough to like U2 following this album;
  • lazy received wisdom - Achtung Baby is always described as witty, ironic or post-modern, when a casual listen easily disproves this;
  • ignorant assertion masquerading as superior knowledge - describing, say, War as a post-punk chug just proves this writer hasn't listened to it; U2 really discovered the studio an album earlier, on The Unforgettable Fire; and they always aspired to grandeur, so to say they only discovered it now is plain wrong.

I think we can surmise from this that the writer - one Joel McIver - doesn't like U2, has never listened to their earlier albums and generally considers himself above such mass-market dross. What a snob. I'm not cross because it's one of my favourite albums, I'm cross because it's a stupid, inaccurate, lazy article.

This drop in standard starts to really kick in when we get to the nineties. My guess is that most of the writers are too young to have experienced the classic albums of earlier decades for themselves, and so their opinions are more balanced. Come 1990, the pieces start to become more shrill and overloaded with pointless adjectives. There are too many occurrences of the phrase "it really is that good" - a typical indication of over-enthusiasm and inarticulacy, usually evoked right before moving onto the next big thing. Reviewers start to assume that they have unique insight into the artist's motives. Then there's the sniffy dismissal of commercial music.

In summary, I'm glad I've read it and I'm really looking forward to hearing the albums mentioned, but if all you really want is some suggestions for music to listen to, do your brain a favour, save some money and just work from the list.

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