Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Very Best (According to Me)

This summer I did some deep musical soul-searching, which for the sake of avoiding repetition, I won't detail (if you need to, go read this, then come back). One of the results of that was a massive expansion of the list of my favorite albums. Previously, I had arbitrarily set the number at 20.

After considering nearly every album I own, that number now sits at 95. Since early August I have steadily been writing up my thoughts on each album for the sidebar link you can see if you just scan your eyes slightly to your right. As of yesterday, I'm done!

A few incidentals and disclaimers regarding the list:

A) As I stated before, this list is not intended to be a list of the greatest albums of all time. There are a lot of albums I would consider great that I didn't put on the list (for example, Paul Simon's Graceland or Def Leppard's Hysteria). I had to have a strong personal connection to the album for it to make the list. That's why, conversely, there are probably some records on there that are really not that great, but for whatever reason are close to my heart.

B) As I also stated before, I made no attempt to have the list be representative of the diversity of pop music in gender, race, or genre. So it's way short on R & B, rap, and female artists. My proclivities lean toward melodic pop, and so does the list. The list isn't even necessarily representative of my tastes, as there are bands that I greatly admire (such as Fountains of Wayne and The Smiths) who didn't place an album.

C) The list is always subject to expansion (of course), but also to contraction. Another thing I discovered this summer is that time can drastically alter even the most objective of feelings about a record.

D) Apparently Jimmy Eat World are my favorite band and 1999 was the best musical year of my life (that was the year I graduated college and moved to Minnesota). Jimmy placed four records on here (The Beatles and Billy Joel tied for second place with three each). And a whopping seven albums from 1999 made the list (1994, 1996, and 2005 tied for second with five each).

So if you get a few minutes, take a look around. Maybe you'll see some that are on your list, too.

Friday, August 16, 2013

And in the End...

(Honks horn) "Ten years, man! Ten! Where have you been for ten years?!"* 

Well, I've been here. I started this blog in November of 2003. Friends were always asking me, "How's the new CD by blank?" I was a music obsessive who loved to write, so I decided CD reviews would be the best way to answer that.

Over the past 9 years and 10 months I have written 400 separate blog entries on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds, nearly 300 of which were album reviews. I created a spinoff site dedicated to pop music films (Baby, I'm a Star; worth exploring sometime if I do say so). I got together with some friends and made lists of our favorite songs from the last four decades (and all of them, by the way, have way more visits than this main site). When I look back at what I've done, I'm really proud.

But it's no secret that my production on this blog has slowed way down. There are logistical reasons for this, as I explained in my last post, but it's more than just family and a waning interest in seeking out new artists. I started 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds to write CD reviews, and in the years that I've been doing that, I've developed a very contentious relationship with the idea of "reviewing" art.

If you'll notice, the last time I wrote a review of a newly released album was in August of 2011 (It was "Weird Al"'s Alpocalypse, which I reviewed only to stay up-to-date on a project that involved reviewing all of his albums). The last new album reviews before that were one each in February, March and April of 2010. In fact, the last time I consistently wrote about new music was early 2009. That's more than four years ago. In that time, I've focused mostly on research-heavy pieces about older music (in the form of every-album reviewed projects on The Monkees, XTC, "Weird Al") and my Rock Bottom and Rock Solid entires.

Like I said, there are outside factors at play in the decline of my posting frequency, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the change in my reviewing habits happened around the time I wrote my epic So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Critic series. In those essays, I bitterly railed against the pomposity, self-loathing, and negativity of rock music criticism. It may have seemed like that vitriol came from nowhere, but a careful look through my posts shows that I've been struggling with it almost since the start.

My review of The Exploding Hearts' album Guitar Romantic, written in November 2003 (the month I started the blog), began thusly: "There are three things about CD reviews that I dislike." The three things were 1) use of the second person, 2) comparisons to other artists, and 3) overreaching to connect the record to a larger social context. The joke was that I went on to do those exact three things in my review. But the groundwork for my dissatisfaction was laid out, and it only built up from there.

In the following summer (June 2004), I spent half of my review of The Delays' Faded Seaside Glamour having a two-part existential crisis. One part of it involved the limited vocabulary of rock criticism, namely the overreliance on artist comparisons I mentioned earlier. The other was about the pitfalls of constantly seeking out new artists to follow (a prescient concern given my current feelings that it's rarely worth my time). I ended these musings with a resolution to write reviews that focused on my own personal reaction to the music, mixed with some history of the band/recording. Looking back, this was my attempt to deal with my misgivings. And it worked for awhile, though I didn't necessarily stick to my resolution.

That fall, I took critic Jody Rosen to task for his (in my opinion) unnecessarily harsh review of The Thrills' second album Let's Bottle Bohemia. My big issue with his criticism is that he seemed to be reviewing his perception of the intention behind the music rather than the music itself. Things were quiet for the next couple of years, though it's worth noting that my output dropped by half during this time. But in April 2007 my issues resurfaced. Similar to what happened with Rosen, I took to task two different critic's reviews of Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather. In this case I felt both reviewers approached the album with chips on their shoulders. One didn't even attempt to hide the fact that he hated the band. The other claimed to be a fan at one time, but thinks they sold out by having a hit song (a typical rock snob complaint).

That fall, in looking at Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight, I once again returned to that idea of artist comparisons, railing against the practice (which critics employed even more than usual in their reviews of this particular album) by purposefully writing a review without doing it. Then the next month I finally broke. In response to a particularly nasty Pitchfork review of Matt Pond PA's Last Light, I wrote a point-by-point takedown of the reviewer's complaints. Among the issues: The aforementioned "innate hatred of the artist you're reviewing", a misplaced emphasis on relevance, a pretentious questioning of who actually listens to the band, a suggestion that the band shouldn't exist, and, yes, lazy comparisons to other artists.

It stops there, but in 2008 the blog made a big shift. The posts started looking backwards rather than forward (I started the Rock Bottom series, the 12 By... lists, and The Beatles album reviews). I sprinkled new reviews in sporadically, but much less than before. The next year came So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Critic. I suppose my hope at the time was that the form of music reviewing could be elevated, after all, most music criticism isn't inherently lazy or pompous. I was describing an ideal, not that I would necessarily be the one to carry it out.

In the last few years my attitude hasn't improved. The problems I wrote about were fixable, but not only have I continued to see the same mistakes made, my problems have grown deeper. There's the usual stuff:  Reviewers parrot each other's opinions, creating the illusion of objective truth in  personal reactions to an album. The reviews are written on deadline, leading to superficial snap judgements. Print reviews are woefully short (Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone reviews are often less than three sentences), putting a premium on quippy dismissals and an overemphasis on the final grade. Negativity rules the day (e.g. New music is compared unfavorably with past work, unless it sounds too much like past work, then it's pegged as lacking innovation). But there's also the question of why album reviews even exist (that's a teaser; I'll get there soon).

At this point my feelings about most music reviews are similar to my feelings about the daily comics page: Both make me viscerally angry in their vapidity and wasted potential. Is it any wonder I don't want to be part of that anymore?

In one of the rare well-written reviews I've read lately, Ryan Dombal's piece on Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City, I learned that the band's lead singer, Ezra Koenig, had a blog when he was in college. One of his posts was a takedown of critic Robert Christgau, specifically his illogical hatred of Billy Joel's music (an issue close to my heart). The whole entry is worth reading, especially when you consider this is coming from someone who would go on to have his albums reviewed by Christgau, but the parts that stuck out to me were as follows:
- "Grading albums like homework is lame." 
- "Here's the big question: Is there any point in negative criticism? I can see the point in positive criticism. There is just too much art out there. It is helpful to hear about cool, new art from someone you trust. It encourages you to check it out. Presumably, after checking it out you will decide for yourself if you like it. Negative criticism will only prevent you from checking it out and thus deciding for yourself."
I'll get to Koenig's first point, but his second where I want to start. Now I don't really agree with him, but he does being up a valid point. Going back briefly to my own personal tour through the past, in April of 2006 I revisited an album I thought I loved: Phish's Billy Breathes. In relistening 10 years after its release, I found that my ardor for the album had cooled considerably. And this isn't an isolated phenomenon. I've found recently that many of the albums I thought I loved I really don't.

For music criticism to be reliable, it has to hold up most of the time, doesn't it? I'd think so. This led me to take a look at the man in the mirror. I went back through every review I've written. I recorded the grade and then recorded what level I'd put it at, in accordance with my newly revealed tiers of album quality. I assumed that if I gave something an A (plus, plain, or minus) that it would likely fall into the top tier. B's would go into tiers 2 and 3. And C and below would be a bottom-dwelling tier 4 album.

I didn't give out a crazy amount of A's, only about a third of the time. Considering that I tend to want to write about things I like, this is not that much. But when I look now, only 38% of those A's I gave still hold today. So well over half of those albums I once adored fell to tier 2 or lower. The B's, which I gave half of the time, held better, with about 78% of the albums staying at that level (and a handful gaining status over time). Of the C's and D's I handed out (I never gave an F), all held.

Conclusion? I was clearly overly generous as a reviewer. This is no surprise to me. I'm the person who has difficulty admitting a movie I've just watched was terrible. I have to get over the fact that I spent time and money on a bad choice before I can admit that to myself. This is where Koenig's ideal doesn't quite hold up. I can play hype man for an album that catches my eye, but if I can't guarantee I'll still feel that way down the road, what good was my positive criticism? I suppose he would say all I did was give other people the opportunity to see if they felt the same, but PR man is not the role I thought I was playing.

One might say my downgrading of albums over time is simply a matter of refined taste and higher standards, but that's sort of self-serving. I think the real issue is the fact that I simply didn't spend enough time with the albums before rendering judgement. Really, how many listens does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of an album? How long before I can decide that it's a truly worthwhile piece of art? I can be infatuated after a handful of listens, but what besides time will tell me if that infatuation is actually love? People tend to cynically think of love as something that overwhelms in the beginning and then diminishes gradually over time. But true love strengthens and deepens over time.

This is where I think the business side of music criticism often fails. A critic listens to an album a couple of times and writes their review to have it posted or published in a timely manner. It's not feasible to wait the two or three years it might take to truly know where you stand on an album (This is why so many critics are initially negative about an established artist's new work; they simply haven't spent as much time with the new work as they have the older stuff). So the writer becomes a servant of disposable culture. Now, as I wrote in my last piece on my changing listening habits, I don't believe every album has to stand the test of time. There's room for quick crushes and disposability, but, again, that's not how I want to spend my writing time.

As for Koenig's questioning of negative criticism, I'd argue that there is value in a negative review when it's clearly substantiated and comes from the right place. Take Sasha Frere-Jones piece on Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail. He's harsh, but not mean, and his criticism serves a higher purpose, namely calling out Jay Z for wasting his talent and influence on what Frere-Jones sees as underachieving vapidity. Is this going to cloud some people's judgement of the album? Maybe. But maybe there are cases where that needs to happen. And I was never going to buy the record in the first place, so as a reader I just got to sit back and enjoy Frere-Jones' beatdown.

However, there are plenty of reasons not to indulge in negative criticism, and many reviewers don't make any distinction. A partial list: You hate the artist, you hate the genre, you hate popular artists, you define yourself by what you don't like instead of what you do like, you believe every artist goes into an inevitable decline, or you had unrealistic expectations. Even so, I understand why critics go negative. It's the better bet, as the 100% negativity rate in my own reviews will attest. It's rarer for hatred to turn to love, if only because you're unlikely to continue to give an album listening opportunities if you've already decided you don't like it.

And while I agree with Koenig's essential point that you should make your own decision about works of art, I don't believe that negative criticism necessarily gets in the way of that. If you are so put off by a review of an album that you don't even bother to listen to its song samples, then I question how serious you were about buying it in the first place. If you do listen for yourself and find that the writer's criticisms are gnawing at you, then that would tell me that the criticisms were valid. If it doesn't bother you, then there's no harm done. Example: The Onion AV Club's Kyle Ryan gave Jimmy Eat World's latest album, Damage, a middling review, finding some bright spots but ultimately labeling it anonymous and unmemorable. Now, I've loved and followed Jimmy Eat World for 16 years, so there was no way I wasn't going to listen for myself. When I did, I had Ryan's criticisms in mind at first, yes, but ultimately I found they didn't apply for me. I'm also the person whose favorite David Bowie album is considered his worst.

All that said, I still sympathize with Koenig's point. I discovered a clear downside to negative criticism when a couple of Twin Cities artists (Vicious Vicious and The Honeydogs) reposted my reviews of their albums on their websites. Both reviews were positive, but both also contained flippant dismissals of the artists' past work. Knowing that both artists had read my words took away the distance of "celebrity" one associates with recording artists. And knowing that I might have hurt the feelings of the artists with my casual, unconsidered assessments was not a good feeling. In both cases, I apologized (one personally, one publicly). This is in no way to say that one needs to be starstruck and deferential, but starting from a place of basic human decency can't be a bad thing.

And now back, finally, to Koenig's point about grading. Here I totally agree with him. This isn't school; artists aren't students. The only reason to have a letter grade is to serve as a tool for recommendation. If you don't believe that's what music criticism is primarily for, as I don't, then it's pointless. A part of me would love to go back through all my reviews and remove the grades. However, I'm not going to do it. For one, it's a slippery slope toward doing other revisions. Then the next thing you know I'm George Lucas' fucking up the original Star Wars trilogy. Some things should just be left to stand, perceived flaws and all.

The bottom line is that I have come to believe that rock criticism should be more literary analysis than book review. It should focus on discovery, information, and personal experience, not assessment. And a good review should never be the primary reason someone buys an album, even if every critic in the world rhapsodizes over it (there are lots of factors at play as to why this might happen; actual quality is only one of them). Reaction to any given work of art is highly personal and subjective. I'm fully convinced that any given album can be considered a masterpiece to someone out there given the right condition. And that feeling is, more often than not, nontransferable. We see this in our inconsistent reactions to others' recommendations. Jonathan Lethem, a writer I greatly admire, rapturously talked up a band called The Winterpills. I sought them out because of his descriptions. I listened with an open heart and I was thoroughly bored. Lethem may not have explicitly given a recommendation, but I took it as one anyway, and it didn't work out. Not that there isn't value in reading about something someone really loves; there's a certain beauty in that sort of writing. The problem is that often writer and reader present and perceive, respectively, opinions as facts.

Maybe, then, we should read good music criticism for the sake of good music criticism. And avoid the rest of it.

And that's why I gave up new music reviews. That's what I was subconsciously trying to get at with the blog's turn toward nostalgia pieces. The shift allowed me to take on the role of impartial outside observer (Rock Solid, Rock Bottom) or write about records I'd spent years with, so I didn't have to worry about misrepresenting them.

Unfortunately, at this point, all of my nostalgia series are completed. I have no big ideas on the horizon besides completing  the My Favorite Albums sidebar. So, it's likely to be quiet around here for awhile. I'm not going to do make a big deal and call it "retirement" like an attention-seeking actor or athlete, because I don't like the finality of that.

On their final album, The Beatles wrote their own epitaph: "And in the end / the love you take / I equal to the love you make." Then an accidental bonus track about the Queen of England (Her Majesty) messed that up. And then Let It Be came out. Music reviews may not be my thing anymore, but I'm sure I've still got some hidden bonus tracks and old session tapes in me.

*(A pat on the back to anyone who can correctly identify the quote without using a search engine.)

Monday, August 05, 2013

Time May Change Me

This November marks the 10th anniversary of this blog. When I started the blog (under its original name, Pop Life), I was 26-years-old and starting my first year as a teacher. I was perennially single, living in a one bedroom apartment near Uptown Minneapolis. I bought two or three CDs a week, minimum.

As I write today, I'm 36. I've been married for five years, and I have two sons, aged 3 1/2 and 4 months. I live in a three bedroom house in Saint Paul. I buy, at most, 5 physical CDs a year. I download one new album every 3 weeks, on average.

I share this to illustrate a couple of points. One is that my music consumption has declined significantly. There are a host of factors contributing to that decline, but above all it's time. I'll touch on this a bit more later, but it's not my main concern.

The other point involves technology, namely the rise of the mp3. The iTunes Store actually made its debut the same year as this blog, and the resultant availability of legally purchased music has revolutionized everything for me. At that point I had spent a good 10 years building a massive collection of CDs (LPs, too, but we'll get to them later), and the change, which somehow seemed both gradual and swift, was lost on me at first. I was reluctant to let CDs go; I've always been a collector and amasser. Also, being a fan of cautionary science fiction from the '50s and '60s, I was also wary of trusting my entire music collection to a machine.

So, it wasn't until about four years ago that I gave myself over almost fully to digital purchases. It just made sense, both economically and spatially. And once I realized I could live without the physical object, those two-thousand plus CDs sitting on my shelf started to seem silly. I realized that my Sony 5-disc changer was going months without use. And once I worked out being able to play my iPod in my car, well, my CDs became all but obsolete. They were basically space-consuming back-ups. Why would I buy more of them?

I also applied this revelation retroactively, and began culling my collection. Over the last three years I have gotten rid of over half of my CD collection. I ripped the tracks to iTunes, and sold off the plastic.

(Note: I have that collector's gene, so there are still a few artists that still get a CD buy, even if it's only to keep the full run intact: Fiona Apple, Ben Folds/Five, Death Cab For Cutie, Fountains of Wayne, Honeydogs, Jimmy Eat World, Kaiser Chiefs, Sloan, U2, Rufus Wainwright, Robbie Williams)

Technology has also changed the way I react to my music, though this isn't so easily explained. In past years, I've explored my changing attitudes towards albums on this very blog. Previously I was an album guy. I wanted front-to-back masterpieces, not a handful of tracks I loved and a bunch of others that bored me to tears. In recent years I've started to gain more appreciation for albums that hit some big highs, even if they don't sustain them. I blame technology for that. When one has the ability to create their own versions of albums with a few clicks, perfection is less important.

But, lately, as I'll explain later, I've found myself going back on that a bit. In the process of navigating these two viewpoints I've gained a wider appreciation of both. For example, The Postal Service's Give Up (also released 10 years ago) is not a masterpiece, but it does have some unforgettable moments. It can't be dismissed outright, even if it doesn't belong on an all-time album list.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Another side effect of technology on my listening goes back to that appreciation of the physical object. If there's a danger with the proliferation of digital music, it's that undervalue it. Even if we pay good money for a set of songs, they take up no physical space and are therefore easy to forget. Skimming through my iTunes, I regularly come across albums I forgot I even bought. Sure, CDs and albums got ignored before downloading, but they were still there on the shelf, leering and reminding you of their presence.

Partly this phenomenon of losing track of albums is a personal one, owing mostly to my own proclivity for excess. Even before I had an iPod I was a quantity guy. As I said, during my heyday, I bought a lot of CDs. A LOT. At one point I had a whole separate CD spinner rack devoted solely to albums I hadn't listened to yet. This brings us back to time. I'm a dad now. I have three additional people sharing my space. Music can be a uniter of people, for sure, but the act of truly listening to and absorbing an album is a solitary one. So with less time to listen, I've had to be more choosy not only about new albums, but about which albums I go back and spend more time with.

But this summer I've had the chance to go back to my old excessive ways. My wife's maternity leave ended just in time for me to take over care of baby Theo for the summer.  Our older son goes to daycare, my wife to work, which means I'm at home with an infant who gets no say in what we listen to. And unlike past summers where I've busied myself with home projects or post-graduate work, I had an open slate. What that has meant is a lot of listening, and a lot of thinking about what I've listened too.

See, as my CD buying has dwindled over the last few years, I've developed a new buying system. If an album really knocks me out, I want to own it. But instead of buying the CD, I buy it on vinyl. Now I'm no audiophile (no one with one working ear, Brian Wilson excepted, can reasonably claim t be), but I love vinyl. I love the active nature of the experience: Pulling it from the sleeve, watching it spin, flipping sides, looking at those big old covers and lyric sheets. (Nostalgia for my record-playing youth is no doubt a factor, too.)

So you could say that new music listening technology has inadvertently benefited as supposedly outdated one. Here's my logic: The problems the music industry had been working to solve since the dawn of 8 tracks and cassettes are gone now. You can take your music anywhere, and you can have as much of it as you want, thousands of songs in your pocket. While this is great, those of us who still want a tactile, quality-driven experience have returned to the format that did it best. We can have it both ways. Thanks to my years of prodigious buying, I have nearly 20,000 songs on my iTunes. Enough to listen for 51 days straight and never hear the same song twice (unless it's a remix, demo, or live version). I've got my quantity. LPs are my quality.

Part of my listening this summer has involved going through my older LPs and deciding what can go and what must stay. In doing this, I realized that I have unconsciously developed a four tier system of album assessment. I'd like to share that with you.

Tier 1: Vinyl
This, of course, is what I've just been describing. Since vinyl is not a medium that lends itself easily to skipping songs, you want something that's quality front to back. Note that some albums may be vinyl-worthy, but because they came out in the dark age of 1991-2005, they may not be available on vinyl, making the category title a slight misnomer. As I said, these tiers work retroactively, so one thing I did when reevaluating my LPs was to decide if something was really worth having on vinyl. That led, logically, to me wanting to fill in the blanks of albums I want to own on vinyl. Yay! Record shopping!

In terms of new albums, in the three years since I started my vinyl policy, I've only bought five new records in that format: The Cars' Move Like This (since I had all their other albums on vinyl already), Adele's 21, The Decemberists' The King is Dead, Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth, and Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City. That last one, being so recent, was my only gamble. The others I let marinate for about a year before pulling the trigger. I really like the Vampire Weekend album, but I wouldn't have bought it this early had I not found it for very cheap at a record store.

In case you are thinking practically, yes, this means I might end up buying these albums twice. Ideally I'd get it on the cheap digitally and then make the further investment in the vinyl. There are other ways around this (Spotify, Rdio, streaming, illegal downloads), but I'm okay paying twice, especially if it happens as infrequently as it does.

Overall, these are the albums that should make my all-time list. More on that soon.

Tier 2: CD
Obviously a step down. The CD is worth keeping, either as part of a collection, or because it was a gift, or because I like it, just not enough to take the next step up to vinyl. The album itself may have some slight flaws.

Tier 3: Digital only (Entire album)
This tier is very similar to the previous one, with the main difference likely being that I bought it post-2010. It's a good album, worth keeping fully intact on iTunes or my iPod, or both. It's just not good enough to compel me to need to study a lyric sheet or piece or cover art, or that I am terribly sad if I forget to listen to it, thus the slightly lower status.

Tier 4: Digital only (Selected tracks)
In this case I've dismantled the album for parts. It's most likely a record that really didn't connect for whatever reason, but that contained somewhere between one and five songs worth saving for playlists or random shuffle appearances. The rest of the songs have been deleted without remorse.

As I go over these categories I find that there's next to nothing that won't fit fairly neatly in one of them. The next step in my thinking relates to this blog. For several years I've had two sidebars. One titled My 20 Favorite Albums and another called Yearly Album Lists. The former is self-explanatory. The latter is a collection of the albums I liked best each year from 1963 on. In developing my tiers, I decided to look back and see if they matched up. I would expect, of course, that my favorite albums list would all land in the vinyl category, and that at least 90% of the yearly top 10 lists would as well. I was right about the favorites list, but the yearly albums one had a wrinkle. In looking over the list, I discovered there was that many of the albums I'd chosen I hadn't listened to since the year they came out. With my summer listening opportunity, this was the perfect chance to remedy that.

As of today, I've finished that process, and boy was it illuminating. Two takeaways: One is that I need to expand my Favorite Albums list beyond 20. That process is going to be starting soon. The other was that my yearly album lists were useless beyond being historical artifacts. I was shocked to find how many albums I thought would be in the vinyl tier now barely would qualify for the digital only.

Here's where I could take a huge navel-gazing detour into the way our perceptions of music (and indeed, all forms of popular art) change over time. I could postulate the complex reasons why this might happen. I could muse upon the way we always consider our current self a finished product, when in fact life experience shows us the folly of that way of thinking.

No matter what, I don't blame myself or these albums for their tumble in stature. I truly did feel something strong for them in that past moment in time, and that's not worthless. It's sort of like an ex; you can fondly remember why and how much you liked them, you just don't actually feel it anymore. I just didn't expect there to be so many exes! Albums such as The Shins' Wincing the Night Away, Kylie Minogue's Fever, The Jealous Sound's Kill Them With Kindness, and James Iha's Let It Come Down all made the top spot in their respective years, but from my current perspective none of them made a good enough case for moving out of the CD tier. The most shocking case of this for me was Radiohead's OK Computer. I can still appreciate it as a work of art, but the connection was gone. That was alarming and surprising.

(Let me interject here that I know that not every piece of creativity we digest needs to be complex, perfect, and part of the permanent canon. It's okay to have some junk food in our reading/watching/listening diet. This is another place where digital music has greatly served mankind: Guilty pleasures are now easier to access, because now it takes nothing but a click to enjoy some Adam Lambert or Rihanna, whereas in the past you'd have to seek out the entire album and have that thing sitting in your collection. I'm not certain, but I believe this is how normal people regard various forms of entertainment: It's there to be consumed, disposed of, and not overthought. I'm not normal, though, so it's a bit of a bitter pill when you have limited time to devote to pop culture, to spend it on something "bad". However, I recognize that expecting perfection is not realistic.)

But let's not focus on the negative. Instead, let's look to the future. I've eliminated the Yearly Albums List sidebar. It's too inaccurate to keep live. I'll leave the lists that I've been posting every year since 2004 in the Review Index, but that's as far as I'm going. And, as I said, I'm going to be expanding that Favorite Albums list beyond 20. Final number to be determined.

A couple of caveats:
1) I'm fully convinced that any given album can be considered a masterpiece to someone out there. Reaction to art, afterall, is subjective. So I would never put this list forth as anything definitive of anything other than my own personal preferences. That's why it's called MY Favorite Albums.

2) As such, my own list makes no attempt to be comprehensive, certainly not of pop music history (I've got nothing before 1965), nor even of my own tastes (favorite bands like Fountains of Wayne and Kaiser Chiefs don't have a single album that made it over the hump, though Welcome Interstate Managers and Yours Truly, Angry Mob both came damn close). Nor have I worried about getting a balance of gender, race, or genre. Let's face it, I'm a white guy with a weakness for melodic pop music. The list leans that way.

My loose criteria for judging an album is as follows: Great cover art, expert flow, emotional truth, 10% or less filler (no filler is just short of a myth; there are always going to be songs you like a bit less than others), and a strong finish. Plus that certain je ne sais quoi. This is all evaluated by a panel of judges that includes my past selves and my current self. My future self doesn't get a say yet, though I'm sure he'll weigh in eventually. As such, the side bar is a constant work in progress, to be amended or contracted at any time.

This whole process of considering the sea change in my music consumption habits and my new criteria for album quality have shaken loose some other thoughts. I'll be sharing those soon.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rock Solid: The Beatles

"If you only own one album by The Beatles it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
 one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

For over 30 years - from 1967 to 2000 - there was a no-brainer answer to which Beatles album was considered the best: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Duh. There was little argument about this; it was the accepted storyline. In fact, many claimed it as not only the best Beatles album, but the best album OF ALL TIME!

So what happened in 2000? Well, Q Magazine released a list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever, and of course The Beatles were at the top. But not Sgt. Pepper. Instead its predecessor, Revolver, got the nod. No big deal, a contrarian fluke, right? Well, a year later, VH1 and Virgin both followed in Q's footsteps, naming Revolver the best album of all time. Suddenly what was once a lopsided blowout had become a closely contested game!

Last year Rolling Stone attempted to correct course on the narrative by putting Sgt. Pepper back on top of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, with Revolver at a lowly #3. Then just this past June, Entertainment Weekly fired another shot across the bow, putting Revolver at the head of their 100 Greatest All Time Albums list, AND LEAVING SGT. PEPPER COMPLETELY OFF! (This despite the presence of 3 other Beatles albums on the list).

Has history changed, right before our very eyes? The only real way to find out is our tried and (partially) true Rock Solid method.

First, we look at the All Music Guide. According to them, every official Beatles studio album except 1970's Let It Be is a five star masterpiece. Besides being untrue, it's also unhelpful. We're left to parse what we can from the reviews themselves. Luckily, there are two statements that stand out. In the review of Sgt. Pepper Stephen Thomas Erlewine states (emphasis mine): "It's possible to argue that there are better Beatles albums, yet no album is as historically important as this." And in regards to Revolver: "Even after Sgt. Pepper, Revolver stands as the ultimate modern pop album." After some careful parsing, it sounds to me like All Music is calling it in favor of Revolver.

Thankfully Amazon.com reviewers agree. They bestowed four and a half stars on nearly every Beatles album, but considering the percentage of 5 star reviews, Revolver tops them all with 83%. (By this measure Sgt. Pepper actually came in sixth place overall, behind Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, A Hard Day's Night, and the White Album.) And thus we have consensus. Revolver is the best Beatles album.

But why?

Erlewine says Revolver's "daring sonic adventures and consistently stunning songcraft set the standard for what pop/rock could achieve." He also believes that The Beatles' feat of making an album that flows "perfectly" and yet incorporates several musical styles is a "miracle".

Amazon.com reviewers are similarly praiseful:
  • Mike London: "Everything that made The Beatles great is here in the right proportions."
  • Jack Wolverton: "The album is flawless from every note played to every word sung, it's seemless [sic] and timeless."
  • Paperbackwriter: "A mind boggling college of perfect songcraft and sheer sonic joy."
  • A Kid's Review: "If you are a (classic) rock fan and do not have this album, HANG YOUR HEAD IN SHAME."
  • A Customer: "Of COURSE it's a masterpiece. Just listen to it! Oh, and if a little troll from Norway comes along to tell you differently, kindly lead him back to the gangsta rap section."
Amazon.com reviewers are also aware of the "all time best" debate and reference it in their reviews:
  • H. Jin: "If you consider that Sgt. Pepper is mainly a consolidation of these experiments rather than an artistic breakthrough in its own right, you could argue that Revolver is The Beatles' best album. Certainly, in terms of a deliberate redefining of the band's sound, ambition and (most importantly) image, it can be regarded as their most significant." (Question: Is image really the most important thing here?)
  • Janan Ganesh: "Rubber Soul is entertaining but lacks ambition, Sgt. Pepper is pretentious and unfulfilling, Abbey Road is sporadically brilliant but more often indulgent, and the White Album is just poor. Revolver, however, is a masterpiece." (So, Revolver is ambitious, unpretentious, fulfilling, non-indulgent, and rich, but Janan Ganesh is not really much of a Beatles fan.)
  • Dustin D. Boucher (who goes by the nickname "ledzeppelin6785"): "The Beatles' Revolver is without a doubt the best album put out by The Beatles or anybody." (Really, Dustin, even better than Coda?)
  • Donaldo: "In the words of both John Lennon & George Martin (this is not verbatim): "We never topped Revolver" ---- ' nuff said." (Donaldo, I'm going to need to see your sources.)
  • Randy Scott Bailin: "Who can say what's best? Art is and always will be subjective." (Shush, Randy! You're making too much sense!)
What fascinates me more than the debate between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper (both albums have their merits, so I don't strongly feel one way or the other) is fact of the shift itself. Why does critical and popular opinion suddenly favor the former, disfavor the latter, or both?

Is it the inevitable contrarian backlash against Sgt. Pepper being considered "the best" for such a very long time? I wouldn't put this past the rock critic majority.

Is it the fact that the (mostly) guitar pop of Revolver seems more modern and relevant than the vaudevillain psychedelic pop of Sgt. Pepper? Maybe, but if that's the case you'd think the White Album would have ascended, since it presages indie rock (Dear Prudence), alt-country (Bungalow Bill), hard rock (Birthday), and heavy metal (Helter Skelter).

Is it the realization that, for all its ambition and audacity, Sgt. Pepper has arguable weak points (Lovely Rita, Within You Without You)? Perhaps Revolver's consistency made it the tortoise to Sgt. Pepper's hare.

Maybe it's a combination of all three. I honestly don't know. I do know that when I reviewed all of The Beatles' albums back in aught eight, I gave perfect scores to four of them: A Hard Day's Night, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road. I still feel that way, though depending on which way the wind is blowing, I can be talked into including the White Album, if only for its sheer breadth. But my personal favorite is and likely always will be Abbey Road. It's got the individual songs, the ambition, the emotion, the cover art, and the songwriting balance to be worth returning to over and over.

Who knows, maybe in 2033 it'll will overtake Revolver as the consensus best album of all time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Rock Solid: Madonna

"If you only own one album by Madonna it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
 one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Let's start by acknowledging the fact that Madonna doesn't have a masterpiece album. There's no transcendent Thriller, no Rumours, no Purple Rain in her catalog.

She does, however, have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to singles. In fact, the simplest way to determine her Rock Solid would be to figure out which album had the most hit singles (1986's True Blue, with five hits including three #1s), and then call it a day. But here at 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds, we don't like to do things the simplest way, we like to overcomplicate and obfuscate. So here that goes.

The All Music Guide is fairly high on Madonna's ouvre, giving no less than 8 of her 12 studio albums four stars or more. Well, only one got more, actually. That was Like a Prayer, her 1989 opus, which recieved 4.5 stars. On Amazon.com the same 8 albums boast 4.5 overall ratings, with Like a Prayer winning the percentage game with 78% 5 star reviews.

Good ol' Erlewine at AMG says that Like a Prayer is Madonna's "most explicit attempt at a major artistic statement." He says that through the array of styles on the album, the material girl "displays a commanding sense of songcraft, making this her best and most consistent album." Hey Steve, don't do all my work for me, okay?

Amazon.com reviewers echoed Erlewine's assessment. Renni writes: "to me this is the best Madonna album, in this album she deliver the good, and proof that she is a legend alive. and she rock all over........". Bobby believes that Like a Prayer's "emotional, spiritual, and cultural impact remain unrivaled to this very day." And deliciouskarma states that "it would be almost impossible for anyone to disagree that this album is her masterpiece." Deliciouskarma also believes that the album stands with Thriller and Purple Rain as part of the "Holy Trinity of Pop Music Albums" (I guess I should be embarrassed about my opening paragraph, then).

And the raves just keep on coming. Cubdukat says, "If I had to be stuck with just one Madonna album, I would have to make it this one." Yes, and if I had to be stuck with one review of this album, I would have to make it that one. Chazzyb asserts that "anyone who is shallow and ignorant will find nothing enjoyable in this album, because they can not relate to it...it is an album for people who have a deep pool of thoughts." Daniel Jolley concludes that Like a Prayer is "vastly superior to Madonna's previous albums" and then muddies it all up by saying, "I easily recognize this fact, but, in general, I prefer the fun dance songs of earlier years to the poignant, beautiful music that typifies this album."

Finally, there's Mimi Mimi's review: "This is Madonna's best CD! I always have sex on it! At the end during Art of Contribution [sic] I always have my orgasm."

Ahem, okay, well, let's take a moment to compose ourselves.

As seems to be typical, I agree to a point. Like a Prayer is an enjoyable album, whether you're having sex on it or not. But it doesn't even approach anything like perfection. To my ear, it's about half great, one-third mediocre, and one-fifth terrible.

The Good:
The album opens with the strong 1-2 punch of the title track and Express Yourself. Cherish is one of my favorite Madonna songs, just a pure expression of joy. Dear Jessie recalls '60s psychedelic pop in all the best ways; on an album with a Prince collaboration (see below), it's hard to believe that this isn't it, considering it's right in line with his Beatley Around the World in a Day phase. And Oh Father is one of Madonna's best ballads.

The Okay:
Til Death Do Us Part is energetic but lightweight. Promise to Try is obviously heartfelt, but never makes the leap that great ballads do. Spanish Eyes features perhaps the rawest Madonna vocal you'll hear, but is backed by an incongruously slick generic pop sound. And Keep It Together is just a slightly tired R & B workout.

The Bad:
Love Song, the aforementioned collaboration and duet with Prince, is improbably awful. You'd have to figure that putting these two together in their primes would have automatically resulted in something amazing. Maybe they thought that too, and failed to try very hard. Or maybe they were just too busy getting it on (there's no way that didn't happen, right?). At any rate, it's not really a duet since they sing together most of the time, and compositionally it's overlong and meandering. There are some elements that are interesting (such as the build-up to the "chorus"), but it never gets near fulfilling its pedigree and potential. And album closer Act of Contrition is basically this album's Revolution 9, a dissonant sound collage. Like Revolution 9 it's grating, but thankfully shorter. Fans have pointed out its mildly clever conceit (Madonna trying and failing to get into Heaven), but that doesn't make it any easier to listen to.

My personal Madonna Rock Solid has to be 1998's Ray of Light. While being completely different from the rest of her catalog both musically and lyrically, it also sums her up: Forward-thinking, expectation-defying, hit-producing (the title track, Nothing Really Matters, The Power of Goodbye, Frozen). It's no Rumours or Purple Rain, but it's likely the closest we'll ever get.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Rock Solid: Jay-Z

"If you only own one album by Jay-Z it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

One could argue pretty convincingly that Jay-Z is a singles artist above all else, if only because it acknowledges his memorable guest appearances on other artists' songs. Few could argue against the notion that the majority of his albums have been mediocre experiences, and that his filler-to-classic ratio is way off. I suppose that makes it even more important to recognize those times that Jigga actually was able to put it all together.

So, for the heavyweight title of Jay-Z's best album, there was a furious match between his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt and 2001's The Blueprint. They stepped into the ring with perfect 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide and identical 4.5 fan ratings from Amazon.com. The fight went 12 rounds, and the judges' decision came down to percentages. In the end, Reasonable Doubt won the decision, with 85% 5 star ratings compared to The Blueprint's 66%.

That means for the third time in a row (and the 6th time overall) an artist's debut is named their best album. Now, given that I have only agreed with the choice in 2 of the cases, this might provide me a soapbox to talk about the dual scourges of nostalgia and "older-is-better" in rock criticism. But in this particular case there's something else at work, as you'll see. But first, let's look at what the All Music Guide had to say. Steve Huey writes that, in Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z produced "an instant classic of a debut, detailing his experiences on the streets with disarming honesty, and writing some of the most acrobatic rhymes heard in quite some time."

Okay, fair enough. How about our intrepid Amazon.com reviewers? Well, there's a startlingly clear theme running through their thoughts on Reasonable Doubt. It can be summarized thusly: "I think Jay-Z sux and is too commercial, but this album is awesome." Now part of this could be attributed to "hipster rock snob rules" wherein any amazingly popular artist must automatically be considered crap (exceptions: Radiohead, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan). Under these rules it's often customary to single out and champion one album that somehow defies the rest of the artist's career (see also: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection.) Witness:

  • Scott D. Gribble: "This is a classic, and would recommend it highly for people who HATE Jay-Z. Trust me and others, he's a completely different rapper here..."
  • A Customer: "Nowadays, when most people think of Jay-Z they think of the commercialized rapper who brought us commercialized songs on commercialized beats with commercialized lyrics like Change Clothes or Big Pimpin. When the album was released in 1996, Jay was making an album to show the world his skills, not to put a video on MTV."
  • The One and Only Eric: "This album is what made Jay-Z into a respected, talented lyricist, NOT a commercial rapper. If Jay-Z could've stayed with this philosophy that he used for Reasonable Doubt for all his albums, he would be the best rapper IMO without a doubt."
  • Stevey Wundar: "Jay-Z's masterpiece -- but for truschool hiphop fans only! This is from before Hov's crossover 2 mainstream so don't expect 2 get'cha party on wit dis CD."
  • Robbie V: "This isn't pop music -- there are pop elements to it, but on the whole this album serves as a portrait of Jay-Z the hustler and not Jay Z the dynasty. The lyrics in nearly ALL of the songs on this album are infinitly more complicated and introspective then the majority of songs on any of his other records."

Get it? Jay-Z committed the crime of getting too popular. I could understand this attitude if it were still 2000 and Jay had just put out The Dynasty, and hit number one with I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me). At that point Jay had put out his fifth album in as many years, and was regularly topping the charts, while at the same time scraping the bottom of a dry creative well, shown in an overabundance of guest appearances. But in a post The Blueprint (2001), Black Album (2003), and American Gangster (2007) world, you can't accurately say that Jay stopped delivering amazing rhymes, being introspective, or even that his production was too of-the-moment. If that's the main argument behind championing Reasonable Doubt, then it's a weak case.

Of course, there are others who simply think Reasonable Doubt is just that good. YoungRoscoe Miles says: "His magnum opus, is, and always will be 1996's Reasonable Doubt. Each track acts as a different memory and different emotion that he expresses to the listener with his complex and deep lyricism." Chris, who dislikes capitalization, periods, and last names, remarks that "this album is basically chronicling the ups and downs, regrets and joys of being a hustler, the beats to start off with are great, this album was mostly produced by dj premiere, and he did a fantastic job, the production is clean, crisp, and fit jay zs flow and lyrics, my next point, the lyrics, the lyrics are some of the best rap lyrics ever, jay z has a great mutli-syllable rhyming scheme, it is amazing how he can change his flow to suit every beat, he has fantastic wordplay, very clever punchlines, and a great vocabulary, his subject matter is basically, as i stated earlier, the struggles of hustling, the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and regrets(there is a song which has this title), overall, this is one of the best rap albums ever, and any rap fan should have it, it ranks up there with the likes of ready to die, illmatic, and lifestylez ov da poor and dangerous"

Personally, I have no doubt that Reasonable Doubt belongs in the conversation for Jay's best, along with the three albums I mentioned above and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. I'm just not sure the choice is as clear as so many of our reviewers make it out to be. For sure, songs like opener Can't Knock the Hustle ("I got extensive hos with expensive clothes / And I sip fine wine and spit vintage flows"), D'Evils ("We used to fight for building blocks / Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killing"), and 22 Two's ("Too many brothers wanna be lovers don't know what romance is / Too many bitches stuck up from too many sexual advances") are lyrically incredible. But did we really need the poor Scarface imitation that recurs between songs, or the played-out sounds of guns cocking and firing? Did we need jailbait Foxy Brown on Ain't No Nigga, which succeeds despite her, barely? How about Hov's inexplicable championing of the mediocre Memphis Bleek, as personified (and bragged about) on Coming of Age? Or the casual rasism that crops up in Regrets?

These are fairly minor quibbles, yes, but what ultimately makes my decision is the very idea that so many people believe that Reasonable Doubt is not representative of Jay-Z's music. As such, it isn't really fair to call it his best, is it? That's why I'm more likely to go with The Blueprint, since it combines soulful introspection (e.g. Song Cry) with commercial power (e.g. Izzo (H.O.V.A.). The Black Album is a close second for me, for similar reasons, but also because of what Danger Mouse turned it into. And if I were truly limited to owning only one Jay-Z disc, I'd choose the Rock-Solid-ineligible MTV Unplugged. It's got the "greatest hits" and a crazy energy, mostly thanks to the backing of The Roots.