Rolling Stone magazine recently published its annual list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and it’s causing quite a dust-up in the blogosphere. Thousands of music fans are pronouncing it biased and taking huge exception to it. (Typical comments from their website: “Where’s the greatest guitarist of all time: Richie Blackmore?!” and “Sorry, but a list without AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock!!! is not a serious list.”)
Jim Fusilli, the Wall Street Journal's rock and pop music critic, dedicated an entire blog to dismissing the list. “If you miss this year's rendition, no worries,” he wrote. “The top 21 albums … are the same as … 2003. .… The usual suspects fill out the top 10 slots: four albums by the Beatles, including Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at No. 1; two by Bob Dylan; and one each by the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and the Rolling Stones, all released between 1965 and 1972. Rounding out the top 10 is the Clash's "London Calling." … This affinity for music of an ever-distant past may provide comfort for generationally biased boomer-era rock fans, but for the rest of us, it reinforces the fiction that popular music reached its zenith four decades ago.”
Kevin Kline (as Harold) and Jeff Goldblum (Michael) had an argument about this very subject in the 1983 classic film The Big Chill:
Michael: Harold, don't you have any other music, you know, from this century?
Harold: There is no other music, not in my house.
Michael: There's been a lot of terrific music in the last 10 years.
Harold: Like what?
And that was in 1983.
I’ve long believed that music from our high school days is the stuff that will always be our favorite. For boomers, rock ’n’ roll was more than just music: It was our identity, our way to connect, our dress code, our lifestyle. It was rebellion and liberation and art and a visionary quest all rolled into a few loud power chords.
Even today, we may not be able to remember a friend’s phone number or whether we paid the Visa bill, but we can probably sing along to almost every song on the albums on that Rolling Stone list.
That’s the power of enduring music.
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We’re not privy to the criteria the Rolling Stone judges used to chose their greatest albums, but one senses the point isn’t just “good music,” but “important music.” Unlike Kevin Kline’s Harold, I think a lot of us — and I would venture to guess all of the esteemed Rolling Stone judges — acknowledge that there’s been extraordinary music produced in the past couple of decades. But here's what I wonder: Will people be singing along to or writing college papers about or going to reunion tours of the White Stripes, Coldplay or Arcade Fire in 2042?
There really was magic happening in the 1960s and ’70s. A cultural revolution was taking place in the United States and England, and these young poets and artists were writing its soundtrack. I liken it to the second half of the 18th century, when the greatest collective of political minds ever was alive at the same time, in the same place, with visionary ideals for a new way of governance. (Interestingly, the theme of both eras was freedom — and each had a John Paul Jones.)
Like the rock pioneers, they were influenced by thinkers who came before them. And of course there were brilliant political minds after them. But think about it: That George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry (etc.) were fomenting revolution together is as stunning and unprecedented as having the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Who, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Doors, the Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, Elton John (etc.!) writing songs from the front lines of their own revolution. With all due respect to the great ones before and after, these kinds of confluences seem almost impossible in hindsight.
Sadly, while there is still terrific music being produced, kids today are experiencing it in a far more diluted and disconnected way than we did. As rock ’n’ roll historian Barry Drake put it: “In 1971, the only thing a high school or college student had in his room was a stereo and a stack of LPs. No phone, no TV and certainly no computer. Steve Jobs made it possible to get a song for 99 cents (though now most kids just download it for free.) Album sales have died because there are just too many things in a young person’s life to occupy their thoughts and pocket money. Computers, phones and the Internet have replaced the power of music and albums.”
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So while we may agree or disagree with the Rolling Stone list, the beauty is that it celebrates music (if largely classic rock). And it still incites us to rehash those classic debates about “the best of all time” — Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix? Clapton or Townshend? Sgt. Pepper’s or The White Album? — which were almost as much fun as listening to the music.
Debates have always been a part of rock 'n' roll, so thank you Rolling Stone, for keeping them going. (But Richie Blackmore? Really?)