Music Features

Obsessions and Lamentations #10 - Best-of Lists Considered

If anyone needed any further proof that the 80s were the worst decade in pop music history, it can be found on the blog of years they love. This is a feature where they ask their critics, some of them quite good ones, to list their favorite records from a particular year. As I was scanning the list for 1988 I thought about how rock music had played itself out sometime in the late 70s (basically the thesis of James Miller’s worthwhile book “Flowers in the Dustbin”) and has been operating on fumes as an inspirational force ever since. Just look at the albums that rise to the top of most of the individual lists, forgetting the ones only obsessives could remember or possibly care about and leaving out rap which is an entirely different genre. Here are a few that appear numerous times: 

Nothing Shocking – Jane’s Addiction
Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth
Isn’t Anything – My Bloody Valentine
Surfer Rosa – The Pixies
Bug – Dinosaur Jr.
Okay, fine. Now, depending on your tastes, these may all be fairly worthy albums, particularly if you spent much of your teen years staring at your shoes. You might even argue that they pushed the music forward in some way, though I think it might be more accurate to just say that they sounded different. There’s no doubt that they influenced future musicians, for better or worse. But I’d like to posit here that it’s interesting to note how insular these bands are, as evidenced by the fact that none of them ever really rose above the level of cult success. Chart action is no indicator of artistic success, by any means, and deep, moving music is not always accessible to the general public, but we aren’t just talking about the fringes of what was produced – this is what the editors say was the best 1988 had to offer. Let’s take a quick gander at what the same people chose for 1968:
The Beatles – The Beatles
Beggar’s Banquet – The Rolling Stones
Music from Big Pink – The Band
Odyssey & Oracle – The Zombies
White Light/White Heat – The Velvet Undergound
Electric Ladyland – Jimi Hendrix
Astral Weeks – Van Morrison
And that’s not to mention classic releases from Randy Newman, Miles Davis, The United States of America and many others. Make of that what you will. Me, I find it notable that some of these records were made by the most popular acts in the world at the time. I don’t know if it’s the fault of the artists or the audience, but for some reason the best of what rock had to offer in 1988 was less expansive and somehow less universal then what came out twenty years earlier. I’m avoiding the topic of what I think might be the relative worth of these records, because here I think subjectivity becomes a major factor, but I think their attitudes toward the audience and the depth of their appeal are fundamentally different. Even something as anachronistic and (at the time) obscure as Astral Weeks reflected, I assert, a more open and vulnerable attitude to the listener than the best of the 80s were serving up. For one thing, the noise esthetic of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine and frankly all those bands has, to my ears, a distancing effect; it’s as if the artist would prefer not to be fully revealed. The drive of great rock and punk is there, but something is missing. I feel like all the racket is a wall behind which the artist can hide. The Pistols and the Clash were just as loud, but you never got the sense that Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer were burying themselves underneath the distorted guitars. Sure, its apples and oranges, and those records were deliberately confrontational, but if you look back at the great records of ’68, it’s easy to hear how all those artists might have thought that anybody could appreciate and understand what they were doing. Crikey, in a strange way I think even Beefheart felt that way. I don’t think it’s controversial to assert that the 80s bands above understood that the appeal of their music would be narrow and limited, and that was fine with them. By that time, the business had fragmented into so many niches that universal communication wasn’t a necessity and might even be considered a form of selling out. A wholesale rejection of compromise might be a worthy artistic posture, but no one is going to sit here and tell me that Van Morrison was compromising his vision.  The great artist can find a way, nay, should find a way to do both. 
Perhaps the pendulum has swung back the other way a little, but I can’t shake the feeling that something has been permanently lost. I love Radiohead, but I know for sure that if I played Kid A to the average person unfamiliar with the band, most of them would dismiss it as “depressing”, and they’d have a point. But in a funny way I think they are trying, and a couple other bands, like the Flaming Lips and Wilco, keep attempting to connect with a larger audience while remaining true to themselves. What would the world be like if Fight Song and Heavy Metal Drummer were on the radio every day? I’d love to know.