too much typing—since 2003


The Usual Year-End Music Geek Type Thing

A week or so ago, Eric Boehlert claimed in Salon that the week of December 20, 1969 (my eighth birthday - woo-hoo!) was the best week ever for rock'n'roll, at least as measured by the Billboard charts. Without quibbling over Boehlert's claim, I found the following remarks, buried on the second page (past the annoying "Salon Premium" ad barrier), far more provocative. Boehlert asks why today's charts aren't as diverse (or as high-caliber) and offers two possible answers: "First, there were simply fewer records released back then, so the odds of having success were better. Also, far fewer people were buying records, so it took fewer sales to hit the top 10. By the end of 1969, only 20 albums in the history of rock had ever sold 1 million copies.... By contrast, this year alone nearly 50 albums sold 1 million copies or more." What Boehlert doesn't do is the obvious next step: where would these top sellers of 1969 place on today's charts, if they sold the same number of copies? The answer might go a long way toward addressing the persistent perception that music today "just isn't as good" as it once was (clearly a subtext of Boehlert's article). If Abbey Road (the number 1 record that week) would place, say, at number 5 now, maybe an argument that there just isn't as much good music today as in 1969 might be plausible. But if Abbey Road would place only at, say, 170 in today's charts, then the better comparison might be to look at albums at that level in the charts - at least if the argument is that public taste is degraded. My reasoning, briefly, assumes a few things: (1) quality is a matter of distinctiveness, among other things; (2) the more distinctive something is, the likelier it is that fewer people will like it; and therefore (3) it's harder to sell something distinctive in large numbers. If a number 1 album now needs to sell ten or twenty times as many copies to chart as it did in 1969 (a reasonable assumption: the album era began about five years before then, so that'd be about four million-sellers per year, versus fifty now, with some adjustments for Boehlert's other factor), both those first two points and the sheer quantity of competition for people's ears (not to mention blockbuster-oriented marketing) means that today's Abbey Roads are going to have a harder time even being heard by the same raw number of people.

All of this chart talk got me to put together my usual grudging year-end ranking of favorite albums. The very exercise increasingly is likely to mark me as an old fart: the iPodding of music means the very concept of "album" is becoming more and more outmoded. The "grudging" is because I'm not, by nature, a listmaker - particularly when I'm keenly aware that there are many CDs I'd probably like that I either haven't heard or haven't heard enough of to fairly judge. If I were more of a listmaker, I'd probably go back and append alterations to my previous year-end best-ofs - because I know for sure they're very different now than they were when I made them. I'm not, however. But about that not hearing: I blame the internet (why not?). Not that I'd ever stoop to filesharing songs that dumbass record companies have seen fit to put out of print, or add as single new tracks to double-disc sets of previously released material, oh no. But between the perfectly legit E-Music (despite its changes, still the best) and the raft of excellent music swelling my to-buy list courtesy of the estimable Matthew from Fluxblog, there's way more music surrounding me than I have time to listen to.

So here's my favorites so far. My usual rules exclude compilations, live albums, and EPs. I've divided them into categories of roughly equal rank, with the best coming first.

The Caribbean History's First Know-It-All
Ted Leo/Pharmacists Hearts of Oak
The New Pornographers Electric Version
Wire Send
The Wrens The Meadowlands

The Wire album is a good argument, by the way, that the album is not, and should not be, a dead artform. Most of its tracks were previously released on the band's two Read & Burn EPs, but Send's sequencing recontextualizes those songs, in some cases enough to have made me suspect a remix on first listen (not the case with most tracks).

David Bowie Reality
Broadcast Haha Sound
The Fall The Real New Fall Album, Formerly "Country on the Click" (yes, that's its title...)
Lilys Precollection
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks Pig Lib
Radiohead Hail to the Thief
The Shins Chutes Too Narrow
Richard Thompson The Old Kit Bag

Bowie, I think, is on an underheralded resurgence. Yes, last year's Heathen got decent enough reviews...but actually, I'd argue his work has been at the very least interesting, and consistently intriguing even in its failings, since Black Tie White Noise. Even his much-derided eighties work - with the exception of Never Let Me Down - had at least three or four good songs per album.

The Aislers Set How I Learned to Write Backwards
Death Cab for Cutie Transatlanticism
Guided by Voices Earthquake Glue
Tris McCall Shootout at the Sugar Factory
The Oranges Band All Around
Pernice Brothers Yours, Mine & Ours
Sun Kil Moon Ghosts of the Great Highway

Plus, I'd offer a special mention for the Magic Band's Back to the Front. I'd have to asterisk it on the main list, since it's entirely old material - but the skill and enthusiasm with which the re-formed Magic Band plays Beefheart make that material sound fresh, and John French's vocal performance jawdroppingly channels the Captain.

A couple of disappointments, though: Consonant's Love and Affliction just hasn't connected with me the way their debut did, and Grandaddy's Sumday is sunk by lack of rhythmic variety (that same straight eighth-note beat) and poor sequencing (putting all those songs near the beginning). If your favorite release isn't here, it's probably because I'm too lame to have heard it yet.

(Also, a mix CD featuring tracks from the top twenty releases listed here is at the Art of the Mix site.)

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