Saturday, August 11, 2012

"1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die": Book Review

To be fair, great to browse, start arguments, and spark what you liked (or hated) about pop music. It lacks much jazz, world music, country, folk--it's rock mixed with what you'd expect from its general editor, Robert Dimery, a founder of Rolling Stone. It's what mainstream critics acclaim, mixed with a carefully sifted tilt to "diversity" in electronica, rap, R&B, pop, and what used to be labeled "alternative." It has some offbeat British choices: "H.M.S. Sugar" by Shack, two Barry Adamson discs, and Sensational Alex Harvey Band typify this angle.

However, that kind of idiosyncratic range, beyond the usual choices, makes this worthwhile. I was delighted to find Boo Radleys, Ash, Os Mutantes, Bert Jansch, The Fall, and The Gun Club--all "critic's darlings," admittedly. Dexy's Midnight Runners (all three albums) on the other hand typifies over-praising of certain British (and U.S.) acts. The sense of innovation lessens as this gets closer to the present, or is it just me getting older? A few discs were jettisoned to make room for this (last few) year's models, but Amazon's commenting classes hazard that the ones dumped were, ironically, from earlier in the 2000's. As in "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" (reviewed by me), there's a significant tilt towards the near-present, but I doubt so many of these deserve immortality. Critics dazzled by the latest (critically acclaimed) sensation, I suspect.

Many of their mini-essays lack depth, moreover--this editorial limit may have been imposed harshly. Entries cram in to allow space for full-page covers, snaps of musicians, so often four entries jam into text-only pages as recompense. The space given the music player-like insets with tracks listed in full with writers and times, and key ones marked, takes up a lot of the page and appears unnecessary, if eye-catching for skimmers and scanners.

I'd have liked more words about the music, especially for those records less familiar, than the few paragraphs allotted each entry. An awful lot of these are obvious to most of us who listen to popular and rock music, and a significant amount (as lamented by Mr. Ryan in his [Amazon] review) are predictable and must-haves. But as with classic rock stations and countdowns of the greats, it gets tiresome to have them appear yet one more time, even if they merit it. This feeling of inevitability weighs down such massive projects, on air or in print. How do you include the ones everyone has heard and agrees upon--yet leave room for surprises and neglected standouts deserving a place in the spotlight--without making this book more massive than it is? You really got me.

That being said, delights linger. I found myself, after dashing through it to greet old favorites, going back to read each page. In entries by artists I had zero interest in, I found gems like that starting Cypress Hill's entry: "Richard Pryor is to Cheech & Chong as David Bowie is to James Taylor." There's a lot of sassy wit buried deep here, so part of the reward of this uneven but fun volume is, as when scrutinizing a friend's library (musical or text), you start making your own mental list to compare and contrast. It also, in this age of musical subscription services, allows you to dive in to (legitimately) retrieve on your own key tracks or to skim an album that you've put off hearing but have been curious about--for instance, Belle & Sebastian's "Tigermilk," Jefferson Airplane's "After Bathing at Baxter's," and The Grateful Dead's "Live/Dead," in my case.

While this panoramic report on pop music has lots of blind spots, such an inability to please everyone appears inescapable in such an endeavor. I checked this out of the library, perhaps a wise choice. So, I acknowledge this for sheer effort. It'll never surpass your Top 1000 or mine, sure. Despite a persistent lack of attention to certain acts and subgenres (I leave out my "improvements" so as to keep this brief), it's worth a perusal. (Amazon US 12-28-11--on revised & updated ed. 2010)

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