Waste of Time

Last month, Time magazine published yet another list of the 100 greatest albums of all time. Unless you just crawled out from under a rock that has prevented you from paying attention to some of the most overexposed music of the past half-century, don’t expect to be educated by this list. Quite the reverse, it is further proof that mainstream journalism totally doesn’t get the big picture when it comes to the music of our time.

The list’s compilers, Josh Tyrangiel and Alan Light, think they’re so radical for not including anything on their list by Pink Floyd. But what’s their explanation for leaving out virtually all music that exists outside of the sphere of the pop song? They think they’re oh-so-inclusionary by mixing together rock, r&b, reggae, hip-hop, country, and some Frank Sinatra. Granted, they’ve offered a few tiny crumbs to jazz—John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, plus Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew—albums which totally do not fit into the song rubrick. But, unless they’ve been conned by Ken Burns’s view of jazz history, it’s pretty hard to ignore musical forces like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Zorn, and Dave Douglas. But, then again, Wynton didn’t make the list either, nor did Thelonious Monk (who was once featured on the cover of Time), Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, or even Duke Ellington.

This list also completely ignores Broadway musical cast albums, film soundtracks, salsa, bluegrass, and classical music of any kind. Of course, from my particular musical vantage point, it’s impossible to think of the recorded musical landscape of the past fifty years and not immediately also think of: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Harry Partch, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, and the members of Bang on a Can, to name only a handful of the most recognizable names in contemporary American music. Come to think of it, even Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein lived into the era they are covering, and important and popular albums of their music were issued during this time.

For the sake of keeping sentences to a 70-word minimum, I’ve self-limited myself here to American names, but Tyrangiel and Light didn’t. Their decade-by-decade account of the last half century abounds with folks like David Bowie, Elton John, Bob Marley, The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. This compendium of names is perhaps more telling of their age than our age overall (as is the fact that nearly half their picks from the current decade are re-issues from the likes of Elvis and Hank Williams).

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m a big fan of most of the music on their list. I actually own almost all of the records they mention (although I have to confess that I still don’t get Elton John). But the seeming and ultimately faux inclusivity of such lists belies what, in the final analysis, amounts to a sinister exclusivity. Sadly one of the only ways to survive in the narrow-cast realm of exclusivity is to be exclusive as well. It’s almost that time of the year again when folks will start dumping on the Pulitzer Prize committee for not paying attention to a wider range of music. But perhaps it’s good that they don’t. At least some of the names missing from Tyrangiel and Light’s list are on theirs.

4 thoughts on “Waste of Time

  1. Chris Becker

    One enlightening and occasionally depressing book that every musician should read is Mansion on the Hill. This is a great book that describes the transition of rock and roll into a record industry fueled over time by radio, definitely press, and live concerts. The author describes how magazine music reviewers who also doubled as producers and/or A&R people would – and this is what shocked me – write glowing long winded reviews about the musicians they themselves were invested in (in the business sense of the word).

    So that awesome review of Bruce Springsteen might be written by someone who happened to be his agent. Today, the Time magazine top 100 list you write about might have been compiled with the help of record labels. Or is that obvious? You’re taking to task two writers who answer to editors who in turn answer to their publishers who in turn probably answer to large corporations…

    It is refreshing then to read someone like Lester Bangs (a truly forward thinking writer – he really anticipated a lot of music that we take for granted today) who here and there would throw in a comment like “the record comapny flew me over here to write something nice about this band…” Talk about keeping it real. He was also extremely funny.

    If it’s the attitude of exclusivity and ignorance you’re taking to task – then right on. Who can argue with that? But at the risk of stating the obvious, in the world of independently produced music (be it “new music” or whatever) – who cares what Time Magazine thinks?

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  2. Colin Holter

    I’m not defending Time’s list, which is lumpen, pandering, and ill-considered, but I do want to mention that it is, after all, a list of albums, not of recordings. An album is a formal construction; a recording is a mechanical representation of sound.

    I love ELISION’s recording of Barrett’s negatives, but by no means could it be considered an album – and neither it nor any other recorded collection of concert pieces should be in the running for a list of great albums. I’d even hesitate before including jazz records, because they (the old ones, at least) differ so ontologically from rock albums in terms of how they’re made and the kind of musical information they purport to contain.

    As I said, though, I’m not a Time apologist. London Calling, Document, and Low End Theory are all great albums, but what about Bryter Layter, Don’t Stand Me Down, and Seeds of Love?

    Reply
  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Colin wrote: “An album is a formal construction; a recording is a mechanical representation of sound.”

    Very good point, and of course you are right. But then why the posthumous compilations of Hank Williams and Sam Cooke, plus two of Elvis out of the Time 100? Yuck, I hate it, but The Three Tenors is more of an album than any of those compilations were and it certainly had the commercial sell-through power to warrant inclusion by some allegedly objective journalist looking for something with a large societal impact.

    You’re smarter than they are, or at least smarter than I’ll ever be willing to concede they are. As for Chris Becker’s comments that I’m singling out two writers who can’t be faulted for the larger problem at hand in contemporary consumerist media culture, of course you’re right as well, but only to a degree. Until we start putting names and faces to issues we are concerned about, those issues are, well, nameless and faceless.

    Journalists have a responsibility when they are writing for a public forum whether it’s Time magazine or, ahem, NewMusicBox. I have long believed that the media is what is fueling fame rather than just passively responding to it. The media has made the world beyond the three-minute song invisible, and in large segments of the population it has in fact become invisible. As long as we have writers and editors who are blind to the larger musical universe that’s out there this will continue to be the case. And the only time a “classical music” story will run is when these self-appointed arbiters of cultural taste in America decide to run another “classical music is dead” story. Classical music has been dying a longer death in the media than all the recordings of all the last acts of every Verdi and Puccini opera combined, yet the escapades of Roberto Alagna (the “fourth tenor”) were the top news in Italy all last week.

    And, no, I don’t really think that’s news. But Reich’s Daniel Variations, which afterall was written to honor slain journalist Daniel Pearl was headline news as far as I’m concerned. But did it register in the mainstream media? No. Why not?

    As for making my own list of 100, as “philmusic” suggests, one of my contentions has been that such lists are a waste of time. For me it would be more like 1000! But, even then, it would be gratuitous arrogance as there’d be so much more beyond that that I’d be leaving out through a combination of the numerical limit and my own ignorance. Some years ago I put together of suggestions of 100 contemporary music recordings that public radio stations should seriously consider broadcasting. It was not my “100 best” list, but many people presumed it was. And so I put together another list based on the same criteria I set up in the original list with no repeats from the previous list. I even included 120 items instead of 100 and prefaced it with an essay stating I did so to keep the list open-ended and to encourage radio programmers to make their own lists all the time and to constantly keep their minds open to new things. Few did. Most people prefer being told what the best things are so they don’t have to have their own opinions. That’s the problem with “best”: it’s always someone else’s opinion. But now I’m rethreading old themes…

    Reply

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