Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 113: Counterbalance

‘Counterbalance’ was a weekly web column on PopMatters, in which two (mostly rock) music aficionados would discuss one of the greatest albums of all time, starting from the ‘best’ of all and going down the list. This list was deemed The Great List, and referred to a list of the most recommended albums put together by another fellow using a mathematical formula from more than a thousand ‘greatest album’ lists by critics. Hence by following the list the two authors were considering the albums that the critical consensus had determined were the best, rather than simply advocating for their own personal favourites.

The result was not only a discussion of the albums themselves, but how critics viewed those albums, particularly how critical favour gathered around certain records. One theory they used several times was that some albums often appeared on ‘best of’ lists as representatives of entire genres or eras; for example, Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ is a ‘placeholder’ for the early 1970s singer-songwriter genre, and Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ is the jazz record that is often included. A theory they had that I quite liked is that ‘great’ double albums can generally be categorised as a Grand Artistic Statement, or A Pile, with the latter term not necessarily meant in a derogatory sense, but just meant to denote that the album is more a hodgepodge of styles than a focused effort. The Beatles’ self-titled ‘white’ album, for instance, is a definite example of a double album ‘pile’.

One trend that I noticed is that rarely did both authors consider a particular album as being among their favourites. Further, often the reaction – such as, for example, with Bob Dylan’s ‘classic’ records – was that an author would like the album and appreciate it, but not love it. Considering the list myself, there are probably quite a few albums on there than I own and like, but don’t play all that much: Bob Dylan’s records for me as well, but also, say, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, and even the supposed greatest album of all time, ‘Pet Sounds’. I found their approach quite an honest one as opposed to the fawning evaluations of great records that accompany many ‘best of’ lists. It highlights that, to most listeners, some of the great albums will seem vital, while others will seem merely important, and which is which will say as much about the listener as the album itself.

Dave’s Music Database has links to the ‘Counterbalance’ columns on the top 100 albums of The Great List. Of those first 100 columns, these are my 10 favourite discussions:

10. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols: Both authors think the myth of the Sex Pistols far outstrips the music.
18. Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run: Can one buy into the world of the Boss?
28. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead: Two Americans try to appreciate a quintessentially British album.
31. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV: How you can come to like music that was liked by the wrong sort of people during your youth.
42. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions: On learning to love Stevie Wonder.
54. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica: In which the narrative that this album is an obscure masterpiece is stomped upon.
58. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours: The important album from 1977 that was actually a hit, and for which perhaps more has been read into than is actually there.
59. Pixies – Doolittle: These guys love the Pixies.
67. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: An example of how jazz can be hard to get into, but can be rewarding if you do (I haven’t yet, though I own this album).
95. Back in Black – AC/DC: A band that was looked down upon by music snobs has now, seemingly through sheer longevity, made its way into the canon.

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