Clearly, pretty much any list that promises to provide you with “the 500 greatest albums of ALL TIME” will deliver no such thing. Trying to reduce the relative merits of wildly different albums into an objective numerical rank is clearly a fool’s game, but everyone does it (including, ahem, us) because the only thing music geeks like more than reading lists is arguing about them. With all those caveats out of the way, though, there seems to be something notable about the NME‘s recent list of, yes, the 500 greatest albums of all time, mainly because of what is picked as #1: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead.
It’s not so much that the choice of album is a great surprise: a UK publication displaying a rabid love for The Smiths isn’t exactly revolutionary, and especially not the NME, which has had Morrissey on its cover a whopping 18 times over the years. But still, the presence of an album from the ’80s, rather than the ’60s, on top of a list like this does feel like the harbinger of some sort of generational shift. The baby boomer canon has dominated rock ‘n’ roll orthodoxy for generations — for the last 40 years, lists like these have almost inevitably been topped by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as if it were somehow beyond question that an album which contained lyrical masterpieces like “Fixing a Hole” and “Lovely Rita” might not be the peak of human artistic achievement.
There have been exceptions, of course: Q memorably voted OK Computer the best album of all time in a 1997 poll, only a couple of months after it was released. They’ve been widely derided for this in retrospect, but shit, at the time it felt like rather a revolutionary statement — a gesture of faith in the here and now, a declaration that culture is still being pushed forward. It’s worth thinking about how rare this is. Ever since ’60s hippiedom hit its high-water mark and rolled back, we’ve been sold the idea of that era as a golden age for the arts in general and especially music, a sort of countercultural paradise from which we were cast out before we were even born, and to which contemporary culture can’t compare.
Happily, it appears, we might finally be leaving those days behind us. There’s been plenty of debate in recent years about the role of the critic in the Internet age (see this excellent piece by Simon Price at The Quietus last week, for instance), but one thing that critics do and have always done is attempt to make sense of the chaos, to pick out the worthwhile art from the bewildering volume of culture that gets made every day. This is one of the driving forces behind music criticism’s fondness for list-making — it’s a reductive and easily consumable way of saying, hey, this is what you should listen to.
But this sort of criticism also tends to enforce a sort of conservatism. You end up with an accepted canon of Great Albums, with publications like Rolling Stone and, yes, the NME acting as the latter-day F.R. Leavis figures of pop culture. And it generally takes a long time for a record to be inducted into this club of consensus. It’s only when we get older that we start trying to put things in historical context, and comparing contemporary creations with those artifacts of culture we loved in our youth, when everything was fresh and exciting and new. And suddenly it seems like the stuff the kids are listening to just can’t quite stack up. And we rationalize this to ourselves by telling ourselves that the albums we liked as kids have stood the test of time, that they’re capital-C classics, that they might just be… why, they might just be the best albums of all time!
In the past, this phenomenon has led to the construction of a single narrative around music, and pop culture in general. It goes something like this: before 1950, there was an eternal darkness in which one could perhaps hear distant strains of jazz and classical music. Then came rock ‘n’ roll, and then came the ’60s in a burst of brilliant psychedelic sunlight, at which point the old was cast into outer darkness, and everything was new, and everyone was happy, and the acid was good, and the love was free, and everything was generally wonderful. And then there was Woodstock, and then there was Altamont, and then everything entered a decline for the next four decades, wherein everyone had to sit around and listen to aging baby boomers talk about how great everything used to be. (And there was some guy called Kurt Cobain and maybe, like, rap or something?)
Clearly, this is a load of simplistic codswallop, but the idea of the ’60s as a cultural golden age to which the present can’t compare has remained remarkably pervasive and persistent. Hopefully, we’re finally reaching the end of that particular history. The presence of The Smiths at the top of the NME‘s list is a modest step forward, despite that for now, at least, it’s a sign that baby boomer orthodoxy is being supplanted by Generation X orthodoxy.
But give it another ten years, and… well, what’s Gen Y orthodoxy going to be? I’ve written here before about how the general fragmentation and diversification of popular culture means that distinct narratives are much harder to define these days. Douglas Rushkoff speaks in his excellent book Present Shock about the complete death of the narrative, and that’s certainly something that seems to be borne out in today’s pop culture — it’s fragmented into a million tiny scenes and subgenres and sounds. The rise of the Internet means that these can all get some measure of exposure, so that it’s not just a handful of people who define the canon and write the history.
What effect might this have in the future? Without an accepted narrative against which to compare the present, perhaps we can just start by accepting the present for what it is: the most exciting time there is. I don’t know about you, but when I sit down and listen to a new album by an artist I admire, or just an artist about whom I’ve heard a lot, I do so in the expectation that, hey, this might be the best thing I’ve ever heard. I think we all do this in our youth — a mixture of optimism and iconoclasm that’s fueled by the excitement of discovering your own generation’s culture, something that speaks directly to you and feels like the freshest, most exciting thing you’ve ever heard.
It’s something we tend to lose as we get older, and it’s a shame. I’ve noticed my generation doing this; suddenly my contemporaries are reminiscing about grunge and complaining about “that dubstep rubbish” the kids are listening to. But perhaps without an accepted canon, we can finally rid ourselves of the idea that this canon, and the time that gave rise to it, is something against which the present can’t hope to compete.
I might be wrong, of course. In 25 years time, whatever music publications exist at that point might be publishing glowing paeans to Merriweather Post Pavillion by balding ex-Pitchfork writers. But I hope not. We all live in the now, after all. And there’s a remarkable amount of wonderful music out there, right now. I like The Queen Is Dead. I certainly like it better than fucking Sgt. Pepper. But I hope I don’t like it as much as whatever I hear tomorrow.