ROCK’N’ROLL BED-BLOCKERS: The same records keep appearing on every list of Greatest Albums Ever. And we’re sick of them. Which ones should we get rid of? DAVID STUBBS wields the red card…
Time was when lists of the Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time were rare treats. Intrigue would build in advance of these rundowns, to see who’d get to be the second best ever made after ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’. In today’s retro age, these lists are more commonplace, spacefillers, practically fortnightly occurrences.
However, while the bleedin’ obvious selections that invariably top these lists are there for a bleedin’ obvious reason – i.e. they’re bleedin’ brilliant – some seem lazily and thoughtlessly recycled from lists past, their actual worth unexamined. So let’s take a look at ten of the more questionable Best Albums Ever that crop up over and over and over and again.
THE STONE ROSES The Stone Roses (1989)
A spindly, grooveless affair
Although hailed as the massive moment when British rock got its groove back, ‘The Stone Roses’ is actually a spindly, grooveless affair, garnished with the odd psychedelic flourish. In 1989 could have thrown a brick in the indie playground and hit half a dozen bands churning out stuff like this, from The House Of Love to Primal Scream – all floppy haired, fey, neoclassical.
The Roses, however, struck a chord with their wishful self-aggrandisement, with Ian Brown honkingly declaring that ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and ‘I Am The Resurrection”. They fulfilled a collective, subconscious need for music to emerge from its post-punk fragmentation and eclecticism and for things to be all white and Beatles-y again with a single rock band we could all worshipfully agree were The One. Eventually, the Roses found this responsibility too much to bear, so along came Oasis to assume the role instead. And off we went again.
21 Adele (2011)
Did you know that she’s broken up with her feller? And she smokes cigs?
Adele is what happens when the X Factor ideal of pop as a gymnastic exercise in vocal virtuosity holds sway over originality or outsider chutzpah. Yes, she can sing and make her voice go up and down in all the right places and isn’t it nice that she’s an ordinary girl from Croydon which just goes to show that anyone can make it (though virtually no one does), the same as anyone can win the lottery (but virtually no one will)?
This was the album that set the seal on Adele’s ludicrous commercial dominance, lauded not so much for tearing a hole in the fabric of the norm but merely being a bit more bracing than Dido. The songs on ‘21’ – which collectively and thematically can be added to a giant historical pile of break-up albums – are rendered in a studiously bland, musically correct manner that is all things to all demographics but in itself nothing at all. Adele is where MOR becomes a seven-lane, one-way freeway, the No Alternative music of our time.
WHO’S NEXT The Who (1971)
It was all downhill from here
The cover of ‘Who’s Next’ couldn’t be more misleading: an irreverent image showing the band pissing on a monolith. Except this album was the monolith. Here Pete Townshend would enforce his newfound and highly reverent belief in the massive properties of Rock, a theme he had hoped to expound in an unrealised opera, ‘Lifehouse’, from which this album was salvaged.
Far from being The Who’s apex, it marks their decline from the brilliantly insolent and stylish art rockers of the 60s into 70s purveyors of tassled, overwrought bombast. ‘Baba O’Reilly’ is an incoherent homage to guru Meher Baba, to whom Townshend had formed a weak-minded attachment, and his gullibility undermines the supposed higher wisdom acquired on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. After this would come the monument to prog condescension towards Townshend’s adolescent past that is ‘Quadrophenia’. After that, The Who on stadium rock autopilot.
WHAT’S GOING ON Marvin Gaye (1971)
R’n’B’s answer to a motivational Facebook quote
It’s deeply uncomfortable to read critics contorting themselves to praise a black artist for not singing about sex but displaying a modicum of political consciousness instead. ‘What’s Going On’ was Gaye’s declaration of independence from the Motown machine but Berry Gordy’s famously dim estimation of the album isn’t far off the mark. Newcomers to this supposed masterwork are routinely surprised by its triteness.
Its fretful, ultra-vague sentiments are matched by a bloodless, handwringing string-soaked shuffling MOR groove that the album resolutely refuses to snap out of. Imagine the scoffing if a white would-be protest singer came out with lyrics like “War is not the answer/Only love can conquer hate”, or (on ‘Save The Children’) “When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow/Little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow.” Gaye’s prescription isn’t political but religious: love God, Jesus, your family. Love, basically. Cheers, Marv. ‘What’s Going On’ goes right off even as you’re listening to it.
UP THE BRACKET The Libertines (2002)
Just Say No to warmed-over smack-punk
In the 50s, rock’n’roll inaugurated and articulated youth culture. In the 60s it expanded minds, in the 70s it developed an iconoclastic edge, and in the 80s and 90s it was a supernova rage against the limits of life and its own imminent demise, culminating in the death of Kurt Cobain. By the turn of the 20th century, it was reduced to a heroin herbert and walking, leatherbound rock’n’roll cliche whose idea of rebellion was arseing around in tube carriages in videos.
That The Libertines were so revered just shows what kind of straws rock revivalists were desperate to clutch at back in 2002. At best, ‘Up The Bracket’ is a boisterous, sub-Stones, sub-Squeeze rehash of yesterday’s ashtrays, not so much pushing back the rock envelope as crawling inside it. Titles like ‘The Boy Looked At Johnny’ and ‘The Good Old Days’ speak of a band taking us nowhere and going nowhere – which is exactly where they fetched up.
APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION Guns N’ Roses (1987)
Bandanas in pyjamas, coming down the stairs
As the 80s wore on, dominated by the bleating of the religious right, Tipper Gore’s rock censorship lobbying as well as the moral panic brought about by the AIDS epidemic, there were those who welcomed ‘Appetite For Destruction’ as a welcome breath of stale, sleazy air, with its paeans to LA, heroin, cheap wine and easy groupies. But while the album was a breakthrough for the Roses, today it merely sounds like a scrawny, generic, retrograde, reactionary piece of LA bandana rock, a specimen from the same scene of raucous, clueless, stripey trousered bozos lampooned in Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline Of Civilisation: The Metal Years.
Claims that Guns N’ Roses somehow transcended metal aren’t borne out by Axl Rose’s squally vocals or Slash’s frantic but uninspired fretboard scurrying. There was way heavier duty fare than this on offer in 1987, from Dinosaur Jr to Megadeth. As for ver Roses, this was as good as it got for them. A year later ‘Axl’ showed his true, obnoxious colours on the racist, everything-phobic ‘One In A Million’.
IMAGINE John Lennon (1971)
Pass-agg lecturing from a rich bloke in a big house
There are two types of people. There are those who hear the title track from ‘Imagine’ and regard it as an all-purpose healing balm, rock music’s greatest gift to a broken world. And there are those who hear the idealistic, barely thought-through waffle of a man whose search for ultimate consciousness is marred only by a complete lack of self-awareness.
Inseparable from its video, ‘Imagine’ advocates an empty secular space which chimes perfectly with people who forget that minimalism is the privilege of the rich with lots of discreet storage space (the actual poor lead grimly maximal lives, surrounded by their possessions). It overshadows the remainder of this album, from the feeble country boogie of ‘Crippled Inside’ to ‘Gimme Some Truth’, which sounds politically abrasive till you realise it’s so noncommittal even a Trump supporter could agree with it, and ‘How Do You Sleep?’, his anti-McCartney broadside. Paul, always his quality controller, would never have let Lennon get away with self-indulgent blather like this in The Beatles.
THE BLUEPRINT Jay-Z (2001)
The dawning of a dismal new era
Jay-Z’s sixth album was released on 9/11, but the depressing era of which it is a landmark was well under way by this point. Once upon a time, rap and hip-hop had contained within it the seeds of revolutionary consciousness, in the pre-gangsta Public Enemy day. By the time of ‘The Blueprint’, popular hip-hop was an almost entirely depoliticised affair preoccupied with infighting and trite monarchical metaphors to assert top-dog status; thrones and shit. All of this, mind you, played out for a predominantly white audience.
This is evident straight away on ‘The Ruler’s Back’, in the obligatory beef with rival Prodigy on ‘Takeover’ (note the “accusation” that Prodigy once took ballet lessons) and in ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ with its accompanying, sad sack sexist video hardly calculated to make Angela Davis glow with pride. The soul samples, from the likes of Tom Brock, Bobby Byrd and Al Green, are only a reminder of how the sweet, light, fertile plains of great African-American music had been abandoned by Jay-Z and his ilk in favour of a regressive, money-grubbing, fame-hungry desperation.
THE JOSHUA TREE U2 (1987)
The Edge has got his hat on, hip hip hip “hooray”
Ostensibly, this is an album about the wide, open spaces, as evoked on the clangorous chords and windy declarations of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’. In fact, it’s a monumentally vacuous piece of work, inflated with the hot, clean air of spiritual pretentiousness and a misplaced quest for authenticity. Bono went to Africa, post-Live Aid and came back nauseously suffused with a sense of the “spiritual richness” of its people, on account of all that sand. Sand was where it was at, he decided, which is why he and the group headed out to the Mojave Desert.
The songs on ‘The Joshua Tree’ reflect the sense of a pure America, before they built those awful, un-spiritual, sordid cities, with named streets and all kinds of other lowly impurities, in which bluesmen lived in shacks in the desert being authentic amid the sand. On the cover, Bono and co can be seen staring into the middle distance, as if experiencing an epiphany in a cactus; immediately off-camera would be a coach that will bear them back to their five star hotel the moment this photo shoot is over, to enjoy the essentials comforts of the urban civilisation they purport to disdain.
A LOVE SUPREME John Coltrane (1965)
No, the Mercury Prize did not invent ‘token jazz’
Is this album overrated? Hell, no. It’s misplaced. It began appearing in Top 100 lists in the 1980s when critics turned to jazz as a reproach to rock, which they regarded as a lumpen, inferior medium. But including ‘A Love Supreme’ in a rock list is a category error, like putting up a prize marrow in a bake-off. If it were a fusion effort like Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew,’ then fair enough.But it’s an album of the purest jazz intentions, an exercise in freewheeling, ascension into uncharted realms, in physical and spiritual cleansing. How do you compare that to a dirty epic by the Stones or the Velvets? The effect of its inclusion in lists, ironically, is tokenism. There it sits, around number 38, just above Arcade Fire and a few places below ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’; the jazz album that’s so good it’s as good as some rock albums!
David Stubbs is the author of Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany. You can send him angry tweets at @sendvictorious.
Plus you can hear David on the legacy of Top Of The Pops and more on this archive edition of the weekly BIGMOUTH podcast: