In praise of challenging albums

by Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

26 March 2007

What is glaringly absent from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "Definitive 200" list are challenging listens.
LCD Soundsystem 

Niyaz arrived at our St. Pat’s party with an announcement. Heard the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame issued a list of the “Definitive 200” albums? “I’m going to listen to all of them!” he boasted.

My editor had mentioned the list earlier that week, but when I saw the Top 10—Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, Tapestry, Pet Sounds—I tuned out. Yeah, yeah, another inventory of the same truly important but plenty-lauded albums that always wind up on such lists.

cover art

LCD Soundsystem

Sound of Silver

US: 20 Mar 2007
UK: 12 Mar 2007

Review [19.Mar.2007]

Wow, was I wrong.

Out of sheer curiosity—and because I’m just the sort of irritating host who would subject his guests to a pointless game—not long after Niyaz’s proclamation I corralled a half-dozen friends into counting just how many selections from this “Definitive 200” they had heard, in their entirety.

I suppose my intention was to (yet again) point out to my young friend just how much he has yet to hear. But by rattling off the entire “Definitive 200”—and staring gape-mouthed at the inclusion of the Dirty Dancing and Top Gun soundtracks, or the sight of the Clash’s London Calling (at No. 96!) sandwiched between massively popular atrocities from Creed and Celine Dion—well, we quickly discovered that he’d have better luck filling in gaps in his knowledge by simply polling strangers on the street for must-hear choices.

What an insulting, useless list this is. C’mon, three Jay-Z’s but no James Brown? Two from Elvis but no Ray Charles? Jewel ( Jewel?!?) but not Janis? Automatic for the People but not Murmur? Who’s Next but not Tommy?

Plenty of hip-hop made the list, a welcome inclusion—but then nothing from Sly and the Family Stone or Parliament-Funkadelic, and only one from Stevie Wonder? Supernatural (at No. 13?!) but nothing from when Santana was actually amazing? No Kinks or Velvets or Smiths or Cure or Petty or CCR—but yes to the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over?

The fine print explains how this thing went wrong: It was underwritten and apparently largely determined by NARM, the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. So it’s no wonder that the tally is dominated by massive sellers of questionable (or zero) artistic merit—Kenny G, anyone?—not by genuinely great and enduring albums.

Lists are futile, subjective exercises in the first place, I agree, but this one is especially frustrating. At least when the AFI unveils a fresh 100 films survey, you can direct an underexposed pal to it and feel confident he’d come away rewarded. This list only seems to say: “Hey, remember all those albums you bought when everyone else did? Remember how much you liked `em? Well, how `bout buying `em again?”

But it dawned on me days later—while listening again and again to LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic new album Sound of Silver, which has leapt to the top of my 2007 A-list stack—that what is glaringly absent from the “Definitive 200” are challenging listens.

I don’t mean records that were groundbreaking, though that shouldn’t be discounted. The Wall or most anything from Metallica or the introductions of Hendrix and the Doors or Beck’s Odelay—all on the list—were and in many respects still are norm-busting recordings. But they’re all as instantly listenable as they are daring. Fully grasping their complexities and virtuosities might take time, but there is nothing about them that is really difficult to get into or hard to get through.

Yet albums that demand patience and stricter attention are those that often prove most rewarding. Like the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (No. 6), an album nowhere near as well-regarded when it came out in 1972, in part because it was so diffuse, so unwieldy, so impossible to get your head around in a hurry. Now it’s an influential classic, like Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde—another tough play that, not surprisingly, didn’t make the cut.

I put this question to several friends who would know, and who were proud to have heard only half of this “Definitive 200”: How many of these qualify as truly challenging listening experiences?

We came up with about a dozen, if we’re being lenient. Most were alarming, in-your-face works: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, N. W. A’s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Led Zep’s debut, Sabbath’s Paranoid. OK Computer and A Love Supreme qualified for adventurousness; All Things Must Pass because of enormity. Not much else fit the bill.

But back to now: If you ask me, the music that has mattered most this decade is that which has been mind-probingly deep, initially cumbersome or alien, or which merely buries its meaning in dense layers of rich experimentation.

Not to paint such things as extreme as John Cage; more like the Arcade Fire. LCD Soundsystem’s latest and Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead—all of which arrived last week—are difficult works that nonetheless still stand up as pop artifacts at the end of the day.

And they wisely have entry points for the intimidated. Modest Mouse, the group whose fluke hit “Float On” most recently turned up in one of those finalists-spotlighting Ford ads on American Idol, has almost developed a formula for approachability: Surround the weird stuff with radio readymades, like “Dashboard” (akin to Franz Ferdinand) or the lovely “Missing the Boat.” (It helps, of course, to have Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar and Shins vocalist James Mercer in the mix.)

LCD, the brainchild of DFA Records honcho James Murphy, follows a similar pattern on Silver; those who went nuts for the 2005 club fave “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” have the new “North American Scum” to sate their appetites, though that sort of track is the exception now, not the rule. In the case of El-P, perhaps the craftiest of artists to emerge from the progressive hip-hop cabal that is the Definitive Jux label, his incendiary rhymes and sonic squalls are tempered on “I’ll Sleep” by cameos from Nine Inch Nails, Cat Power and the Mars Volta.

Yet none of these albums reveals all of its secrets on the first listen. El-P’s disc, like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation and (to a lesser degree) Kanye West’s two albums, is an angry, volatile reflection of the times; you feel both bludgeoned and elated by it. Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, on the other hand, seems to relish commercial sabotage; he could easily dash off a dozen “Float On” remakes and make a mint, but he’d rather veer toward a more diabolical realm where his appealing melodicism is warped by doses of Waits and Zappa and Beefheart.

Replace those influences with Talking Heads, New Order and Bowie -– and LCD’s gem is all of the above and then some: a dampened tract on “Us v Them” as personal as it is political and grooving euphorically, at about eight minutes a clip. Lyrically it’s both coolly abstract and bitingly concrete, epitomizing David Byrne’s alienated everyman, then enveloping him in music as intercontinental (if not as polyrhythmic) as the Heads’ Remain in Light.

Ah, there it is: the perfect example of a challenging—yet profound and endlessly fun—album that any sensible survey of the greatest what-not would include. Niyaz, or anyone like him, trust me: You’d be better off hearing that and the new LCD disc and nothing else till Christmas than wasting time on more than half of this so-called “Definitive 200.”

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