Counterbalance: Year One

In this special one-year anniversary edition of Counterbalance, Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn discuss their first year combing through the pop music canon (as determined by Acclaimed Music's calculations of every best-of list available), share a few favorites, and justify a couple items on their expense account.

Klinger: Well Mendelsohn, a year has passed since we embarked on this fool's mission to discuss each entry on the Acclaimed Music list of the Greatest Albums of All Time, which is compiled by Swedish math-magician Henrik Franzon using every critics' list he can get his hands on. It all began with an offhand comment you made about there being only one truly perfect album: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. I was, needless to say, baffled by this notion.

I proposed we make our way through Acclaimed Music’s Great List one by one to see just how well they stack up. Along the way, we've sought to gain some perspective on what has drawn critics to these albums over years and even decades. After all, the upper reaches of the list are populated by a lot of the usual suspects, and in the process a canon has come into being, one that's considered essential to understanding popular music in the rock era. Having made our way through the top 50, it's a good time to see if any patterns have begun to emerge yet.

But first, has this past year at least disabused you of the notion that Dark Side of the Moon is the only perfect rock album?

Mendelsohn: No, if anything, this past year has served only to strengthen my resolve. Dark Side still remains No. 1 on my list. Start to finish -- perfect. But I think that may be the most important lesson that we can take away from this exercise: Music is intensely personal. The Great List may be the finest example of rock music groupthink ever created, but the parts that make up the whole, the individual lists, they had to start somewhere -- one man's list, one man's opinion. I would have said "one person's list", in an effort to not be gender specific but I think it’s pretty evident that the majority of people who really care are of the male gender and probably fairly pasty. Speaking of, which, how badly did you get sunburned this summer, Mr. Klinger?

Klinger: You have to go outside to get sunburned, Mendelsohn. And you're right that music is highly personal. But in addition to providing entertainment or a balm to the soul or a soundtrack for beer drinking, these albums help explain our culture. In order to see how they're doing that, a critic's role is to at least attempt to see beyond his or her own opinions to look at the big picture. And it might start with one person's opinion, but even that is subject to change as that big picture comes into focus. Critics hated Led Zeppelin when they first arrived on the scene. Rolling Stone gave Nirvana's Nevermind a tepid review in 1991. There are loads of examples of these. But as it became clear that these groups were having a major impact, continuing to dismiss them would mean denying their importance, which is kind of irresponsible if you're trying to present yourself as a valid voice in the cultural discussion.

Mendelsohn: Well, I think it’s clear that I have no interest in presenting myself as the valid voice of anything -- especially when it comes to factual discourse over the cultural relevance of music. We keep having these conversations and they keep showing up on the Internet, and it boggles my mind. All that aside, I have a problem ascribing such weight to said discourse, but it's the same problem I have with the idea of earning a Ph.D. in Popular Culture -- in sounds nice in theory, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s useless.

I'm going to try and keep this as succinct as possible before I start to trip the light fantastic into the wonderful world of existentialism -- but what does it matter? We as a species have built a house of cards, and thanks to technology that house keeps getting taller and wider the farther up you go. Is any of this going to be relevant in 100 years? Five hundred years? What happens should we face some as of yet unknown catastrophe that deprives us of electricity? You say we need criticism to understand the bigger picture, but some days it strikes me as nothing more than rank self-importance. And now I feel like I'm drowning in my own hypocrisy.

Klinger: Well, that's some heavy stuff. Maybe all we are is dust in the wind, but while we're waiting for the apocalypse we might as well argue about rock and roll. As you look over the last 50 albums that we've covered, are you noticing any general trends that might give us some insight as to what constitutes the rock canon?

Mendelsohn: Let's do the numbers real quick. Only 12 of the top 50 albums were made after 1980. Only two of those were released in the last decade. In the genre department, only two albums don't fit neatly under the Rock/Pop heading, those being Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which is also the oldest record in the top 50 with a release date in 1959. You could probably also toss in Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and James Brown's Live at the Apollo but I think some argument could be made for those to be listed under the Rock/Pop category. There are also only two women with albums in the top 50, Patti Smith's Horses and Joni Mitchell's Blue. You can make it 2.5 women if you would like to count the Velvet Underground and Nico. Caucasians dominate the list with close to 75% of the entries.

So... I guess the overarching theme is old, white guys with guitars? This should be right up my alley in another 30 years. But then, it makes sense considering this list is built primarily from listenership in the United States and Great Britain -- two countries primarily dominated by old white men. Is this turning into some weird conspiracy?

Klinger: Old in one sense -- the list is pretty Baby Boomer-centric -- but it seems worth noting that Kind of Blue and Blood on the Tracks are the only albums made by an artist over 30 (or whose average age was over 30, in the case of groups). But mathematics aside, it occurs to me as I look over the Great List thus far is that we're seeing a lot of major statements and manifestos. We're seeing the albums that strove to say that things were going to be very different once this album was released -- and then were good enough (or, I suppose smart enough or lucky enough) to be right. Of course, lots of albums also sought to change the game forever, but they didn't do so in large part because they never got the same breaks (or were in fact terrible).

It's true that for purposes of understanding that hallmark of rock ambition -- the double LP -- we have divided them between the Grand Artistic Statement and the Pile, but I can make an argument that just about every album we've covered marks a line in the sand between what came before and what came after. Even when an album came along that one or both of us didn't much like, we generally had to concede that they were culturally significant.

Mendelsohn: That's true. The top 25 read like the building blocks of rock and roll DNA and helped shape the cultural zeitgeist that they came into contact with, or in some cases, helped to start. In turn, each album furthered a cause, be it social, political, or just rock and roll, upping the ante for those that would follow, pushing the envelope when it came to thinking about music, and shaping the world around us with that music. But, we've been over this a dozen times. Let's talk about this experience for a minute. The Great List offered up some surprises along the way. What have you enjoyed most about this little experiment, and what was the worst aspect? Were there any albums that took you by surprise? Your favorite and least favorite? These albums may have shaped culture as we know it, but we just spent the last year digging though the rock and roll mythos in a very structured fashion -- not something most music fans would seek to undertake.

Klinger: I was such a nerd growing up that when I made the decision for rock, my first stop was the public library. So I dug into critics' opinions almost right away, and from there I'd seek out the music. So I was almost as structured in my approach as Counterbalance has been -- as a result there weren't a ton of surprises for me. I confess to never having listened to Massive Attack before, but I'm excused from that because I'm American. I loved being able to catch up with a lot of albums and realizing how hearing them again would transport me back to the time in my life when they first captured my imagination. That's happened a lot so far, and I have to say I'm looking forward to it happening even more as we go along. Plus as we move forward, it looks like we'll be encountering several albums that are less cultural manifestos and more personal statements. That seems to be the next most important criterion for critics, and I'm eager to see how those mesh with our own listening experience.

Oh wait, Horses -- I hadn't really grasped just how great that album is until I forced myself to listen to it for a week straight. And I'm pretty glad that I never have to spend much time thinking too hard about Thriller. How about you?

Mendelsohn: I never had much respect for the canon, but then, I spent my formative years listening to some terrible, terrible music. By the time I started taking music half-way seriously, and listening to records that could be considered semi-respectable, music criticism had gone completely to pot and I spent most of my time seeking out only the newest of the new. So, for the most part, this little experiment has been a wonderful learning experience. Over all, everything on the list fell into one of three categories for me, albums I had heard, albums I had never heard, mostly by choice (the Smiths) or out of ignorance or laziness (Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Love) and the rest of it came down to artists I knew and whose material I was familiar, with but had never taken the time to analyze -- nor would I, had we not embarked on this quest. I was caught off guard by the genius of Prince, learned to respect Bruce Springsteen a little bit more (just a little bit), came to love, not just like, the Rolling Stones, and finally started to appreciate the many faces of Bob Dylan instead of just seeing one, larger than life BOB DYLAN. The biggest surprise for me was James Brown's Live at the Apollo -- that was just eye-opening.

Another upside is that this assignment seems to have cured me of my new music addiction -- and that was really getting out of hand. Thankfully, I've been too busy listening to the list to feed the monster and any jones-ing I might get for something I've never heard before usually got taken care of when I had to focus on an album I hadn't heard in a while or wasn't too familiar with.

Klinger: So we appear to be getting a better handle on this idea of what constitutes a pop music canon, we've gained some insights into the minds of rock critics, and we've managed to free you from your crippling, crippling addiction. Not a bad year, I'd say. And only have 59 more years to go.

* * *

Here's just some of what's in store for Counterbalance in the coming year:

Alt-rock's founding fathers show up twice, ushering us from the College Rock underground to the Alternative Nation.

The return of something called "hip-hop music"!

Things take a brief turn toward the Germanic . . .

And this guy's back.

See you next week, and every stinkin' week until 2060.

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