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23 Oct 2020 9:53
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  •   Home > News > International

    Rolling Stone's 500 'greatest albums of all time' list makes us question the meaning of classic

    A new Rolling Stone magazine list of "the 500 greatest albums of all time" shows that when it comes to art, the concept of "great" refuses to sit still.


    In January, when 18-year-old pop singer Billie Eilish swept the big four categories at the Grammys, it was a feat not accomplished since Christopher Cross 40 years earlier.

    Who is Christopher Cross?

    That's a good question.

    In 1981, Cross, like Eilish, won Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist following the release of his debut self-titled album.

    But this week, when Rolling Stone magazine published an updated list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Cross' name did not appear.

    That Cross has largely been excised from the canon of popular music — while he later won an Oscar for original song, he never repeated his initial commercial success — tells you something about the flippant nature of music taste.

    The list itself, with fewer guitar acts and fewer Beatles albums in the top end than in earlier versions, also shows how, in art, the definition of "great" refuses to sit still.

    The Beatles drop, Radiohead rise

    The list, the most widely read piece in the magazine's history, was last published in 2003 and was slightly updated in 2012.

    This year, it was reworked from scratch — crowd-sourced from more than 300 critics, music industry professionals and artists, including Taylor Swift, U2's The Edge, Ben Harper, Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and many more.

    Quite a bit has changed.

    Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles, was previously number one, but in 2020 it dropped back to #24.

    It has been replaced at the top by Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, a soul-pop concept album inspired by the social divisions of the early 1970s.

    Nirvana's Nevermind moves from #17 to #6, Purple Rain by Prince rises from #76 to #8, Radiohead's Kid A goes from #67 to #20.

    There were 154 new additions to the list, Rolling Stone's editor Jason Fine said, and 86 of the entries were from the 21st Century.

    Albums from Billie Eilish — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, the one that swept the Grammys — and Lana Del Rey were two releases from 2019 that made the cut.

    Kasey Musgrave's 2018 album Golden Hour came in at #270, while Taylor Swift's Red, from 2012, was at #99.

    Though The Beatles still have the most entries of any artist, with nine, they had four albums in the top 10 in 2003.

    In 2020, they have one.

    That's significant given the criticism the magazine has received in the past about being too wedded to the old rock'n'roll greats.

    Part of that was related to the magazine's founder, Jann Wenner — who sold the business a few years ago — and his well-documented "unabashed idol worship" when it came to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in particular.

    What does this shift really mean?

    Firstly, let's acknowledge what we are dealing with.

    "Lists are a conversation starter, not a decree," Double J Mornings host Zan Rowe tells me.

    Plus, a lot has changed in 17 years, she says, and even since the 2012 update.

    "This year, more than any other year, we have gotten more aware of the canon, and who we celebrate and who we put up on a pedestal."

    Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, from 2015, lands at #19, recognition not just of its sonic quality but its social impact.

    "You had people chanting [the song] Alright during the original Black Lives Matter protests, five years ago, as an anthem for solidarity and for hope," Rowe says.

    With What's Going On, she says, "It's not just [Gaye's] sonics and the songwriting of that album, it's the impact and the legacy they've had politically and culturally and socially.

    "It's with the passing of time that you're really able to see just how big that impact is."

    The changes are also a recognition of the way pop music has evolved in past decade or two.

    Driven partly by technology, from music production tools to distribution platforms like Soundcloud and Spotify, it has become less white and less guitar-based.

    Lists give us a means of evaluating what's important

    In 2004, the rock critic Jim DeRogatis co-edited a book of essays called Kill Your Idols that he said was "a loud, angry but hopefully amusing "f--- you" to the forces of nostalgia that keep us idolising the past.

    He included among those forces "the endless Rolling Stone magazine lists of the 500 Greatest Albums in Rock History (which never, ever seem to get it right)".

    But then he went on to say: "The point of the book isn't to make readers change their minds about works they hold near and dear.

    "It's to make them think about what they value in these allegedly great albums; about why, exactly, these works have been included in the canon."

    Which, as Rowe pointed out, is arguably what Rolling Stone is doing here.

    Sure, some older artists have lost currency to more contemporary acts like Nirvana and Kendrick Lamar, while others like Cross are lost completely.

    But canons shift because that's how canons should work.

    "One distinction from the old list is the idea that there's not one objective history of popular music," the magazine's reviews editor Jon Dolan said.

    "I think it's an honest reflection of how taste is now."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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