A couple of months ago, Rolling Stone published a list of what it describes as the “500 greatest albums of all time“. The contents aren’t surprising. Sgt. Pepper comes in at number one, followed by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, more Beatles records, entries by Dylan and the Stones, and so on.
Earlier this week, Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop critic at the Wall Street Journal sounded a counterblast. The Rolling Stone list, he argued, isn’t solely a marketing stunt. It’s the reflection of a “calcified rock orthodoxy” based on baby boomer nostalgia.
Fusilli criticizes the list for mostly excluding country, jazz, and non-American music. But his argument is based on too literal a reading. In the first place, the “greatest albums” doesn’t mean the greatest albums. It means the greatest albums of the kind of music popular among the white teenage audience to which Rolling Stone has always been geared. And “all time” surely isn’t supposed to include Mozart. Rather, it goes back to the genesis of that audience, some time after World War II. This stylistic and historical orientation is betrayed by the use of the word “album”, which I’ve rarely heard used by anyone under 40, and doesn’t even make sense in many “serious” musics.
The real question, then, isn’t whether the list is focused on commercial rock and pop. It’s whether the focus on the boomer golden age is justified within than context. Fusilli notes that “Of its 500 albums, 292 were released in the ’60s or ’70s, a highly improbable 59%.” But this is only “improbable” if you assume that achievements in a particular genre are randomly distributed across time. That’s absurd. Art forms have their periods of growth, maturity, and decadence.
Fusilli doesn’t want to be believe that rock is in its decadence. He suggests, for example, that Los Lobos’ 1992 record Kiko and Björk’s 2001 Vespertine rival Sgt. Pepper. I have never especially liked the Beatles, and do love Los Lobos and Björk. But their work isn’t comparable in influence or technical innovation. Sgt. Pepper changed listeners’ understanding of what rock ‘n’ roll could be. Kiko and Vespertine, on the other hand, are just terrific records.
The heroic age of rock and white pop has passed. But that doesn’t mean that latter-day music is essentially inferior. Borrowing a phrase from the late film critic Manny Farber (of whom I learned by reading the music writer Greil Marcus), rock used to be “white elephant art” that aimed at and sometimes succeeded in producing monuments. It has survived by transforming itself into “termite art” that “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
In its search for enduring classics, the Rolling Stone list is an expression of the white elephant mentality. The intellectual alternative isn’t to produce a different list, swapping ’60s favorites for more recent works, but to reject comprehensive “greatness” in favor of expressions meaning that may last no longer than an instant before receding into schlock, nonsense, and noise. At their best, that’s what postwar American rock and pop have always done. Rather than staking a claim to the accomplished, the influential, and the permanent, they ask, with the magazine’s namesake song, “How does it feel?”