magazine recently released their “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” feature, an online-exclusive article
(that requires MacroMedia Flash
). Presumably it’s a distillation rather than a copy of their book of the same name, and unfortunately it does not list the criteria used to determine this ranking. The top fifteen looks as follows:
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
(1967), The Beatles
2. Pet Sounds
(1966), The Beach Boys
(1966), The Beatles
4. Highway 61 Revisited
(1965), Bob Dylan
5. Rubber Soul
(1965), The Beatles
6. What’s Going On
(1971), Marvin Gaye
7. Exile on Main Street
(1972), The Rolling Stones
8. London Calling
(1979), The Clash
9. Blonde on Blonde
(1966), Bob Dylan
10. The Beatles
(1968), The Beatles
11. The Sun Sessions
(1976), Elvis Presley
12. Kind of Blue
(1959), Miles Davis
13. The Velvet Underground & Nico
(1967), The Velvet Underground
14. Abbey Road
(1969), The Beatles
15. Are You Experienced?
(1967), The Jimi Hendrix Experience
[Elvis made the list three times, with The Sun Sessions
(1976) at #11, Elvis Presley
(1956) at #55, and From Elvis in Memphis
(1969) at #190.]
Reading the list, scrupulous readers will no doubt ask the same inevitable question: Does Sgt. Pepper’s
still deserve the top slot after all this time?
Amidst describing “Penny Lane,” recorded during the album’s sessions, Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties
, writes: “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.” Unfortunately, I am one of the unlucky, and as such, I find it difficult to answer the question posed. Still, while it is The Beatles’ most notable achievement from a technical standpoint (and this is one of those rare cases where you have to read about – rather than listen to – the music to truly appreciate the effort that went into making the album), clearly its predecessor Revolver
is superior aesthetically. It covers similar ground as Pepper’s
albeit perhaps not to the same revolutionary extent, but it does so far more pleasingly, and as result the album has aged far more gracefully.
It is for this reason that one has to question how and why these albums were selected and ranked. One must suspect that those who compiled the list relied largely on previous accounts and reviews, rather than starting with a clean slate and exploring artists’ catalogues as a whole. This is clearly the case with Elvis. From Elvis in Memphis
is generally regarded as one of his (and Rock’s) best, and yet it ranks only at #190. Clearly something is amiss when one of the best albums by one of the best artists not only doesn’t make it into the top twenty, but barely makes it into the top two hundred. Another classic, Elvis Is Back!
, isn’t even on the list, and the one album that does rank near the top, The Sun Sessions
, isn’t even an original. Elvis Presley
makes a decent showing (#55) and it probably ranks as high as it does because it’s his first, but its sequel Elvis
and the first two Gold(en) Records
volumes are superior collections of music, with Elvis
(1956) in particular having been recorded for such a purpose almost in its entirety over three days (and thus better fitting the traditional album-mold).
It also seems as if the authors relied on individual songs placed on an album rather than the album as a whole to make their selections. This can be seen in the fifty-six point difference between Help!
(1965), ranked at #332, and A Hard Day’s Night
(1964), at #388. While the former may have had a selection of songs that was more forward-looking (“Ticket to Ride”) and lyric-heavy (“Help!”) than the latter, the album as a whole doesn’t hold together nearly as well. The 1964 album is a far greater achievement for the band, being the first (and ultimately only) to consist of only Lennon-McCartney compositions, and its individual songs hold together far better sonically. And while it doesn’t have a hit as great as “Yesterday,” it does have a famous hit in “Can’t Buy Me Love,” without having to resort to filler like “Act Naturally.” [As a side note, the “humbling” footnote in the album’s description that it was recorded in one day is inaccurate.] The Beatles
(1968) ranks at #10, despite being a mess of an album. It goes from brilliant (“Blackbird,” “Julia,” etc.) to terrible (“Wild Honey Pie”) in the span of two sides, and most listeners agree that the contents should have been reduced from four sides to two. As such, while it may have had a number of great songs, it’s not a great album
, and should not have placed as high on the list as it did. [I suspect someone here will reply that the list is compiled by “the Beatles-generation” and is thus Beatle-biased, but then I ask you, where was the Elvis-generation in the Eighties?]
Lists like these, and their poll-counterparts, are extremely common, and as such, the point of this thread was not necessarily to discuss the actual albums on the list and the place they achieved. (Although such a discussion is certainly welcome!) The point I wanted to make was that lists like these need to be approached with a fresh outlook. For Beatles or even Rock neophytes, Sgt. Pepper’s
' achievement on lists like these is entirely unclear, and the description given on the site doesn’t enlighten. I’m always amused by items on the ElvisNews website reporting on polls on which Elvis placed. If he’s at the top, all the responses there cheer for our man, as the list was clearly an indication of irrefutable quality. As soon as he does not make #1, however, all the people (and occasionally, things) that scored above him are deemed rubbish and the makers of the list moronic. The same goes for lists that Elvis has yet to win in and threads are made on this board to rally up votes. Even when it’s not entirely clear why
Elvis should win, everyone dutifully goes to the site and votes. This completely spoils the point of having a poll, since it’s no longer a clear representation of the item being polled, but rather a biased popularity contest.
The point then is not to vote with knee-jerk reactions, but re-think why those picks made the list in the first place. It’s entirely possible – even likely – that Sgt. Pepper’s
deserves to be at #1, but editors and readers alike need to place it there because they feel it has irrefutable qualities that no other album does, and not because it may have placed near or at the top in the past.
We were talking about the space between us all
And people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth…