On some omissions
After hours and hours fiddling about with the order of this list, I had to make some difficult decisions. Here are some of them.
Michael Jackson – my very first CD was HIStory (1994), and you don’t need me to tell you that he is and always will be the King of Pop. The trouble I found was that he looked “wrong” wherever I put him. This is a favourites list, not a greatest list, and the truth is that I don’t find myself reaching for his albums or singles very often – I’ll sing along if one of his greatest hits comes on the radio. In the end, I erred on the side of including less well-known acts. There’s no Madonna, either, who I’ve never been able to get into. I guess straight-up “pop” is not very well represented on the list in general.
Queen – a similar case to Jackson. Like everyone else, I grew up on their Greatest Hits (1981) and watching Wayne and Garth rocking out to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As much as some of their albums have actually become underrated (because they are over-shadowed by the singles), I do think Queen are a band you grow out of. Again, if it was a greatest list, I couldn’t deny them a place, but I couldn’t find a place for them on my own list. Incidentally, there are very few “hair bands” on the list, you won’t find any of those big stadium rock acts like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Kiss, or Van Halen – and, of course, Queen were a lot better than any of those. Speaking of stadiums, there’s no place for U2 or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers either – just letting you know that this is not going to be that sort of list.
Renaissance – I am not much of a fan of prog rock, there is no place on the list for King Crimson, early Genesis, ELO, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Supertramp, or Robert Wyatt. I did consider putting Renaissance on there. Ashes Are Burning (1973), Turn of the Card (1974), and Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975) are all good albums, and I especially like the cheesy single “Let It Grow”. To me, they represent everything there is to know about prog: desperately uncool, appalling 70s hair, overlong tracks with no discipline that do not justify their length, and a near-complete lack of self-awareness underlined by po-faced earnestness. Actually, if I’m honest, Supertramp have more good songs, but this was a nice way to lay into prog.
Fleetwood Mac – Special mention for these because I’m of the view that Rumours just can’t be denied, but I could leave the rest of the back catalogue. Early Peter Green-era is mostly average blues-rock, and – Rumours aside – other Buckingham-Nicks stuff just sounds like radio-fodder soft rock to my ears. But they really nailed that one album.
Spirit – Another band where I only really love one album. If it’s not already obvious to you, I’m about as far from being a hippy as it is possible to get. But Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is one of the best albums of 1970, and about as good as tree-hugging can get.
The Incredible String Band – As above but with The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion as the album and 1967 as the year – but that’s arguably more of an achievement since 1967 is one of the all-time great years.
Oasis – I was a teenager in the 90s in the UK; that means I listened to an awful lot of Britpop when I was growing up, but it is not very well represented on the list. I still maintain that Definitely Maybe (1995) and What’s the Story (Morning Glory) (1995) are both stone-cold classic albums, but I also often joke that Noel Gallagher is “brave” for his stubborn refusal to move on from that sound and way of writing songs. His lack of creative development almost comes out the other end and starts to seem like studied innovation. Still, in the overall scheme of things, I couldn’t find room for them.
The Zombies – Odyssey and Oracle (1968) is one of the very best albums of the 1960s, and I tried to find a place for them based on that alone. Trouble is, there isn’t much else there (“Woman” from the first album has a great organ solo), but if you haven’t heard Odyssey, you must at once!
Question Mark and The Mysterians -? and the Mysterians have a slim body of work – just two albums really, 96 Tears and Action, and neither of them classics. But I had to mention them. Their most famous single, “96 Tears” is one of the best songs of the 60s. Their other work, much less explored, is sometimes criticised for essentially being more of the same, but that is all I ever wanted from these guys. As shall become clear over the course of this list, I have a thing for both the Vox Continental organ and for raw 60s garage rock – which to me seems much more like “the real deal” than punk and all its posturing later on. ? is a pretty idiosyncratic vocalist, and I appreciate how shamelessly they lean on that cheap organ-driven sound. Not quite enough there to make the list though.
Billy Joel – I’ve always had a soft spot for Joel, and really like his sound, especially on Piano Man (1973) and Streetlife Serenade (1974). I also consider “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” a much underrated song. Joel provides a soundtrack for mediocrity: mostly average music about mostly average lives. I’d have to think about it more, but I’d probably, if pushed, have him above both Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, neither of whom made the list. I’d also have him above modern-stadium-filling-piano-laden fare such as Coldplay.
Metal – Yeah …
Klaus Nomi – Here is a case in which uniqueness alone was not enough to get someone on the list: Klaus Nomi is someone who needs to be seen to be believed. He only had two albums before his AIDs-related death in 1983, but they are utterly unlike anything else. He meshes electronic new wave with opera – a true one-off.
The Ink Spots – these were a last-minute omission, and one of the biggest acts of the 1940s. They have some great songs such as “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)”, but I do think that idea that all of them are similar is a valid criticism. Someone on youtube compiled the guitar intro to 19 of their songs that is virtually identical – that’s fine as a kind of signature, but then most of them proceed to a verse from the high-pitched falsetto of Bill Kenny before the uber-deep spoken-word sequence by Hoppy Jones (a technique imitated later by Elvis), with Kenny coming back for the outro. It’s fine to have a formula, and the Ink Spots were great, but after some deliberation I think they stuck a bit too rigidly to it.
Rockabilly / 50s rock ‘n’ roll – that is, the 50s rockers – Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc. – where are they? Two things on this, first I’ve found those artists, without exception, to be incredibly patchy over their albums – their greatest hits, in most cases, define the entirety of their best stuff. Second, the music of that period I’ve most come to love is on two extensive bootleg compilations, the 14-volume Greasy Rock ‘n’ Roll and the 21-volume Desperate Rock ‘n’ Roll. To me, these two compilations, which get right down into the sleazy, dirty clubs, and catalogue countless obscure and long-forgotten not-hit garage and trash bands of the late 1950s and early 1960s, have come to best represent the genre. I’d far sooner take any single disc of these comps over the greatest hits of any of the aforementioned more famous acts. While I’m at it, my gateway to many a cool comp has been this site: https://surfadelic2.wordpress.com/ – you better dig! For 60s comps, the Back from the Grave and Garage Beat 66 series are both essential for garage rock, and Nuggets for the psychedelic scene.
Soul – I feel like a real scumbag leaving Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Al Green, Irma Thomas, Aretha Franklin, and especially James Brown, off this list. So why did I? It’s not that I don’t love stuff by all those artists, nor that I particularly don’t care for soul, but rather because at this point in my music fandom, I feel more drawn to its natural successor: funk. Soul albums, for whatever reason, with a few notable exceptions, such as Wonder’s peerless Songs in the Key of Life (1976), don’t seem to hold my attention for long. In a year or two, I might be in a different mood and would include several of these guys (Wonder and Gaye certainly), but right now I couldn’t find a space for them.
Improvisational jazz – Somewhat related to my general disdain for prog rock: I don’t like jazz. To be specific, a certain type of jazz. The sort peddled by Mile Davis, Thelonious Monk and their ilk. I once made a check-list for jazz albums of this variety:
- Opening track over 17 minutes long? CHECK
- 5-star review on allmusic.com? CHECK
- Rated in the top 5 albums of that year on Rate Your Music? CHECK
- Extraneous and meandering saxophones all over every track? CHECK
- General discordance annihilating any threat of any moment of any track becoming even vaguely enjoyable? CHECK
- A vague feeling of bewilderment akin to that felt by the art critic Brian Sewell at a modern-art gallery in which everyone else is fawning over some conceptual piece or other while drinking red wine, tittering to themselves, and quipping about Camus’s La Mort heureuse? CHECK