Working in a record store back in 1987, we got the first Beatles CDs shipped to us and excitedly opened the boxes after hours as they would go on sale the next day to coincide with the 20 anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper. Obviously I understood the leap to the new format, but was a little surprised at the hype of this “new” release that was really just a reselling of old music everyone already had.
And in true Beatles fashion, of course they predicted all of this and put it on record. In fact the first line of that legendary Sgt. Pepper album is “It was 20 years ago today…” and a tagline was born. The Beatles making it to compact discs in the late 80s wasn’t the first or last “anniversary reissue” but it rang in a new era of nostalgia culture along with what the Box Set craze was doing for what was once known as “The Record Industry.”
As our media and culture and news cycles continued to speed up as technology advanced, so too did our nostalgia rates. The 1990s saw a resurgence (recycling) of the 1960s…. and soon enough we couldn’t wait to re-celebrate the 70s and shout I LOVE THE 80s and by the dawn of the 21st century it seemed we were already “looking back” on a 90s decade that just ended. This hyperwarp eventually ate itself and now we just spend each day, week, and year looking back at the great things that already happened 10, 20, and 25 years ago.
Usually we are nudged into this by some not-so-coincidental reissues… anniversary edition remasters of the classic albums we already know and love. And in the digital age where selling any music, especially hard copy CDs, is next to impossible, it’s a lot easier to (re)sell us stuff everyone knows is good (especially with added goodies and updated artwork or notes). It’s easy to have a hit with a hit.
In the “rock is dead” era, we didn’t need the Strokes or the White Stripes to be saviors of rock, we just exhumed the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin to do it again. It’s almost comical that the recent remastered reissues (expanded 2-disc versions!) of the Zeppelin catalogue rolled out exactly 20 years after the 1994 remasters. Can a shark jump the shark?
Anniversary culture gives us an excuse to tell the world which albums changed our lives and how. We gather in the town square (Facebook/Twitter) and remind our friends that A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory came out 24 years ago. We make our high school buddies feel old by telling them Van Halen’s 1984 is 31 YEARS OLD while websites gather clicks by offering us info on the whereabouts of the woman from the “Hot For Teacher” video. Obviously seminal albums like the Stones Exile on Main St get lavish remastered reissues, and so do lesser-known but still critically acclaimed efforts like Bob Mould’s Workbook, but soon enough there’s a niche within the niche and we’re “celebrating” albums that weren’t so great the first time around. Or maybe the album might be worthy, but we don’t wanna wait for the 20th or 25th anniversaries, so now just “It was 10 years ago today” is good enough.
Instead of listing every album that’s had an anniversary reissue, it would be easier to list the ones that haven’t. As for which ones are worthy of buying a second or third time… this brings us from the nostalgia phenomenon to our other favorite rock pastime: Top 10 Lists. From the dawn of the first day spent on that hypothetical desert island, we’ve been making our personal Top 10 lists. Once everyone and their former record-store coworkers had blogs, rock fans everywhere were raging against the tastemakers and righting all the wrongs unjustly handed down by the gatekeepers at Rolling Stone or SPIN or the Grammy voters and anyone else who gets it wrong when trying to tell us what’s good.
It’s a way to make sense of a senseless world in which Bob Marley never won a Grammy and Ziggy Marley’s career is already longer than Bob’s.
Making our own Top 10 lists is a rock’n’roll pastime: something to pass the time (and way better than baseball). And what our lists were made of was also a signifier of our own personal Rock History, usually dependant on our age or what our parents or older brothers’ album collection looked and sounded like. Our Top 10 lists and our age/timeline make up our rock’n’roll DNA which in turn dictates the albums/moments worthy of anniversary celebrations.
But all these anniversaries are just random and arbitrary as far as choosing 10, 15, 20, or 25 years as the marking points. Why not 14 years? Or 7 or 11? Or given the myths surrounding some famous dead rock stars, maybe 27 years should be the standard. And should we celebrate the date the album was released, or the dates it was actually recorded or completed? Van Morrison’s amazing Astral Weeks album dates back to 1968, and even though I loved Moondance for many years and was a casual Van Morrison fan, I’d never actually listened to the Astral Weeks album until 2013. So the 40-something-year-old album was still brand new to me (also at 40-something).
And why stop at albums? Don’t worry, we haven’t: now we celebrate “moments” like in 2014 when there was quite a bit of media hype regarding the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show (and other Beatle milestones from 1964). We’ve also recognized the anniversary of Michael Jackson moonwalking his way to super-duper stardom at the dawn of the Thriller era (at a televised Motown special that, some may not remember, was itself a 25th anniversary). An anniversary of a 5-second dance from a televised anniversary show: yea, a shark can jump a shark.
We know why bands and record labels reissue anniversary edition of beloved albums: to make money, of course. But why do we make Top 10 lists? Why do we obsess over what’s in our Top 10, or if it’s okay to “cheat” and bring 11 albums to this fictional desert island that we’ll allegedly be trapped on (and yet we’ll have food and shelter for survival, along with electricity to play our tunes… it’s like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island who could build houses and coconut phones but not a boat). Of course MP3 players made this “desert island disc” exercise even more ridiculous… why lug 10 clunky CDs and a boom box along with us to eternal exile to grow a huge beard like Tom Hanks making fire and talking to a volleyball. Just bring one tiny player, a Top 10 GBs of albums….
Personally, I’ve written and published Top 10 Lists including but not limited to Best Country Albums, Best Hip-Hop Albums, Best Albums of the 2000s, Best Double Albums, Best Live Albums, several versions of my desert-island greatest albums of all time, and even Best Jazz Albums that Sound Like Children’s Book Titles. (And “best” inevitably means my favorites, and sometimes “10” ends up meaning 11, or 20, or more….)
And as I do this, as we all do this, we take tiny forks in the various sonic highways. If the Conventional Wisdom told us that some of the all-time best albums were The Beatles Sgt Pepper, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon… we eventually found Revolver and Rubber Soul, and Bruce’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. (And Dark Side might be hard-pressed to make my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums with Meddle, Wish You Were Here, and Animals as competitors.) So just as Moondance was the lighthouse that led us to Astral Weeks, the iconic hit songs of Bob Dylan and Neil Young would lead us to lesser-known albums like Bringing it All Back Home and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. And so we all start to stray and if the accepted “10 Best Albums Ever” list has Purple Rain, we decide to include Sign O’ the Times instead…. And Led Zeppelin IV became too trite and overrated so we started putting Physical Graffiti or one of the first three albums on our list. Or, if your older brother was a real punk rocker, maybe you were brainwashed to hate Led Zeppelin.
As rock’n’roll was once rooted in rebellion, we also rebel against rock criticism, or the aforementioned conventional wisdom of The Official Best Rock Albums of All Time.
I’d like to say I used some hybrid of statistical analysis and advanced metrics to determine the Top 10 Rock Albums of All Time, but all I did was take some cursory glances at BestAlbumsEver.com, a site providing fully customizable aggregates of other lists. Depending on which source lists you include, the Best Album ever might be the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, or Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Beatles Revolver, or Radiohead’s OK Computer.
Most of the major/mainstream Top 10 lists feature 3 or 4 Beatles albums mixed with some form of The Clash London Calling, Velvet Undergound & Nico, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Exile on Main St, Dark Side of the Moon, and one or two Bob Dylan albums.
Of course there’s always a backlash, where we declare all those usual suspects, everything I just mentioned… these “best ever albums” get deemed overrated and therefore would never be found on YOUR list. Then you go back and actually listen to some of these albums and get reminded why they are always found on these lists.
These statistically aggregated lists are the closest that rock music criticism can be like sports. It gives us stats. How many championships? How many Top-10 finishes? It’s a way we can objectify something that’s so subjective in nature. You might hate Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen and Prince as much as I love them. You might think I’m an idiot for never really getting into the Velvet Undergound or the Clash. I can admit that I like Rush Moving Pictures more than anything by the Sex Pistols. And the Replacements were WAY better than the Ramones. That’s right, I dissed the Ramones, and I can stand here in public and admit that I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I fuckin hate Jimmy Buffet and think the Smiths are vastly overrated. We all like different stuff, and while there’s no rules in rock, and no rules in the ridiculous realm of rock criticism, the #1 Rule (er, non-rule) is: if you like it… it’s good.
We’re all wired differently. Some say our exact moment and location of birth, in relation to the stars, makes up our Human Design (or something, I really have no clue how it works), but it determines a lot about our personality and future. So why not our musical tastes? Sure, we’re influenced by what’s popular at various times during our lives, and as I said the record collections of our parents and siblings… but what if it’s all really in the stars? And we are stardust?
Maybe there’s some sort of Rock n Roll Astrology, some ways the stars and rock stars were aligned at our birth that would determine which albums would exert the strongest influence on our personality and lives. Obviously that’s impossible and borderline silly. But silly never stopped me before. I once wrote a love letter to The Joshua Tree.
I was born in August of 1970, so I began investigating the albums released that year. It’s not as simple as just checking the charts from 1970 to determine what would have been the first of many future Top 10 Albums lists. I was curious to see what albums could have been floating around in the ether while I was forming in the womb… or were being played in the weeks and months after I was born…
Interestingly I found a lot of albums pertaining to Birth and/or self-awareness or mentioning motherhood or babies: Bob Dylan – New Morning and Self Portrait, Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother, Stevie Wonder – Signed Sealed Delivered, The Faces – First Step, Pete Townshend – Happy Birthday; I was the third and youngest child, so I thought it was interesting to find Led Zeppelin – III, The Soft Machine – Third and Todd Rungren – Runt.
Turns out, what I discovered wasn’t necessarily a rockn’roll astrology… just the fact that I’m certifiably insane and hopelessly in love with rock records.
My personal Top 10 Albums of All Time has obviously changed many times. And the Anniversary of that list, the REISSUE of that list that I remake in my head seemingly every week (told you I was a little crazy), is always changing.
WHY DO WE DO THIS? Why do we rank our albums and love to make lists of them? The cliché answer here of course is “it’s only rock’n’roll but we like it,” but it feels like something deeper. For some of us, rock music and anything/everything that phrase “rock music” implies is so important to us, if we couldn’t be IN a band, or if the band you’re in starts singing different tunes, or if “we learned more from a 3-minute record than we ever learned in school,” then crafting these lists and defending them and amending them is how we not only tell the world who we are, and why, but also what’s “now playing” on the soundtrack of our lives.
For people like us, some of our favorite movie heroes didn’t wear capes or masks. They’re people like the guys at the record store in Hi-Infidelity. Or Jack Black handing out classic rock CDs to the kids in School of Rock. And the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the late Lester Bangs giving the “We’re not cool” speech in Almost Famous.
But we ARE cool. Okay, maybe not that cool…. We’re not the coolest, but hopefully we’re somewhere in the Top 10.