So, a friend approached me a few weeks ago and asked if I would accompany him on a project. He is listening his way through this book called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. He asked me to blog the project with him.
But I can’t do it.
There are three main problems with the book.
1. It’s too big. 1001 albums to hear before you die is too long of a list — it’s a long enough list that it could include just about anything and requites precious little editing. “Which Mudhoney album should I include? I’ll just go ahead an include both.” Britney or Christina? Bring them both along. A list this expansive fails to do what a good list does, and that’s provide some guidance by making some editorial decisions about what makes the list and what does not.
2. It’s not big enough. It’s selective in a really painful way: It’s too rock-ish. For those of you keeping score at home:
Oasis 2. John Coltrane 1.
Arrested Development and Charles Mingus tie at one apiece.
Kings of Leon (2) outlast Nina Simone (1)
Billie Holiday (1) manages a draw with Slipknot (1).
John Cage (0) & Phillip Glass (0) get shut out entirely.
According to this book, there are almost no jazz albums worth hearing since Miles Davis‘ (4) Bitches Brew. and there is no album resembling “classical” music that’s you need to hear before you die. Period. In choosing the 1001 albums, the contributors demonstrate little beyond their own limited taste, or else they demonstrate what passes for the contemporary moment’s self-satisfied “ecclectic” listening which means that you have both Tupac (1) and Steely Dan (4) on your ipod. Come on.
3. But really, my issue with the book is how they define the “album.” The authors credit Frank Sinatra (3) with “inadvertently ushering the album era” with his 1950 release, In the Wee Small Hours.” Albums, in fact had been around for about a decade, but they were not the now coveted (and fetishized) 33 1/3 rpm records. They were albums of records that were modeled on photo albums and were packaged and sold as collections — often of Broadway soundtracks, but also of the work of a single musician. By opening the “album era” in 1955, the authors commit a more egregious sin than what they did to Herbie Hancock (0). By conflating the LP with the album, they omit albums that preceded In the Wee Small Hours (like Charlie Parker’s 1950 release Bird With Strings).
But worse yet, in the age of single-song downloads and declining sales of record albums, they nostalgically enshrine the LP with a kind of rock-centric power, as if American music can be best understood by 45-minute collections of songs — as if that format is somehow both natural and superior to all others. By enshrining the album, the contributors suggest that our aural days ought not be measured in music, but in format. And in that way, the book, in its inclusions and omissions, implies that anything beyond this capacious and capricious list isn’t worth hearing, anyhow.