Sunday, June 3, 2012

Insincerity, Insecurity and Self-Importance
The Ranking of Rock

I've done music reviews here from time to time and served as a music critic for a publication, presently on hiatus, writing reviews of soundtracks, scores and live albums.  The world of popular rock and jazz music, like the world of movies, has its periodic lists of top tens revealing "The Greatest Albums of All Time" which are usually both predictable and, to a degree, accurate, but mostly, utterly useless.  Most albums on them indeed have enough good about them that their collective genius warrants recognition.  The mix of songwriting, production, execution, craftsmanship, engineering and musical skill of the performers all came together in such a way that a consensus could be formed that says, "Yes, this album is one of the best ever." And still, the lists are cautious and insincere, afraid to commit to a style of music they claim to be promoting.

In Rolling Stone's most recent Top 500 ever, The Beatles dominate the top ten with four (The Beatles aka The White Album, Rubber Soul, Revolver and, at number one, Sgt Pepper - in fact, three of the top five are Beatles albums) and practically every other album they ever did is in the 500 somewhere.  Abbey Road is number fourteen which seems odd since it's better than Sgt. Pepper at number one but then so is Revolver and Rubber Soul.  In fact, so is A Hard Day's Night for that matter and that one is ranked way far down the list, shamefully so.  The White Album is a great listen except when it's not which is every third track or so because it's woefully uneven and feels completely emotionally disconnected from the band.   But, anyway, back to Sgt Pepper, a fine album indeed but more a phenomenon than a standout work.  Someone got it into their head several decades ago that Sgt. Pepper was the one to beat and goddamn if that son of a bitch is ever going to fall from the top spot.

After The Beatles you get The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Elvis, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and every other band you would expect as well as several that have somehow gained respectability by staying in print long enough to seem qualified.   But there are so many albums, so many more than there are movies, that it seems almost absurd to realistically claim any list has it right even half the time.  Get past the top twenty and the list quickly has you slapping your forehead every third or fourth album, especially if you're working backwards (500 to 1) and remember that great album ranked 200 spaces behind that piece of shit album you used as a frisbee after the first listen.

To add to the problem there are a couple of jazz albums present, both Miles Davis.  They are Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue.  By including these and naming the list the Top 500 Albums of All Time, not the Top 500 Rock Albums of All Time, the implication is that this is a blend of rock and jazz.   Well, sorry fellas, but if that's the case, kindly remove at least 300 of the rock albums on this list to make way for the collected works of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and a score or two more jazz artists not currently represented on the list and far better than half the shit wasting space between the two ends.  And if we're including popular standards as well (Sinatra is on the list a couple of times, too) then we better make another fifty slots or so available for Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan.  Otherwise, the list is thoroughly disingenuous.  And if it's really just a rock list trying to make itself seem more important or inclusive by throwing on a Miles Davis here and a Frank Sinatra there, please remove them and have the dignity to just be a goddamn rock album list.

But this is all nitpicking because while some of the top 500 are lame (for one thing, there are several "Greatest Hits" packages - I'm sorry, what?), at least one can easily mount a semi-respectable argument that this album achieved this and that one achieved that and on and on.  The same cannot be said for the individual musicians and yet that has never stopped anyone from trying.

Their list of the greatest guitarists seems particularly pointless, and mindless.  Can we all accept that any lead guitarist of any successful, signed, produced rock act is accomplished enough to be the lead guitarist for any successful, signed, produced rock act?  In other words, in a "Devil Went Down To Georgia" style guitar-off between various six-stringers, from Jimi Hendrix to Steve Vai (himself in the Crossroads movie guitar-off and oddly enough not on the list), can we all agree they'd all pretty much play the riffs with respectable accuracy and aplomb?  We can't rank one better than the other on technical skill because not only are they all operating at close to the same level but, more importantly, if we do that, all is lost.  Seriously, the minute you start judging any artist on a technical level rather than an emotional level, you've lost sight of what art is supposed to be doing in the first place.

So how should we rank them?  It seems to me, a guitarist should be ranked for what they bring to a piece.  Eddie Van Halen is very proficient technically but what does he add to a piece?  What does he do that makes his part blend in perfectly with the drums, the bass and the vocals?  What does he do that makes the whole piece work?  Or do his solos just crassly and brazenly stand out as show pieces?  Do I even have to ask that question?

By this calculus, it would seem obvious that the best musicians are the sessions musicians that have made so many songs by so many disparate performers work so well that we should just rank them only, pat ourselves on the back and go home.  And yes, there are several sessions musicians on the list though I don't recall seeing Glen Campbell who started out as an accomplished sessions guitarist and long before the world knew him for such mediocre crossover fare as Rhinestone Cowboy, he was known as one damn fine guitarist.

So let's look at George Harrison at number eleven and ask why he isn't higher (I'm shocked his non-flashy style even got him ranked at all).  Harrison took most of the early Lennon/McCartney compositions and gave them a solo that followed the melody note for note.  They weren't terribly inventive and very early on, in live recordings from Hamburg for instance, they were barely competent.  But Harrison grew considerably and as his talent grew he became more confident finding his own solo, separate from the melody but so sly, so unobtrusive, that the song never suffered from an abrupt Harrison show-off moment.   For comparison, think of a song like Presence of the Lord by Blind Faith.  I've copied the YouTube clip at the moment a few seconds before the solo so you can hear (if you're not familiar with the song) the general sound and feel of the song as it goes through its refrain before getting to the Eric Clapton solo, a solo so unconcerned with complementing the song that precedes it that it may as well be a stand-alone number.  Of course, why on earth would Clapton or Hendrix or anyone else be dissuaded from such action?  Such showboating is exactly the kind of thing that impresses rock critics, not known for their undying love of subtlety and understatement (see continuous ranking of Sgt Pepper at number one above - "By God, it's got sound effects!").

Harrison often just included a guitar line or two, just enough to break the song out into different parts without going overboard.  He preferred mellow more often than not and his beautiful slide solo on Something just may be the best work he ever did, and that was his own piece.  It could be argued that maybe Lennon and McCartney were telling him not to do big solos because it was their music and they didn't want him taking the attention away from the melody.  But even on his own songs, straight through his solo career, he never went crazy with a solo.  For Harrison, a good guitarist should complete the song, not abruptly break it in two.

So what are the best albums and who are the best guitarists?  I don't think we can get an accurate picture of that until we stop listing these things by rote.  Is anyone even thinking anymore before writing in Hendrix at one and Clapton at two?  Does anyone say, "Yes, Hendrix was terrific but died so young I can't see what he would have grown into and thus, I shouldn't rank him so high since many other guitarists had greater periods of growth and development."  Ha, ha, haaaa!  That was a rhetorical question.  Of course, no one says that!   Both Hendrix and someone like Duane Allman stand out as exceptional guitarists that the world never got to see develop.  Where should they be on such a list?  I don't know because, frankly, I don't see the point of the list at all.

As I said, if you're on the list, you're good.  You know what you're doing.  As such, it all comes down to style and an artist's sensibility and, frankly, very few sound very different from the other.  So why not just stop ranking individual artists altogether and just rank the albums or the songs?  Movies are generally ranked as a whole ("The Greatest Movies Ever Made") but rarely do cinephiles sit around ranking directors or writers or cinematographers.  Oh, it happens and we can all say Orson Welles was a great director and Conrad Hall a great cinematographer and Leigh Brackett a great writer but, in the end, we're more concerned with the sum total of their work, the movie.

So let's stop ranking guitarists and bassists and drummers immediately, if at all possible.  Let's focus on the product of their talents and skills instead, the songs and albums.   And when we do that, let's call it "The Top 500 Rock Albums of All Time" because it's an insult to pretend it's not and include only two jazz or standard albums to prove its inclusiveness.   Rock critics and musicians argue for respectability and insist their style of music is just as good if not better than others but don't have the balls to go 100 percent rock when it comes down to it.  The uneasy blend of self-importance and insecurity is awkward and unbecoming and exhausting.  Christ, it's been well over fifty years now.  Can we stop pretending it's something it's not?  It's rock.  Live with it, love it, rank it.  With confidence.