The BBC’s “album season” (an earlier strand of which led to me counting down my 7 favourite albums of all time in February) reached its juddering climax last Monday, when Radio 2 announced its listeners’ favourite albums of all time––
Earlier this year, as part of our album season, we asked listeners to pick their favourite from our list of Radio 2’s Top 100 Most Played Albums. Our shortlist was made up of albums whose tracks are played by Radio 2 most regularly, and we only allowed one album per artist.
There’s a few things to point out here. First of all, and just because it annoys me, talking about a ‘shortlist’ is absurd when: (a) the list was 100 entries long (so not really short at all); and (b) it was exactly the same length throughout the whole process. You can only have a ‘shortlist’ if you’ve previously announced a ‘longlist’ which you’ve then cut down to produce the ‘shortlist': the clue really is in the name. All Radio 2 had was a list.
Moving on to more substantive matters, it’s clear that the initial phase of the selection process was geared towards albums that featured popular individual tracks, not albums considered as a whole. This is the inevitable consequence of deciding that the ‘most played albums’ are the albums that have any track (including singles) played most often. A better methodology might have been to pick albums that had non-single tracks played most often, since that would give a more accurate picture of how often the album – as opposed to a single that appears on the album – is played. I’d lay pounds to pennies that Let’s Dance is David Bowie’s ‘most played album’ only in the sense that the single ‘Let’s Dance’ is played quite often.
Of course, the Bowie example also highlights another problem with Radio 2’s approach. ‘Let’s Dance’ (the single) is a catchy enough little pop ditty, and exactly the kind of song that a middle-of-the-road DJ might play fairly often. For that reason, the album that features it might (by the rubric Radio 2 were following) appear to be Bowie’s most played album, and the subsequent rule to exclude all other albums by the same artist means that it’s his only entry. But does anyone seriously think that Let’s Dance (the album) is Bowie’s best when set against Low, or Heroes, or Scary Monsters? It seems likely that if one of his better albums had been in the running, Bowie might have ranked higher in the list than the rather lowly 61 he achieved.
It’s also very hard to take seriously a ‘greatest album’ poll in which (thanks to the one album per artist rule) Beatles fans couldn’t vote for Abbey Road, Kate Bush fans couldn’t vote for Hounds of Love and Pulp fans couldn’t vote for His ‘n’ Hers. That will have created a situation where those fans will have ended up voting for their favourite artists instead of their favourite albums, which wasn’t supposed to be the point of the exercise at all. And things were even worse for fans of hugely successful and influential records like OK Computer, The Holy Bible, Nevermind and The Queen Is Dead – they couldn’t vote for their favourite bands at all (respectively: Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Nirvana and The Smiths).
So when glancing over the list it’s important to keep in mind that, despite all the media puffery, it doesn’t represent Radio 2 listeners’ favourite albums of all time – it’s actually their ranking of the albums that feature the songs that the BBC’s playlisters and DJs have decided to play most often. That’s a very different kettle of fish altogether, one that’s likely to be skewed towards records that feature one or two monster hits (e.g. Take That’s Beautiful World). It’s also likely to be more conservative and homogeneous than a freely selected list, since it will be biased towards those artists and bands Radio 2’s bosses feel best represent the station’s “vibe”.
Part of that vibe would seem to be for music that might variously be described as sweetly melodic, or unchallenging, or bland. Your choice of term will reflect how rude you want to be, but when three of the top five are records by Coldplay, Keane and Dido it’s clear that a particular kind of style is dominating. It would be fair to say that it’s not a style I particularly favour myself, although the only inclusion in the top ten that really flummoxes me is Dido’s No Angel. The monster hit on that record is ‘Thank You’ – but the song owes its success to its use as a lengthy sample on Eminem’s track, ‘Stan’. I have my problems with Eminem (starting with his name – what kind of rapper names himself for confectionery? – and moving on from there), but ‘Stan’ is a genuine highlight of his career. Given the brooding, intense nature of that song, Dido’s original can’t help but seem inconsequential and insipid by contrast. For me, it’s symptomatic of the nature of the list that Dido ranks at number five, and Eminem wasn’t even in the running.
The relative treatment of Dido and Eminem strikes me as quite significant, but Coldplay’s success in placing at number one with A Rush Of Blood To The Head has served as the lightning rod for much of the online criticism of the list. Lots of that criticism has involved dragging up once again Alan McGee’s dismissal of Coldplay as ‘bedwetters’, but since he’s the man who gave the world Oasis I’m not sure I’d hold him up as any kind of arbiter of musical quality. It’s been a while since I heard AROBTTH, but as I recall it’s a well-produced and competently arranged album, so the voters may simply have been responding to that. The ubiquity of digital production techniques (and the scope they offer to ‘fix’ imperfect recordings with digital manipulation rather than going back and recording again) has resulted in many current albums sounding rather arid and airless, and against that backdrop an album like AROBTTH can sound pleasantly lush. (I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t also recorded using digital technology, but more expertly and sympathetically deployed.)
If anything surprises me about Coldplay’s success in the list, it’s that enough people voted it as their favourite album. I’d always assumed that the band’s success was based on a conscious choice to make music that would be quite liked by a lot of people, rather than passionately loved by a smaller number. Songs on this album like ‘Clocks’ and ‘In My Place’ (with their memorable but unremarkable riffs, and their tasteful modicum of light-brush emotion) seem to be ideally suited to positioning the band as lots of people’s third- or fourth-favourite band, but top favourite of almost none. Obviously, my impression was mistaken, but I do want to take issue with one suggestion I’ve seen – that Coldplay represent ‘alternative music’.
Here’s my question: alternative to what? AROBTTH has sold 2.7 million copies in the UK, which is equivalent to 10% of all households in the country owning a copy. It’s the eighth biggest selling album of its decade, and the only guitar band that placed higher were The Beatles (with a greatest hits compilation). So far as I can see, Coldplay – and A Rush Of Blood To The Head specifically – defines the mainstream guitar band sound for the entire decade. I know ‘alternative’ has become a catch-all term for anything that doesn’t sound like Bon Jovi, but stretching it to cover one of the biggest selling bands on the planet really does reduce it to the point of utter meaninglessness. Coldplay are (or were) the mainstream, the thing against which alternative music defines itself.
If I was slightly taken aback by Coldplay’s level of success in the poll, I can say a similar thing about Keane, who came second with Hopes & Fears. The big hit from that album was ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ and, unlike anything by Dido or Coldplay, I do genuinely like it – a bit. It’s a solid, competent, piano-driven pop song, even if the lyrics are rather banal. But voting for this as an album implies that Radio 2’s listeners also think the other tracks on the album are excellent, and that’s… not an opinion I share. In fact Hopes and Fears pretty much counts as an ideal demonstration of what a great album isn’t: a great album isn’t an album, like H&F, that’s very obviously made up of singles and also-rans. A great album is either a record on which every song is as good as the singles (so there’s no diminution in quality), or it’s a record that works as a cohesive whole. A record like Hopes and Fears isn’t so much an album as it is a kind of aural display case for the singles.
When H&F came out, one of the criticisms Keane had to face was that they seemed, to some people, to be quite derivative of Coldplay. I think that’s a little unfair – Keane have a much stronger pop sensibility than Coldplay, and they’ve also shown themselves capable of at least one song with real emotional depth – but it does highlight one of the problems with the top of Radio 2’s list. Supposedly Keane are like Coldplay. Well, I can’t hear Coldplay without thinking that they’re derivative of Travis. And I can’t hear Travis without thinking that they’re derivative of (the melodic bits of) Radiohead. And I can’t hear Radiohead without thinking they’re very much in the style of REM – and so on.
There are actually two problems here. The first is that something always sounds fresher the first time you hear it: someone like me who heard REM first is always going to have a harder time responding positively to Coldplay than a greenhorn will. The second is more fundamental, and it’s to do with the fact that increasingly the bands aren’t so much being influenced by their predecessors as they are imitating them. REM’s pattern of influences is much discussed – a bit of The Pixies, a bit of the New York Dolls, a bit of the 60s US folk scene – but they don’t sound exactly like any of their predecessors. With Coldplay and Travis it’s much harder to make a distinction. Save for the fact that the singers sound different, it would be very easy to believe that ‘Writing To Reach You’ is by Coldplay, or that ‘The Scientist’ is a Travis song.*
Still, I wouldn’t want you to come away with the impression that I hate everything on the Radio 2 list. I might not have chosen either Sergeant Pepper or A Night At The Opera, but I wouldn’t argue with a mention for The Beatles and Queen towards the top of the 100 greatest albums. And it amused me greatly to see U2 ranked six places below Duran Duran – even an ego the size of Bono’s has got to be bruised by that particular juxtaposition. But it goes almost without saying that my greatest pleasure in reading the list was to see the Pet Shop Boys nuzzling comfortably within the top 10. I wouldn’t have chosen Actually as their greatest album (in fact I didn’t), but I can understand why Radio 2 classed is at their most-played album: it features several of their biggest hit singles. Overall I perhaps shouldn’t have been, but I was pleasantly surprised that Radio 2 listeners ranked Pet Shop Boys above Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, ABBA, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan…
I’m pleasantly surprised but I’m also, if I’m honest, pleased to see them getting what I think of as their due. I’ve mentioned before that one of the problems with lists of greatest albums assembled by critics is that the same few tend to feature at the top time after time – the canon of established greats, mostly recorded in the 60s and 70s. That has the effect of undervaluing the sometimes outstanding work that’s been done in the time since and it’s often especially rough on bands like PSB, who are already at heightened risk of being dismissed by critics who don’t understand music that isn’t played on guitars. A poll voted on by the public can be a nice way of correcting those presumptions and prejudices, and of allowing some more recent stuff to float to the top. And Radio 2’s method of pre-selecting the list and only asking their listeners to rank it – for all I’ve criticised it for the anomalies it generated – was a way of making sure that it wasn’t just dominated by albums of the last few years.
That’s always the big risk of public polls, and it hasn’t been entirely avoided here. For example, I think it’s unlikely that Dido’s will still be considered a top 5 greatest album in as little as ten years’ time, and David Gray (he of the wobbly head, ranked at 67 in this list) will probably have faded entirely from view – he’s mostly forgotten already. Changeover in a list like this is definitely a good thing, and it’s better to see more recent artists making it to the top of the list than it would be to see the same names crop up yet again. But if I’m honest, I would have expected an intermediate stage between The Beatles topping the list and Coldplay doing so – one where New Order/ Joy Division, or The Smiths, got their moment in the sun. Jumping straight from the 60s to the 00s for the top three albums of all time makes it feel like some things were missed out.
* – Despite saying I can’t hear much difference between Travis and Coldplay, I still definitely prefer the former. I’ve tried to put my finger on why that is, and occasionally come up with half reasons, such as Travis’ tendency towards using slide guitar, which perhaps helps their songs sound a bit less plodding than Coldplay’s. Sadly I think the truth is just that I find Chris Martin irritating, but I find Fran Healy cute. Yes, I really am that shallow, and to prove it here he is being cute – and bouncy! – at T in the Park a few years back.