Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown: What, no Pulp?

Yes, that’s right – my series of posts counting down my favourite albums of all time has now entered the afterlife. You’d think that, having told you yesterday that my favourite album of all time was Suede’s Coming Up, today things would be back to normal for the blog – i.e., me being slightly tetchy about something I’ve read/ watched/ heard somewhere. The good news is that normality will reassert itself from here on in, but today I’m going to wrap up one or two last things.

First of all, I just wanted to say that it’s not deliberate that my countdown doesn’t feature any of the bands or artists that would normally make a list like this. I wasn’t trying to make a point by excluding The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Clash, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Nirvana, Oasis – with the exception of Oasis (who, try as hard as I might, I can’t hear as anything but a bad garage rock band), I like all of them to a greater or lesser extent, but none of them have created a single album that resonates with me in the way the ones on this list do. (No, not even The Beatles’ Abbey Road, even though there’s a good argument that the “long medley” on side 2 of that record is the greatest musical achievement of the 20th century – the problem is side 1, which is more than enough to hold the album as a whole quite some distance back from greatness.) If I’d been allowed to invent my own albums, incorporating songs from more than one release into a single sequence of songs, The Beatles would have been an absolute shoo-in…but that wasn’t the purpose of this exercise.

It’s actually an interesting question to me why the same few bands and artists crop up again and again in “official” versions of lists like this. I have a theory that, for everyone, the music that resonates most fully for them is the music that appeared during their formative years. In my case, and on the evidence of this list, those formative years seem to have been my early- to mid-twenties. I was quite a late starter in terms of my musical education, and I’d guess that for other people their formative years started when they were younger, but I think the same principle would apply: the albums they would rate most highly would be the ones that came out when they were most primed to absorb new musical influences.

That ought to mean that “official” lists like this refresh every few years, but they don’t seem to. I think the problem is that the sincere preferences of early music journalists have hardened into a semi-official canon of greats: bands, artists and albums that one has to praise if one wants to be taken seriously as a “proper” music fan. Those invariable inclusions also tend to gravitate towards the top of lists like these, because “official” lists are usually created by committees. So, for example, everyone votes for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds because that’s one of the albums you have to say you like, but when it comes to more recent choices, opinions fracture: some people vote for Nirvana, but others vote for Pearl Jam, with the result that both get fewer votes overall. So the canon of established greats always come towards the top of these kinds of lists, and that entrenches the canon yet further, making it even harder for people to dissent – if “everyone” says that Sergeant Pepper is the greatest album of all time, who’s going to risk ridicule by saying, actually, I prefer Suede?

Clearly, other people will disagree with the choices I’ve made in this list, and obviously that’s fine. I welcome disagreement and discussion, and look forward to being told why I’ve made a complete hash of the whole list, and that obviously the greatest album ever made was released by Megadeth, or Lady Gaga. I can’t claim – I don’t claim – that these albums are definitively great, only that they represent my taste. But at least I can justifiably claim that it is my taste, not just a regurgitation of received opinion.

Or, at any rate, an aspect of my taste. There’s no question that this list of my favourite albums looks quite different to the list of my favourite bands. Some of the bands that are on this list wouldn’t get near a list of my favourite bands – Kingmaker, for example, because they never had the chance to develop into the band I believe they could have been, or Suede, because I like their other albums so much less than Coming Up.

Conversely, there are several of my favourite bands of all time that are nowhere to be found on this list. There’s no Pulp, even though Jarvis Cocker is for me the ultimate pop star, and the album version of ‘Common People’ (the one with the extra verse) is stunningly brilliant. There’s no Radiohead, despite the fact that several of their songs are absolute masterpieces, and one – ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ – is a contender for my favourite song of all time. There’s no Placebo, even though with singles like ‘Pure Morning’ and – especially – ‘Nancy Boy’ they’ve earned a central place in my musical affections. There’s not even any They Might Be Giants, although their 1990 album, Flood, would be the ‘Honourable Mention’ if I’d decided to have such a thing on this list – the album that was very nearly included.

Compiling this list, and writing the posts to go with each entry in it, has made me realise just how important music is to me. I always knew that it was important – I rarely leave the house without my MP3 player – but going back and listening to these albums that I first heard at formative moments in my life has made me realise how deeply involved music is with the way I understand the world. I think it’s more likely I glommed onto these albums because they articulated something I was coming to understand for myself than it is that they actually changed me, but the strength of the relationship is striking for all that.

Something else that’s struck me is a new-found respect for daily bloggers – that is, for people who post every day. I always knew what they did was difficult, but I didn’t appreciate quite how difficult. Even knowing in advance what I would be posting about – and having begun to form ideas for the posts as I was listening to the albums to establish my list – the actual process of banging them out day after day has been painful. (Although I guess I essentially had to find seven different ways of saying “this album’s really good” in the space of seven days, which was a particular kind of challenge.) I won’t pretend that each post has been of equal quality – some days I’ve known I was giving the album under discussion short shrift, and that pressure of time was preventing me from expressing myself as well as I would have liked. But still, counting this post and the introduction, I have written and posted every day for 9 days, and that’s by far the most concentrated and consistent I’ve ever managed to be on this blog. I’m counting that as an achievement.

I suspect no-one else will think of it like that, however. My wordpress stats tell me that – while the blog as a whole has been ticking over well enough – these particular posts have been among the most unpopular I’ve ever written. The on site views for all of them have been less than a tenth of what I’d usually expect on a run-of-the-mill post (though they’re the kind of posts that may attract more traffic as they creep fractionally higher in search engine rankings over time). I feel I owe a particular apology to those poor, stalwart souls who subscribe to the blog, and have had every one of these posts dumped in their laps, even though they probably didn’t want to read any of them. Thank you for putting up with me while I indulged myself – I promise I won’t make a habit of it, and that I’ll mainly keep writing about the kinds of things I mainly write about.

(Click here to read other entries in Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown, if you’re a real glutton for punishment.)

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One Response to Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown: What, no Pulp?

  1. Pingback: Radio 2 listeners’ favourite albums of all time | Aethelread the Unread

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