As I’ve said, I tend to interact with my subscription to The New Yorker via the emails they send me. And today, I was puzzled to find this headline in my IN box: “Eight Albums That Defined 2018 for Me.” It was written by someone aptly named “Brianna Younger.” I don’t see how such a piece could have been written by a “Brianna Older.”
But even then, I have to wonder at the following:
- “Albums?” People are still putting out albums in 2018? That’s so… ’70s. So vinyl (and yes, I know vinyl experienced a resurgence — like, a generation ago). It’s album-oriented rock on FM stations with DJs who sounded like they were on Quaaludes. Aren’t we several technological developments beyond “albums?” There were albums, then cassettes, then CDs, then stolen MP3s and iPods, then free access to all music ever recorded via YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, etc. And you say albums are still a thing? If so, in what sense — mere collections of recordings, or concept-based, like Sgt. Pepper and Aqualung?
- Who can possibly name eight albums from this year, much less special ones? Personally, I can’t name one — and perusing the list in The New Yorker didn’t help. And before you scoff at the old guy, this is largely because media are so fragmented today. In, say, the ’60s, old people couldn’t miss the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Herman’s Hermits. And young people couldn’t miss Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, or Engelbert Humperdinck. And no one could possibly miss Herb Alpert or Burt Bacharach. They were ubiquitous, layered thickly upon the limited spread of available media. That just isn’t the case today. Listeners can go off into their own private world and groove on their own private sounds that the person sitting next to them have never heard and never will hear. Our culture is not shared as it was.
- In light of both of the two previous points, how can any albums, the eight in question or whichever ones you pick, define a year in this century? An album might have done that in the 70s, when they were as central to the mass culture as bell-bottoms and leisure suits. But this just seems the last sort of thing that could define the year. Albums just don’t do that in this decade.
Here are the eight albums in question:
- BbyMutha, “BbyShoe”
- Janelle Monáe, “Dirty Computer”
- Kendrick Lamar, “Black Panther: The Album”
- Noname, “Room 25”
Oops. That’s only four. Either there’s something wrong with my computer, or even Brianna could only come up with four. (Let me know if you can find the other four; I’m curious.) Whatever. The point is, I’ve heard of Janelle Monáe (the name has stuck because my mother and one of my daughters are named “Janelle”), and I saw “Black Panther.” Neither causes any particular music to come to mind. The others mean nothing to me.
Granted that “Black Panther” actually was a mass cultural phenomenon in the past year, I have to ask, in what sense do you feel these recordings were essential to an understanding of 2018? Forty years from now, to what extent will today’s young people — much less their children and grandchildren — be listening to this music, or seeing it as essential to this moment?
If you don’t think that’s a fair question, allow me to cite eight albums from a year in which albums mattered, in which they truly served as a broadly-perceived soundtrack for the time, and even could have been said to “define” the time, and echo in our memory of that year on mass media to this day.
It may be a bit unfair, but I’m going to pick my eight from 1971…
…Sorry, I can’t narrow it down to eight. Let’s do 10 that still loom large in our culture:
- The Who – Who’s Next. This one may be the one with the most singles that you still frequently hear on the radio. “Baba O’Riley.” “Behind Blue Eyes.” “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
- Al Green – Gets Next to You. All I have to say is, “Tired of Being Alone.“
- Joni Mitchell — Blue. The best-remembered cut was probably “California,” but the album overall was a cultural touchstone.
- Marvin Gaye — What’s Going On. Which was, of course, about what was going on. So, definitive of a time.
- Rod Stewart — Every Picture Tells a Story. Anything you connect with “early Rod Stewart” (not counting Jeff Beck days) is on this one. Let’s just skim the second side: “Maggie May.” “Mandolin Wind.” “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” “(Find a) Reason to Believe.” All that’s missing is “Handbags and Gladrags.”
- The Rolling Stones — Sticky Fingers. Arguably their best, although “Let if Bleed” and “Exile on Main Street” are right up there. Let’s go with a non-hit from this one: “Moonlight Mile,” which weirdly invoked Huckleberry Finn and Jim for me. It made me feel like I was rolling down a river at a leisurely raft pace. Listen to that rhythm and tell me I’m not right. You don’t have to listen to the words. If that doesn’t do it for you, go lose yourself in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Mr. Bobby Keys on sax!
- Carole King — Tapestry. Like, a lifetime of stellar songwriting distilled into one shot and dropped upon an unsuspecting public. Let’s go with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.“
- Jethro Tull — Aqualung. “Sit-ting on a park bench… DAH, dah-dah…” (Remember Jack Donaghy and Pete Hornberger 39 years later conveniently forgetting the second line, thank goodness?) Still, my favorite cut from the album is “Wind-Up.” It was in ’71, and still is today. He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
- John Lennon — Imagine. The title cut is hauntingly beautiful, even though I hate the lyrics. I prefer “Jealous Guy” and “Oh Yoko!” Even though Yoko isn’t one of my fave people, for obvious reasons.
- Janis Joplin — Pearl. She died in October of the previous year and this was released posthumously in January, but it’s such a part of the year’s soundtrack that it shouts “1971.” Let’s pause and give a listen to “A Woman Left Lonely.”
Notice that I’m completely ignoring James Taylor, David Bowie, and my main man Leon Russell, and many others doing ground-breaking work at the time.
To use an expression that entered the culture sometime between then and now, at this point I will drop the mic.