Sep 15

The Canon Crawl

FT63 comments • 2,506 views

joniblue This is another one of my ‘listening exercises’ – in a world of enormous musical choice, I find games like these are a good way of structuring what I hear, and avoiding the temptation of falling back on a relative handful of default choices.

I started this one when I was recovering from an operation, over the summer. The rules were simple. I went to the Acclaimed Music website, and looked at their list of critical favourites from each year from 1960 to 2014. I picked one LP a year, the highest on the list* I hadn’t knowingly heard all the way through and thought I could bear. One LP per artist max.

I’ve listed the LPs under the cut. To make things more fun, I’ve listed them in the order I’d most want to hear them again right now – from most to least.

The Acclaimed Music lists are not a ranking I endorse: as an aggregate of critical opinion, they share the structural biases of that opinion. I ended up listening to quite a few mediocre rock albums when more varied music lurked, tantalisingly, a bit lower down. But the exercise also showed my own biases in a none-too-flattering light: it was chastening to realise how much I’d obviously avoided listening to famous records by women.

Anyway, here they are, the records I managed to go my entire career in paid music writing without hearing.

Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
Marianne Faithfull – Broken English (1979)
Jerry Lee Lewis – Live At The Star Club, Hamburg (1964)
St Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)
Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998)
Simon And Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme (1966)
Dinosaur Jr – You’re Living All Over Me (1987)
Richard And Linda Thompson – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
King Sunny Ade – Juju Music (1982)
The Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)

Bjork – Debut (1993)
Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine (1992)
The Cure – The Head On The Door (1985)
The Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
Motorhead – No Sleep Til Hammersmith (1981)
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black (2006)
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Elliot Smith – Either/Or (1997)
Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd – Jazz Samba (1962)
Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)

Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (1988)
Cream – Disraeli Gears (1967)
Sam Cooke – Night Beat (1963)
PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage (1965)
Youssou N’Dour – Imigres (1984)
Sinead O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990)
Run DMC – Raising Hell (1986)
TV On The Radio – Dear Science (2008)
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (2010)

Fugees – The Score (1996)
The Clash – The Clash (1977)
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Mos Def – Black On Both Sides (1999)
Alanis Morrissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995)
Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery (1960)
Deep Purple – Machine Head (1972)
Bobby Bland – Two Steps From The Blues (1961)
Metallica – Kill Em All (1983)
The Small Faces – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968)

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)
Bob Marley And The Wailers – Catch A Fire (1973)
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (2009)
The National – Boxer (2007)
Queens Of The Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf (2002)
Arctic Monkeys – AM (2013)
The Eagles – Hotel California (1976)
The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream (2014)
The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)
Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Pretenders – Pretenders (1980)
Tame Impala – Lonerism (2012)
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
The Shins – Chutes Too Narow (2003)
Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)

*there has been an update at AM since I started the exercise, resulting in some shifts in ordering, so this is no longer strictly true.


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  1. 31
    Eric Hohl on 17 Sep 2015 #

    Madvillainy is fantastic, but I can complete understand it not being for everyone.

  2. 32
    Ed on 18 Sep 2015 #

    @26, @27 Surely the big problem with the canon is that it’s the canon?

    There’s nothing more destructive of pleasure than being told something is serious and good for you and revered by anyone of any importance.

    There are dozens of records on that list that could be dazzling life-changing explosions of joy if you came across them fresh for the first time. But as set texts in the syllabus they are dusty and dull.

    And because rock music is, broadly speaking, dead, there are no more great albums coming to us fresh any more. The only ones we encounter have that deadly encrustation of historical significance layered on to them.

  3. 33
    Cumbrian on 18 Sep 2015 #

    #32: “And because rock music is, broadly speaking, dead, there are no more great albums coming to us fresh any more.”

    I suspect Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo (to name but two) would take issue with this. Rock music is not the only genre capable of making great albums

  4. 34
    Tommy Mack on 18 Sep 2015 #

    #32 / 33 – Here’s a great rock single coming to you so fresh it doesn’t even come out till tomorrow*

    It’s by me and I’m a bloody genius.


    …and a video for the last single… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvZ-YlR-wVs

    #33 I thought To Pimp a Butterfly was indeed a great album, pretty hard going though, I don’t know how much room I’m going to find in my life on a regular basis for that sort of murky, paranoid introspection. I’m far more likely to just play King Kunta.

    *(think the distributor got the date wrong!)

  5. 35
    punctum on 18 Sep 2015 #

    #32: This is possibly the stupidest and most ill-informed thing anybody has ever said on Freaky Trigger.

    “Why why WHY?”

    Get off your arse and find out for yourself, I’m not your butler.

  6. 36
    Ed on 18 Sep 2015 #

    @33 Good point. I am sorry: I meant to say there are no great new *rock* albums any more.

    I guess I made that mistake because “the canon” is so often defined as the rock canon, with the predictable token entries for jazz, soul, funk and hip-hop.

    You are right that other genres are still producing great music. I like the D’Angelo a lot, and I love To Pimp A Butterfly.

    And I think they prove my wider point: music being made now, that reflects the present moment – whether explicitly political or not – will always have an edge over leather-bound Great Works handed down to us from history.

    @35 Ha! I guess that’s an achievement of sorts… :)

  7. 37
    swanstep on 18 Sep 2015 #

    I’d never come across acclaimedmusic.net before Tom mentioned it here (compare with http://www.films101.com/years.htm). I think Ed. may be right that pop and rock music’s connections with youth- and counter-culture may estrange it somewhat from canon-formation materials and institutions like this. Maybe the very idea of a canon or a Great Works/Core Syllabus fits better with books or films than it does with music (The ‘School of Rock’ film had some good jokes about this with Jack Black drilling his kids on a vast influence diagram – acclaimedmusic.net’s genre trees feel a little like that scene come to life!).

    That said, kids today live in a post-scarcity world where they can hear anything they want *right now* (e.g., on Spotify and youtube), so a resource like Acclaimed might be the best thing to help them get a handle on everything. Maybe….

    Anyhow, bombing around Acclaimed for an hour or so I guess I thought its rankings seemed pretty sensible (e.g., I’d take their top 200 ’80s songs over Pitchfork’s recent exercise in that direction any day) but there also quite a few anomalies. E.g., they clearly don’t know what to do about Abba. In the artist ranking they come in at #200, two ticks below The Libertines and fully 170 ticks below Arcade Fire. Only one album of theirs (Arrival) is listed at all, and singles like Mamma Mia and Name of The Game aren’t worthy (don’t pass their initial top 6000 filter). What?

    Or turn to a fairly recent year, 2011. They have M83’s ‘Midnight City’ as #1 song and PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake as most-acclaimed album. I have no problem with the later judgment but I had no idea that M83’s track was that loved. Exploring a bit further they think M83’s 2011 album ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ (i.e., from which Midnight City was the main single) is their best/most acclaimed. That feels wrong to me: HUWD was more popular (and more Coldplay-ish) than Saturday=Youth (2008) but not better or more acclaimed IIRC. Anyhow getting back to 2011 singles, Acclaimed list Gotye’s ‘Sombody That I Used to Know’ at #53. WTF? I suspect that that’s an artifact of it not blowing up quickly enough in most places for year end lists in 2011; all the success and acclaim it got in 2012 then ended up not counting for it. (This sort of problem, if I’m right that that is the problem, presumably won’t and doesn’t affect more retrospectively compiled lists including almost all of Acclaimed’s data points for the ’60s and ’70s I assume.)

    My first impression then is that Acclaimed has been assembled a little mechanically and probably needs more curating for basic plausibility to overcome the limitations in the site’s data sources (postponing sieving by the ‘top 6000’, etc. to later in their data analysis than they evidently do might help the whole enterprise be a little less brittle too).

  8. 38
    Rory on 18 Sep 2015 #

    I’ve heard maybe 15 or 16 of those, and several of them I was genuinely besotted with at one point or another (Amy Winehouse, Elliot Smith, Sinead O’Connor, The National, Tame Impala a bit, Jeff Buckley and, yes, Bloc Party, although I haven’t liked any of their follow-ups). I suppose that means I’d better get cracking on a few more.

    Veckatimest was one I didn’t dig at all. Nothing clicked.

    The ones that haunt me are the critically acclaimed records I tried really hard to love – listened to again and again, in an effort to force myself to think they were as great as everyone said they were – but never really did. Exhibit A: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Rattlesnakes. Even bought the deluxe edition a few years ago to give it another shot. Nope.

  9. 39
    swanstep on 18 Sep 2015 #

    Whoops, apparently Acclaimed doesn’t use year-end lists, so my suggested (at #37) explanation of the Gotye anomaly doesn’t work. Better explanation: critics occasionally have worse taste than ‘the people’.

  10. 40
    weej on 18 Sep 2015 #

    Swanstep – the genre trees are sourced from rateyourmusic, and are therefore user sourced and voted on. I use the site quite a bit, and find their genre differentiation to be one of their strengths, as well as the ability to do searches like “x genre from x country in x decade.”

  11. 41
    Phil on 18 Sep 2015 #

    In the last days of Orange Juice, Edwyn Collins was in a meeting with a guy from the record company who said, to his face, “We don’t need you now that we’ve got Lloyd Cole”. And you could say that Lloyd Cole was the Radio 2 Edwyn Collins; if you ever thought Orange Juice were a bit too spiky, quirky, stylistically unpredictable or lyrically obscure, LC&theC were just what the doctor ordered. If you were looking for a Great Album in Rattlesnakes you were bound to be disappointed. That said, I loved it, and still find myself thinking of some of the songs from time to time. It probably helped that I was in my early twenties when it came out.

  12. 42
    Tom on 18 Sep 2015 #

    I think there are enough great songs in LCATC’s catalogue for a great album, maybe a great album and a great EP too – but it’s not quite any of the three they actually put out. (My favourite of their records is Easy Pieces, though)

    I have been doing some research using Acclaimed Music’s singles lists, with quite interesting results. Might put that up soon, but I really need to get the next Popular post done, among other things.

  13. 43
    swanstep on 18 Sep 2015 #

    @weej, 40. Agree that the genre trees are good. As for the searching you describe, I find that the results thin out *very* quickly once I put in a restriction or two. Effectively it shows that universe of songs, albums, etc. that the site works with is quite small. I guess I’m saying that at the very least adding everything that ever charted anywhere to the universe would be a good idea even if it had to be there in some sort of dummy capacity such as ‘Not-rated’ or given a rating based on a the relatively few near-universal ratings sources.

    Let me mention one other case that I regard as anomalous: Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King’s sole profile on the site is her single ‘Shame’ from 1977 which they pick as #81 song for the year. That feels incredibly low to me. But its her non-profile otherwise that’s most damaging – the idea that nothing else, not the *fantastic* album Smooth Talk that ‘Shame’ came from, not her fantastic 1982 single, ‘Love Come Down’, etc. will show up even under restriction to RnB and year reveals to me the limited aperture and hence usefulness of the site. There’s still a lot of room left for someone to play Google to Acclaimed’s Altavista!

  14. 44
    weej on 19 Sep 2015 #

    @swanstep – Sorry, I was talking about rateyourmusic, where Evelyn “Champagne” King has a much more extensive profile.

    My rundown of music categorisation sites:

    * Discogs tries to list everything, dispassionately, and has a better artist-sorting system than elsewhere, though the search is a bit rubbish and genres aren’t really worked out well.

    *Rateyourmusic is for people to review and rate music they own, and has the best genre sorting, etc. as there is a large, active, enthusiastic user base. The only downside is that it favours indie rock way too much, but you can filter this out.

    *Acclaimed Music takes the Rateyourmusic database and sorts it by critical opinion in some mysterious way, which obviously ends up tending towards reinforcing the concept of “the canon” – but if that’s what you want then it’s definitely useful.

    *TsorT compiles all world charts and various critical list to make “ultimate lists” for years / albums / artists. I find this site best to give an overview of a particular year.

    *Last.fm is good for seeing what people are actually listening to right now (although, again, beware the indie-rock bias.) I find it most useful for sourcing photos of obscure acts.

    *Allmusic is inferior to Discogs for finding info about releases, but it does have a professional review of most albums you can think of.

    The site I really want is a database where I can search for decent writing about a song or artist. Google is useless for this purpose, and none of these sites cover it either. Anyone feel like making it? (please nobody say Metacritic, I have yet to find an actual use for this site)

  15. 45
    Tommy Mack on 21 Sep 2015 #

    What weighting do they give to magnitude of publication over magnitude and volume of praise? I.e. presumably you get a score based on how highly someone rated you AND how big the writer/publication/site is and then add up all the scores for each citation to determine a record/artist’s overall ranking?

    I’ve only actually heard a few from Tom’s list…below in probable order I’d most likely listen to them…all I’d say were at least a 7/10… gonna post some thoughts a little later on on the mobile…

    Bjork – Debut (1993)
    The Clash – The Clash (1977)
    Mos Def – Black On Both Sides (1999)
    Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)
    Bob Marley And The Wailers – Catch A Fire (1973)
    The Small Faces – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968)
    Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine (1992)
    Simon And Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme (1966)

  16. 46
    Tommy Mack on 21 Sep 2015 #

    Oh and Tame Impala and White Stripes too, down the bottom of the list. Maybe just 6/10 for those.

  17. 47
    Tommy Mack on 21 Sep 2015 #

    So, wot I reckon is…Bjork riding high in my list cos I’ve only very recently got the album…I couldn’t stand her singing for many years but eventually what irks you about something can become what intrigues you most…

    The Clash. About as popular on FT as a fart in a wetsuit. Thing is, intellectually, I agree with every single criticism I’ve ever read about them but sometimes they make every other rock band sound either twee and timid or stodgy and stolid by comparison. Their debut in particular has such up-and-at’em ferocity even the slightly rubbish songs are a joy to bounce around to.

    Mos Def: it was the canonical black beats white lists of Rock’n’Roll that got me into Mos but for an album I’d thought of as a bit earnest, there’s actually a lot of wit and some great flows to back up the politik.

    Parliament: I actually prefer Funkadelic but this is the only P Funk album I own. I heard it through samples (mainly on The Chronic) years before I actually bought it. I love the idea of a band that’s utterly committed to the silliest of self-mythologies. The music is a sheer delight too: instantly accessible, joyfully infectious yet richly multifaceted. Free your mind and your ass will follow, indeed.

    Wailers: Chris Blackwell rockified the arrangements (to the songs’ musical deteriment imo) but there’s still some of the murk and menace in Slavedriver and 400 Years. The languid mating call of Stir It Up is probably the highlight of the album.

    Small Faces: awesome band, crammed a hell of an incredible eclectic back catalogue into four years. Like most mid-sixties bands, their best stuff is spread over a sprawling catalogue of releases in different formats but I remember Ogden’s as enjoyable throughout if not always their most compelling material.

    RATM: One of the best festival sets I’ve ever seen. I’d rank their four albums in reverse order of release with this at the bottom and their covers set Renegades at the top but it’s still awesome sturm and drang stuff. I rather like that they basically played the same loping funk-metal riff over and over for their entire career.

    Simon and Garfunkel: their music is so pretty and impeccably crafted that I always start by wondering why I don’t listen more and then a few songs in, I’m feeling slightly queasy from the sugar sweetness of it and slightly suffocated by Paul Simon’s collegiate existential angst. Fair play for suffusing lines like ‘sipping my vodka and lime’ with a weird nameless dread.

    Tame Impala: only listened once, can’t really judge but seemed to have lost some of the bite of his earlier stuff without properly crossing over to pop. Should listen again.

    White Stripes: I played WBC a lot in 2003 but I just can’t see me going back. I still like loads of garage rock and lo fi stuff but I just don’t feel like they’re that high on my list. Nothing fundamentally wrong with it, just divorced from the spectacle I don’t feel there’s anything that special about much of the music.

  18. 48
    Garry on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Grace – the most interesting bits are those which started as Gary Lucas instrumental tracks. I’m not interested in the rest of it.

    I’m surprised what I’ve heard but can’t remember much about, like Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and even The Clash album. It’s been years and the memory must be on the offsite back-ups somewhere.

    Plenty I haven’t heard on that list. Must give some a spin.

  19. 49
    Adam Puke on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Devo’s “Are We Not Men etc” appearing here at all really surprised me, let alone seeing it in the lowly “do I have to?” sector. The absence of comments, even the notion of them being considered ‘canon’ at all seems weird to me.

    Just wish I could explain exactly why. I’d hesitate to regard “Broken English”, “The Head On The Door” or “Jagged Little Pill” as canon either but I still recognise how these albums held a cultishness that grew into fully fledged acceptance (BE) or degenerated into “haha, we used to think that was great as angsty teens but now we’ve grown up” (JLP). All the while building up an ‘importance’ of some sort in media eyes yet would still intimidate and piss off new listeners. And I could definitely see them being shoved down the throats of new listeners from certain quarters.

    But Devo? Nah. Unlike Sparks or Suicide (the closest critical similarities I can think of, brutally uncool from about late 80s-90s yet loved after) I’ve never felt any pressure to like them or not from any source.

  20. 50
    Phil on 22 Sep 2015 #

    I thought Duty Now For The Future was an amazing album, the first side in particular. By the time Are we not men? came out I felt I’d already ‘got’ Devo, particularly since I already had “Satisfaction” and “Mongoloid/Jocko Homo” (and the album includes all four tracks on the two singles). Also, and more relevantly here, the arrangements and production are a bit muddy – something you could never say of DNFTF.

  21. 51
    Tom on 22 Sep 2015 #

    I don’t think the Acclaimed rankings are meant to reflect current interest so much as accumulated interest – a band like Devo, relatively feted at the time, now appreciated by a significant cult, are in a good position to just drift gently down the lists as new data filters through.

  22. 52
    Ed on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Many thanks for pointing to Acclaimed Music, which like others I have found completely engrossing. I now want some kind person to do some data visualisation exercises on it.

    One thing I was really surprised by is how high Nevermind comes, right up at number 3. Although I suppose it is one of the few later examples of a traditional guitar/bass/drums album that is also a Great Artistic Statement. OK Computer, which is in that same tradition, is the only other post-1980 album in the top ten.

    Also, It Takes A Nation Of Millions is apparently the most acclaimed album of the 1980s. That’s a journey to the mainstream that not many people predicted when they started out.

    There is also some fun to be had down in the lower reaches. Is Be Here Now really more highly rated than Architecture & Morality, Same Trailer, Different Park, Mars Audiac Quintet, Winter In America or A Kiss In The Dreamhouse, for example? I guess maybe when you get down to the thousands the fine distinctions aren’t all that significant.

    And finally, as Tom has implied, it does reveal just how staggeringly male the canon is. Only two women – Moe Tucker and Nico – appear on any album in the top ten. You have to go down to number 20 to get to the first album led by a woman, Horses, and another 31 places (!) to get to the next one.

  23. 53
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Re51: ‘Also, It Takes A Nation Of Millions is apparently the most acclaimed album of the 1980s. That’s a journey to the mainstream that not many people predicted when they started out.’

    Really? They were instant critical faves, and I can’t think of a group who were so clearly a project with IMPORTANCE at their heart. From Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:

    ‘When [Bill] Stephney left CMJ, he had written in his column that he hoped to develop a group that was equal parts Run DMC and The Clash. He wanted to be part of making the rap Sandinista! … Bill’s dream was for the group to make the cover of Rolling Stone. “Let’s make every track political,” he said. “Statements, manifestoes, the whole nine.”‘

  24. 54
    Ed on 22 Sep 2015 #

    @52 Fair point. I see from Wikipedia that “In October 1987, music critic Simon Reynolds dubbed Public Enemy “a superlative rock band”.”

    And It Takes… was the first hip-hop album to win Pazz & Jop. So clearly the critical respectability was there from the start, as you say.

    All I can say is that their reputation felt a lot more contested at the time…

  25. 55
    enitharmon on 22 Sep 2015 #

    Someone of my age might raise an eyebrow at anybody spending a life in popular music criticism without hearing Disraeli Gears, say. After all, in 1967 when I was entering my teens it was fresh and groundbreaking and all over the place. I could understand some younger punter hearing it for the first time full of expectation and thinking “what the fuck?” After all, everything on it has been picked up, twisted, rearranged and insinuated into the wallpaper. As a historical document it’s important of course but I can imagine our young punter being underwhelmed without the context. That’s how you get all the “Beatles were overrated” complaints, because the complainers never knew a world before the Beatles.

    There’s a lot on that list that has passed me by; some that I just haven’t heard, others that I simply haven’t heard of. I’ll do some investigation but I’m quite happy that the holes in my musical knowledge are compensated for by other things not listed there.

    I may, of course, have missed out on a lot. My Joni Mitchell collection is confined to Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and Blue, because they were the albums of my initial exposure to Joni, and there was lots of new stuff to move on to. Similarly with Neil Young (After the Goldrush and Harvest) and Kate Bush (The Kick Inside, Lionheart, Never For Ever) – I know these guys have produced terrific albums since, I just haven’t got round to them yet.

  26. 56
    flahr on 23 Sep 2015 #

    Devo are 100% canon, where canon = S*m*n R*yn*lds. I certainly felt their first album was something I Had To Listen To. But only once, thank God.

  27. 58
    Phil on 23 Sep 2015 #

    FLAHR – check out Duty now for the future if you get a chance; it’s where “art project” Devo turns into “plastic pop” Devo. Loved it when it came out (yes, I’m that old (hi Enitharmon!)). Devo seem to have dropped off my personal map straight afterwards, though – not sure why.

    PM – wow. Old art school provocateurs never die, eh? (Taylor Swift would probably get dropped by her label. Bongo would issue a statement, get his picture taken with the Dalai Lama and then launch a fund-raising campaign for de-worming tablets or something. But what would Vic Godard do?)

  28. 59
    flahr on 26 Sep 2015 #

    Pop fact: the label made Devo change the name of Duty Now For The Future from its original and more honest title, Talking Heads: 79.

  29. 60
    Phil on 27 Sep 2015 #

    You say that like it’s a bad thing… Besides, Talking Heads never opened an album with a 90-second neo-fascist instrumental.

  30. 61
    Tom on 27 Sep 2015 #

    Can I just draw attention to Weej’s fine comment on the pros and cons of various music-sorting sites, which has been stuck in moderation hell for a week and now appears in its rightful place on the thread? http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2015/09/the-canon-crawl/comment-page-2/#1645455

    Ta! (and sorry, Weej)

  31. 62
    enitharmon on 27 Sep 2015 #

    Hi Phil! Yes, some of the kids I tried my best to din some maths into were into Devo ;)

  32. 63
    weej on 17 Oct 2015 #

    Cheers, Tom! Hope someone has an answer to my final question on there, or is willing to put it together…

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