Sep 15

The Canon Crawl

FT63 comments • 2,326 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. 1
    Geoff on 16 Sep 2015 #

    How many of those would you give, say, a 7 or more to?

  2. 2
    Phil on 16 Sep 2015 #

    But, but… Chutes Too Narrow is an amazing album. I bought it on the strength of one track on a cover-mount sampler & have followed James Mercer’s career ever since – but CTN is his Wilder or The Queen is Dead, the album that everything else he’s done is either leading up to or leading away from. (I might also mention Swoon, but that would be unkind.) I’m astonished that you ‘rate’ it so low.

    (For what it’s worth I’ve managed to swerve almost all of the rest too – not Blue, though, or Ogden’s come to that.)

    (Got Prefab Sprout going round in my head now. That’ll teach me to be gratuitously snarky. Her husband works in Jodrell Bank…).

  3. 3
    Izzy on 16 Sep 2015 #

    You’re about forty years old, am I right? What were you listening to in 1993 that you never got round to Debut?

    Also, what rubbed you up wrong about Grace?

  4. 4
    IP on 16 Sep 2015 #

    Also surprised about Back to Black! Record was practically issued by the Government in 2006.

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    Tom on 16 Sep 2015 #

    #1 Almost all of them! I only picked records I thought I had a decent chance of liking – with the exception of Grace, which I felt guilty about assuming I wouldn’t like (and it turns out I was right). From about Bloc Party down, I found the albums dull, indistinct, but that might be an artefact of first listening. Above that are several records which feel like they’re good at what they do, but I’m not interested in what they do (eg Metallica, NIN), and ones which have interesting flaws (eg Alanis) and the 7/10 zone ft Mos Def, the Clash, and others.

    #3/4 Both records where I’d heard the singles and didn’t like them enough to bother with the LP. I’m not going to pretend I managed to live an entirely Bjork-free existence.

  6. 6
    Izzy on 16 Sep 2015 #

    I’m assuming the order to be at least partly a function of mood or genre – so what then about the records that are unexpectedly high/low on your ranking? What are you getting out of You’re Living All Over Me, or not seeing in Hotel California?

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    weej on 16 Sep 2015 #

    The one that suprises me is RATM, thought you couldn’t stand them. Debut is much better than its singles would suggest. And Blue is one of the few LPs I am completely unable to fault, so glad to see it at the top of the pile.

  8. 8
    Tommy Mack on 16 Sep 2015 #

    I take it you were in a folk mood when you wrote the list!

    Glad to see lots of rubbish indie down the bottom of the list. Bloc Party have to be one of the biggest hype/actual listening experience mismatches of my life. I remember Kat and I listening to it together (she was doing a 10-word review project iirc) and saying ‘is this it?’

    The big injustice in my book is Bob Marley though the original version recorded with Lee Perry (I think?) is much more fun than the somewhat reserved more earnest Island rerecording – from the tracks I heard on an old documentary anyway.

    My pick of your list would be Mos Def I think which was a big fave of mine when it came out. Surprised to see Rage so high after you savaged KITNO in your Xmas chart battle piece (or rather in the comments) FWIW, I reckon their debut is the weakest of their four albums and KITNO is musically one of the weakest tracks but everyone likes shouting F*** You at their mates down the indie disco…

    Out of interest, were you listening to the UK version of The Clash or the (IMHO) superior US one that has I Fought The Law, White Man… and Clash City Rockers tacked on or rather tucked in?

  9. 9
    Cumbrian on 16 Sep 2015 #

    I only know you from here really – and thus have only an idea of your taste from your writings here. That bottom tranche of the list – totally unsurprising. If you’d asked whether you should listen to them beforehand, I’d have said no – unlike Tommy, those that I have heard, I rate reasonably highly, so it’s not a quality thing (though agree on Bloc Party – thought The National likewise were hype over substance). I just can’t imagine you getting much from them, given your writing here.

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    Tommy Mack on 16 Sep 2015 #

    #9: I’m being exceptionally harsh. If pushed I’d only call Bloc Party rubbish though I’m also underwhelmed by Arctic Monkeys (on paper they seem made for me but it just never adds up when I ever listen*), The National (my bandmates tell me I’m bang wrong so I should give them another chance) and that particular Tame Impala album (their earlier stuff is more interesting). I loved the idea of The White Stripes and I listened to WBC loads but I can’t see me ever bothering to listen again: find Jack’s voice grating and the music a bit ham-fisted (and not in a deliberate Troggs sort of way). Funnily enough I covered Seven Nation Army for a school concert when a flu epidemic reduced the teachers’ band to just me and the female drummer…we did the red and white thing and everything…

    *whereas Dinosaur Jr are a band that on paper represent everything I used to hate about alternative rock but are a joy to hear.

  11. 11
    Tom on 16 Sep 2015 #

    RATM – nobody was more surprised than I was! And yes, it’ll definitely change how I approach them on Popular.

    The way I would put it is that when it’s just the singles, it’s like they’re hectoring all the rest of the music around them (much of which I like). When it’s the whole LP, it creates its own context. To put it another way, one bloke shouting with a placard in the street is a crank. A dozen, arms-linked, is a protest. They’re just more impressive as an album experience.

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    Tom on 16 Sep 2015 #

    #8 It was the UK version. As for folk, it’s a genre I quite like in theory but have never listened to much in practise – so its greatest hits (with the inevitable degree of rock crossover) will be less well known to me: ideal for an exercise like this!

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    swanstep on 16 Sep 2015 #

    @Phil, #2. Agree that Chutes Too Narrow is fab, but so are Grace and Pretenders. And they’re great records that contain multitudes so it’s hard for me to believe that anone can find them ‘dull and indistinct’. By way of contrast, I accept that things like Lonerism and The Boxer and even White Blood Cells (all albums I like a lot as it happens) *do* tend to get on one particular wavelength and stay there, so that in those cases it’s relatively easy to imagine how someone might get little out of them.

  14. 14

    jeff buckley is literally the most boring musician in the last 40 years

  15. 15
    punctum on 16 Sep 2015 #

    To quote the catchphrase of TV’s loveable business rogue, Lord Sugar: “your sacked.”

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    Mark M on 16 Sep 2015 #

    Unsurprised that Blue comes top of the list – I find it irresistible and like little else that was made by Mitchell’s peers.

    Surprised by how much you’ve enjoyed You’re Living All Over Me. Listened to it obsessively when it came out (I was 17 and very unhappy) – couldn’t really imagine listening to more than one Dinosaur Jr song at a time now. Like Izzy, I’d be intrigued to learn more about your take on it.

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    Tom on 16 Sep 2015 #

    I was surprised that I didn’t like Pretenders – I knew I didn’t care for “Brass In Pocket” much but I love a few of their later songs – but it just sounded scrappy to me, an album of demos almost by a very constricted singer. The Shins might have done better if I was paying attention to the words – but I wasn’t with Elliot Smith and the melodies really grabbed me on that one. As for Buckley, the self penned stuff was OK, but “Lilac Wine” was by a distance the worst track I heard doing this project – sorry, JB fans. More chance to talk about him on Popular eventually, though.

  18. 18
    Tom on 16 Sep 2015 #

    Dinosaur – it’s mostly the guitar sound, and how fluid and lazy it all is: I think a load of bands I loved or quite liked ripped it off, so it really did feel like hearing some distillation of being 15 and first discovering Peel etc. I’m curious to whether it’ll survive a second listen.

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 16 Sep 2015 #

    Some thoughts on selected albums:

    “The Head On The Door” is The Cure at their most playful and accessible, IMO.

    “Grace” was disappointing after a couple of listens.

    Agreed RATM’s offering is the most unTom thing here. I’d have voted “The Low End Theory” way above it.

    Calling Lonepilgrim to thread for a decent take on “Blue”, as I haven’t heard that album in donkey’s Guv’nor!

  20. 20
    Tommy Mack on 16 Sep 2015 #

    Both Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell are the sort of musician I used to say I hated despite having heard barely any of their music. Partly this was a Swells-inspired proxy war against the sort of person I imagined liked them but I think if I had listened back then, I would have genuinely found them boring.

    I came round to Mitchell after I was slagging her off to my cousin-in-law’s partner, complaining about the hypocrisy in For Free (a low tactic since I’d be the first to defend or brush aside hypocrisy in songs I like) and he said ‘that was the cool thing about Joni, she was a princessy diva, she was never really a hippy, so you’ve got that conflict’ and it struck me he was probably right or at least that was a more interesting way of approaching her. Her voice is also incredibly beautiful, not the woe-is-me whine I imagined she’d have. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s one of the few big names I’ve heard play with just an acoustic guitar and thought anything more would spoil it.

    Buckley, less affinity but I’d take his Hallelujah over anything I’ve heard by Bloc Party. The one time I listened to Grace (thanks Kat) and the many times I’ve heard Hallelujah, I feel like the guy’s got something and it’s never going to be my thing but there is a sort of beauty there even though it’s a template that’s been abused by every indie kid with a yen for the epic since.

    Can I just take this opportunity to say that I really hate Don Henley’s comedy-reggae singing on the song Hotel California so I’m glad to see it sitting in the relegation zone. I love Lying Eyes though and I don’t mind Take It Easy, sexist airbrushed cocaine-cowboy songs both.

  21. 21
    Tommy Mack on 16 Sep 2015 #

    #18 I love how sad most Dinosaur Jr songs sound. Like Neil Young fronting Oasis*. It’s like J Mascis is crying and a million guitars are crying with him. Exactly the sort of thing I would have sneered at 10-12 years ago in my General Khaki days.

    *Slide Away or Love Forever ethos, not Roll With It, obv.

  22. 22
    Phil on 16 Sep 2015 #

    I guess the lyrics are pretty crucial with the Shins and CTN*, but I find the sound pretty immediate and grabby, not to mention very pop. I guess everyone’s got gout.

    *And I think this may be how Swoon got into my previous comment; both albums give you the sense of somebody who’s thinking something through so hard, & so quickly, that he doesn’t care whether anyone understands, a mindset I find particularly engaging for some reason.

  23. 23
    lonepilgrim on 16 Sep 2015 #

    @19 To my shame as a long time Joni fan I must confess that I only listened all the way through ‘Blue’ in the last two weeks….and while I enjoyed the album I like it less than her later albums from ‘Court and Spark’ onwards. I think it’s partly because her voice is a little higher on B – it gradually got lower due to her cigarette consumption. Also I suspect that one of the reasons ‘Blue’ rates so highly is that so many of the songs are about loving or missing her ‘man’. Like many women artistes she doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She combined her vocals and songwriting techniques with African and Brazilian rhythms ten years before Paul Simon. I’ve heard her recounting how, having had her work with jazz musicians dismissed and overlooked, she was pissed off when her contemporaries (like Don Henley) were fawning over Sting when he did the same. FWIW I prefer ‘Court and Spark’ and ‘Hejira’

  24. 24
    Ed on 17 Sep 2015 #

    Broken English! I love that record. I file it mentally with Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man and Grace Jones’s Compass Point albums: performers who are huge personalities but were somewhat out of time in the 80s (OK BE is 1979, but NM), working out how to place themselves in the new world. In all three cases they succeeded triumphantly.

  25. 25
    swanstep on 17 Sep 2015 #

    So, has anyone else been listening to Tame Impala’s latest album, Currents? I liked it at first – it’s kind of half-way between Beck’s Midnite Vultures and Cupid & Psyche-period Scritti Politti, which is a sweet spot for me. Unfortunately, I haven’t been drawn to listen to it that much since that initial week or so. I think its relistenablity suffers a bit from being-put-together-by-one-guy-in-his-home-studio syndrome (which has gotten worse since Kevin Parker mostly put away his guitars) wherein the instrumentation and arrangements don’t make the most out of the underlying songs (which are mostly killer and are I think destined to be definitively covered and maybe made hits by others).

  26. 26
    Izzy on 17 Sep 2015 #

    A backwards way of looking at this: have you gained any respect for the canon in general after doing the exercise? Is there, say, anything valuable that critical acclaim reveals and that you wouldn’t necessarily get from any other gatekeeper?

  27. 27
    Tom on 17 Sep 2015 #

    #26 This is an interesting question. I think it’s perhaps because I’m in my 40s now and enjoy disliking things less, but I’d be comfortable saying that critics, on aggregate, rarely get behind complete duds, which isn’t to say that they get the emphasis right, or that good records will always find critical favour. But my ideas of what the canon rewards and neglects weren’t changed.

  28. 28
    thefatgit on 17 Sep 2015 #

    @25 Swanstep, my dear old Mum (75 years young) got into Tame Impala and bought “Lonerism” a couple of years back. I’m doubt she’s aware Tame Impala has changed direction in the way you describe or whether that change would appeal to her. Having said that, if there’s an argument in favour of the canon’s reach and appeal, then Mum’s copy of “Lonerism” would be it.

  29. 29
    Tommy Mack on 17 Sep 2015 #

    #25: I checked out Currents and I think I’m with you: It’s pleasant but fairly uncompelling. I worked my way back through a few albums and I vaguely remember preferring Lonerism to current and preferring the album before that to Lonerism. I reckon I’ll come back to them, I tore a page with a list of new Aussie psych bands out of his Shortlist interview so I’ve got that to work through. Enjoyed Pond probably more than Tame Impala so far.

  30. 30
    Phil on 17 Sep 2015 #

    Gosh, I’ve been older for longer than I thought. Looking at those Acclaimed Music lists, the last year I’d heard any album in the top 10 (all the way through) was 2007. Two albums: 2004. Three or more: 1997. It was 2006 when I got seriously into folk, but I’d obviously been losing interest in all this shouty modern stuff for a while.

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