Some things last forever. But sometimes even the best things go past their time. The same goes for albums: there are some - Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Thriller - that will astound no matter how many times they’re heard. They have a timeless quality that continually passes every test of taste. Such albums are obvious masterpieces that re-earn their accolades and status again and again. But other albums, despite often universal praise as classics in the history of music, lose their glory over time. The elements that made them famous begin to dissipate – they can’t be heard by new listeners, old fans move on to new albums and new trends. Like growing a soft spot on a perfect peach, the quality becomes harder to find.
Maybe it’s unfair to criticize an album for what’s come after it. Calling a classic spoiled because of newer trends and tastes, you may think, is nothing but petulance and a refusal to recognize trendsetters. But an album can be historically important at the same time that its sound becomes inaccessible to the modern listener. In fact, that’s just the point: the albums on the list to follow rest on their reputation and historical significance for proper enjoyment today. They can’t be listened to blindly and be enjoyed the same way. Unlike the truly timeless, these albums can be mistaken by the musically ignorant for passe trends. In many ways, this kind of failure complements the albums’ influence. And this isn’t to say that I don’t still listen to some of these albums occasionally, but rather to say that, today, their special qualities, for various reasons, have lost their obviousness…
The Clash - The Clash
It hurts to put this album on this list. The problem with it is that the Clash were never really just a punk band. Their willingness to experiment with jazz, reggae, funk, and whatever else grabbed their attention is what made them the only band that mattered. But on their debut album, filled with pure punk favorites, they demonstrated less of that colossal experimentation. The result is a group of songs that lesser musicians have co-opted and driven into the ground for three decades. Though the Clash unquestionably better at it than the rest, it’s hard to not retroactively hear punk’s downfall in its beginnings. Even Joe Strummer’s politics have been destroyed by Green Day‘s poor imitation. Despite the utter brilliance of songs like “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.“, the album is hard to listen to as a whole without automatically relenting what has happened to punk since. London Calling, on the other hand, stands out enough that is doesn’t suffer the same fate.
The Beatles did almost everything first. Most hip indie movements today could probably be traced back to some Beatles’ song or another. But here the band bigger than Jesus went on an acid trip that lasted too long, and the attempts to be the groovy, revolutionary 60s band sound forced, even heavy-handed. An hour and a half of music doesn’t need “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da“, “Piggies“, and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?“. The Beatles made some wonderfully weird songs and albums, but now that the 60s’ hash clouds have passed, the White Album often feels like a bad argument with a too-strict parent of a decade long gone. We don’t have public discussions about how long a band’s hair should be anymore, and music pushing that kind of revolution feels like a relic. For just that reason “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” can’t speak to the modern listener.
Yes, yes, Chuck Klosterman, every boy goes through a Led Zeppelin phase. I’m no exception. Yes, yes, hard rock and metal begin and, some say, end with them. But enough already. There comes a point where you can’t but groan when you hear the first guitar plucks of “Stairway to Heaven“. Most discussions about Zeppelin end with someone saying how great of a drummer John Bonham was, or referencing Jimmy Page playing guitar with a violin bow, or saying something about Robert Plant’s perfect voice – but sheer talent can’t hold up an album so full of tired bravado and cult iconography. The album’s opening - Page screeching “Hey hey Mama, said the way you move/gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove” – is telling in how impossible it would be for someone to sing today. (There’s a reason the only band from the past decade to actually sound like Zeppelin, the Darkness, is mostly a joke.) Led Zeppelin’s sound has gone stale. It doesn’t pass on its inspiration like the Stones did with Exile on Main St. and Goats Head Soup. Today, Zeppelin can only sell Cadillacs.
This is another painful entry. But the fact of the matter is that Nevermind is the album Kurt Cobain himself would swear off nowadays if he could. The famous story about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is telling: the title comes from Kathleen Hanna‘s graffitti on Cobain’s wall. Cobain took it as an important slogan for the era’s youth when in reality it was a reference to a brand of deodorant. Likewise, though reversed, the album is Cobain’s understanding of American youth in the 90s that became nothing more than a brand name to mask the stench of the problem. Too often has Nevermind be named as the point of longing and hurt for it to actually point to anything anymore. Instead, it’s a vapid calling card for the disaffected to show their earnest edginess. Lacking the simple-hearted honesty of Bleach and In Utero, the band accidentally turned Pixies rip-offs into the very thing they hated. Even if Cobain took homemade-t-shirt pot shots while he did it, he still graced the cover of Rolling Stone - and that contradiction lies at the heart of this album.
South Park did a better job of tearing down Bono and U2 than anyone could, but in reality all they did was show off a fact that was already apparent – U2 has always contained a self-important, proselytizing underside that undercut whatever musical force their songs might have had. Even Bruce Springsteen sounds withdrawn in comparison with The Joshua Tree‘s grandiose sound. But the arena rock aesthetic covers over the emotional content of songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name“. Unlike Arcade Fire, for instance, who can sound epic at the exact same time that they sound genuine, Bono’s personality is always center stage. Just try to listen to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” without seeing him on some too-expensive stage set with those sunglasses. Because we have bands like Arcade Fire now – bands who made it big on the backs of limited releases and internet hype – U2 have lost their appeal. I mean, the guitarist in named ‘The Edge’. Come on.
Normally I wouldn’t include a best-of collection on a list like this. But Legend is special. It’s on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, after all. The unluckiest on our list, Marley suffers above all from the cultural reception he has garnered. That is to say, the vast array of college kids who attribute Marley to smoking a blunt and the suburban white kids who quote him in Facebook statuses have robbed Marley’s music of the significance it deserves. Rather than being a demonstration of Jamaican culture and the still-existing Kingston realities it was born from, it – and reggae in general -have become neutered. As a result, the brilliance in “Buffalo Soldier“, “I Shot the Sheriff“, and “Redemption Song” have been lost to the modern ear (minus rare occasions). While the Clash could connect Marley and reggae to their own situation in substantial ways, Marley is a foreigner to the Western world today. No album better demonstrates that fact than Legend.
Pink Floyd made a lot of great music. Unfortunately, much of what they’re known for is the commercial version put forward here. Not only does this reception ignore original leader Syd Barret‘s fantastic work, but even David Gilmour led efforts like Wish You Were Here lose their place. Whatever merit Dark Side of the Moon once had has been lost to laser light shows – outside of the drug-fueled arena rock craze of the 70s, the album sounds at most like an homage and at worst like a remnant. Our era requires a different kind grandiosity in music. Similar to the problem with U2 (though without the pretension), the album seems out of touch in its operatic ambitions. The Who avoided those problems with Tommy and Quadrophenia, proving that the problem is not (completely) a difference in taste between the eras, but also that Pink Floyd thrives on the belief that they’re doing something magical in their spaced out ramblings. To that extent, the band is something like the North Pole or Wonkaland for psychedelic rock.
Here we find a classic problem: Jimi Hendrix redefined what it was to play the guitar. A virtuoso to the fullest extent, Hendrix shaped what music is today. But for precisely that reason, his music stands out only historically – his note-bending ways are far less notable to the ear now that we have Sonic Youth. Though much of this album – “Manic Depression” especially – is still recognizably brilliant, the songs just sound so dated, so old, that album takes on the quality of a historic relic. It’s something you listen to when you want to imagine yourself in a different time, when you want to imagine yourself as a trendsetter, but don’t have enough imagination to even form what that fantasy would look like today. This is a great compliment to Hendrix and to this record specifically. However, it doesn’t change the fact that musically, this album is its history. Go listen to “Hey Joe” and try not to picture Hendrix burning his guitar. Like an old-timer in a dingy bar, the quality is overshadowed by the past.
The Eagles – Hotel California
We’ve reached the first of the two obvious choices for this list. At least once a week my neighbor wakes me up with “Hotel California“. That is to say, once a week I wake up angry and distraught. Not because I’m being woken by against my will so much as I have to hear that song. What frustrates me – besides the fact that I find the song musically infuriating with its muzak-like insistence on easy-listening – is that I can’t figure out what kind of person plays “Hotel California” so often. The entire album very simply sounds old and boring. That’s all there is too it. Rivaled maybe only by Kansas and Journey for most annoying classic rock band honors, these songs are still played solely for that “I remember once when I was little and this song came on…” feeling. Past its prime, Hotel California has sunk to a lounge-singer-at-a-bad-wedding stand-by, and it can never again be anything but.
This one is almost too easy. No one has done more harm to Guns N’ Roses than Axl Rose himself. The hilarity and horror surrounding the release of Chinese Democracy alone has undone the band’s reputation, however unfair that may be to Slash and Izzy Stradlin. Finding themselves now in pure-has been status, even the band’s stand-out album fails to escape. Of course, it may be unfair to pick on hair metal any more – but there are still too many people who claim Appetite for Destruction as an important point in their musical development to not point out the cheesy soft rock ballads, overly hyped cheese-metal solos, and cheesy lyricism with the poignancy of a car wreck. The album flails about with the same adolescent rage that filled the early 90s MTV airwaves. But then again, that may be the point – Guns N’ Roses are a band trapped in a past no one actually wants to return to. I’m actually at a loss as to why it also made Rolling Stone‘s list of albums.