Music critics are a finicky bunch. We’re often criticized for not liking anything, and at the same time for loving the songs that give most people headaches or are so far from actually being called songs that terms like avant-garde don’t even fit. We usually don’t like what’s popular at the time and we reduce most things to being stereotypical drivel.
But there are much finickier people out there. They’re the classic rock aficionados. They’re the ones who know no album will ever be better than anything the Beatles put out and they’re the group that is stuck listening to Led Zeppelin on repeat, arguing that Robert Plant’s talents are more pleasurable than a snow cone in the desert.
For the most part, they’re right. Groundbreaking albums flew out of the ’60s and ’70s like kids out of the end of a McDonald’s PlayPlace slide. We all know the groups our parents rave about — The Moody Blues, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys — and the number of times we’ve listened to those Time Life best of the ’70s albums is huge. Those were the best songs ever written, apparently.
But they’re also the songs that won’t let the classic rock aficionados leave the goddamn past.
Blogs should’ve helped this. If there’s one good thing music blogs have done, it’s clearly been the way in which they’ve been able to huck music at the masses like never before. No longer does someone have to work through record deals and rent studio time and spend hundreds of dollars to put out a 3-song EP. Instead, an album can be made in one day and heard on iTunes the next. Or say Stereogum picks it up, and then you’ve been a hit overnight without even releasing a hard disc.
So considering this abundance of music that’s out in the open for everyone to grab, there should be no reason why music isn’t better than ever. We should have a new Brian Wilson every other day. Every single musical voice can be heard now and it’s just a matter of time before someone discovers the neo-White Album or the next “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
But it’s not happening. Classic rock freaks are still sitting on their hits, stubborn as ever, now really sure that nothing ever good comes out anymore.
There are a few reasons why it isn’t happening, but the grand one is timing. Music isn’t given enough credit for being a product of the time it arrives. There’s a reason the punk movement worked in the ’70s and started to die in the ’80s. At the time, punk rock was the anti-Christ and clearly clashed with the buttery and flowery nature of a group like The Carpenters and anyone still chirping about the hippie times. Punk worked because no one else was doing it. It was a counterbalance to the music out at the time, which was released in a significantly smaller amount than it is today.
I’m not trying to knock the Beatles, nor am I trying to single-handedly end The Doors’s reign, but we do need to evaluate the popularity of bands and songs more subjectively as a product of the times they were made in. A lot of the songs the popular groups released were just plain stupid. Yes, I can adopt the stance that what they were doing didn’t exactly sound like anything that had come before it, but all they were doing was tweaking the original conventions of rock‘n’roll and making it accessible for white people.
Take something like the Beatles’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Any song released today with lyrics even close to those would have been annihilated by critics and shunned by a lot of others. It might have been picked up for its poppy sensibilities — which it certainly has — but the song was initially a sensation because the Liverpool guys were cute. The same goes for something like “Yellow Submarine.” Silly and fun, but not the sonic equivalents of Heaven.
Imagine if a song like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” had been released by Joan Jett. We might be looking at the most uplifting and surprising lesbian power-anthem of all time. But instead, the song is just a temporary hit and reason for guys to cheer and for girls to justify making out with their best friends.
The second reason why today’s music isn’t the best of all time is quantity. The overabundance of music has spoiled us more than we expected. We can dispose of songs at will, listen to hundreds of radio stations in minutes and we can only pick the cream of the crop. Why not choose the songs we know are good? Or at least have heard are good because everyone over 50 hails them as such?
Imagine if the availability of music would have been like it is now in the ’70s. I’m not sure if we’d be listening to all the songs we are now and treating them like divine religious icons. And imagine all the untapped talent that was missed due to the lack of technology and recording equipment. Who knows how many eight-track recordings still sit in attics, untouched, all because some record exec said, “Eh, doesn’t sound like Paul McCartney. Pass.”
I’m not sure we’ll ever see the Greatest Album of All Time! Label attached to anything ever again. And to be fair, it’s probably a good thing music wasn’t as abundant then as it is now. If it had been, we might not even have anything to compare today’s music to. But check your attic just in case; you might have a legend collecting dust up there.