Critiquing the Critics

The Wall Street Journal not only honored Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday (see my last post), but the same issue had an article entitled “Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records.” The sub-title was “Sales of LPs soared during the pandemic as younger listeners discovered their nostalgic and sensory appeal.”

For years I’ve tried to get my millennial son to understand this. Maybe it’s finally kicking in.

On that note, when I was even younger than Nick is now, I made the discovery of music appreciation books, guides, and encyclopedias. They assisted me when, as a teenager, I began compiling my (now massive) record collection that I hope to one day bestow on Nick.  They helped me peel back layers to reveal all sorts of juicy musical fruit under the outer skin.

Paul Gambaccini

Just recently I revisited an old book that I’d once pored over while wasting time in Walden Books at the local mall.  It’s called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It was compiled way back in 1978 during the Pleistocene Age, when the publication of rock music books began catching up with magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. The compiler was a venerable BBC presenter named Paul Gambaccini (an interesting man, in more ways than one).

Rock critics you say?  Someone once called them frustrated rock musicians.  Musician Lou Reed was more succinct.  He called them “scum.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones.  In their defense, rock critics provide potential purchasers with insights into music that circumvent “record company advertising (and) the squeals of the loudest fans.”  It’s nice to have a temperate and unbiased guide before one contributes one’s hard-earned cash to Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records. 

Most rock fans, especially in the U.S., get their music from the radio or television.  But deejays and “veejays” have always been at the mercy of their employer, or corporate wankers like Fufkin.

Rock critics cut through the hype (sometimes) and were helpful when I became a serious listener in the 1970s. Rock Critics’ Choice in particular introduced me to artists I might otherwise never have heard.  The other book so beneficial to me over the years has been The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express.

(Last month, during one of my late-night vinyl appreciation sessions, I joyously re-listened to Edgar Broughton Band’s album Oora, which Illustrated Encyclopedia had led me to.  Talk about a great unknown record.)

Anyway, back to Rock Critics’ Choice…compiler Gambaccini queried about 50 of his print and radio colleagues, asking them to list what they consider the ten greatest rock albums, in order of greatness.  He defined “greatness” as whatever criteria the particular critic wanted to use.  He permitted “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections. (Not sure I’d allow that.)  For fair and diverse representation, he consulted critics who were male, female, young, old, white, black, American, British, Canadian, French, Jamaican, and Eskimo.

He then tallied the results and assigned points to each album.  (I assume an album in the first position got 10 points, and tenth position got one point.)

Unlike those ubiquitous Rolling Stone lists, quoted everywhere and which are heavy on mainstream rock and dripping with set-in-stone conceit, Gambaccini’s book is looser and more democratic. It permits diversity (both critic and music) and honors both rock establishment (i.e. classic rock) as well as cult artists.

I found his ultimate Top 200 list predictable in some ways, but surprising in others.

Predictably, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones dominated the top positions.  Also predictably, older critics leaned toward early rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the like).  There were a lot of soul records, ala Otis Redding, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, etc.  Some choices teetered over the boundaries of rock (Huey “Piano” Smith, B.B. King, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).

The book also had some truly oddball choices.  For example, a minor South African actress named Genevieve Waїte (note deliberate umlaut over the “i”) made one and only one album in 1975 called Romance Is On The Rise.  It made two critics’ lists, clocking in overall at number 98.  It’s actually more of a John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) album with his then-wife doing the singing.  She sounds like a disco version of Cyndi Lauper trying to imitate Billie Holiday.  I concluded Genevieve must have been a flavor of the moment.

Michael Nesmith, who got off to a dubious musical start with the Monkees, actually had talent. One critic, however—as his number one greatest album of all time—selected Nesmith’s solo country-rock effort And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘.  Though I’ve yet to hear it, this offbeat choice also raised my incredulous eyebrow.

Another critic chose as his list topper a collection by the R&B group The “5” Royales (note deliberate quotation marks around the numeral). I appreciate certain fifties music from a historical perspective, but this elicited more head scratching. My guess is that the Royales’ song “Dedicated to the One I Love” might have been playing in this particular critic’s Buick Roadmaster the first time he got laid.

One cheeky rebel without a cause listed a bootleg album, by Bob Dylan and the Band.

The book’s lone Canadian critic, for both his number one and number three picks, listed Supertramp albums.  Yes, you heard right. Respectfully, sir, I have to take issue with your thinking.

Another critic, the late Robert Shelton, had no less than three Bob Dylan albums in his top ten.  But considering Shelton virtually launched Dylan’s career in 1961 with his New York Times review of a performance at Gerdes Folk City—and considering it’s Bob Dylan, not Supertramp—I can forgive Shelton’s zeal.

Rock Critics’ Choice is an enjoyable little book—great bathroom reading—and like I said, when it came out in 1978 it prodded me to explore music I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.  The book’s only negative is its vintage.  Although punk bands like the Clash and Ramones are represented, it was published before new wave, alternative, indie, thrash, grunge, rap, hip-hop, and other assorted popular flavors of rock.

But if you’re a baby boomer like me whose era was the late fifties through the mid-seventies, this book provides pleasurable non-think entertainment, and spurs one to make one’s own list.  My own top 10 “greatest” list had five albums that made the top 20 of Rock Critics’ Choice: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (ranked number 3 in RCC), Rubber Soul by The Beatles (number 5), Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (number 12), The Velvet Underground And Nico by the Velvet Underground (number 14), and Forever Changes by Love (number 16).

My champion pick, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was listed by many of Gambaccini’s cohorts and made number 14, but only one picked it to top her list: New York critic Lisa Robinson.  Lou Reed and I like her.

Of course, the term “greatest” is entirely subjective (excepting Muhammad Ali, who truly was The Greatest). But if you have a pre-1979 rock album or albums you consider deserving of this descriptor, and wish to share them here, leave a comment and I’ll see where they rank in Rock Critics’ Choice.

(And the vinyl just keeps on spinnin’…)

13 thoughts on “Critiquing the Critics

  1. Nice commentary. I choose to ignore Rolling Stone reviews and search other sources for information and views. I recently purchased another turntable to start playing my old vinyl.

    • We speak the same language, Neil. I love Skippy. But not on the list, probably since he was acoustic blues, not rock. One critic did sneak in the first Robt. Johnson collection, which made #182.

    • Thanks, yes, I saw this while writing my post. Crowe is undoubtedly the youngest critic represented in the book. Like you I know nothing about John Stewart, other than he’s Southern Californian. Dory Previn is another mystery. I listened to Firetree Theatre and David Ackles for the first time last week…not my thing. Some surprises: the low rankings of Dark Side of the Moon, Electric Ladyland, the Byrds and Joni Mitchell. Their stock has risen substantially in the last 45 years, although the Byrds still haven’t been accorded the respect I feel they deserve, as the pioneers of folk-rock, country-rock, and psychedelic rock. And I’m shocked nobody listed Pink Floyd’s Piper. Not that Syd cares, wherever he is.

      • I have heard David Ackles a bit. There Goes Rhymin’ Simon was a lot bigger back then – I guess it’s been surpassed by Graceland as Simon’s most renowned solo record.

        No Piper is pretty weird. I’ve always felt The Byrds didn’t quite nail it as an albums band, considering how much talent they had and how good their best singles are.

      • Piper isn’t very “accessible” and was probably viewed then as more of a psychedelic curio by critics. Today, I would think it would crack the top 100, at minimum (thanks to “younger” Barrett aficionados like Robyn Hitchcock who’ve kept the psychedelic flame alive).

        You’re right about the Byrds’ talent level and about their being better known for singles than albums. But their non-single album tracks are hardly filler. Mr. Tambourine Man is filled with lovely Gene Clark compositions, and “Chimes of Freedom” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” are great Dylan covers they made their own. In 1978, on the heels of the singer-songwriter genre, rock lyrics, statements, and themes had a high cachet. Not so much today. Fifty years from now I’m hopeful the Byrds will be on a podium just below the Beatles and Stones.

      • I feel like The Byrds’ cachet has declined a bit. I’ve always found Mr. Tambourine Man a bit samey. I think their best album is Notorious Byrd Brothers, but that’s partly about interesting arrangements rather than wall-to-wall great songs.

      • Notorious is a great album, the last with Crosby. Like the Beatles’ “White Album,” it expresses their individual (McGuinn, Crosby, Hillman) personalities more than earlier albums.

        I understand where you’re coming from concerning Mr. Tambourine Man. It has that singular folk-rock sound (hate to use that trite word “jangly”), spearheaded by McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker, and today it sounds very dated. All I can say is it’s a sound I love, and like mid-period Beatles, those luscious vocal harmonies (with Crosby’s voice as the glue) disappeared all too quickly…along with the band harmony.

  2. Hmm. I always thought the Byrds were a great LP band overall. Yes, they had their “sound” in the harmonies and McGuinn’s compressed 12-string, but they quickly found way to use that in various ways. “Younger than Yesterday” rates pretty high in my personal informal list, and I like the “failed experiment” songs on that one quite a bit.

    Their first and last LPs weren’t representative, but the middle of their career stands up pretty well.

  3. Now I just read the whole list. Obviously rank order would be scrambled, and some would need to drop off with newly esteemed recordings. even if pre-1978, and Hendrix way way way too low. But almost everyting of the list are still “classic rock” valid choices. The John Phillips associated Waite LP would be one exception, though I’d followed the endgame of Phillips’ career somewhat so knew of it.

    No one’s mentioned this one yet, but the one I’d never heard anything from, or even knew of its existence is # 159. Appletree Theatre – Playback 1969.

  4. Yes, that Appletree Theatre choice is strange. Listened to some of it online, and the music is just as strange. And glad to see another Byrdmaniac. Though I prefer the early folk-rock period over the middle psych-rock and late country-rock periods, any Byrds is valid for a Top 200 list, in my opinion.

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