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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Albums That Changed the World

Book Review

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One of the fun things about 101 Albums That ChangedPopular Music (Oxford University Press) is that by the end of the introduction its author anticipates almost every possible objection to the ends and the means, the topic itself and the albums chosen. He knows that Dylan fans will wonder what happened to Blood on the Tracks and Iggy Pop fans will be aghast at the omission of Funhouse.

"My point is that no one is going to be entirely pleased with these selections," writes author Chris Smith, a sometime writer for Rolling Stone and Billboard. In fact, even he sounds nonplussed by some of them. "There are, frankly, albums here that I cannot bear to listen to." And then he explains, patiently, that this is not another list of someone's favorites and certainly not an attempt to rank the "greatest" albums of all time.

The goal is more modest and the process almost quantifiable. Smith's selections, arranged chronologically and not by any estimation of their importance, are albums he thinks had the greatest influence on the evolution of popular music since the advent of the LP. And when he includes the odd evolutionary dead end, such as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, it's because of the meteoric short-term impact they had on pop culture.

There are problems, the most egregious being the absence of the Rolling Stones from the 101. Smith spins a weak safety net for that one-the appendix of "Ten Albums That Almost Made It" includes Aftermath, the Stones' true turning point from blues wannabes to original rock artists. But come on, Mr. Smith. No place for Exile on Main Street or Beggars Banquet, while Def Leppard's Pyromania finds a seat at the table? And apparently Smith is unaware of the Kinks' influence on the development of metallic guitar riffing and literate rock songwriting. They receive not a single reference in his book. Few inclusions are bad enough to raise eyebrows. The Spice Girls were certainly popular and probably defined a passing moment for adolescent English girls (if not as powerfully for their American cousins), but placing them alongside Nirvana, Liz Phair and the White Stripes seems a critical lapse in judgment.

Most of what's included, however, makes sense and is well argued in Smith's album-by-album exegesis. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan makes the cut as the first showcase of Dylan's own songs, and Bringing It All BackHome is where the folk-blues revival finally converged with its nemesis of rock'n'roll. If you were going to pick only two Dylan albums, these two make the most sense despite the claims that could be made for Highway 61Revisited, Blond on Blond and others. But while Smith is right that Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps planted a seed that would bloom in the garden of grunge, why ignore his more influential work with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY?

As he moves from album to album, Smith compiles a history of rock that, despite being occasionally potted and simple, is generally correct and identifies such important trends as the fertile interplay between the Beatles and Dylan, the transmogrification of communal '60s folk-rock into me-only '70s singer-songwriters and the punk's reaction against hippy hypocrisy and pompous arena rock. Still, it's an incomplete history owing to the lens through which Smith reads the past. The early story of rock'n'roll was told on singles and is largely ignored. And the future of rock may rest on digital singles, rendering moot any second, revised edition of 101 Albums ThatChanged Popular Music.

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